Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Charles Koppelman

My ten creative books #9: Behind the Seen

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Note: I’m counting down ten books that have influenced the way that I think about the creative process, in order of the publication dates of their first editions. It’s a very personal list that reflects my own tastes and idiosyncrasies, and I’m always looking for new recommendations. You can find the earlier installments here.

For reasons that aren’t too hard to figure out, the most comprehensive accounts that we have of the creative process tend to focus on mediocre works of art. Since the quality of the result is out of anyone’s hands, you can’t expect such extensive documentation to coincide with the making of a masterpiece, and the artists who are pushing the boundaries of the medium are often too busy to keep good notes. (One possible exception is the bonus material for The Lord of the Rings, although you more typically end up with the endless hours of special features for The Hobbit.) This is why the most interesting book that I’ve ever seen about writing and publishing is The Writing of One Novel by Irving Wallace, which tells you more than you would ever want to know about his justly forgotten bestseller The Prize. It’s also why my single favorite book about filmmaking is Behind the Seen by Charles Koppelman, which centers on Walter Murch, an undeniable genius, and his editing of the film Cold Mountain. Even at the time, the movie found few passionate defenders, and watching the first half again recently didn’t change my mind. But the book that resulted from it is amazing. The critic David Thomson called it “probably the subtlest and most tender account of what a craftsman brings to a motion picture ever written,” but it’s also much more. From the moment that I first learned that it existed, I knew that I had to have it, and ever since, my copy—autographed by Murch himself—has occupied an unusual role in my writing life. It’s the book that I read whenever I need to revise a draft, get editorial feedback, or do anything else that frightens me as a writer. This is partially because I value Murch’s perspective, and because the craft of film editing has surprising affinities to what a writer does during the revision stage. Above all, however, it’s because this may be the most complete chronicle in existence of any act of creation whatsoever, from start to finish, and its wisdom is inseparable from its accumulation of ordinary detail over three hundred dense pages.

Behind the Seen is an unforgettable experience in itself, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Yet it also contains detachable pieces of lore, advice, and insight that anyone can take to heart. There’s Koppelman’s discussion of the “little people,” the tiny paper silhouettes that Murch attaches to his television monitor to remind himself of the size of the movie screen. Or there’s Murch’s lovely analogy of “blinking the key,” in which a lesson drawn from lighting a set tells you what happens when you take away what seemed like an indispensable element. And then there’s this:

Murch also has his eye on what he calls the “thirty percent factor”—a rule of thumb he developed that deals with the relationship between the length of the film and the “core content” of the story. In general, thirty percent of a first assembly can be trimmed away without affecting the essential features of the script: all characters, action, story beats will be preserved and probably, like a good stew, enhanced by the reduction in bulk. But passing beyond the thirty percent barrier can usually be accomplished only by major structural alterations: the reduction or elimination of a character, or whole sequences—removing vital organs rather than trimming fat. “It can be done,” says Murch, “and I have done it on a number of films that turned out well in the end. But it is tricky, and the outcome is not guaranteed—like open-heart surgery. The patient is put at risk, and the further beyond thirty percent you go, the greater the risk.

Perhaps best of all, there’s the shiny brass “B” that Murch hangs in his office. Koppelman explains: “Ask Walter about it, and he’ll tell you about aiming for a ‘B.’ Work hard to get the best grade you can—in this world, a B is all that is humanly attainable. One can be happy with that. Getting an A? That depends on good timing and the whims of the gods—it’s beyond your control. If you start to think that the gods are smiling, they will take your revenge. Keep your blade sharp. Make as good a film as you know how.”

The magic window

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Last week, the magazine Nautilus published a conversation on “the science and art of time” between the composer Philip Glass and the painter Fredericka Foster. The entire article is worth a look, but my favorite detail is one that Glass shares at the very beginning:

There are many strange things about music and time. When I’m on a tour with the dance company we work in a different-sized theater every night. The first thing the dance company does when we arrive is to measure the stage. They have to reset the dance to fit that stage. So you also have to reset the time of the music: in a larger theater, you must play slower. In a smaller theater, you have to play faster. The relation of time and space in music is dynamic. I have a range of speed in mind. If the players don’t pay attention to that, it will look really funny. You can see the stage fill up with dancers because they are playing at the wrong speed.

And a few lines afterward, in a more contemplative mood, Glass continues: “I was reflecting on the universe expanding. We know that it is and can measure it, by the way time is operating, or by the way we see a star exploding far away. For various reasons, when a physicist tells me that the universe is expanding, I say ‘Okay, let’s go back to the dance floor.’ The dance floor is getting bigger, what does that mean? It means that time has to slow down.”

The relationship between the pacing of a work of art and the physical space in which it occurs is an intriguing one, and it reminds me of a trick employed by one of my heroes, the film editor Walter Murch. In his excellent book Behind the Seen, Charles Koppelman describes the “little people,” a pair of tiny paper silhouettes—one male, one female—that Murch attaches to the screening monitor in his editing room. Koppelman explains:

They are his way of dealing with the problem of scale…As an editor, Murch must remember that images in the edit room are only 1/240 the square footage of what the audience will eventually see on a thirty-foot-wide screen…It’s still easy to forget the size of a projected film, which can trick an editor into pacing a film too quickly, or using too many close-ups—styles more akin to television. The eye rapidly apprehends the relatively small, low-detail images on a TV. Large-scale faces help hold the attention of the audience sitting in a living room with lots of distractions or ambient light. But in movies, images are larger than life and more detailed, so the opposite is true. The eye needs time to peruse the movie screen and take it all in…The solution for Murch is to have these two human cutouts stand sentry on his monitor, reminding him of the film’s eventual huge proportions.

And Murch writes in his book In the Blink of an Eye: “Why don’t we just edit in large rooms with big screens? Well, with digital editing and video projection, we could, very easily, be editing with a thirty-foot screen. The real estate for the room would be expensive, however.”

And while the problems presented by a live performance and a projected image on film might seem rather different, the underlying issue, in both cases, is the audience’s ability to receive and process information. On a purely practical level, a big stage may require the tempo of the choreography to subtly change, because the dancers are moving in a larger physical space, and the music has to be adjusted accordingly. But the viewer’s relationship to the work is also affected—the eye is more likely to take in the action in pieces, rather than as a whole, and the pacing may need to be modified. A similar phenomenon occurs in the movies, as Murch writes:

I have heard directors say that they were were disappointed when they finally saw their digitally edited films projected on a big screen. They felt that the editing now seemed “choppy,” though it had seemed fine on the television monitor…With a small screen, your eye can easily take in everything at once, whereas on a big screen it can only take in sections at a time. You tend to look at a small screen, but into a big screen. If you are looking at an image, taking it all in at once, your tendency will be to cut away to the next shot sooner. With a theatrical film, particularly one in which the audience is fully engaged, the screen is not a surface, it is a magic window, sort of a looking glass through which your whole body passes and becomes engaged in the action with the characters on the screen.

Murch notes that the lack of detail on a small screen—or a compressed video file—can mislead the editor as well: “There may be so little detail that the eye can absorb all of it very quickly, leading the careless editor to cut sooner than if he had been looking at the fully detailed film image…Image detail and pace are intimately related.

And the risk of editing on a smaller screen isn’t anything new. Over thirty years ago, the director and editor Edward Dmytryk wrote in On Film Editing:

Many editors shape their editing concepts on the Moviola, a technique I consider decidedly inferior. One does not see the same things on a small Moviola screen, or even on the somewhat larger, though fuzzier, flatbed screen, that one sees in a theater. The audience sees its films only on the “big screen,” and since every cut should be made with the audience in mind, the cutter must try to see each bit of film as the viewer in the theater will eventually see it. (Even a moderate-sized television screen offers far more scope than a Moviola; therefore, it too presents a somewhat different “picture” for the viewer’s inspection.)

Today, of course, viewers can experience stories on a range of screen sizes that Dmytryk might never have anticipated, and which no editor can possibly control. And it’s unclear how editors—who, unlike Philip Glass, don’t have the luxury of measuring the space in which the film will unfold—are supposed to deal with this problem. Taken as a whole, it seems likely that the trend of editorial pacing reflects the smallest screen on which the results can be viewed, which is part of the reason why the average number of cuts per minute has steadily increased for years. And it’s not unreasonable for editors to prioritize the format in which movies will be seen for most of their lifetimes. Yet we also give up something when we no longer consider the largest possible stage. After the editor Anne V. Coates passed away last month, many obituaries paid tribute to the moment in Lawrence of Arabia that has justifiably been called the greatest cut in movie history. But it wouldn’t have nearly the same impact if it weren’t for the fact that the next shot is held for an astonishing thirty-five seconds, which might never have occurred to someone who was cutting it for a smaller screen. Even viewed on YouTube, it’s unforgettable. But in a theater, it’s a magic window.

The fifteen missing pages

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In 1972, after the massive success of The Godfather, the director Francis Ford Coppola announced that his next project would be an original screenplay that he had been trying to make for years. It was a curious blend of paranoid thriller and character study—Coppola would later describe it as a cross between Blow-Up and Steppenwolf—about a surveillance expert named Harry Caul. Paramount was anxious for him to get to work on the sequel to his first big hit, but Coppola optimistically hoped to squeeze in this more personal project between the two Godfather films. As the editor Walter Murch told the novelist Michael Ondaatje in their great book The Conversations, that isn’t quite how it worked out:

A good ten days of material [on The Conversation] was never filmed—Francis and the production team just ran out of time and money to shoot the entire script, and he had to go off to do preproduction on Godfather II. His advice to me at that point was, Well, let’s just cut what we have together and see if we can find a way to compensate for that missing footage. So from the beginning we couldn’t structure it the way the screenplay called for. I’d say there were about fifteen pages of script material that were not shot.

To make matters even more fraught, with Coppola effectively gone, the film was left in the hands of Murch and his assistant editor Richard Chew, neither of whom had ever edited a movie before. In Behind the Seen, Charles Koppelman describes their unlikely plan: “Coppola would show up every month or so…The three of them would screen [the film], spend a couple of days together going over ideas and making lists of things to try out. Then Coppola would disappear for another month.” It went on like this for an entire year.

More recently, another movie found itself in much the same situation, complete with a protagonist with a trademark raincoat and an oddly similar name. This time, it was the adaptation of Jo Nesbø’s thriller The Snowman, about the Oslo police detective Harry Hole. On paper, it looked great: the leads were Michael Fassbender and Rebecca Ferguson, Martin Scorsese was the executive producer, and Tomas Alfredson of the excellent Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was directing. Even before its release, however, there were rumors of trouble, capped off by a remarkable interview that Alfredson gave to Norwegian public broadcasting, which was quickly picked up by the Independent. For a film that has been in development for most of the decade—Scorsese was announced as the director way back in 2011, only to be replaced by Alfredson three years later—its actual production seems to have been untidy and rushed. As Alfredson revealed:

Our shoot time in Norway was way too short. We didn’t get the whole story with us and when we started cutting we discovered that a lot was missing…It’s like when you’re making a big jigsaw puzzle and a few pieces are missing so you don’t see the whole picture…[The reshoots] happened very abruptly. Suddenly we got notice that we had the money and could start the shoot in London.

