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Successful editing in the blink of an eye

how do you edit with emotion – walter murch’s secret

Lead with emotion and follow the blink in your edits

When it comes to editing I always look to the wise words of Walter Murch in his book “In the blink of an eye”. Murch reveals his secrets to successful editing. Among other key techniques, he talks about the importance of emotion in the editing process and why the humble blink is a hidden secret to success.

Successful Editing - In The Blink Of An Eye

Editing must consider emotion

The success of a movie or video is ultimately determined by the audience’s emotional reaction. If emotion is not considered then your video is nothing more than a collection of moving images, often referred to as “wallpaper” in the biz. This will not have an impact on your audience and likely not be remembered, like a roller coaster without the roll it just, well….coasts. The “roll” is what creates the memorable experience and long term memory. Every edit is a unique ride of ups and downs and twists and turns. Create the emotion and you will create lasting memories.

Captivate your audience

Think of editing as standing on stage and telling a story. Can you captivate your audience? Picture a great concert where the performers and the audience become one…..magical. The audience is in the moment, everything else just fades away. Or picture your favourite comedian, he/she has you hooked but why? It’s all in the delivery. Editing is the same. You are now the performer, the comedian, you are the storyteller. The delivery is in your hands. You need to grab your audience, captivate them, keep them in the moment. To do this you need to keep your narrative moving forward at a good pace while tickling their emotional senses, all the way to a satisfying end. 

Aim for a “wow” with every edit.

Keep the feels in mind while editing

As Walter Murch puts it, “the editor’s task is to give the audience an emotional experience, not a mechanical one.”

A lot of what you are going to do as a creative person relies on your instinct and feels, (which is why the AI’s won’t be taking your job any time soon.) Every scene should be set up with an emotion in mind. Understand what the beginning middle and end is for each of your scene’s story and then think about which emotion fits that journey. For example you may start with anticipation and fear, followed by excitement and thrill and end with relief and happiness. Whatever the story arc, identify the emotional arc as well and then maximise it through good pacing, shot selection and appropriate sound design.

Good pace & rhythm is everything

The timing and rhythm is in your hands. Every cut should be there to do two things; advance the narrative and heighten the emotion. That’s it! So ask yourself, each time you cut, if it achieves these two criteria. We often see edits by inexperienced editors that don’t apply these rules and the edit points become very jarring and disruptive. Edits should not be noticed. They should be enhancing your story not distracting from it. There are natural cut points that relate to blinking but I’ll talk about that a bit later. For now think about rhythm for the purpose of building emotion and pacing for driving narrative. 

Consider the differences in pace if you compare say a love scene to a fight scene. The pacing for these is obviously very different. Of course there’s also that classic rhythm we use in reality shows, the over extended pause just before the judge reveals a winner or loser – Extend the build up……pause with reaction shots, to build anticipation….and then drop it!…Bang. Then hit them fast with the best contestant reaction shots to raise the shock and awe. Now there’s your “Wow” moment. Layer this with sound design that builds to a climax, and you get the heart really racing. Like a great song, it’s all in the rhythm.

It's important to choose the right shot for the right moment

Reaction shots, well timed are a very powerful tool when it comes to guiding the emotional journey. Comb through your rushes to find looks from every camera angle and time them perfectly to emphasise any number of emotions. Eye rolls or side-eye glances can show anger or jealousy. Even a blank look if placed correctly  in your edit can portray anything from confusion to even humour.

emotional editing with reaction shots
emotional reaction shots


But what to use and when you may ask. Well this is closely related to moving your narrative forward at a good pace and maximising the emotion in the moment. You can also ask yourself “what do you want to see?” “What do you think the audience wants to see?” There will be a natural moment to show the next shot. Roll with it. Feel it. Use your instincts. If you have rhythm you will find this quite natural.

Shot selection is not just about looks though, the angle and framing  also creates different feelings. A classic example is the use of shot angles in horror movies to create an unsettling feeling. But in a less extreme edit, deciding between wide, mid or close up shots can have an impact on your scene’s emotional impact. 

For example a scene may start with wide setup shots to establish the story but quickly cut into close up shots to convey things like tension, or to heighten emotion and then you reach the resolution at the end of the scene with relief and celebration by using mid shots and then resolving at the end with a wide shot. 

