Wednesday, March 9, 2016

In a Blink of an Eye - Book Highlights (3)

In a Blink of an Eye - Walter Murch
Walter Murch's book, "In a Blink of an Eye" was a great reading for me through the last coupe months. The best part of the book was how the write emphasized on "How to think as an film editor" Here's the major highlights I liked. 

Part (1): here.
Part (2): here.


If it is true that our rates and rhythms of blinking refer directly to the rhythm and sequence of our inner emotions and thoughts, then those rates and rhythms are insights into our inner selves and, therefore, as characteristic of each of us as our signatures. So if an actor is successful at projecting himself into the emotions and thoughts of a character, his blinks will naturally and spontaneously occur at the point that the character’s blinks would have occurred in real life.

To that same end, one of the disciplines I follow is to choose the “out point” of a shot by marking it in real time. If I can’t do this—if I can’t hit that same frame repeatedly at twenty-four frames per second— I know there is something wrong in my approach to the shot, and I adjust my thinking until I find a frame I can hit. I never permit myself to select the “out point” by inching back and forth, comparing one frame with another to get the best match. That method—for me, at any rate—is guaranteed to produce a rhythmic “tone deafness” in the film.

Anyway, another one of your tasks as an editor is this “sensitizing” of yourself to the rhythms that the (good) actor gives you, and then finding ways to extend these rhythms into territory not covered by the actor himself, so that the pacing of the film as a whole is an elaboration of those patterns of thinking and feeling. And one of the many ways you assume those rhythms is by noticing—consciously or unconsciously—where the actor blinks.

If you’re observing a dialogue between two people, you will not focus your attention solely on the person who is speaking. Instead, while that person is still talking, you will turn to look at the listener to find out what he thinks of what is being said. The question is, “When exactly do you turn?”

There are places in a conversation where it seems we almost physically cannot blink or turn our heads (since we are still receiving important information), and there are other places where we must blink or turn away in order to make better sense of what we have received. And I would suggest that there are similar points in every scene where the cut cannot or must occur, and for the same reasons. Every shot has potential “cut points” the way a tree has branches, and once you have identified them, you will choose different points depending on what the audience has been thinking up to that moment and what you want them to think next.

For instance, by cutting away from a certain character before he finishes speaking, I might encourage the audience to think only about the face value of what he said. On the other hand, if I linger on the character after he finishes speaking, I allow the audience to see, from the expression in his eyes, that he is probably not telling the truth, and they will think differently about him and what he said. But since it takes a certain amount of time to make that observation, I cannot cut away from the character too early: Either I cut away while he is speaking (branch number one) or I hold until the audience realizes he is lying (branch number two), but I cannot cut in between those two branches—to do so would either seem too long or not long enough. The branch points are fixed organically by the rhythm of the shot itself and by what the audience has been thinking up to that moment in the film,10 but I am free to select one or the other of them (or yet another one further on) depending on what realization I want the audience to make.

In this way, you should be able to cut from the speaker to the listener and vice versa in psychologically interesting, complex, and “correct” patterns that reflect the kinds of shifts of attention and realization that go on in real life: In this way, you establish a rhythm that counterpoints and underscores the ideas being expressed or considered. And one of the tools to identify exactly where these cut points, these “branches,” may be is to compare them to our patterns of blinking, which have been underscoring the rhythm of our thoughts for tens of thousands, perhaps millions, of years of human history. Where you feel comfortable blinking—if you are really listening to what is being said—is where the cut will feel right.

So there are really three problems wrapped up together:
  1. identifying a series of potential cut points (and comparisons with the blink can help you do this),
  2. determining what effect each cut point will have on the audience, and
  3. choosing which of those effects is the correct one for the film.
I believe the sequence of thoughts—that is to say, the rhythm and rate of cutting—should be appropriate to whatever the audience is watching at the moment. The average “real-world” rate of blinking is somewhere between the extremes of four and forty blinks per minute. If you are in an actual fight, you will be blinking dozens of times a minute because you are thinking dozens of conflicting thoughts a minute—and so when you are watching a fight in a film, there should be dozens of cuts per minute.

Your job is partly to anticipate, partly to control the thought processes of the audience. To give them, what they want and/or what they need just before they have to “ask” for it—to be surprising yet self-evident at the same time. If you are too far behind or ahead of them, you create problems, but if you are right with them, leading them ever so slightly, the flow of events feels natural and exciting at the same time.