Alfredson estimated that “ten to fifteen percent” of the script was never shot. And while it isn’t clear how this happened, if we’re talking about a screenplay of average length, the unshot material amounted to more or less what it was for The Conversation. Postproduction is always an exhausting, stressful stage, and both films went into it with fifteen missing pages.

Faced with this sort of situation, an editor has no choice but to be a genius, creating structure, connections, and entirely new scenes from the footage that he or she has available. As Murch says drily to Ondaatje, with considerable understatement: “We had to be pretty inventive.” He provides one example:

For instance, in one scene Harry pursues Ann—the young woman who was his surveillance “target”—to a park, where he reveals to her who he is and what her concerns for her are. Francis shot the park material, but the material leading up to it, including a chase on electric buses, was never shot…Since we had no fabric with which to knit it into the reality of the film, it floated for a while, like a wild card, until we got the idea of making it a dream of Harry’s, which seemed to be the way to preserve it within the film…When you have restricted material you’re going to have to restructure things from the original intent, with sometimes felicitous juxtapositions.

Much and Chew were novices, working independently, by trial and error, which was extraordinary even in the early seventies and would be utterly unthinkable today. With The Snowman, Universal did the obvious thing and brought in a ringer—they already had editor Claire Simpson, a veteran of such films as Platoon and The Constant Gardener, and to supplement her work, they hired none other than Thelma Schoonmaker, Martin Scorsese’s longtime collaborator and arguably the most acclaimed editor of her generation. (Murch himself was recruited to do similar duty for the remake of The Wolf Man, which implies that this sort of repair work is a good side gig for legendary editors in their twilight years.) The result, unfortunately, doesn’t seem to have been as inspired as it was for its predecessor. As Den of Geek writes of the opening of The Snowman: “The scene’s editing is full of jolts and strange elisions. Was the sequence originally much longer, but later cut down? Why does it all feel so disjointed?”

In the end, after seven years in development, The Snowman was dumped into theaters over the weekend to negative reviews and poor box office, and it seems likely to endure as one of those fascinating case studies that never get told in the full detail that they deserve. You could argue that it came down to the underlying material—The Conversation emerged from the creative peak of the most important American director since Orson Welles, while The Snowman, despite its elegant veneer of Nordic noir, was ultimately just another serial killer movie. But I think that the more accurate takeaway is that you never can tell. I’ve argued before that it doesn’t make sense to talk about a movie as being saved in the editing room, because every movie is saved in the editing room, but the conditions under which The Conversation and The Snowman were made certainly tested their editors’ ingenuity to the limit. It’s a situation that can produce great inventiveness and brilliant technical solutions, but a lot of it depends on luck, and we naturally remember the successes and forget the failures. At one point, Coppola considered halting work on The Conversation entirely, which prompted Murch to recall to Koppelman: “If we had postponed, The Conversation would have probably come out in late 1975, but with a cloud over it which would have been blamed on me—a rerecording mixer who had never edited a feature before.” Murch might well have never edited a movie again, and the history of film would be subtly different. Everyone involved with The Snowman seems likely to emerge unscathed, while the movie itself will live on as a cautionary tale of how all the skill in the world might not be enough to turn Harry Hole into Harry Caul. As Boris Lermontov says in my favorite movie by Michael Powell, Schoonmaker’s late husband and the idol of both Scorsese and Coppola: “Not even the best magician in the world can produce a rabbit out of a hat if there is not already a rabbit in the hat.”

The inconceivable figure

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Whenever I’m working on a project longer than a short story, there comes a point where something strange happens: I find that I’m suddenly writing it in my head all the time. And it tends to occur at a very specific stage in the process. It’s after I’ve written a complete rough draft, but before I’m totally happy with it, and only once I’ve done enough cutting to bring it down considerably from its initial length. The first assembly of any book is too large to hold in my brain all at once, and I tend to see it as a collection of individual pieces that I’ve researched, outlined, and revised separately, bound loosely together by the plan that I had at the beginning. Cutting it down, as I’ve said before, brings all these parts closer together, which leads to new resonances and connections, but it also allows me to finally grasp its shape as a whole. It’s as if my mind has a limited amount of storage space, and a file has to be under a certain size to fit. (In Behind the Seen, which recounts the editing of the film Cold Mountain, Charles Koppelman speaks of the turning point that comes when the rough cut is short enough to be viewed as a single sequence in Final Cut Pro, rather than split into two parts.) Once that threshold is reached, it feels as if a switch has been flipped, and I can mentally edit, write, and rearrange large sections without being at my desk. Even more useful is the fact that if a phrase or sentence occurs to me when I’m washing the dishes, I can usually think of a place to put it, assuming that I remember to write it down. Eventually, it becomes continuous, like a program running in the background, to the point where I have trouble turning it off when I go to bed at night.

And this only happens, at least in my experience, when I’ve finished the entire manuscript, which is a good argument in itself for trying to get it all down on paper as soon as possible. A draft acts like a kind of magnet that draws the iron filings of your stray thoughts and arranges them in a pattern, or like a massive set of pigeonholes in which items can be filed for later use. Without the draft, which exerts a gravitational pull of its own, those ideas have a way of just drifting off into space. (That’s three different analogies in a row, but they all seem right to me.) As I’ve stated elsewhere, there are a lot of reasons for wanting a complete draft as early in the process as you can. A line on the last page can help you solve a problem on the first, and you’re more likely to end up with something publishable if you rough out the whole thing first as a crude sketch and then revise it, instead of obsessing over a tiny slice of the beginning. But the way in which it provides you with a place to organize your passing thoughts may be the most compelling argument of all. There’s a limit to how long you can sit at your desk each day—my own upper bound seems to be about three or four hours. The rest of that time, including sleep, goes unused, even though you’re most likely to come up with useful insights when you’re doing something else. Having a finished draft opens up the remaining five-sixths of your life for productive thought, which feels like a huge practical advantage. I’ve often speculated as to why so many good ideas seem to come in the shower or on the bus, but it may simply be that such moments account numerically for the bulk of our time, and the existence of the draft is what activates those otherwise wasted hours.

This state is also enormously pleasurable. When we speak of the joys of revising, we’re often talking about the mechanical process of looking at an existing sentence and tinkering with it until it reads better. That can be a significant source of satisfaction, but I think that the real joy comes from studying the project as a whole in your head, as a sort of hyperobject that has suddenly become comprehensible. There’s a line from Jorge Luis Borges that I’ve quoted here before: “The steps a man takes from the day of his birth until that of his death trace in time an inconceivable figure. The Divine Mind intuitively grasps that form immediately, as men do a triangle.” Writing a book is the closest most of us will ever get to seeing that “inconceivable figure,” and that heightened sense of awareness is only temporary. For me, it seems to last for a few months, after I’ve finished the first round of cuts and before I’ve delivered the final version. (If you don’t have a deadline, this phase can drag on indefinitely, and the desire to extend it partially explains why some authors can work on a novel for decades. Given the choice, many writers would prefer not to wake up from that dream, which intensifies their experience of the world until everything seems relevant. It’s a wonderful feeling, but you also have to be ready to give it up if you ever want to see your words in print.) After the book is finished, the sensation fades, and for good reason—it would be painful to feel so attuned to a project that has become effectively unchangeable. You could even argue that the amnesia that sets in shortly after a book is delivered is a survival mechanism that prevents writers from breaking under the tension between the changes that they’d still like to make and the fixed nature of the work on the page.

This also leads to another apparent contradiction, which is that a writer is most likely to be making countless small changes at the exact moment when the work is ready to enter the world for the first time. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, because if all goes well, a full draft of my book Astounding will be going out to readers for comments later today. I’m pretty happy with my manuscript, which is more or less where it needs to be, since it isn’t due at my publisher for another four months—and I deliberately gave myself an earlier deadline, in part to extend the fertile period that I’ve discussed above. Even as I format the printed version of the file, though, I find that I’m making numerous edits, some small, some significant. This might imply that the draft isn’t ready, but on a deeper level, it indicates that it’s going out at just the right time, or so I try to tell myself. Ideally, you want to solicit notes after the draft can stand on its own, but before you’ve become psychologically attached to it. You want it to be alive, malleable, and amenable to cuts and changes, and the longer you put it off, the more painful any revisions become. Inevitably, this means that it goes out right when you’re likely to see dozens of things that need to be fixed, which is how you know, paradoxically, that it’s time to let it go. This is why the final days of any project have a way of feeling like a mad scramble, no matter how protracted the process has been. In Behind the Seen, we witness director Anthony Minghella and editor Walter Murch making substantial edits to Cold Mountain on the very last night of postproduction. Minghella says: “Enormous changes at the last minute.” And Murch replies: “Our specialty.”

Written by nevalalee

August 3, 2017 at 9:06 am

The act of cutting

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In a recent article in The New Yorker on Ernest Hemingway, Adam Gopnik evocatively writes: “The heart of his style was not abbreviation but amputation; not simplicity but mystery.” He explains:

Again and again, he creates his effects by striking out what would seem to be essential material. In “Big Two-Hearted River,” Nick’s complicated European experience—or the way that fishing is sanity-preserving for Nick, the damaged veteran—is conveyed clearly in the first version, and left apparent only as implication in the published second version. In a draft of the heartbreaking early story “Hills Like White Elephants,” about a man talking his girlfriend into having an abortion, Hemingway twice uses the words “three of us.” This is the woman’s essential desire, to become three rather than two. But Hemingway strikes both instances from the finished story, so the key image remains as ghostly subtext within the sentences. We feel the missing “three,” but we don’t read it.

Gopnik concludes: “The art comes from scissoring out his natural garrulousness, and the mystery is made by what was elided. Reading through draft and then finished story, one is repeatedly stunned by the meticulous rightness of his elisions.” Following Hemingway’s own lead, Gopnik compares his practice to that of Cézanne, but it’s also reminiscent of Shakespeare, who frequently omits key information from his source material while leaving the other elements intact. Ambiguity, as I’ve noted here before, emerges from a network of specifics with one crucial piece removed.

