In the Blink of an Eye

A Perspective on Film Editing

Murch’s brief collection of essays (they were originally lectures) was first published in 1995, and refreshed in 2001 with new attention to digital editing. The latter, just over a decade later, already feels quaint. But it’s Murch’s tales of the less mechanical elements of editing—the storytelling and workflow—that really beguile. The relationship between editing film and other mediums (notably, words) is clear.

Reading notes

Cuts do work

Murch (who edited Apocalypse Now, The Conversation, and other great films) concedes that editing—specifically, cutting— is a logistical necessity in filmmaking. But he maintains that it serves a purpose beyond that:

…cutting is more than just the convenient means by which discontinuity is rendered continuous. It is in and for itself—by the very force of its paradoxical suddenness—a positive influence in the creation of a film. We would want to cut even if discontinuity were not of such great practical value.

Murch, In the Blink of an Eye, page 9

By the very force of its paradoxical suddenness. Think of a “cut” not as a separation or injury but as a productive juxtaposition.

Which leads me to chimpanzees

Chimps and humans have ninety-nine percent of their DNA in common; that is to say, we’re made up of more or less identical building blocks. But those building blocks are executed in different orders and with different priorities, with one set of priorities concluding with our hirsute cousins, and the other with our mostly bare skin. What does this have to do with film editing?

My point is that the information in the DNA can be seen as uncut film and the mysterious sequencing code as the editor. You could sit in one room with a pile of dailies and another editor could sit in the next room with exactly the same footage and both of you would make different films out of the same material. Each is going to make different choices about how to structure it, which is to say when and in what order to release those various pieces of information.

Murch, In the Blink of an Eye, page 12

This reminds me of Frank Chimero’s reframing of design as a “response” rather than a solution. Give two designers the same material and constraints, and they’ll emerge with work as potentially disparate as humans and chimps. Neither is right or wrong; they are merely unique.