Last Updated on December 19, 2018 by

Most professionals (and aspiring ones) working in the film and sound industries know the name Walter Murch. A highly respected force in the world of cinematic storytelling, he has pioneered numerous techniques in sound design and film editing that are still used today (ie. worldizing). He is the only person to ever win an Oscar for both Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing on the same film and is the only film editor to have won awards on 4 different editing technologies (Moviola, KEM Flatbed, Avid and Final Cut Pro). But more important is the mindset he brings as a philosopher to these mediums.

In his famous book (an oft essential film school reading), ‘In The Blink Of An Eye‘, he shares some of his insights on film editing and, more accurately, how the human brain reacts to moving images that are rearranged in time. We were graciously granted permission to use an excerpt of this book (one of the many insightful chapters) to share with you. It’s entitled: ‘The Rule of Six


Walter Murch’s Rule of Six

The first thing discussed in film-school editing classes is what I’m going to call three-dimensional continuity: In shot A, a man opens a door, walks halfway across the room, and then the film cuts to the next shot, B, picking him up at that same halfway point and continuing with him the rest of the way across the room, where he sits down at his desk, or something.

For many years, particularly in the early years of sound film, that was the rule. You struggled to preserve continuity of three-dimensional space, and it was seen as a failure of rigor or skill to violate it9. Jumping people around in space was just not done, except, perhaps, in extreme circumstances–fights or earthquakes– where there was a lot of violent action going on.

9 The problem with this thinking can be seen in any multi-camera situation-comedy on television. Because the cameras are filming simultaneously, the actors are necessarily always “correct” as far as their spatial continuity and relation to each other is concerned, but that absolutely will not prevent bad cuts from being made all the time.

I actually place this three-dimensional continuity at the bottom of a list of six criteria for what makes a good cut. At the top of the list is Emotion, the thing you come to last, if at all, at film school largely because it’s the hardest thing to define and deal with. How do you want the audience to feel? If they are feeling the way you want them to feel all the way through the film, you’ve done about as much as you can ever do. What they finally remember is no the editing, not the camerawork, not the performances, not even the story—it’s how they felt.

An ideal cut (for me) is the one that satisfies all the following six criteria at once. 1) it is true to the emotion of the moment; 2) it advances the story; 3) it occurs at a moment that is rhythmically interesting and “right”; 4) it acknowledges what you might call “eye-trace”–the concern with the location and movement of the audience’s focus of interest within the frame; 5) it respects “planarity”–the grammar of three dimensions transposed by photography to two (the questions of stage-line, etc); 6) and it respects the three-dimensional continuity of the actual space (where people are in the room and in relation to one another).

1) Emotion – 51%

2) Story – 23%

3) Rhythm – 10%

4) Eye-trace – 7%

5) Two-dimensional plane of screen – 5%

6) Three-dimensional space of action – 4%

Emotion, at the top of the list, is the thing that you should try to preserve at all costs. If you find you have to sacrifice certain of those six things to make a cut, sacrifice your way up, item by item, from the bottom.

For instance, if you are considering a range of possible edits for a particular moment in the film, and you find that there is one cut that gives the right emotion and moves the story forward, and is rhythmically satisfying, and respects eye-trace and planarity, but it fails to preserve the continuity of three-dimensional space, then by all means, that is the cut you should make. If none of the other edits has the right emotion, then sacrificing spatial continuity is well worth it.

The values I put after each item are slightly tongue-in-cheek, but not completely: Notice that the top two on the list (emotion and story) are worth far more than the bottom four (rhythm, eye-trace, planarity, spatial continuity), and when you come right down to it, under most circumstances, the top of the list–emotion–is worth more than all five of the things underneath it.

And, in fact, there is a practical side to this, which is that if the emotion is right and the story is advanced in a unique, interesting way, in the right rhythm the audience will tend to be unaware of (or unconcerned about) editorial problems with lower-order items like eye-trace, stage-line, spatial continuity, etc. The general principle seems to be that satisfying the criteria of items higher on the list tends to obscure problems with items lower on the list, but not vice-versa: For instance, getting Number 4 (eye-trace) working properly will minimize a problem with Number 5 (stage-line), whereas if Number 5 (stage-line) is correct, but Number 4 (eye-trace) is not taken into consideration, the cut will be unsuccessful.

Now, in practice, you will find that those top three things on the list–emotion, story, rhythm–are extremely tightly connected. The forces that bind them together are like the bonds between the protons and neutrons in the nucleus of the atom. Those are, by far, the tightest bonds and the forces connecting the lower three grow progressively weaker as you go down the list.

Most of the time you will be able to satisfy all six criteria: the three-dimensional space and the two-dimensional plane of the screen and the eye-trace, and the rhythm and story and emotion will all fall into place. And, of course, you should always aim for this, if possible–never accept less when more is available to you.

What I’m suggesting is a list of priorities. If you have to give up something, don’t ever give up emotion before story. Don’t give up story before rhythm, don’t give up rhythm before eye-trace, don’t give up eye-trace before planarity, and don’t give up planarity before spatial continuity.


Further Reading

If you enjoyed this excerpt, purchase a copy of the full book and give it a read. You are guaranteed to take away useful tidbits to improve your editing skills.

Excerpt graciously provided by Silman-James Press.