Over the last two weeks, I’ve been ruthlessly cutting the first draft of my book, leaving me highly conscious of the effects that can come out of compression. In his fascinating notebooks, which I quoted here yesterday, Samuel Butler writes: “I have always found compressing, cutting out, and tersifying a passage suggests more than anything else does. Things pruned off in this way are like the heads of the hydra, two grow for every two that is lopped off.” This squares with my experience, and it reflects how so much of good writing depends on juxtaposition. By cutting, you’re bringing the remaining pieces closer together, which allows them to resonate. Butler then makes a very interesting point:

If a writer will go on the principle of stopping everywhere and anywhere to put down his notes, as the true painter will stop anywhere and everywhere to sketch, he will be able to cut down his works liberally. He will become prodigal not of writing—any fool can be this—but of omission. You become brief because you have more things to say than time to say them in. One of the chief arts is that of knowing what to neglect and the more talk increases the more necessary does this art become.

I love this passage because it reveals how two of my favorite activities—taking notes and cutting—are secretly the same thing. On some level, writing is about keeping the good stuff and removing as much of the rest as possible. The best ideas are likely to occur spontaneously when you’re doing something unrelated, which is why you need to write them down as soon as they come to you. When you’re sitting at your desk, you have little choice but to write mechanically in hopes that something good will happen. And in the act of cutting, the two converge.

Cutting can be a creative act in itself, which is why you sometimes need to force yourself to do it, even when you’d rather not. You occasionally see a distinction drawn between the additive and subtractive arts, but any work often partakes of both at various stages, which confer different benefits. In Behind the Seen, Charles Koppelman says of editing a movie in postproduction:

The orientation over the last six months has been one of accumulation, a building-up of material. Now the engines are suddenly thrown into full reverse. The enterprise will head in the opposite direction, shedding material as expeditiously as possible.

We shouldn’t disregard how challenging that mental switch can be. It’s why an editor like Walter Murch rarely visits the set, which allows him to maintain a kind of Apollonian detachment from the Dionysian process of filmmaking: he doesn’t want to be dissuaded from the need to cut a scene by the knowledge of how hard it was to make it. Writers and other artists working alone don’t have that luxury, and it can be difficult to work yourself up to the point where you’re ready to cut a section that took a long time to write. Time creates its own sort of psychological distance, which is why you’re often advised to put aside the draft for a few weeks, or even longer, before starting to revise it. (Zadie Smith writes deflatingly: “A year or more is ideal—but even three months will do.”) That isn’t always possible, and sometimes the best compromise is to work briefly on another project, like a short story. A change is as good as a rest, and in this case, you’re trying to transform into your future self as soon as possible, which will allow you to perform clinical surgery on the past.

The result is a lot like the old joke: you start with a block of marble, and you cut away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant. When I began to trim my manuscript, I set myself the slightly arbitrary goal of reducing it, at this stage, by thirty percent, guided by the editing rule that I mentioned here a month ago:

Murch also has his eye on what he calls the “thirty percent factor”—a rule of thumb he developed that deals with the relationship between the length of the film and the “core content” of the story. In general, thirty percent of a first assembly can be trimmed away without affecting the essential features of the script: all characters, action, story beats will be preserved and probably, like a good stew, enhanced by the reduction in bulk. But passing beyond the thirty percent barrier can usually be accomplished only by major structural alterations: the reduction or elimination of a character, or whole sequences—removing vital organs rather than trimming fat.

There’s no particular reason why the same percentage should hold for a book as well as a film, but I’ve found that it’s about right. (It also applies to other fields, like consumer electronics.) Really, though, it could have been just about any number, as long as it gave me a clear numerical goal at which to aim, and as long as it hurt a little. It’s sort of like physical exercise. If you want to lose weight, the best way is to eat less, and if you want to write a short book, ideally, you’d avoid writing too much in the first place. But the act of cutting, like exercise, has rewards of its own. As Elie Wiesel famously said: “There is a difference between a book of two hundred pages from the very beginning, and a book of two hundred pages which is the result of an original eight hundred pages. The six hundred pages are there. Only you don’t see them.” And the best indication that you’re on the right track is when it becomes physically painful. As Hemingway writes in A Farewell to Arms: “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” That’s also true of books.

Written by nevalalee

June 29, 2017 at 8:38 am

Cruise and control

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Over the last week, I’ve been listening to a long interview that the writer and director Christopher McQuarrie gave to The Empire Film Podcast after the release of Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation. It’s over two and a half hours long and loaded with insight, but it also has a somewhat different tone when you come to it after the recent debacle of The Mummy. McQuarrie, predictably, has nothing but good words for Tom Cruise, whom he describes as the ultimate producer, with a hand in every aspect of the creative process. Now compare this to the postmortem in Variety:

In the case of The Mummy, one person—Cruise—had an excessive amount of control, according to several people interviewed. The reboot of The Mummy was supposed to be the start of a mega-franchise for Universal Pictures. But instead, it’s become a textbook case of a movie star run amok…Several sources close to the production say that Cruise exerted nearly complete creative oversight on The Mummy, essentially wearing all the hats and dictating even the smallest decisions on the set…Universal, according to sources familiar with the matter, contractually guaranteed Cruise control of most aspects of the project, from script approval to post-production decisions.

To put it another way, between Rogue Nation and The Mummy, absolutely nothing changed. On the one hand, Cruise’s perfectionist tendencies resulted in an excellent piece of work; on the other, they led to a movie that most critics agree is nearly unwatchable. This might seem like a paradox, but I’d prefer to see it as proof that this level of obsessiveness is required to make any movie whatsoever, regardless of the outcome. It may come from a producer or director rather than from the star, but in its absence, complicated projects just don’t get made at all. And the quality of the finished product is the result of factors that are out of even Tom Cruise’s control.

If you work in any creative field, you probably know this already, but the extent to which you’re willing to accept it is often determined by where your role falls in production. At one extreme, you have someone like the editor Walter Murch, who hangs a shiny brass “B” in his office. As Charles Koppelman writes in Behind the Seen:

Ask Walter about it, and he’ll tell you about aiming for a “B.” Work hard to get the best grade you can—in this world, a B is all that is humanly attainable. One can be happy with that. Getting an A? That depends on good timing and the whims of the gods—it’s beyond your control. If you start to think that the gods are smiling, they will take your revenge. Keep your blade sharp. Make as good a film as you know how. It’s an Eastern-oriented philosophy, as expressed by the American writer and philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark.”

At the other extreme, you have the star, who has been groomed to attribute everything good in a movie to his or her irreplaceable presence. And it’s no accident that you find these two attitudes at opposite ends of the production process. The light that strikes the star’s face is captured on film that works its way down the chain to the editors, who have little choice but to be pragmatic: they can only work with the footage that they’ve been given, and while they have lots of good tricks for manipulating it, they’re ultimately the ones who deal with what remains after all the fond hopes that went into a film have collided with reality. They know exactly what they do and don’t have. And they’re aware that superhuman technical control doesn’t represent the high end of craft, but the bare minimum required to do useful work.    

The screenwriter lies somewhere in the middle. In theory, he’s the one who gets paid to dream, and he isn’t constrained by any outside factors when he’s putting ideas down on the page. This isn’t quite how it works in practice, since there are plenty of externalities to consider at every point, and a screenwriter is often asked to solve problems at every stage in production. And we should be a little skeptical of what they have to say. Our understanding of cinematic craft is skewed by the fact that writers have traditionally been its most eloquent and entertaining expositors, which provides just one perspective on the making of the movie. One reason is the fact that screenwriters need to be good with words, not just for the script, but for the pitch meeting, which is another sort of performance—and it encourages them to deliver a hard sell for the act of writing itself. Another is that screenwriters have often been critically denigrated in favor of directors, which obliges them to be exceptionally funny, insightful, and forceful when they’re defending the importance of what they do for a living. Finally, there’s a kind of cynicism about the idea of control, which makes it easier to talk about it afterward. No screenplay is ever shot or released as written, which means that screenwriters exist to have their visions betrayed. If you believe that movies are made up largely of the contingent factors that emerge during production, that’s how it should be. But it also leaves screenwriters in a strange place when it comes to questions of control. Terry Rossio says of formatting the script so that the page breaks come at the right spot: “If you find yourself with this sort of obsessive behavior—like coming up with inventive ways to cheat the page count!—then, I think, you’ve got the right kind of attitude to make it in Hollywood.” He’s clearly right. But it’s also the kind of meticulousness that will be seen by only a handful of insiders, before your ideas pass through the hands of a dozen other professionals on the way to taking an unrecognizable form onscreen.

This may be the real reason why the screenwriters who serve as public advocates for craft—William Goldman, Robert Towne, Tony Gilroy, McQuarrie, and a few others—are also the ones with reputations as fixers, coming in at the very end to work on “troubled” shoots, which, as I’ve argued before, describes nearly every studio movie ever. These writers may well be legitimately better than most of their peers at solving problems, or at least they’re perceived that way, which is why they get those assignments. (As McQuarrie recently said to John August, when asked about the use of writers’ rooms on franchises like Transformers: “I believe you can create all of the Transformers stuff you want. You can build out the whole universe…When the rubber hits the road, that’s all going to change. They’re going to call you. They’re going to call me.” And he’s probably correct.) They’re survivors, and they’ve inevitably got good war stories to share. But we’re also more likely to listen to writers whose contributions come at the end of the process, where their obsessiveness can have a visible impact. It allows them to take credit for what worked while implicitly washing their hands of what didn’t, and there’s an element of chance involved here, too: every screenwriter wants to be the last one hired on a movie, but where you end up on that queue has a lot to do with luck and timing. I still find McQuarrie impossible to resist, and I learn more about storytelling from listening to him for ten minutes than by doing anything else. I’ve been talking about his interview so much that my wife joked that it’s my new religion. Well, maybe it is. But given how little anyone can control, it’s closer to John Gardner says about writing novels: it’s a yoga, a way of life in the world, rather than an end in itself. As McQuarrie himself says to Empire: “Never do anything to effect a result. Do something because you want to do it, or because you have to do it.” And he would know.

The first assembly

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In film editing, there’s a concept known as the first assembly, which the book Behind the Seen by Charles Koppelman—one of my favorite works on creativity of any kind—defines as “all the scenes, as shot, put together in order, as written.” In many cases, the editor starts putting it together using the available footage even as the movie is shooting, and, in a perfect world, he or she would be done with it the week after the production wrapped. It usually takes a lot longer in practice. But the key takeaway is that nobody involved expects it to be any good. Instead, it’s designed to serve as a source of insight into how long the movie will ultimately be and how long it will take to wrestle it into its final form. This information is so valuable that the editor will often make an effort to forecast it during the shoot itself. In describing the process by which Walter Murch edited Cold Mountain, Koppelman writes:

As Murch later explains, “It’s in my job description. I should be able to tell a director—Anthony [Minghella] in this case—that at this pace of shooting the assembly will be over five hours long.” The length of the assembly matters because it may determine whether the director, who is responsible for delivering a film on time and on budget, fulfills his or her contractual obligations. Other crew members and production executives can keep track of production costs and scheduling issues, but only the editor can predict with any certainty if the schedule for editing is accurate, given the amount of work and footage to come. Moreover, the amount of time it takes to edit a motion picture relates, in large part, to the length of the first assembly. The more footage an editor and his or her crew have to begin with, the longer it will take them to assemble it all, and then the longer it will take to pare it all back down to a releasable length.