That brings me back to one of the central responsibilities of the editor, which is to establish an interesting, coherent rhythm of emotion and thought—on the tiniest and the largest scales—that allows the audience to trust, to give themselves to the film. Without their knowing why, a poorly edited film will cause the audience to hold back, unconsciously saying to themselves, “There’s something scattered and nervous about the way the film is thinking, the way it presents itself. I don’t want to think that way; therefore, I’m not going to give as much of myself to the film as I might.” Whereas a good film that is well-edited seems like an exciting extension and elaboration of the audience’s own feelings and thoughts, and they will therefore give themselves to it, as it gives itself to them.

Astronomical Numbers

If you had fifty-nine shots for a scene, which is not at all unusual, you would potentially have as many possible versions of that scene as there are subatomic particles in the entire universe! Some action sequences I’ve edited have had upwards of 250 shots, so you can imagine the kind of numbers involved.

Now, the vast majority of these versions would be complete junk. Like the old story of a million chimpanzees at a million typewriters, most of what they banged out would make no sense at all. On the other hand, even such a “small” number as 40 followed by 24 zeros is so huge that a tiny percentage of it (the potentially good versions) will still be overwhelmingly large.

So the queasy feeling in the pit of the stomach of every editor beginning a project is the recognition— conscious or not—of the immense number of choices he or she is facing. The numbers are so huge that there is no possibility of turning film editing into a kind of automated chess game, where all of the different options are evaluated before making a move.

The hard truth, though, is that easier access does not automatically make for better results. The accompanying sense that “anyone can do it” can easily produce a broth spoiled by too many cooks. All of us today are able to walk into an art store and buy inexpensive pigments and supplies that the Renaissance painters would have paid fortunes for. And yet, do any of us paint on their level today?

Digital Editing

The editor has some immediate control over two perceptual issues in the editing room: the amount of detail that is visible in the image and the size of the image itself. Both of these can affect the rhythm of the film.

Television is a “look-at” medium, while cinema is a “look-into” medium. You can think of the television screen as a surface that the eye hits and then bounces back. One of the functions of music videos and commercials is to attract your attention and keep it. While watching television, you’re usually looking at a small screen some distance away for a short period of time. Visual competition is all around: The lights are on, the phone may be ringing, you might be in a supermarket or department store. Television has to make things collide within that tiny frame in order to catch your attention because of the much narrower angle that the image subtends compared to theatrical film—hence the quick cuts, jump cuts, swish pans, staggered action, etc.

There’s a completely different aesthetic when you’re in a theater: The screen is huge, everything else in the room is dark, there are (hopefully) no distractions, you are there for at least two hours; you can’t stop the film at your convenience. And so, understandably, feature editing has to be paced differently than music-video or commercial editing.


It is important to remember that, as with all computerized systems, the creative decisions about what to do with the sound are held in a separate place from the sound itself. Only the decisions are being exported from Avid to ProTools. The sound, uncut and unmanipulated, is present on the hard drives of both systems.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

In a Blink of an Eye - Book Highlights (2)

In a Blink of an Eye - Walter Murch
Walter Murch's book, "In a Blink of an Eye" was a great reading for me through the last coupe months. The best part of the book was how the write emphasized on "How to think as an film editor" Here's the major highlights I liked. 

Part (1): here.

Methods and Machines: Marble and Clay

Editing is a kind of surgery—and have you ever seen a surgeon sitting to perform an operation? Editing is also like cooking—and no one sits down at the stove to cook. But most of all, editing is a kind of dance—the finished film is a kind of crystallized dance—and when have you ever seen a dancer sitting down to dance?

And when you make a film, you are trying to learn a foreign language—it just happens to be a unique language that is only spoken by this one film. If you have to articulate everything, as you do with a random-access system like video/computer or Moviola/ assistant, you are limited by what and how much you can articulate and how good your original notes were.

Well, many times in the re-editing, what you thought was originally unusable may come to be your salvation. You are learning something new about the material as you search for what you think you want. You are actually doing creative work, and you may find what you really want rather than what you thought you wanted.

I would always review the material twice: once at the beginning, the day after the material was shot, noting down my first impressions and including any notes the director cares to give me. And then when I was ready to cut a particular scene, I would collect all the relevant material and review it again, making notes in more detail than the first time.

When you look at rushes the second time, you have evolved and the film has evolved. You will see different things than you saw the first time, because you may have assembled scenes that hadn’t been shot the first time you saw the material, and strengths or problems may be emerging with characters and events as they unfold.

In an ideal world, what I would like to do is assemble a first cut and then stop and just look at all the dailies again, fresh. Whether I would ever actually be able to do that is another question: The present schedule of films, at any rate, prohibits such a thing.

