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. 

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

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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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