Film editors are used to thinking in these terms, but it doesn’t always come naturally to writers, although maybe it should—which is one reason why I reread Behind the Seen whenever I start to revise a manuscript. I doubt that many authors think of their rough drafts as first assemblies, but it’s a useful approach. For one thing, it emphasizes the provisional nature of any draft. When you’ve finished your initial pass on an extended writing project, the result is less meaningful in itself than as a source of data about the stage to come. What finished length should you target? How long will it take to get there? These are questions that you should be asking throughout the process, but it isn’t until you have a first assembly that you can get at meaningful answers. (Like Murch, I often find myself uneasily predicting how long the draft will be while I’m still writing, based on how big each section ends up being in relation to the outline, and, like him, I usually find that I’ve underestimated it.) Just as important is the emphasis that it places on reducing the overall length. Writing is cutting, as I’ve said many times before, and thinking of your manuscript as a first assembly reminds you that your primary responsibility is to extract the core of the story out of the deadwood of the draft. As Koppelman vividly puts it:

The orientation over the last six months has been one of accumulation, a building-up of material. Now the engines are suddenly thrown into full reverse. The enterprise will head in the opposite direction, shedding material as expeditiously as possible.

And even if you don’t have a contracted length, it helps to impose one on yourself, simply as a reminder to scrutinize every sentence as critically as possible.

In Murch’s hands, the notion of a first assembly leads to two related concepts that are worth bearing in mind for any kind of narrative work. One is the crush ratio, which refers to the relationship between the footage that comes out of the shoot—which can amount to hundreds of hours—to the length of the first assembly:

[Murch] refers to this volume reduction—compelling the first assembly from all the raw footage—as “the crush ratio,” a term in winemaking that measures the first pressing against the original volume of picked grapes. A second pressing will get the first assembly down to a release print. Much already looks beyond the first crush to the second pressing: getting a five-hour-plus assembly to a releasable length…

From here on out, editing is, for the most part, all about story, structure, character, and length. There were hints, clues, and portents about these big issues as the dailies flew by over the last six months. But now the material has been “crushed” (first assembly), so the process of revision and reordering can begin in earnest. In film editing, however, unlike the winemaker process, none of the raw material is ever really discarded.

In writing, particularly in nonfiction, the equivalent is the proportion between the amount of raw material that you’ve gathered, in the form of primary sources, and the wordage that ends up on the page. A sense of this ratio can be helpful in the dusty middle innings of a project, when you’re trying to figure out how long the work will be, based on the volume of the subject matter. And it can clue you into the organic length that the story wants to take, which you can embrace or resist to various degrees.

Nearly every literary work, like every movie, ought to be as short as you can make it, and Murch’s other major concept has important implications for the second pressing:

Murch also has his eye on what he calls the “thirty percent factor”—a rule of thumb he developed that deals with the relationship between the length of the film and the “core content” of the story. In general, thirty percent of a first assembly can be trimmed away without affecting the essential features of the script: all characters, action, story beats will be preserved and probably, like a good stew, enhanced by the reduction in bulk. But passing beyond the thirty percent barrier can usually be accomplished only by major structural alterations: the reduction or elimination of a character, or whole sequences—removing vital organs rather than trimming fat. “It can be done,” says Murch, “and I have done it on a number of films that turned out well in the end. But it is tricky, and the outcome is not guaranteed—like open-heart surgery. The patient is put at risk, and the further beyond thirty percent you go, the greater the risk.

I’ve used the thirty percent factor as a guide for everything I’ve written, along with the admonition—endorsed by Stephen King and Calvin Trillin—that every rough draft should be cut by ten percent. Ideally, the amount that I cut from first draft to the last will fall somewhere between those two extremes, although I often find myself engaging in the sort of open-heart surgery that Murch describes. The numbers are slightly arbitrary, but not entirely. They match well with my experience of practical revision. And when you’re staring at that first assembly and wondering how you’re ever going to cut it down, you’ll take all the help that you can get.

Written by nevalalee

May 26, 2017 at 9:30 am

“Are you still willing to play your part?”

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"Where were we?"

Note: This post is the forty-fifth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 44. You can read the previous installments here.

When you conceive of a story as a kind of puzzle box, one of the most satisfying tricks you can play is to write a scene that can be read in two different ways. At first, it suggests one obvious interpretation—if you’ve done it right, it shouldn’t even raise any questions—but on a second encounter, it says something else, based solely on the fresh perspective that the reader or audience brings to it. The canonical example here is Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation. It opens with the paranoid sound expert Harry Caul, played by Gene Hackman, eavesdropping on an illicit meeting in the park between a young couple, Mark and Ann, who are having an affair. Harry has been hired to follow them by Ann’s husband, but later, as he cleans up and edits the tape recording, he hears a line spoken by Mark for the first time: “He’d kill us if he had the chance.” Before long, Harry, who obsessively replays that part of the conversation, becomes convinced that his client is planning to have Mark and Ann killed. Of course, that isn’t what happens, and it turns out in the end that Mark and Ann were planning to murder Ann’s husband. Harry’s interpretation of the recording was wrong: it wasn’t “He’d kill us if he had the chance,” but “He’d kill us if he had the chance,” meaning that they have to kill him first. And it’s only when the audience, along with Harry, glimpses the full picture that the line reveals its real meaning at last.

Which is an amazing feat of storytelling—except that it cheats. Walter Murch, who was left to edit the film by himself after Coppola ran off to film The Godfather Part II, was never able to make the audience understand the true meaning of that critical line of dialogue, and he ultimately hit upon a solution that broke the movie’s own rules. During one take, Frederic Forrest, who played Mark, had flubbed his line reading, inadvertently placing the emphasis on the wrong word: “He’d kill us if he had the chance.” As Murch recounts in Charles Koppelman’s Behind the Seen:

I noted that reading at the time…and filed it away as being inappropriate. But a year later during the mixing of the film I suddenly thought, let’s see what happens if we substitute that “inappropriate” reading with its different inflection into the final reel. It might help tip audiences into understanding what had happened: that the “victims” were really the “plotters.” So I mixed it into the soundtrack in place of the original reading and took the finished film to [Coppola]…I prepared him for the change and wondered what his reaction would be when he heard it. It was a risky idea because it challenged one of the fundamental premises of the film, which is that the conversation itself remains the same, but your interpretation of it changes. I was prepared to go back to the original version. But he liked it, and that’s the way it remains in the finished film.

"Are you still willing to play your part?"

And it was the right call, even if it was a bit of a cheat. When we look at the books or movies that execute the priceless gag of having a scene appear to mean one thing but turn out to mean another, some degree of trickery is almost always involved. No film has ever pulled it off as beautifully as The Sixth Sense, with its closing montage of moments that we suddenly see in a new light, but on a second viewing, we’re acutely aware of how the script walks right up to the edge of deceiving us unfairly. (My favorite example is Lynn’s line “You got an hour,” which works when we think she’s talking to Malcolm, but not if she’s just telling her son that she’s making some triangle pancakes.) The Usual Suspects cheats even more blatantly by giving us a fake flashback—a gimmick that can be justified by the presence of an unreliable narrator, but which still feels like a lapse in an otherwise elegant movie. It’s also common for a story to omit necessary information, so that the dialogue, while not actively misleading, only gives us part of the picture. You frequently see this in movies like Ocean’s 11 and its sequels, which involve us in the planning of a heist but withhold a few details so that we don’t know what the protagonists really have in mind. In small does, this can be delightful, but it verges on being a cliché in itself, and when taken too far, it violates the implicit contract between the story and the audience, which is that we’ll be allowed to see what the main character does and draw our own conclusions.

Chapter 44 of Eternal Empire represents my own effort in that line, and I’m reasonably happy with how it turned out. The chapter opens at the tail end of what seems like a routine conversation between Maddy and Tarkovsky, then follows Maddy as she goes down to the yacht’s tender bay to meet Ilya, who is evidently preparing for Tarkovsky’s assassination. That isn’t really the case, of course, and I had a good time drawing on the standard bag of tricks for this sort of misdirection. Maddy acts as if she’s scoping out Tarkovsky’s office for the kill, when in fact she’s there to warn him, and her ensuing conversation with Ilya is filled with lines of the “He’d kill us if he had the chance” variety. (“Are we safe?” “If you’re asking if the pieces are in place, then yes, we’re ready.” “And are you still willing to play your part?” “I don’t think I have a choice.”) Looking at it objectively, I’d say that the result does its job with a minimum of jiggery-pokery, although there’s always a touch of cheating—which some readers will hate no matter what—when you don’t reveal everything that your point of view character might be thinking. Fortunately, my usual narrative mode is fairly clinical and detached: I don’t use interior monologue, and I prefer to convey emotion through action, which dovetails nicely with the requirements of a scene like this. The chapter works because it isn’t so far removed from what I normally do as a writer, which allows the characters to keep their secrets. And I’d do it again if I had the chance…

The thumbnail rule

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Book covers by Chip Kidd

In his charming book Go: A Kidd’s Guide to Graphic Design, the legendary cover designer Chip Kidd writes: “Here is a very cool, simple design trick: If a piece of visual information looks interesting when it is small, then it will look even more so when you make it big.” More recently, in an interview with the Longform podcast, he expanded on the origins of this insight:

Even when I was in school, pre-computer, there’s a reason that thumbnail sketches are called thumbnail sketches—because they are small, and they are distillations, and they are supposed to be a simplification of the idea that you have. So that hasn’t changed. Most graphic designers that I know sketch stuff out small…I’ve been mindful of how this stuff looks like as a postage stamp pretty much from the beginning, and part of that was also because—probably before you were born—there was something called the Book of the Month Club. And the Book of the Month Club used to buy a group ad on the back page of The New York Times Book Review every week, where they showed as many of these goddamned books—all, you know, current bestsellers—at postage stamp or sub-postage stamp size. And so it wasn’t like I was ever told to design with that in mind, but it was always interesting to see how one of my designs would be reconfigured for this ad. And sometimes it would change it and take away some of the detail, or sometimes they would keep it.

As a general design rule—if it looks good small, it’ll look good big—this isn’t so different from the principle of writing music for crappy speakers, as memorably expressed by the record producer Bill Moriarty:

All that low end in the guitar? It’s useless in the small speakers. It’s just taking up frequencies the bass or drums or organs or tenor instruments can occupy. You have to be ruthless in cutting away useless frequencies so the record is loud and jumps out of all speakers. Make the record sound outstanding on little crap speakers since that’s where most people will hear it. I’ve found when I do this it still sounds great on the fancy speakers.

