Morph Cut and the Philosophy of Editing

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Recently in a tech forum on non-linear editing (NLE) I was reading reactions to some of the new features included in the forth-coming update to Adobe Premiere Pro (Adobe’s NLE). On the whole most editors and those involved in post-production (and who were inclined to use Premiere Pro for that matter!) who commented on the feature updates were optimistic and excited, especially about a particular feature called Morph Cut.

Perhaps a brief description is in order. In non-linear editing (and perhaps any editing for that matter), any time you make some sort of timing change within any existing clip you make a cut. There are any number of reasons to do this, but a common reason (especially within interview edits, which is what this post is mainly focused on) is to edit the content from different times down into a more time-efficient edit. The art of editing is to make this edit appear to be as seamless a transition as possible, with the ultimate goal being that the viewer does not detect the transition at all.

This has traditionally been accomplished in a variety of ways. During the actual production often multiple camera angles are captured so as to have a different angle to “cut away” to, since this cut away is less jarring and feels more natural than the alternative, which is the jump cut (more on this is in a bit). Another common means is the use of b-roll, which is leftover nomenclature from linear editing days where the a-roll (which is the main subject camera shot) is cut and then alternative footage (another camera angle, footage related to the subject, etc.) is placed over the audio of the main shot so as to give the illusion of an intentional edit to something else. In many cases this is intentional to give visual interest, highlight what is being talked about, etc., but often b-roll is also a good way to avoid using jump cuts when there is no other option.

The Jump Cut

The jump cut, then, is when you have a shot, say an interview with someone, that has to be cut with no other supplemental footage to cut away to. Let’s say that you want to use the content captured between 1:00-1:30, and then between 4:00-4:30. But let’s also pretend that there is no other footage to cut away to. What is going to happen is that when you cut out all the content in-between and play the remaining content, you will almost always have a noticeable “jump” in video (and sometimes audio) between the first part of the edit and the second.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but a jump cut with the little “jump” is actually more visually disorienting than cutting away to something entirely different or to another camera angle. The reason is that with other techniques (like using b-roll or other angles) the sheer visual change is acceptable because- if the editor has done his job well- the audio continuity allows the illusion of a seamless change. However, the jump cut, while keeping audio continuity, has the unfortunate effect of adding the visual cue that an edit has been made, since there is the noticeable jump.

In ideal situations there will be additional footage to cut away to, but savvy editors have tricks to salvage jump cuts when there is not other option. These are not ideal, but sometimes you have no choice.

Firstly, there is the dreaded fade to black. This is basically a quick 1-5 frame dissolve to/from black over the edit points. The difficulty with this technique is that if there are a lot of edits it can quickly get old.

Secondly, a lot of recent jump cuts involve scaling the shot up by 25% or so and then repositioning it in the frame. This can give the illusion of multiple camera angles, but suffers from the side effect of generally softening the image since the pixels are required to be scaled. (This was gotten around in the early days of 1080 HD by creating a 720 sequence that was technically HD, but allowed greater latitude in scaling, since technically the “scaled up” shot could be at its native scale while the non-scaled shot could be scaled down to 75%.)

Another technique was to do some sort of quick overlay transition between edits; e.g., something like a quick flash of white that covered the jump cut. This technique also gets tiresome really quickly, and only works in certain aesthetics.

No doubt there are others, but Premiere Pro’s forthcoming Morph Cut holds out hope of salvaging jump cuts by means of face detection and interpolating movement and pixels. This video gives a glimpse of what it purports to do.

My native skepticism leads me to think that this will be a valuable tool in limited circumstances; for example, with subjects who don’t move very much and in environments that have fastidiously controlled lighting. But in several demos I have seen where this scenario is the case, Morph Cut seems to perform admirably.

The reason editors would be excited about this sort of tool (especially if it works magically well!) is that there are times where you would want to use a jump cut even if you have other options. For example, in one of the most recent projects I edited I had a section where there were multiple cuts in quick succession, because of having to edit down for time and cutting out superfluous content. The difficulty was that I had just come out of some b-roll after a previous edit, but to context this section had to do a quick cut to the main shot, and then cut away again to cover over the edits. I was able to make it work, but this type of editing can be just as visually distracting as the jump cut.

Had something like Morph Cut been able to salvage the jump cuts, I could have given that shot a lot more space to breathe, which might have heightened the emotional impact. Ultimately I was able to make it work by moving some other pieces around, but it required a lot more work and didn’t quite have the punch it could have had otherwise.

So much for the brief description… 🙂

The Philosophy of Editing

What led me to thinking about Morph Cut and the philosophy of editing is an interesting comment I saw in the same forum which was adamantly opposed to Morph Cut. I don’t recall exactly where I found this (and thus cannot link to it), but the gist of the argument was that a tool such as Morph Cut is fundamentally dishonest, since it gives the illusion of a situation and thought (again, in the context of an interview) that has no basis in reality and is ultimately a fabrication.

This, of course, cuts to the heart of all editing, since on some level any editing whatsoever is a fabrication of sorts. After all, in the example of an interview there is almost no occasion where there is no editing; that is, just a straight take. But, as I will argue, as far as editing goes, this is exactly the point.