In the actual editing of a scene, I will keep on working until I can no longer “see myself” in the material. When I review my first assembly of a scene, more often than not I can still vividly (too vividly!) recall making the decisions that led to each of the cuts.

But as the scene is reworked and refined, it reaches a point, hopefully, where the shots themselves seem to create each other: This shot “makes” the next shot, which “makes” the next shot, etc. In this way, the Walter Murch who decided things initially gradually recedes until, finally, there comes a point where he has become invisible and the characters take over, the shots, the emotion, the story seem to take over. Sometimes—the best times—this process reaches the point where I can look at the scene and say, “I didn’t have anything to do with that—it just created itself.”

Test Screenings: Referred Pain

Rough screenings would be for small groups of about ten people whom the film director knew, mixed with two or three people who were strangers. The strangers would have no previous idea of what this film was about, and he would question them afterward, on a one-to-one basis, to compare their opinions to the reaction of the people who did know about the film.

Even with technically finished films, public previews are tricky things. You can learn a tremendous amount from them, but you have to be cautious about direct interpretations of what people have to say to you, particularly on those cards they fill out after the screening.

You shouldn’t blindly follow what you learn from these test screenings any more than you should anything else. What can you learn from the differences between the previous screenings and this one? Given these two headings, where is the North Pole? Test screenings are just a way to find out where you are.

There was one procedure on Julia that, unfortunately, I have never seen repeated. We had a person sitting at a table in the lobby of the preview theater with a sign in front of him that said, “If you want to talk to us on the telephone after a few days, leave your number here.” And then those conversations were transcribed and added into the survey. If you are going to do previews and listen to what people have to say, that’s the way to do it—after they have had a day or two to let the film sink in. Don’t look at what people write in the heat of the moment—you get a reaction, but it is a skewed reaction. There’s a lot of what is medically called “referred pain” in that process.

When you go to a doctor and tell him that you have a pain in your elbow, it is the quack who takes out his scalpel and starts to operate on the elbow. Then you wind up with not only the original pain but probably a pain in your wrist and your shoulder as well. Whereas an experienced doctor studies you, takes an x-ray, and determines that the cause of the pain is probably a pinched nerve up in your shoulder—you just happen to feel it in your elbow. The pain in the shoulder has been “referred” to the elbow. Audience reactions are like that. When you ask the direct question, “What was your least favorite scene?” and eighty percent of the people are in agreement about one scene they do not like, the impulse is to “fix” the scene or cut it out. But the chances are that that scene is fine. Instead, the problem may be that the audience simply didn’t understand something that they needed to know for the scene to work.

So, instead of fixing the scene itself, you might clarify some exposition that happens five minutes earlier. Don’t necessarily operate on the elbow: instead, discover if nerves are being pinched somewhere else. But the audience will never tell you that directly. They will simply tell you where the pain is, not the source of the pain.

Editing decisions become particularly acute in the last days before the film is released, since changes made now will be permanent. If you, as the editor, have a particularly strong feeling about something at this stage, you should try to make your point as forcefully and convincingly as you can—perhaps you stay late and do a test version of your idea, sketch something out—but you also need to have discretion, a sense of who you are dealing with, and present your ideas to the director or producer in the right context. And how you go about this has to do with your whole working history, how you were hired, how much you respect the director, how much the director respects you.

Don't Worry, It's Only a Movie

So why do cuts work? Do they have some hidden foundation in our own experience, or are they an invention that suits the convenience of filmmakers and people have just, somehow, become used to them?
Well, although “day-to-day” reality appears to be continuous, there is that other world in which we spend perhaps a third of our lives: the “night-to-night” reality of dreams. And the images in dreams are much more fragmented, intersecting in much stranger and more abrupt ways than the images of waking reality—ways that approximate, at least, the interaction produced by cutting.

Perhaps the explanation is as simple as that: We accept the cut because it resembles the way images are juxtaposed in our dreams. In fact, the abruptness of the cut may be one of the key determinants in actually producing the similarity between films and dreams. In the darkness of the theater, we say to ourselves, in effect, “This looks like reality, but it cannot be reality because it is so visually discontinuous; therefore, it must be a dream.”

The problem with all this is that the comparison of films and dreams is interesting, probably true, but relatively barren of practical fruits: We still know so little about the nature of dreams that the observation comes to a stop once it has been made.
Something to consider, though, is the possibility that there may be a part of our waking reality where we actually do experience something like cuts, and where daylight images are somehow brought in closer, more discontinuous, juxtaposition than might otherwise seem to be the case.

“To me, the perfect film is as though it were unwinding behind your eyes, and your eyes were projecting it themselves, so that you were seeing what you wished to see. Film is like thought. It’s the closest to thought process of any art.