A reduction in scale, in other words, is a kind of editing strategy: by forcing you to remove everything that doesn’t read at a smaller size or at a lower resolution, you’re compelled to simplify and streamline. It also allows you to see patterns, good or bad, that might not be obvious otherwise. This is why I often do what I call a visual edit on my work, reducing each page to a size that is almost too small to read comfortably as I scroll quickly through the manuscript: sections or paragraphs that seem out of tune with the overall rhythms of the story jump out, and I’ll often see things to cut that wouldn’t have struck me if I’d been reading as I normally would.

Ad for the Book of the Month Club

Navigating changes in scale is central to what artists do, particularly in fields in which the intended user could potentially experience the work in any number of ways. It’s why smart theater directors try to watch a play from every section of a theater, and why film editors need to be particularly sensitive to the different formats in which a movie might be viewed. As Charles Koppelman describes the editor Walter Murch’s process in Behind the Seen:

The “little people” are another one of Walter’s handmade edit room tools. These are paper cutouts in the shapes of a man and a woman that he affixes to each side of his large screening monitor. They are his way of dealing with the problem of scale.

As an editor, Murch must remember that images in the edit room are only 1/240 the square footage of what the audience will eventually see on a thirty-foot-wide screen…It’s still easy to forget the size of a projected film, which can trick an editor into pacing a film too quickly, or using too many close-ups—styles more akin to television. The eye rapidly apprehends the relatively small, low-detail images on a TV. Large-scale faces help hold the attention of the audience sitting in a living room with lots of distractions or ambient light. But in movies, images are larger than life and more detailed, so the opposite is true. The eye needs time to peruse the movie screen and take it all in.

And such considerations are far from theoretical. A director like Tom Hooper, for example, who got his start in television, seems to think exclusively in terms of composition for a video monitor, which can make movies like The King’s Speech unnecessarily alienating when seen in theaters. I actually enjoyed his version of Les Misérables, but that’s probably because I saw it at home: on the big screen, all those characters bellowing their songs directly into the camera lens might have been unbearable. (At the opposite end of the spectrum, Quentin Tarantino, a much more thoughtful director, will be releasing two different versions of The Hateful Eight, one optimized for massive screens, the other for multiplexes and home viewing. As Variety writes: “The sequences in question play in ‘big, long, cool, unblinking takes’ in the 70mm version, Tarantino said. ‘It was awesome in the bigness of 70, but sitting on your couch, maybe it’s not so awesome. So I cut it up a little bit. It’s a little less precious about itself.'”) And we’ve all had to endure movies in which the sound seems to have been mixed with total indifference to how it would sound on a home theater system, with all the dialogue drowned out by muddy ambient noise. We can’t always control how viewers or audiences will experience what we do, but we can at least keep the lower end in mind, which has a way of clarifying how the work will play under the best possible circumstances. An artist has to think about scale all the time, and when in doubt, it’s often best to approach the work as if it’s a thumbnail of itself, while still retaining all the information of the whole. At least as a rule of thumb.

Apple and the cult of thinness

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The iPhone 6

Recently, I’ve been in the market for a new computer. After some thought, I’ve settled on an older model of the MacBook Pro, both because of its price and because it’s the last remaining Apple laptop with an optical drive, which I still occasionally use. The experience put me in mind of a cartoon posted yesterday on Reddit, which shows a conversation between an Apple user and a helpful technician: “So what’s this update you’re installing?” “I’m just removing your USB ports.” “Great!” Apple’s obsession with eliminating unsightly ports, as well as any other features that might interfere with a device’s slim profile, has long been derided, and the recent news that the headphone jack might disappear from the next iPhone has struck many users as a bridge too far. Over the last decade or so, Apple has seemed fixated on pursuing thinness and lightness above all else, even though consumers don’t appear to be clamoring for thinner laptops or phones, and devices that are pared down past a certain point suffer in terms of strength and usability. (Apple isn’t alone in this, of course. Last week, I purchased a Sony Blu-ray player to replace the aging hulk I’d been using for the last five years, and although I like the new one, the lack of a built-in display that provides information on what the player is actually doing is a minor but real inconvenience, and it’s so light that I often end up pushing it backward on the television stand when I press the power button. As far as I can tell, there’s no reason why any device that spends its entire life on the same shelf needs to be so small.)

Obviously, I’m not the first person to say this, and in particular, the design gurus Don Norman and Bruce Tognazzini wrote a long, devastating piece for Fast Company last month on Apple’s pursuit of beauty over functionality. But I’d like to venture an alternative explanation for why it has taken this approach. Apple is a huge corporation, and like all large businesses, it needs quantifiable benchmarks to drive innovation. Once any enterprise becomes big enough, qualitative metrics alone don’t cut it: you need something to which you can assign a number. And while you can’t quantify usability, or even beauty, you can quantify thinness and weight. Apple seems to be using the physical size of a device as a proxy for innovative thought about design, which isn’t so different from the strategy that many writers use during the revision process. I’ve written here before about how I sometimes set length limits for stories or individual chapters, and how this kind of writing by numbers forces me to be smarter and more rigorous about my choices. John McPhee says much the same thing in a recent piece in The New Yorker about the exercise of “greening,” as once practiced by Time, which involved cutting an arbitrary number of lines. As Calvin Trillin writes elsewhere: “I was surprised that what I had thought of as a tightly constructed seventy-line story—a story so tightly constructed that it had resisted the inclusion of that maddening leftover fact—was unharmed, or even improved, by greening ten percent of it. The greening I did in Time Edit convinced me that just about any piece I write could be improved if, when it was supposedly ready to hand in, I looked in the mirror and said sternly to myself ‘Green fourteen’ or ‘Green eight.’ And one of these days I’m going to begin doing that.”

The MacBook Air

Apple appears to have come to a similar conclusion about its devices, which is that by greening away weight and thickness, you end up with other desirable qualities. And it works—but only up to a point. As McPhee observes, greening is supposed to be invisible: “The idea is to remove words in such a manner that no one would notice that anything has been removed.” And once you pass beyond a certain limit, you risk omitting essential elements, as expressed in the book Behind the Seen by Charles Koppelman, which describes the process of the legendary film editor Walter Murch:

Murch also has his eye on what he calls the “thirty percent factor”—a rule of thumb he developed that deals with the relationship between the length of the film and the “core content” of the story. In general, thirty percent of a first assembly can be trimmed away without affecting the essential features of the script: all characters, action, story beats will be preserved and probably, like a good stew, enhanced by the reduction in bulk. But passing beyond the thirty percent barrier can usually be accomplished only by major structural alterations: the reduction or elimination of a character, or whole sequences—removing vital organs rather than trimming fat. “It can be done,” says Murch, “and I have done it on a number of films that turned out well in the end. But it is tricky, and the outcome is not guaranteed—like open-heart surgery. The patient is put at risk, and the further beyond thirty percent you go, the greater the risk.

And Apple—which has had a long and productive relationship with Murch, a vocal champion of its Final Cut Pro software—should pay attention. In the past, the emphasis on miniaturization was undoubtedly a force for innovative solutions, but we’ve reached the point where the patient is being endangered by removing features of genuine utility. Murch’s thirty percent factor turns out to describe the situation at Apple eerily well: the earliest models of the MacBook Pro weighed about five and a half pounds, implying that once the weight was reduced below four pounds or so, vital organs would be threatened, which is exactly what happened. (Even more insidiously, the trend has spread into realms where the notion of thinness is entirely abstract, like the fonts that Apple uses for its mobile devices, which, as Norman and Tognazzini point out, are so slender that they’ve become difficult to read.) These changes aren’t driven by consumer demand, but by a corporate culture that has failed to recognize that its old ways of quantifying innovation no longer serve their intended purpose. The means have been confused with the end. Ultimately, I’m still a fan of Apple, and I’m still going to buy that MacBook. I don’t fault it for wanting to qualify its processes: it’s a necessary part of managing creativity on a large scale. But it has to focus on a number other than thickness or weight. What Apple needs is a new internal metric, similarly quantifiable, that reflects something that consumers actually want. There’s one obvious candidate: price. Instead of making everything smaller, Apple could focus on providing the same functionality, beauty, and reliability at lower cost. It would drive innovation just as well as size once did. But given Apple’s history, the chances of that happening seem very slim indeed.

Written by nevalalee

December 1, 2015 at 8:56 am

“He knew at once what was happening…”

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"He knew at once what was happening..."

Note: This post is the thirty-ninth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 38. You can read the earlier installments here

In the workroom of the famed movie editor and sound designer Walter Murch, who remains one of my cultural heroes, there hangs a framed brass “B.” When asked what it means, Murch explains, in the paraphrase offered by Charles Koppelman in Behind the Seen:

Work hard to get the best grade you can—in this world, a B is all that is humanly attainable. One can be happy with that. Getting an A? That depends on good timing and the whims of the gods—it’s beyond your control. If you start to think that the gods are smiling, they will take your revenge. Keep your blade sharp. Make as good a film as you know how.

Ideally, we’d like to get the highest grade for every aspect of our work, but in reality, there will always be compromises. Part of the challenge of being a writer is focusing on what matters and refining those crucial parts until they reach their peak potential. Given constraints of time, energy, or space, this sometimes means that certain other elements will receive less attention. And while you always hope that any shortcuts you’ve taken will go unnoticed by the reader or be rendered invisible by distance, this is’t always true.

One of the hidden pitfalls of appreciating the importance of multiple revisions is the idea, or illusion, that you can fix any problems in the rewrite. Occasionally I’ll get stuck on some small point while writing—usually centering on how to get the characters from where they are now to where they need to be—and insert a makeshift solution for the first draft, trusting that if it doesn’t ring true on rereading, I’ll have plenty of time to come up with something better later. On the whole, it’s a good strategy; the alternative, as I’ve learned from hard experience, is an unfinished story, as you get hung up on solving any minor issues at hand before you go any further. I’ve argued many times that the answer to a seemingly unsolvable problem in Chapter 1 might become obvious by Chapter 20, but only if you’ve written the eighteen chapters in between, and I’ve generally done fairly well by trusting in the taste or ingenuity of the version of myself who will exist six months down the line. But sometimes I’ll go back and read something in print and wish I’d tried a little harder.

"Ilya took a step back..."

