Unreal Nature

January 22, 2015


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:55 am

… we can say, Yes, but there’s something else going on here.

This is from The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film by Michael Ondaatje (2002):

[ … ]

Murch: When you’re putting a scene together, the three key things you are deciding, over and over again, are: What shot shall I use? Where shall I begin it? Where shall I end it? An average film may have a thousand edits in it, so: three thousand decisions. But if you can answer those questions in the most interesting, complex, musical, dramatic way, then the film will be as alive as it can be.

For me, the most rhythmically important decision of the three is the last: Where do you end the shot? You end it at the exact moment in which it has revealed everything that it’s going to reveal, in its fullness, without being over-ripe. If you end the shot too soon, you have the equivalent of youth cut off in its bloom. Its potential is unrealized. If you hold a shot too long, things tend to putrefy.

Ondaatje: You get Polonius.

M: Indeed! For every shot, there is one specific place to end, and no other. A specific frame, and not the one before or after. So the question is, How do you decide which frame that is?

A trap you can fall into — as I did in my early editing jobs on Encyclopaedia Britannica films — is to scan back and forth across the shot, looking for the frame where, for instance, the door closes. You mark that frame and cut at that point. It works. But it doesn’t work particularly well, and it doesn’t help the film to do it that way.

You remember you told me how much you liked the line breaks in my translations of Malaparte? The decision where to cut film is very similar to the decision, in writing poetry, of where to end each line. On which word? That end point has little if anything to do with the grammar of the sentence. It’s just that the line is full and ripe at that point, full of meaning and ripe with rhythm. By ending it where he does, the poet exposes that last word to the blankness of the page, which is a way of emphasizing the word. If he adds two words after it, he immerses that word within the line, and it has less visibility, less significance. We do very much the same thing in film: the end of a shot gives the image of that last frame an added significance, which we exploit.

In film, at the moment of the cut you are juxtaposing one image with another, and that’s the equivalent of rhyme. It’s how rhyme and alliteration work in poetry, or how we juxtapose two words or two images, and what that juxtaposition implies. Either by emphasizing the theme or by countering it, modulating it, like an invisible Greek chorus. What’s being stated may be one thing, but by juxtaposing two different images at the moment of the cut, and making them as striking as possible, we can say, Yes, but there’s something else going on here.

The trick is to make that flow an organic part of the process. Editing is a construction, a mosaic in three dimensions, two of space and one of time. It’s a miniature version of the way films are made, which is an artificial piece-by-piece process.

To determine the end frame, 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 the blink. That flinch point is where the shot will end.

[ … ]

O: So if you flinch in frame 17 the first time, and then flinch in frame 19 [the second time he watches it] —

M: Then I don’t cut. That tells me something’s off. If I can hit 17 twice, that’s good. At least it certifies something. If I hit frame 17 first and then frame 19 the next time, that means something in my approach is wrong.

My most recent previous post from Ondaatje’s book is here.




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