“Look at that lamp across the room. Now look back at me. Look back at that lamp. Now look back at me again. Do you see what you did? You blinked. Those are cuts. After the first look, you know that there’s no reason to pan continuously from me to the lamp because you know what’s in between. Your mind cut the scene. First you behold the lamp. Cut. Then you behold me.”

So it seems to me that our rate of blinking is somehow geared more to our emotional state and to the nature and frequency of our thoughts than to the atmospheric environment we happen to find ourselves in. Even if there is no head movement, the blink is either something that helps an internal separation of thought to take place, or it is an involuntary reflex accompanying the mental separation that is taking place anyway.

And not only is the rate of blinking significant, but so is the actual instant of the blink itself. Start a conversation with somebody and watch when they blink. I believe you will find that your listener will blink at the precise moment he or she “gets” the idea of what you are saying, not an instant earlier or later. Why would this be? Well, speech is full of unobserved grace notes and elaborations—the conversational equivalents of “Dear Sir” and “Yours Sincerely”—and the essence of what we have to say is often sandwiched between an introduction and a conclusion. The blink will take place either when the listener realizes our “introduction” is finished and that now we are going to say something significant, or it will happen when he feels we are “winding down” and not going to say anything more significant for the moment.

And that blink will occur where a cut could have happened, had the conversation been filmed. Not a frame earlier or later.

So we entertain an idea, or a linked sequence of ideas, and we blink to separate and punctuate that idea from what follows. Similarly—in film—a shot presents us with an idea, or a sequence of ideas, and the cut is a “blink” that separates and punctuates those ideas.

At the moment you decide to cut, what you are saying is, in effect, “I am going to bring this idea to an end and start something new.” It is important to emphasize that the cut by itself does not create the “blink moment”—the tail does not wag the dog. If the cut is well-placed, however, the more extreme the visual discontinuity—from dark interior to bright exterior, for instance—the more thorough the effect of punctuation will be.

At any rate, I believe “filmic” juxtapositions are taking place in the real world not only when we dream but also when we are awake. And, in fact, I would go so far as to say that these juxtapositions are not accidental mental artifacts but part of the method we use to make sense of the world: We must render visual reality discontinuous, otherwise perceived reality would resemble an almost incomprehensible string of letters without word separation or punctuation.

To Be Continued...

Monday, March 7, 2016

In a Blink of an Eye - Book Highlights (1)

In a Blink of an Eye - Walter Murch
Walter Murch's book, "In a Blink of an Eye" was a great reading for me through the last coupe months. The best part of the book was how the write emphasized on "How to think as an film editor" Here's the major highlights I liked. 

Most with the Least

The underlying principle: Always try to do the most with the least—with the emphasis on try. You may not always succeed, but attempt to produce the greatest effect in the viewer’s mind by the least number of things on screen. 

Why? Because you want to do only what is necessary to engage the imagination of the audience—suggestion is always more effective than exposition. Past a certain point, the more effort you put into wealth of detail, the more you encourage the audience to become spectators rather than participants. The same principle applies to all the various crafts of filmmaking: acting, art direction, photography, music, costume, etc.

Frequently, it takes more work and discernment to decide where not to cut—don’t feel you have to cut just because you are being paid to. You are being paid to make decisions, and as far as whether to cut or not, the editor is actually making twenty-four decisions a second: “No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. Yes!”

The Rule of Six:

The first thing discussed in film-school editing classes is what I’m going to call three-dimensional continuity: In shot A, a man opens a door, walks halfway across the room, and then the film cuts to the next shot, B, picking him up at that same halfway point and continuing with him the rest of the way across the room, where he sits down at his desk, or something.

For many years, particularly in the early years of sound film, that was the rule. You struggled to preserve continuity of three-dimensional space, and it was seen as a failure of rigor or skill to violate it. Jumping people around in space was just not done, except, perhaps, in extreme circumstances—fights or earthquakes—where there was a lot of violent action going on.

I actually place this three-dimensional continuity at the bottom of a list of six criteria for what makes a good cut. At the top of the list is Emotion, the thing you come to last, if at all, at film school largely because it’s the hardest thing to define and deal with. How do you want the audience to feel? Vi they are feeling what you want them to feel all the way through the film, you’ve done about as much as you can ever do. What they finally remember is not the editing, not the camerawork, not the performances, not even the story—it’s how they felt.