If there’s a sequence in City of Exiles that I’ve always thought was a little weak, it’s the section in Chapter 38 in which Ilya is attacked by another inmate at Belmarsh. The scene is there for sound narrative reasons: I’ve spent much of the novel building up the idea that Ilya has been thrown among enemies, and I couldn’t go to the end of the story without following through on those implications. The attack also occurs at the right place in the plot, at a moment when events are accelerating elsewhere and the other players have a strong reason for wanting to take Ilya down. That said, the execution of the moment itself isn’t particularly satisfying. The violence is borderline lurid, and it doesn’t offer much in the way of new ideas. Worst of all, Ilya’s attacker, a sinister inmate nicknamed Goat, is a nonentity. We don’t know much about him aside from a few ominous glimpses, and I didn’t take the time to work out who he was or where he came from. I try to come up with something a least a little distinctive even for minor characters, but I must have been distracted or careless here, so he doesn’t come off as a person so much as a plot point.

As a result, this is one corner of the story that I wouldn’t mind being given the chance to revise, although that ship has long since sailed. In my defense, I can plead all kinds of extenuating circumstances: I had about nine months to take this novel from outline to delivered draft, which remains by far the most compressed timeline I’ve ever had, and I was more concerned with delivering on the big moments. Even if the material here isn’t great, at least it’s over quickly, and it gets us to where we need to be in the next chapter. Of course, a reader isn’t particularly interested in how resourceful the novelist had to be to get a draft delivered on time; it’s only the finished work that counts. And I can’t help feeling that this could have been a big moment if I’d handled the buildup more capably. It’s possible that I’m exaggerating its shortcomings, and in practice, I suspect that most readers move past it without much thought either way. Still, I can’t help but see it as a lapse in what I otherwise think is a pretty good novel. Sometimes you just do what you can, take your B, and move on. And fortunately, it gets a lot better from here…

Written by nevalalee

July 10, 2014 at 9:56 am

Ten ways of looking at cutting

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Akira Kurosawa

I’ve said many times that you should strive to cut the first draft of any story by at least ten percent, but where do you begin? Here are a few thoughts to get you started:

[Kurosawa] is particularly averse to any scene which would tend to explain a past action, to predicate itself in history as it were. Kurosawa’s premises are all in the future and this is what makes them so suspenseful, one is always having to wait and see…Just as he always cuts out business which gets a character from one place to another, which, for merely geographical reasons, has him—say—opening and closing doors; so, Kurosawa is impatient with any shot which lasts too long for no good reason.

Donald Richie, The Films of Akira Kurosawa

Start with activity. Conclude with something strong…Whenever I sense that the pace of a sequence of chapters is dragging, I try an experiment and cut the first and last paragraphs of each chapter.

David Morrell

Write out the scene the way you hear it in your head. Then read it and find the parts where the characters are saying exactly what you want/need them to say for the sake of narrative clarity (e.g., “I’ve secretly loved you all along, but I’ve been too afraid to tell you.”) Cut that part out. See what’s left. You’re probably close.

Andrew Bujalski

On every story I’ve ever done, I’ve hard-edited and cut no less than ten or fifteen percent of the story. So if it’s a hundred-inch story, I always cut out ten or fifteen inches. And that’s before I give it to the editor.

Tom Hallman

David Mamet

Here are the danger signals. Any time two characters are talking about a third, the scene is a crock of shit. Any time any character is saying to another “As you know,” that is, telling another character what you, the writer, need the audience to know, the scene is a crock of shit. Do not write a crock of shit.

David Mamet

Please flip to page 73. If you had to cut this scene, would the entire movie fall apart? No. You’d write around it. So cut it and deal with the absence. Repeat as needed.

John August

Take up the thousand word short story you have written and read down until you come to the first dialogue or objective action…Now, start reading all over again, beginning the story as though that first bit of action or dialogue were the start of the story. Read along for two or three hundred words while the action and dialogue continue, until you come to the point where you have again resorted to expository writing—that is, to telling the reader something, rather than to portraying the material in narrative or dramatic form. At this point, insert all of that material which went before the first action or dialogue. Write an additional sentence or two of transition, in between the dialogue and action section and the expository section. Retype the story, with the middle at the beginning, the beginning at the middle, and the ending where it was in the first place.

Jack Woodford

Umberto Eco

Well, there is a criterion for deciding whether a film is pornographic or not, and it is based on the calculation of wasted time…Pornographic movies are full of people who climb into cars and drive for miles and miles, couples who waste incredible amounts of time signing in at hotel desks, gentlemen who spend many minutes in elevators before reaching their rooms, girls who sip various drinks and who fiddle interminably with laces and blouses before confessing to each other that they prefer Sappho to Don Juan…I repeat. Go into a movie theater. If, to go from A to B, the characters take longer than you would like, then the film you are seeing is pornographic.

Umberto Eco, “How to Recognize a Porn Movie”

In general, thirty percent of a first assembly can be trimmed away without affecting the essential features of the script: all characters, action, story beats will be preserved and probably, like a good stew, enhanced by the reduction in bulk. But passing beyond the thirty percent barrier can usually be accomplished only by major structural alterations: the reduction or elimination of a character, or whole sequences—removing vital organs rather than trimming fat.

Charles Koppelman, Behind the Seen

I want you to go through the whole picture. Select what you consider to be the center of each scene, put the film in the sync machine and wind down a hundred feet (one minute) before and a hundred feet after, and chop it off, regardless of what’s going on. Cut through dialogue, music, anything. Then, when you’re finished, we’ll run the picture and see what we’ve got.

Robert Rossen, director of All the King’s Men

And finally, a reminder from Elie Wiesel: “There is a difference between a book of two hundred pages from the very beginning, and a book of two hundred pages which is the result of an original eight hundred pages. The six hundred pages are there. Only you don’t see them.

Turning it upside down

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Mona Lisa inverted

There’s an old rule among artists that says that if you want to check the proportions of a drawing, it’s easier if you turn it upside down. The human brain is designed to find patterns wherever it looks, which can be a hindrance as well as a help: it tends to focus on points of similarity and silently fill in the rest, which means that a portrait can come off as more accurate than it actually is, at least through the eyes of the artist who made it. Inverting it removes that veneer of familiarity, allowing you to see it clearly. The same applies to copy editors, who will often read a text in reverse, starting with the last sentence and ending with the first. When you’re reading something normally, your mind has a way of filling in the gaps and overlooking small errors; read it backwards, and all the typos suddenly seem to pop. Part of this is simply because reading something the wrong way around forces you to slow down, instead of skimming along as you normally do, but there’s also something more profound at work: by looking at a familiar text or image from a different angle, we can restore it to its original strangeness.

This is particularly useful for writers, who have a habit of revising the same story until they can no longer see the words themselves. Every fluent reader of a language tends to process text in semantic chunks higher than the level of the individual word, much as a chess player sees the board in terms of larger groups of pieces, and a writer reading his own story takes this tendency to the extreme: I’ve often caught myself reading my manuscripts on the level of the paragraph, or even an entire page, glancing quickly at a group of lines to confirm that they’re the same as always before moving on—which isn’t anything like the way a reader will initially encounter it. This kind of behavior is what leads to typos persisting after the fiftieth revision, and, worse, to broader narrative miscalculations: a plot point or emotional thread may seem clear to me, but I have no way of knowing how it reads to someone experiencing it for the first time. The result is like a portrait sketch of a friend that looks good to the artist, but which nobody else can recognize: your own familiarity with the subject blinds you to the ways in which you’ve gone wrong.

The Delphic Sibyl inverted

And while it may not be practical or helpful to read an entire novel backwards, there are intermediate ways to temporarily pull yourself back from the text. When I’m doing a rewrite, for instance, I’ll often read the larger sections of a novel out of order: I’ll start with Part III, say, move on to Part II, and then end on Part I. This is especially useful when I’m doing a detailed polish followed by a quick overall read: the second time around, I can evaluate the rhythms of the novel with something like a fresh eye. Because my published novels all move between the perspectives of three or more primary characters, I’ll also do at least one rewrite where I read through each protagonist’s scenes as a whole, which allows me to test each thread for emotional and narrative soundness while exposing myself to unexpected juxtapositions. And if I were really interested in restoring a text’s original strangeness, I’d read it again after changing it to a radically different font, which does a nice job of alienating you from your own words—but I’ve never been able to follow through on this. Even I have my limits.

Still, it’s important to find ways of making our work strange again. Time alone can do wonders, which is why it’s best to wait a month or so after finishing a rough draft before starting a rewrite, but when you’re on deadline, more mechanical measures can be necessary—and they can sometimes take you by surprise. I never get tired of quoting these lines from Charles Koppelman’s Behind the Seen about the great film editor Walter Murch:

As Murch often points out, the simple act of having to rewind film on a flatbed editing machine gave him the chance to see footage in other context (high-speed, reverse) that could reveal a look, a gesture, or a completely forgotten shot. Likewise, the few moments he had to spend waiting for a reel to rewind injected a blank space into the process during which he could simply let his mind wander into subconscious areas.

These days, we don’t need to manually rewind our film or flip backward through a pile of pages to find the place we need, which makes it all the more important to create those moments for ourselves. And sometimes it requires nothing more than looking at a familiar landscape the wrong way around.

Written by nevalalee

December 11, 2013 at 9:18 am

Scrivener and the perils of efficiency

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Recently, I’ve become intrigued by the possibilities of a little program called Scrivener. It’s a word processer expressly designed for writers, and I’ve been hearing more and more about it on writing forums: it sometimes seems as if every aspiring novelist or screenwriter has a copy, and most of the reviews are raves. Along with such alluring toys as a virtual corkboard, an integrated outlining system, automatic backups, and a character name generator, it offers what looks like a useful way of organizing notes and research. Instead of keeping your materials in a bunch of widely scattered files, as I tend to do, Scrivener allows you to access them more easily by storing them in a virtual, searchable binder. It also lends itself to nonlinear approaches: instead of starting at the beginning and working your way through to the end, you can attack scenes individually and easily move them from place to place. To all appearances, it’s a thoughtful, intelligently conceived piece of software, and at the moment, it’s on sale at Amazon for only $40.

Yet I’m slightly hesitant. This isn’t because I doubt that Scrivener would save me a lot of time: in fact, I’m pretty sure that it would make my process considerably more efficient. At the moment, for instance, I’m working on an idea for a new short story, and I’m finding it challenging to keep all the pieces straight. I have a hardbound notebook in which I record my initial thoughts, which I jot down as they occur to me. Once I have a sense of the plot and subject matter, I’ll start to do some research, both online and in print. Usually this means creating text files where I can type notes as I read, but for a longer article, I’ll often want to mark it up on paper. Yesterday, for example, I copied and pasted a number of useful blog posts into Word, printed it out, and read it with pen in hand—and today I plan to retranscribe most of these notes back into a text file, where they’ll be more readily available. Using a program like Scrivener would save me at least one step, probably two, and allow me to do all of this considerably faster.

