Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Pleasant Mystery of the Perfect Cut

Last time, I talked about The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film by Michael Ondaatje. Following is a final topic from the book that resonated with my background in electronic-music composition and audio engineering. (I studied those subjects in college. They ended up being a path not taken in my life, although still areas of interest.)

Back in the day, if I was deciding how to bring musical elements together, I found the best results always had a mystery to them. For some reason, things just clicked—neither by accident (it takes a lot of technique to create the conditions for things to click) nor by a fully analyzable formula.

On this subject, Murch drills the bullseye straight through:

To determine [where to make a cut in a scene], I look at the shot intently. It’s running along, and then at a certain point I flinch—it’s almost an involuntary flinch, an equivalent of a blink. That flinch point is where the shot will end....

The key, on an operational level, is that I have to be able to duplicate that flinch point, exactly, at least two times in a row. So I run the shot once and hit a mark. Then run it back, look at it, and flinch again. Now I’m able to compare. Where did I stop the first time, and where did I stop the second? If I hit exactly the same frame both times, that’s proof to me that there is something organically true about that moment. It’s absolutely impossible to do that by a conscious decision. Imagine—there are twenty-four targets going by every second and with your gun you have to hit [exactly the same one].

Why that works is one of the pleasant mysteries in life.

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