An ideal cut (for me) is the one that satisfies all the following six criteria at once:
  1. it is true to the emotion of the moment; 
  2. it advances the story; 
  3. it occurs at a moment that is rhythmically interesting and “right”; 
  4. it acknowledges what you might call “eye-trace”—the concern with the location and movement of the audience’s focus of interest within the frame; 
  5. it respects “planarity”—the grammar of three dimensions transposed by photography to two (the questions of stage-line, etc.); 
  6. and it respects the three-dimensional continuity of the actual space (where people are in the room and in relation to one another).
Emotion, at the top of the list, is the thing that you should try to preserve at all costs. If you find you have to sacrifice certain of those six things to make a cut, sacrifice your way up, item by item, from the bottom.

The values I put after each item are slightly tongue-in-cheek, but not completely: Notice that the top two on the list (emotion and story) are worth far more than the bottom four (rhythm, eye-trace, planarity, spatial continuity), and when you come right down to it, under most circumstances, the top of the list—emotion—is worth more than all five of the things underneath it.

What I’m suggesting is a list of priorities. If you have to give up something, don’t ever give up emotion before story. Don’t give up story before rhythm, don’t give up rhythm before eye-trace, don’t give up eye-trace before planarity, and don’t give up planarity before spatial continuity.


Underlying these considerations is the central pre-occupation of a film editor, which should be to put himself/herself in place of the audience. What is the audience going to be thinking at any particular moment? Where are they going to be looking? What do you want them to think about? What do they need to think about? And, of course, what do you want them to feel? If you keep this in mind (and it’s the preoccupation of every magician), then you are a kind of magician. Not in the supernatural sense, just an everyday, working magician.

Sometimes, though, you can get caught up in the details and lose track of the overview. When that happens to me, it is usually because I have been looking at the image as the miniature it is in the editing room, rather than seeing it as the mural that it will become when projected in a theater. Something that will quickly restore the correct perspective is to imagine yourself very small, and the screen very large, and pretend that you are watching the finished film in a thousand-seat theater filled with people, and that the film is beyond the possibility of any further changes.

Seeing Around the Edge of the Frame

The editor, on the other hand, should try to see only what’s on the screen, as the audience will. Only in this way can the images be freed from the context of their creation. By focusing on the screen, the editor will, hopefully, use the moments that should be used, even if they may have been shot under duress, and reject moments that should be rejected, even though they cost a terrible amount of money and pain.

Don’t unnecessarily allow yourself to be impregnated by the conditions of shooting. Try to keep up with what’s going on but try to have as little specific knowledge of it as possible because, ultimately, the audience knows nothing about any of this—and you are the ombudsman for the audience.

Between the end of shooting and before the first cut is finished, the very best thing that can happen to the director (and the film) is that he say goodbye to everyone and disappear for two weeks— up to the mountains or down to the sea or out to Mars or somewhere—and try to discharge this surplus. Wherever he goes, he should try to think, as much as possible, about things that have absolutely nothing to do with the film. It is difficult, but it is necessary to create a barrier, a cellular wall between shooting and editing. 

Do everything you can to help the director erect this barrier for himself so that when he first sees the film, he can say, “All right, I’m going to pretend that I had nothing to do with this film. It needs some work. What needs to be done?”

The relationship between director and editor is somewhat similar in that the director is generally the dreamer and the editor is the listener. But even for the most well-prepared of directors, there are limits to the imagination and memory, particularly at the level of fine detail, and so it is the editor’s job to propose alternate scenarios as bait to encourage the sleeping dream to rise to its defense and thus reveal itself more fully.

But sometimes it is the editor who is the dreamer and the director who is the listener, and it is he who now offers the bait to tempt the collective dream to reveal more of itself.

The Decisive Moment

The editor’s job now is to choose the right images and make those images follow one another at the right rate to express something like what is captured in that photograph.

In choosing a representative frame, what you’re looking for is an image that distills the essence of the thousands of frames that make up the shot in question, what Cartier-Bresson—referring to still photography—called the “decisive moment.” So I think, more often than not, the image that I chose wound up in the film. And also, more often than not, quite close to the cut point.

And to keep your awareness, to really be alive to the possibilities in each shot, you have to keep jabbing yourself. You try to remain fresh and see the wonderful things and make records of those as well as the things that may not be so wonderful. Which is what you have to do when you are casting a film.

But if you have to choose a representative set of stills from every setup, you will automatically start thinking differently—you have to be analytical right from the beginning, which is what you should be when you are looking at dailies. But, everyone being human and dailies sometimes going on as long as they do, we sometimes tend to just sit there and let the dailies roll over us.

You are already beginning to edit at the point that you say, “I like this frame rather than that frame.”

To Be Continued...