Scene cards on the author's desk

But here’s the thing: I need the process to be slightly inefficient, because it’s in those moments of downtime, when I’m transcribing notes or doing basic housekeeping to make sure that everything I need is in one place, that the story starts to come together. The most beautiful description I’ve seen of this phenomenon comes from Charles Koppelman’s Behind the Seen, as he describes the editor Walter Murch at work on an old flatbed editing machine:

The few moments [Murch] had to spend waiting for a reel to rewind injected a blank space into the process during which he could simply let his mind wander into subconscious areas. With random-access, computer-based editing, a mouse click instantly takes the editor right to a desired frame; there is no waiting, no downtime—and fewer happy accidents.

I also suspect that Murch was the “sly and crafty guy”—identified only as “Francis Ford Coppola’s mixer”—quoted in an interview with Michael Hawley, one of the developers of SoundDroid, in Programmers at Work:

Don’t forget that five minutes of rewind time is never dead time. If you are a good mixer you are always planning out the gestures and effects you’re going to be making, you’re mentally going through the process to help put down a coherent five minutes of performance. With your machine, you have lost that thinking time.

In other words, a program like Scrivener bears an analogous relationship to more conventional forms of word processing—including the humble typewriter and pen—as Final Cut Pro does to traditional editing machines. And as useful as the new software can be, there’s always a price. That doesn’t mean that we should avoid all such changes: Murch, after all, eventually switched to computer-based editing, and I have a feeling that I’m going to start using Scrivener more seriously one of these days. But we always need to remain conscious of the potential cost, building elements of silence, consolidation, and randomness into our own routine to preserve what might otherwise be lost. If we don’t, I suspect that we’ll give up more than we gain, and if this turns out to be the cost of working more efficiently, I can only reply, to quote another famous scrivener: “I would prefer not to.”

Written by nevalalee

May 30, 2013 at 8:18 am

Writing is cutting

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Movies are made in the editing room. It’s a cliché, but it’s also true: you can shoot the best raw footage in the world, but if it doesn’t cut together, the movie isn’t going to work. Beyond their basic responsibilities of maintaining continuity and spacial coherence, the editor is largely responsible for shaping a film’s narrative momentum, streamlining and clarifying the story, and making sure it runs the proper length. And sometimes the editor’s role goes even further. As Charles Koppelman writes in Behind the Seen:

[Walter] Murch says it’s common in editing, and normally easy, to steer scenes five or ten degrees in either direction from their intended course. Shading intensity, favoring a character, softening a moment—that’s “the bread and butter of film editing,” as he calls it. “It also seems that flipping the polarity of a scene—going completely the opposite way from where things were originally intended—is something relatively easy to do in film editing.”

And although there are countless famous cases of movies being radically rewritten in the editing room, like Ralph Rosenblum’s brilliant reshaping of Annie Hall, a casual comparison between the published screenplays and the finished versions of most great movies reveals that crucial changes are being made all the time. To pick just one example: the closing montage of words and images at the end of The Usual Suspects, which gives the entire movie much of its power, is totally absent in the script, and a lot of the credit here needs to be given to editor John Ottman. And smaller, less flashy examples are visible everywhere you look.

At first glance, it might seem as if a novelist is in a somewhat different position. A film editor is constrained by the material at hand, and although in certain cases he may have some input when it comes to expensive reshoots, for the most part, he has no choice but to make do with the footage that results from principal photography, which can be massaged and reconceived, but only to some extent, with the help of clever cutting, wild lines, and lucky discoveries in the slate piece. (The slate piece, as I’ve mentioned before, is the second or two of stray film left at the beginning of a take, before the actors have even begun to speak. Mamet likes to talk about finding important bits of footage in this “accidental, extra, hidden piece of information,” and he isn’t lying—the evocative, ominous shots of empty corridors in the hospital scene in The Godfather, for instance, were salvaged from just such a source.) A novelist, by contrast, can always write new material to fill in the gaps or save an otherwise unworkable scene, and it doesn’t cost anything except time and sanity. In reality, however, it isn’t quite that easy. The mental state required for writing a first draft is very different from that of revision, and while writers, in theory, benefit from an unlimited range of possibilities, in practice, they often find themselves spending most of their time trying to rework the material that they already have.

This is why I’ve become increasingly convinced that writing is revision, and in particular, it’s about cutting and restructuring, especially with regard to reducing length. Fortunately, this is one area, and possibly the only area, in which writers have it easier now than ever before. In The Elements of Style, E.B. White writes:

Quite often the writer will discover, on examining the completed work, that there are serious flaws in the arrangement of the material, calling for transpositions. When this is the case, he can save himself much labor and time by using scissors on his manuscript, cutting it to pieces and fitting the pieces together in a better order.

There’s something appealing about the image of a writer literally cutting his work using scissors and tape, and it’s possible that there’s something tactile in the process that would lead to happy accidents—which makes me want to try it sometime. These days, however, it’s so easy to cut and restructure files in Word that it seems insane for a writer not to take full advantage of the opportunity. Like editing a movie in Final Cut Pro, it’s nondestructive: you can try anything out and reverse it with a keyboard shortcut. You can cut as much as you like and restore it with ease, as long as you’ve taken the precaution of saving a new version with every round of revision. And I’ve learned that if it occurs to you that something could be cut, it should be. Nine times out of ten, once that initial change has been made, you won’t even remember what was there before—and if, five or ten rereadings later, you find that you still miss it, it’s a simple matter to restore what used to be there.

And almost invariably, the shorter and more focused the story becomes, the better it gets. Not only is cutting a story as much as possible the best trick I know, in some ways, it’s the only trick I know. When I look back at my own published work, I naturally divide it into several categories, based on how happy I am with the finished result. At the top are the stories—The Icon Thief, “The Boneless One,” and a handful of others—that I don’t think I’d change much at all, followed by a bunch that I’d like to revise, and a couple that I wish hadn’t seen print in their current form. Without exception, my regrets are always the same: I wish I’d cut it further. The conception is sound, the writing is fine, but there are a few scenes that go on too long. And although it’s impossible to know how you’ll feel about one of your stories a year or two down the line, I almost always wish I’d made additional cuts. That’s why, as I begin the final push on Eternal Empire, I’m cutting even more savagely than my critical eye might prefer, trying to think in terms of how I’ll feel ten months from now, when the novel is published. (The divergence between my present and future selves reminds me a little of the gap between Nate Silver’s “now-cast” and his election day forecast, which will finally converge on November 6.) I don’t know what my future self will think of this novel. But I can almost guarantee that he’ll wish that I’d cut a little more.

The limitations of technique

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Recently, as I prepare to make the last round of cuts and revisions to my third novel, I’ve been reading one of my favorite books, Charles Koppelman’s Behind the Seen. The book’s rather cumbersome subtitle is How Walter Murch Edited Cold Mountain Using Apple’s Final Cut Pro and What This Means for Cinema, and while this may not sound like a page-turner to most people, it’s one of the five or six best books on film I know. As I’ve made clear before, Walter Murch—the man whom David Thomson describes as “the scholar, gentleman, and superb craftsman of modern film,” and whom Lawrence Weschler calls, more simply, “the smartest man in America”—is one of my heroes, and for those who are interested in narrative and technical craft of any kind, this book is a treasure trove. Yet here’s the thing: I don’t much care for Cold Mountain itself. I watched it dutifully when I first read the book, and although I’ve since revisited Koppelman’s account of Murch’s editing process countless times, nothing of the actual movie has lingered in my memory. I was startled last night, for instance, to realize that Philip Seymour Hoffman plays an important supporting character: his performance, like the rest of the movie, has simply melted away.

This paradox grows all the stronger when we examine the rest of Murch’s filmography. The English Patient, as I’ve said elsewhere, is an intelligent movie of impressive texture and skill, and Murch deserved the two Oscars he won for it. But as with Cold Mountain, I can barely remember anything about it, with only a handful of images left behind even after two viewings. I couldn’t get more than halfway through Hemingway & Gellhorn, despite being fascinated by Murch’s account of his work on it at last year’s Chicago Humanities Festival. Murch has worked as a sound designer on many great movies, above all Apocalypse Now, but when it comes to his primary work as an editor, his only unqualified masterpiece remains The Conversation. (As strange as it sounds, of all the movies that he’s edited, the one I enjoy the most is probably The Godfather Part III.) I have no doubt that Murch approached all these projects with the same care, diligence, and ingenuity that shines through all of his published work and interviews, but in movie after movie, that last extra piece of inspiration, the one that might have given a film a permanent place in my imagination, just isn’t there.

Part of this may be due to the inherent limitations of an editor’s role, since even the most inventive and resourceful editor is ultimately constrained by the material at hand and the quality of his collaborators. But I prefer to think of it, in a larger sense, as a warning about the limits of technique. Movies, for the most part, are technically wonderful, and they’ve been advancing along all the dimensions of craft—cinematography, sound, art direction—since the invention of the medium. Progress in art is never linear, but with respect to craft, progress is continuous and ongoing, with each generation adding to its predecessor’s bag of tricks, and as a result, movies look and sound better now than they ever have before. Moreover, nearly without exception, professionals in film are good at their jobs. Even the directors we love to hate, like Michael Bay, arrived at their position after a fierce process of natural selection, and in the end, only the most tremendously talented and driven artists survive. (Bay, alas, has one of the greatest eyes in movies.) Not everyone can be as articulate or intelligent as Murch, but for the most part, movies these days, on a technical level, are the product of loving craftsmanship.

So why are most movies so bad? It has nothing to do with technique, and everything to do with the factors that even the greatest craftsmen can’t entirely control. When you look at a student project from any of our major film schools, the technical aspects—the lighting, the camerawork, even the acting—are generally excellent. It’s the stories that aren’t very good. For all the tricks that storytellers have accumulated and shared over a century of making movies, decent scripts are either tantalizingly elusive or destroyed along the way by the hands of studio executives—which is one role in the movie business where talent does not tend to rise to the top. And the proof is everywhere, from John Carter on down. If there’s one movie artist who rivals Murch for his intelligence, good advice, and willingness to discuss aspects of his craft, it’s screenwriter William Goldman, who hasn’t written a movie since Dreamcatcher. Technique only gets you so far; the rest is a mystery. And even Murch understands this. On the wall of his editing studio, we’re told, hangs a brass “B.” Koppelman explains what it means: “Work hard to get the best grade you can—in this world, a B is all that is humanly attainable…Getting an A? That depends on good timing and the whims of the gods.”

Finding analog moments in a digital world

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Authors have a reputation, sometimes richly deserved, of being stodgy and resistant to change, but nearly every writer I know is grateful for modern technology. Writing a novel is simply less of a pain, on a physical level, than ever before. Yet slowness, time, and silence are still crucial components of the creative process, and with the acceleration of all forms of communication, it’s sometimes necessary to deliberately slow things down. I’ve spoken before of my suspicion that it takes about a year of sitting in a chair to produce any novel, no matter how fast your computer lets you type, so you tend to make up the difference with many small revisions, which are less important in themselves than in the time they grant you to mull over the larger work. Similarly, it’s important for most artists to insert pockets of slowness into their daily routine. Today, I want to focus on how this applies to three crucial areas: how we move, how we write, and how we read.

