“The editing style is really, again, about simplicity and not gimmicks, you know? So it’s a little hard for us right now with the modern style of blender editing, where everything is two frames long. [Marty] keeps saying, ‘Where is the shot?’ Whatever happened to the great shot like Kubrick used to do? And you could watch it for six minutes and never get bored because it was so beautifully framed. It had such beautiful music. And what was going on inside was so great. Now it’s just, the image doesn’t mean anything. And they seem to be getting so short now that I wonder if they’re going to come to the end of the road. I don’t think they can make each cut any shorter! I wonder if there will be a big backlash and everything will go back to being slow again.” — Wolf of Wall Street editor Thelma Schoonmaker speaking to Hitfix‘s Kris Tapley in a 12.20 interview piece.
I always have a hard time deciding which films are exceptionally well cut. If I like a film I like the editing — it doesn’t go much deeper than that. First-rate editing — smart, fleeting, sleight of handish — is invisible, for the most part. If you don’t notice it it’s probably good. What I notice is economy and timing and, at times, the musicality. Good editing and good music share certain qualities. I sometimes notice how long a shot is held, the precise millisecond when a shot cuts to another. I also notice editing with uneven rhythms and jarring tempos, and I definitely notice cutting that seems overly frenzied and chaotic. I know that the editing in Inside Llewyn Davis seems extra-attuned. I love Thelma’s cutting of The Wolf of Wall Street, needless to say. 12 Years A Slave, for sure. Her is perfectly cut.
Are there any films that have stood out as especially well-edited for the HE community?
One cut I’ve always particularly enjoyed happens in Act One of Stanley Kubrick‘s Dr. Strangelove, during Sterling Hayden‘s speech to the troops of Burpelson Air Force base prior to an expected attack. Hayden says “the enemy may come individually or he may come in strength.” The decision by Kubrick and editor Anthony Harvey to cut when Hayden says “individually” is da coolness. He see and hear him say “indi” in his office, his voice unamplified, the sound at the usual room-temperature level. Then we cut to an outdoor shot of soldiers standing next to a B-52 on a runway and he hear Hayden’s amplified voice say “vidually.”
Walter Murch insight: Six and half years ago in San Francisco I asked legendary editing guru Walter Murch (Cold Mountain, Apocalypse Now, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Talented Mr. Ripley) about machine-gun cutting in action movies, and at what point does it get to be too much? I was thinking at the time of the editing in 2004′s The Bourne Supremacy, portions of which had driven me crazy. Murch said audiences do indeed start to go crazy if you use more than 14 set-ups per minute.
One can obviously cut back to the same set-up — a visual point of view — within a given minute, so Murch wasn’t saying only 14 cuts every 60 seconds. Nor was he necessarily putting a limit on the number of cuts per set-up. But let’s say for the sake of simplicity that during an action sequence you use two cuts per set-up — by Murch’s rule that would mean no more than 28 cuts per minute, or a little more than two seconds per cut. That sounds too frenzied, doesn’t it? But maybe not.
In an 8.2.07 Hollywood Reporter interview, Carolyn Giardina spoke to to Bourne Ultimatum editor Christopher Rouse and producer Patrick Crowley about the mathematics of cutting in The Bourne Ultimatum. Variety‘s Todd McCarthy has reported The Bourne Ultimatum‘s running time as 115 minutes. Subtract seven or eight minutes of opening and closing credits and you’re down to 107 minutes of actual footage. Crowley tells Giardina that Ultimatum has “about 4000 cuts.” Divide those 4000 cuts by 107 minutes and you’re left with 37 cuts per minute, or a cut every one and two-thirds seconds.
Crowley doesn’t say how many set-ups were used in Ultimatum so there’s room for interpretation, but if you go by Murch’s rule — no more than 14 set-ups per minute — and then a hypothetical 28 cuts per minute if you use two cuts per-set-up, Ultimatum has been cut more than 25% faster.
To repeat, Murch’s law is about not laying too many cuts on an audience within a given minute, but too many points of view.