It’s important to choose the right shot for the right moment and match it with the tone and emotion you want to evoke in the audience.

successful editing need emotion
successful editing need emotion

Sound design. Tickle all the senses

Being the only person to have won an oscar for both editing and sound, Murch understands the importance of sound in the emotional journey. Likewise in your storytelling process audio should never be an afterthought. You as an editor are responsible for the audio journey as much as the visual journey and the better you can keep the two working together the better the emotional impact. With well chosen music and well placed atmospheric sounds you can control and finesse a scene’s emotional impact. The more of the human senses you can tickle the better the connection with your audience.

Hear it from Mr Murch himself. You’ve either got good rhythm or you don't. It can be very hard to teach.

So how do you know if you've got what it takes?

How do you know if you’ve nailed your so called performance, whilst sitting alone in a dark room? 

As an editor you have watched it a thousand times. It becomes hard to be objective. This is where you need your own fresh audience. Bring in your director, client, even your friends and family. Show them and watch for their reactions. Keep an eye on when they get distracted, or fidgety. These are often moments in your edit that may need some work. Their first impressions, even if subconscious, are everything as your audience is probably only ever going to watch this once. 

And of course encourage an open dialogue afterwards. If there are any points that they didn’t quite get, don’t defend it, figure out why it may not be connecting with your audience and adjust it. 

Like any good performer you need be open to polishing your act by accepting criticism and then refining. You may be able to explain or defend your edit to one person in your room, but you are not going to be able to explain to a mass audience when it goes on air. So tweak any areas that are not hitting the mark, whether it’s your narrative journey or it’s lack of emotional impact. 

So what is the secret behind the blink and how can you use it to your advantage?

 Murch refers to blink points as natural cut points. As an editor we don’t want our cuts to distract or stand out, we want them to enhance the narrative journey so cutting in time with your natural blink timing keeps the edit points following a certain natural rhythm. What am I talking about?

Believe it or not we do not blink randomly, we blink in time with our thoughts, such as at the end of sentences, commas, paragraphs. We blink when we switch from one thought to another. We also blink in the middle of a head turn or refocus. 

Blinking never lies. Your audience is either blinking in rhythm with your edit or they’re not. If they are not, then they are blinking in time with whatever random thoughts that are in their head. You don’t want this of course. This is also a good tell when you are doing your test screening.

As with blinking your edit points should also not be random. As you create your narrative you will also be creating natural blink points. You’ll be able to sense it. It’s very closely related to rhythm. Use these natural blink points as your edit points. There is a good cut point and a bad cut point. Knowing the difference is crucial. Follow the blinking rhythm. When you edit with good natural rhythm, your cut points just melt into the story, they become invisible, seamless, and perfectly in sync with the narrative journey. Nail this secret and you can truly call yourself a talented editor.

editing with emotion magic cheat sheet

  1. Determine the emotion you want to evoke in the audience.
  2. Choose the right shots and sounds to support that emotion.
  3. Cut between shots to build tension, release it, and build it again.
  4. Consider the use of sound, music and silence to enhance the emotional impact.
  5. Pay attention to the pacing of the edit and make sure it’s consistent with the emotional tone.
  6. Test the edit with an audience to see if the emotional impact is achieved.

Remember that every audience is different, so it’s important to experiment and see what works best for the specific project you’re working on.

Blink your way to good editing

Check out all the skills in action

Get a first hand look at all of these techniques in a lot more detail. Our award winning editors take you into their edit suites and show you some real world techniques.

Check out Bev’s blog on music editing as well as her blog on cutting to the beat to maximise energy, and its use in reality shows. And while you’re checking out links, I encourage you to look at Mel’s blog on editing trailers, it incorporates all the techniques we have talked about so far.

A final party trick

On a more life-hack level you can use your new found knowledge of the humble blink to see if someone is connected to your conversation in a social setting.

Are they blinking in sync with your story? If so, you’ve got their interest. Do they suddenly start blinking randomly? You’ve lost them, they are now thinking about what to cook for dinner. 

Try it….it’s quite an “eye opener”…”wink wink”…ok stop it 😉

Daryl Burney

Creative Director

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