Editing is an art form, like any other art form. The artist (in this case, the editor) is attempting to express the beautiful through his art in one form or another. And since the beautiful as a universal is abstract (and, since convertible with being, infinite), the goal of art is to concretize the beautiful in some instantiation. In ancient thought art was a re-presentation of the beautiful; that is, the artist is not creating something “new” but rather is presenting (by mode of discovery) some aspect of the beautiful in a concrete instance of art.

This may seem somewhat esoteric, but the relation of art in the concrete to the beautiful in the abstract carries many concomitant realities. The first is that as any work of art is a concrete instantiation, it is of necessity finite and limited in scope. This cashes out differently for different art forms, but for editing it entails that the summit of the beautiful as it relates to editing as a work of art is to find a proper balance between the subject matter/content and its finite expression.

In more common language, this means that any edit is trying to be long enough (in time) to feel like it has told its story, while not too long as to become plodding or tedious. This is a tight line to walk and a difficult balance to strike, and while there are some rough guidelines for particular forms, the art of the edit is knowing (among other things) when the right length of time has been achieved, both as a whole and for each edit internally.

But editing is more than finding the right length; it is ultimately about telling a story and telling it in the most meaningful way possible. In some settings this takes on the guise of providing the right information; in others it is about conveying an emotion, and any all modes in between. Just as a painting represents reality differently from a photograph, so any edit is meant to become more than the sum of its parts. A good and powerful edit is not simply a linear progression of content, but is particular content chosen and placed in a particular order so as to create a story that transcends the edits.

For example, in an interview there is specific content of some sort that is meant to be conveyed. A bad interviewer may go into an interview with no plan, but a good one already has an overarching direction in mind. That means having some familiarity with the story to be conveyed, even if the specifics are unknown.

In almost any case it is simply not practical (nor desirable) to have the entirety of the interview present. Most interviewees are not trained speakers or presenters, which means that there are lots of ums, rabbit trails, details of no relevance to the story, etc. Editing thus serves as a means to capture the essence of the story in an artistic and relevant manner.

As an art form editing has a rhetorical function. In ancient rhetorical theory there were distinct parts of any rhetorical presentation that served to make it emotionally grabbing and argumentatively persuasive; editing is no different. For example, a rhetorical device in any proper rhetorical presentation is the exordium, which, for all intents and purposes, is the introduction or opening. This is actually integral to any art form that occurs over time; movies need a strong introduction to make you want to watch the movie; musical pieces usually begin with a meaningful theme that is developed and explored as the piece goes on, etc. An interview (as our example) is no different, since a strong story is developed with a strong opening. Oftentimes this isn’t simply some introduction, but is the main theme developed in the beginning, perhaps foreshadowing the rest to come.

This could obviously be scripted (and in the case of movies is), but for some forms of editing this can be counter productive. I have tried the scripted approach, and it usually backfires. Since most people are not trained speakers, a script can be a bit of a ball and chain, since it gives them a false sense of comfort but most often leads to a rather plastic and forced performance. For those not trained in public speaking it becomes very evident if they are speaking from a script or extempore.

The point here is that editing, like any art form, is trying to impose form upon its matter; in this case, the content of the piece. It becomes an art form that requires a great deal of skill since it is not easy to take the varied pieces of any interview and assemble them into a coherent whole that has the characteristics of a good story and good rhetoric. In fact, you have probably seen enough interviews that have fallen flat to know when one really hits and when one doesn’t. This difference in some cases is due to the lack of content (which cannot always be helped), but in many more cases is the result of a lack of artistry in the edit.

The artistic aspect is where the use of additional content comes into play. True, b-roll can be used to cover over an unavoidable edit, but in its best usage is employed to further complement the story and bring more pathos into the piece. The real artistry of using b-roll is the point where covering an edit and adding pathos are not mutually opposed concepts.

It is of course possible to create this sort of art without ethics, which primarily consists in telling a story that is different than the one which is meant to be conveyed. As anyone has seen during any political cycle, it is relatively easy to edit anything to portray someone else in a bad light or to make them say what they actually didn’t say. Editing as an art thus carries a large amount of ethical responsibility, for the editor must create art that is true to its subject, while making many decisions as to how he can best present that subject. Thus, editing as an art is in a way a moral act, and requires a high amount of ethics from the editor.

This entails that the editor is not only telling a story, but also primarily (and always simultaneously) listening for one. In our example of the interview, the editor is looking for the essence of what the subject is conveying, and is looking for a way to assemble that in way that is most rhetorically effective.

One might consider this to be creating illusions, but the reality is that a form must be imposed upon the subject matter for it to become art at all; otherwise it is merely replaying captured footage. Just as a painter will spend as much time as is needed to create according to his muse’s vision, and does not necessarily share all the sketches and start-overs and such that accompany the masterpiece and are necessary for its final existence, so the editor is crafting something that takes the best and most pertinent and most moving of the subject matter to create a story that is not only true to the subject but presents it in an artistic and persuasive manner. This is the condition of all art, and as far as technique is concerned is something unique to editing as an art form.

Under the preceding considerations, the Morph Cut is not simply a potentially useful tool for editors which can fix otherwise less than ideal edits, but is potentially another way to express the artistry of the art form of editing. It would certainly be no substitute for the hard work of good pre-production and production, but sometimes not everything is ideal, and having a way to maintain artistry even under less than ideal circumstances is surely a welcome thing.

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Jason Watson

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