Murch: “Your job is partly to anticipate, partly to control the thought processes of the audience.”

Walter Murch’s “In the Blink of an Eye” is commonly considered the video editor’s bible. Murch’s book packs a career’s worth of insight into editing, technology, neurology and the intersection between them. Read it.

There are many practical nuggets of wisdom that will help new video editors. For those looking for a quick guide, below are some highlights from the book.

The Rule of 6

Murch breaks down the six criteria for a good cut.  While his list is somewhat arbitrary in terms of his “percentages,” it offers some great points on what decisions to consider when editing.

Here’s a list of Murch’s priorities when analyzing a good cut:

  1. Emotion:  51%  Is it true to the emotion of the moment?
  2. Story:  23% Does it advanced the story?
  3. Rhythm:  10% Does it occur at a moment that is rhythmically interesting and “right”?
  4. Eye-Trace:  7% Does it acknowledge eye-trace (the concern with the location and movement of the audience’s focus of interest within the frame?
  5. Two-dimensional Plane of Screen:  5% Does it respect “planarity” (the grammar of three dimensions transposed by photography to two)?
  6. Three-dimensional Space of Action:  4% Does it respect three-dimensional continuity of the actual space of where people are in the room and in relation to one another?

This list forces the editor to weigh things like story and emotions. But Murch assigns emotions a value of 51%, so cutting based on emotion is more important than the other five criteria combined. Editing for emotion, story, and rhythm first and foremost resulted in the most compelling scenes, according to Murch.

Don’t Worry, It’s Only a Movie

Murch’s theory of assigning the human blink as emotional punctuation is one of the most helpful pieces of advice about editing. He goes on to explain how the blinks of our eyes punctuate our thought patterns and how the editor can use the actors’ blinks to select his in or out points.

Here’s what it means:

When Murch was cutting the 1974 film, The Conversation, he discovered that every time he decided to make a cut, Gene Hackman’s character, Harry Caul, would blink very close to the point where he decided to cut. He concluded that a person would blink every time he or she has a new whole thought or emotion.

Murch: “…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.  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.”

A way for you to test this out is to count how many times your characters blink on or around a cut, then refine the edit with this in mind.

Dragnet

Every new editor starts out cutting semi-Dragnet style, meaning both the video and audio of each character’s entire line is included within each edit.  Therefore, it tends to play a bit like a tennis match, like so:

 (from In the Blink of an Eye)

Have you seen your son? (cut)

No, he didn’t come home last night. (cut)

What time does he usually come home? (cut)

Two o’clock. (cut)

This style of cutting, which is named Dragnet for its “hard-boiled, police blotter realism,” made famous by the TV series of the same name, results in straight cuts, which is common in beginning editors.

“The ‘Dragnet’ system is a simple way to edit, but it is a shallow simplicity that doesn’t reflect the grammar of complex exchanges that go on all the time in even the most ordinary conversations,” Murch says. “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?”

And that’s where the blink and the L cut come into use. The editor has to consider if we, as the viewer, want, or even need, to see a reaction shot, a lingering shot, or a cutaway.

“Your job is partly to anticipate, partly to control the thought processes of the audience,” Murch says.  “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.”

You can buy “In the Blink of an Eye” for just $8 on Amazon. If you’re a video editor, this is a must-have, a book you’ll always come back to.

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