|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...