Does Walter Murch's famous philosophy apply to editing today's videos?
There's a book that anyone who’s into filmmaking—regardless of experience level or specialty—needs to read. A book that discusses film editing in a philosophical yet practical way. A book that will make you stop and think after every chapter. In case you hadn't guessed, the book I’m referencing is In the Blink of an Eye by Walter Murch, the Oscar-winning editor of Apocalypse Now, The Godfather III, The English Patient, and many more. Walter Murch seems to be like a father to the new generation of film editors. And he seems to be a very wise father.
An important chapter of Murch's book is about what makes the perfect cut, and is called “The Rule of Six”. Basically, it discusses six factors that affect how the cut will work in a film. Despite the fact that this chapter and philosophy are very well-known, I believe that it is often misunderstood, so here we will break it down a bit.
The Rule of Six
- Emotion - 51%
- Story - 23%
- Rhythm - 10%
- Eye-trace - 7%
- Two-dimensional plane of screen - 5%
- Three-dimensional space of action - 4%
It states that the Emotion constitutes for 51% of importance in a cut, Story for 23% and so on. These percentage values are the topic for our discussion. In this video, I try to clarify what the Rule of Six actually means and whether or not these percentages should shift for today's video editors.
What's different today?
The book is written with narrative films in mind. But many of its readers edit videos that have a very simple narrative, like commercials, product reviews, and YouTube videos. Sometimes it’s even hard to call it a "narrative" if we're talking about 60-second piece from an event that lasted a few days. Another example is a wedding video. Of course, there is a story but it's fairly simple one in most cases. Additionally, the time that we have to tell that story and the engagement of the viewers that our video will have is hard to compare to a feature film, a documentary, or even a scripted short film.
In this article from data researcher Stephen Follows, you can find some very interesting data for feature films like the average shot length. For example, here is the average shot duration for the feature films from the past 20 years for some well-known directors:
- Martin Scorsese - just a little bit over 5 seconds,
- Christopher Nolan - about 3.5 seconds,
- Steven Spielberg - about 7 seconds
- Werner Herzog - about 21 seconds
How does that compare to the average social media video? Even without any statistics, we can guess that very often it’s less than one second per shot.
The second important factor that should affect our editing choices is the way we are supposed to consume the film. The theatrical screen and experience is much different from TV, and TV is much different from mobile devices with small screens that we use during other daily activities. The size of the screen and the distance from it differs as well as the time that we have to hook the audience.
Of course, Walter Murch talks about this in the following chapter. He even says that to help himself imagine how the movie will be viewed in the theatre, he cuts paper dolls in scale, puts them in from of the screen, and tries to look through their eyes. Little weird, but if it works it's fine with me.
Does the Rule of Six still apply?
Let me stress that we need to strive to convey as many of the story elements as we can. Sometimes though, the task that we have, or the client's expectations, will not allow for that. So do I really disagree with Walter Murch? Let's dive in.
When we take into consideration the relative size of the screen, average shot duration, and average audience retention, the eye-trace plays a very significant role in fast-paced videos—maybe more than Murch suggests in the Rule of Six.
But what is the eye-trace? Basically, it's the term that describes how your eyes move when the image is exposed in front of you.
It's like answering the questions: Where would you look first if you see some images? Where would you look a moment later? And yet little later? Our brains are programmed by evolution to scan the world in certain patterns and that’s what we call the eye-trace. Someone else's eyes are always what brings our attention. Areas of high contrast as well. Bright, saturated colors and so on. If you’ve ever learned about composition in photography, you know what I’m talking about.
So to cut for the eye-trace means we take it into account. We think about where the viewer looks when they see the image. We make sure they can spot what’s important for the story we tell and that their eyes don't have to jump all over the place from shot to shot. Unless that’s intentional and you want the viewer to feel disoriented.
We do this because, if the viewer can hardly follow what's important in the frame, it cannot be considered the good edit. They will eventually see what the shot is about cause it's not like it takes a few seconds to find it. We do it in a fraction of a second. But if eyes have to jump for every shot to the other part of the screen, you're probably doing something wrong.
The eye-trace may even be a single most important factor when choosing your next edit.
Do we update the Rule of Six?
The eye-trace seems to be a bigger factor than 7% because the first two elements (shot length and screen) are reduced in fast-paced videos. But is it enough to change the percentage Walter Murch suggests? I needed to make sure someone with more experience than me agrees with this concept, so I talked with my friend Jeff Bartsch. A full-time television editor based in Los Angeles, I asked him if the eye-trace can be more important than 7%. To my delight, he agreed. He said that in a very fast-paced montage, the eye-trace may even be a single most important factor when choosing the next edit.
And since he worked for NBC, ABC, Apple, MTV, Disney and more, I think it's safe to say he knows what he's talking about. He also has a YouTube channel called Story Greenlight where content creators can learn how to use the power of storytelling and creative editing. On his channel, Jeff has a great video about how the eye-trace works.
YouTubers will move more and more towards storytelling. Tim Schmoyer from Video Creators channel already works on upping his game to the storytelling level and he’s like a guru to many creators. But despite that, the fast-paced, short promo videos will always be the thing and there’s nothing wrong with that.
When it comes down to it, I don't disagree with Walter Murch about the priority of editing considerations. The master is still the master. In the last paragraph of the chapter on the Rule of Six, he says you should never put the story before the emotion, the rhythm before the story and so on. But I do believe that eye-trace takes a larger percentage of consideration than it used to in traditional film editing.
It all comes down to something that is reflected in a beautiful quote by Maya Angelou, American poet, singer, and civil rights activist.
The Emotion is a single, most powerful tool that we have when crafting the stories. When building the blocks. When editing.
How about you? Have you read Walter Murch's masterpiece? What is the most important lesson you've learned from him? Let us know down in the comments.