The View from the Horizon

It was 20 years ago today...
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In June 1985, this column began its journey with an extended metaphor: "The tall stranger smiled. 'I'm only in it for the entropy,' he said as he rode off into the horizon."

My intent, of course, was to make a positive point with a negative example. It continued:

"The stranger was a realist dealing with the world as he saw it: a world constantly dissolving into chaos, eternally tending toward disorder, following the physicist's principle of 'entropy.' Only a few did not follow the stranger. Those rare visionaries knew that the world around us is a series of perceptions, that no fact has meaning devoid of its context, and that to the creative mind, the existing order of reality is only clay to the potter's hands. These select visionaries are called editors."

Since then, this column has ridden a two-railed track with the goal of using the privilege of this podium to expand the discussion of how my fellow editors can best pursue their craft and their careers to their own satisfaction. The first rail of that track has been to update us all on evolving technologies, and I hope you have noticed that my reviews of new edit systems have always been from the perspective of actual users under real-world conditions, not just the claims of the manufacturers contained in press releases.

The second and perhaps more important rail has been to further the concept that the art of editing, much like music composition, poetry, or classical painting, is empowered with aesthetic principles. Along those lines, we have dissected editing accomplishments ranging from major feature films to Super Bowl ads, acknowledging along the way that the actual "editing" seen on the screen may be the result of a single talented console commander or the collaboration between a whole production team. Lincoln, after all, wrote alone; the King James Bible was produced by a committee. Yet both reflect the same erudite mastery of literary communication.

AN EDITING ODYSSEY

Take the example of the cut identified somewhat whimsically in the December 1999 "Focus on Editing" column as "The Best Edit of the 20th Century"--the famous "bone-to-spaceship" cut from Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey." In one smashing juxtaposition of images the viewer is transported across the eons of humankind's technological history from early hunter-gatherer to starship voyager.

But was this cut crafted by the author of the original book, Arthur C. Clark, by the credited film editor, Ray Lovejoy, or the auteur instinct of filmmaker Stanley Kubrick? For those of us trying to master this craft, the bottom line is recognizing that it works. The question is, why?

We all know that our brains construct an illusion of continuity out of rapidly flickering pictures thanks to a phenomenon called the "persistence of vision," which lets the receptors in our retina retain one image for about one-tenth of a second before receiving the next. If the flicker exceeds this limit, we see movement. If it slows down, we perceive strobing that eventually grinds to a still.

But it is less appreciated that our brains also incorporate a principle called the "suppression of vision" that bridges the gaps between successive images if their input quality falls below a certain threshold of comprehensibility. Try watching a person's eyes and you will see that they dart from one object to another, often blinking during the transition. Yet our brain comprehends a constant vision stream because it discards the interrupting swish pan of rapid eye movement or the momentary darkness of a blink to internally construct a coherent impression of the world around it.

What we call editing builds on this principle by asking the audience to accept a sequence of kaleidoscopic images and mentally reconstruct them into a perception of continuous reality. Therefore, editing is an fundamentally conceptual process, relying on the brain's inherent determination to create continuity out of the scatter-shot images it receives.

To optimize this art form's creative power, there are three great tools at an editor's command: context, contrast, and rhythm. "Context" refers to the principle that nothing has meaning in isolation. If you cut from a close-up of a woman's face to a scene of battlefield horror, and then cut from that same woman's gaze to a shot of a baby sleeping, the different impression created by those two edits is easily illustrated. The woman's original expression may be unchanged, but the viewer's appreciation of it is radically different.

Contrast takes this perception to another level. Consider that if every face looked exactly the same to everyone, there would be no contrast at all--and no sense of identity. In fact, it is the recognition of a difference between images--the contrast--that permits us to understand the boundaries between objects and concepts.

Our third tool, rhythm, adds a temporal component to the toolset. In editing, this can be expressed as the pace with which different ideas, whether video or audio, are presented to the audience.

These ideas have often been expressed in the formula B+C=A, where the contrast of the shots being banged together, B and C create the desired reaction--A--in the audience's mind. On a larger scale, this can also be seen as the context the audience brings to the experience (B), being brought into contrast with the artificial reality the editor is trying to create (C) to generate a desired impression in the viewer's mind (A).

So, what makes a good edit? As proposed way back in 1985, it's like mustard on a pickle. You have to try it to find out. Subjective perception is the only arbiter, just as even the most earnest analysis of the immaculate structure of the first movement in Beethoven's Fifth Symphony cannot convince the uninitiated that those repeated five notes are the foundation of a masterpiece unless they experience it. But if an edit does work, it is because the editor's trinity behind it has induced the viewer's brain to accept the convention of two or more images being integrated into a developing, coherent concept of an accepted representation of reality.

This column has often dipped into the well of silent cinema to illustrate such principles, because that was the era in which they were developed. Too often, modern editors ignore that heritage, but I'd suggest that some day, our current media may seem equally anachronistic.

Let me predict that not too many decades hence, our form of film and video production will collectively be referred to as the era of the "twodees," and probably discounted with equal indifference. The multidimensional holographic system adopted by that time will still involve visual elements created with an intentional perspective that was directed during production. But the communication achieved by the sequence in which those images are presented will even then be determined by the principles of context, contrast and rhythm that today we call editing.

So as we watch that tall stranger ride off toward the horizon, it is reassuring to realize there will always be new horizons for editors to conquer.

Over the years, several readers have been good enough to remember a statement from the first "Focus on Editing" column, and that is the credo with which I'd like to launch the next decade.

"It is an editor who ultimately takes raw material in the left hand and turns over a finished product from the right. We can take this world, and through the power of our technological media, reassemble its chaos into meaning."

We are, after all, editors.