One of the best ways to slow things down is to walk, rather than drive, whenever possible. In Charles Koppelman’s Behind the Seen, Walter Murch notes that during the editing of Cold Mountain, he was grateful for the chance to walk to work every day, which gave him an extra half hour to think. For my own part, after managing to walk or take public transit everywhere for years, my recent move to the suburbs means that I’m now driving on a regular basis, and I can already feel the loss. Driving, especially in the city, just isn’t a good time for contemplation. Taking the train is better, and walking is best of all. I’ve stated elsewhere that I’ve rarely encountered a plot problem that couldn’t be solved by a walk to the grocery store—which isn’t the case when I drive there. And I can’t imagine a writer whose work habits wouldn’t be improved by a short daily walk. (But please leave the headphones at home.)

It’s also useful to honor the simple act of taking pen to paper. Once again, Murch points the way: as an editor, he’s made use of all kinds of technological innovations, but he still begins each project by spending two days preparing handwritten scene cards, cutting the card stock into “odd little shapes” and coding elements of the movie with different colors. It’s a cataloging tool, but there’s also something meditative about doing this work by hand. Similarly, while I sometimes use a text file to organize my initial thoughts about a project, ultimately, I almost always turn to physical cards. And while I don’t think I’ll ever handwrite an entire novel, I find ways of incorporating pen and paper into the process whenever possible—in notebooks, in mind maps, and in the hundreds of small scraps I use to jot down ideas. I could use software for all of this, and some writers do, but it just wouldn’t be the same.

Finally, perhaps the most useful habit of all is to persist in reading real books. It comes down to the issue, which I mentioned yesterday, of technology giving you what you want, but not necessarily what you need. A website or electronic book can take you directly to the right page or allow you to search the text instantly, but it’s often in the act of flipping through a physical book, or wandering through a library, that you find your next big idea. (There’s also something about running a photocopier, I find, that allows interesting thoughts to creep in.) A few weeks ago, on eBay, I bought a trove of back issues of Discover magazine, which I often use for story ideas, despite the fact that all of the articles are available online. Why? Because while the web is great for research, it isn’t the best place for dreaming. And as the pace of digital innovation grows ever more rapid, it’s important to slow things down when possible—because dreaming, in the end, is an analog activity.

Written by nevalalee

November 15, 2011 at 10:29 am

Walter Murch and the analog/digital divide

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Walter Murch is the smartest person in America.

Lawrence Weschler

If anything, this understates the case. Yesterday I attended a talk at the Chicago Humanities Festival given by Murch, the legendary editor and sound designer of such films as The English Patient and Apocalypse Now. Regular readers of this blog know how much Murch means to me: he’s a longtime friend and colleague of such directors as George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, and while he never quite ascended to their levels of wealth and power, he’s their equal, or better, when it comes to intelligence, artistry, and innovation. Murch is a polymath whose work expresses both a universal curiosity and a meticulous level of craft, as amply chronicled in his own book, In the Blink of an Eye, and such fascinating portraits as Michael Ondaatje’s The Conversations and Charles Koppelman’s Behind the Seen. And while he may not be as famous as some of his collaborators, he’s an esteemed figure within the world of film, as demonstrated by the crowd of groupies who pressed in afterward for an autograph. Confession: I was one of them.

In addition to everything else, Murch is a wonderful public speaker, an inexhaustible source of anecdote and insight delivered in perfectly formed paragraphs. (Not least, he’s the first speaker I’ve ever seen who actually knew how to use his own laptop to give a presentation—not surprising, since Murch is one of the great users of Apple products.) Inevitably, our hour with Murch flew by much too quickly; his interlocutor, critic Lawrence Weschler, spoke of another incident in which a presenter was booed for ushering Murch off the stage after he’d held the audience enthralled for six hours. But the conversation we did get ranged from discussions of Chinese calligraphy to the recent financial crisis, and from THX-1138 to The Conversation to The Clone Wars, an episode of which Murch recently directed. I wish I could quote it all here. Instead, I’ll just touch on a subject central to the talk: the transition from analog to digital.

For most of the history of cinema, editing film was both intellectually difficult and physically taxing. The sheer bulk of the materials involved was daunting enough: Murch points out that for combined sound and picture in 35 mm, one minute of film equals a pound of celluloid. For a movie like Apocalypse Now, this comes out to something like seven tons of raw footage. And when an editor working on film is seeking a particular frame, weighing only a few thousands of an ounce, he needs to keep good records—and, Murch adds, to have “a strong back and arms.” Today, of course, the situation has changed dramatically: with an editing platform like Final Cut Pro, which Murch famously used to edit Cold Mountain, instead digging through a bin for the right piece of film, you can call up the necessary frame at once. This makes the process much more efficient, but it also leads to certain losses. Here’s Charles Koppelman in Behind the Seen:

As Murch often points out, the simple act of having to rewind film on a flatbed editing machine gave him the chance to see footage in other context (high-speed, reverse) that could reveal a look, a gesture, or a completely forgotten shot. Likewise, the few moments he had to spend waiting for a reel to rewind injected a blank space into the process during which he could simply let his mind wander into subconscious areas. With random-access, computer-based editing, a mouse click instantly takes the editor right to a desired frame; there is no waiting, no downtime—and fewer happy accidents.

I’ve spoken before about the paradoxes involved in increased efficiency, and how to compensate for it, in my post on Blinn’s Law. And one of the most fascinating aspects of Murch’s work is his effort to deliberately introduce randomness and chance into the creative process. One of my few regrets about yesterday’s talk was that he was unable to discuss this in detail, since it’s one the most valuable lessons he has to share. Murch sometimes reminds me of Steve Jobs, with whom he corresponded at times, both in his fondness for black turtlenecks and in his efforts to bridge the worlds of the humanities and the sciences—and, even more crucially, the worlds of analog and digital creativity. As we pass ever further into the random-access age, it’s all the more important to listen to Murch, who tirelessly explores the future even as he unsentimentally points out the usefulness of the past. A computer, he notes, always gives you what you want; an older system, with its inherent unpredictability, often gives you what you need. Tomorrow, I’ll be talking more about how artists of all kinds can deal with this dilemma.

Playing solitaire with ideas

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Yesterday, I spoke briefly about how Walter Murch, editor of Cold Mountain and longtime collaborator with Francis Ford Coppola, had to cope with the loss of providential randomness that occurred when he switched from old-fashioned editing machines to nonlinear systems like Final Cut Pro. Over time, Murch has developed a number of ways of dealing with the situation, including detailed script notes, picture boards, and handwritten scene cards. And in an elegant instance of convergent evolution, Murch’s tools of the trade, as an editor, are not so different from the tricks that most novelists utilize for similar reasons.

In Behind the Seen, Charles Koppelman gives as beautiful a description of the reasoning behind such tools as any I’ve ever encountered:

The scene cards, picture boards, and script notes are simple and uncomplicated. But they aren’t just different methods of cataloging. Like composer and printmaker John Cage’s throwing the I Ching to determine creative choices, these tools allow Murch to incorporate randomness into the edit process. If a scene isn’t working for some reason that isn’t readily apparent, a sideways glance at the picture boards might reveal a hiccup in the pattern of images that wasn’t obvious before. Let’s reshuffle the scene cards and see what color pattern emerges…But it requires forethought and effort to plan for the unplanned, to invite the unexpected, and to prepare these alternate tools for working on a film. [Italics mine.]

This last point is essential. It can take many hours, and a lot of planning, to be sufficiently random. Murch could prepare scene cards much more quickly on a computer program, but he prefers to do them by hand: “There is something appealing about the visual handcraftedness,” he says. “The personality of handwriting is more engaging to the eye, especially if I’m going to stare at them for a year and a half.” (Which is one reason why, as Jon Vagg recently pointed out in the comments, my own mind maps tend to look so weirdly calligraphic, until they almost become aesthetic objects in their own right.)

Scene cards, too, can be a useful tool for a novelist. Once I’ve generated ideas through a mind map or other method, the individual nuggets—which can be lines of dialogue, plot points, or fragments of action or description—usually end up on cards. (I used to use index cards, but I’ve since found old business cards, obtained from local merchants or friends changing jobs, to be a more convenient size.) Then, once I have enough cards, I play solitaire: the cards go on my desk, or on the floor, and I rearrange them until the outline of each section begins to take shape. And I’m not the only writer who does this. Nabokov, famously, wrote entire novels on index cards, and here’s Joseph Heller talking to The Paris Review:

I keep a small sheath of three-by-five cards in my billfold. If I think of a good sentence, I’ll write it down. It won’t be an idea (“have him visit a brothel in New Orleans”). What I put down is an actual line of intended text (“In the brothel in New Orleans was like the time in San Francisco”). Of course, when I come back to it, the line may change considerably. Occasionally there’s one that sings so perfectly the first time that it stays, like “My boy has stopped speaking to me and I don’t think I can bear it.” I wrote that down on a three-by-five card, perhaps on a bus, or after walking the dog. I store them in filing cabinets. The file on Something Happened is about four inches deep, the one on Catch-22 about the length of a shoe box.

In the end, the cards for Kamera, as pictured above, took up a couple of long boxes. For my most recent stories, like “Kawataro”—which I’ve just learned will be appearing in Analog in June 2011—I’ve been doing much of this organizational work on the computer, but for my next novel, I’m planning to return to the card system. It’s slower and more cumbersome, but as I’ve said before, writing things out by hand can generate ideas by itself. And, as Murch observes, handwritten cards are much easier to live with, especially if you’re going to be staring at them for a year of your life.

Technology and its discontents

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Tron: Legacy, which is the worst movie I’ve seen all year, is the most compelling proof I’ve found in a while that Hollywood needs to take a step back from technology. Granted, Tron has all kinds of other issues—it’s a classic example of why a director who makes great television commercials might not yet be ready for a feature film—but its fatal flaw is one of technological overload. In the old days, special effects were about solving problems; today, at least for most films, it’s a question of rendering time. And I can’t help wondering if the makers of Tron, faced with greater limitations, might have noticed that their movie lacked a coherent story, interesting characters, or even a sense of the rules of its own imaginary world.

Which isn’t to say that technology is always bad. Like many writers, I have mixed feelings about the technological resources at my disposal, but I’m generally thankful for the ease and convenience they afford. Google is an amazing tool, and while it isn’t a replacement for more traditional methods of research, it certainly allowed me to write a complicated novel in half the time that it might have taken even ten years ago. And when I look at the handwritten drafts of, say, Charles Dickens, it leaves me deeply grateful that I can type my manuscripts in Microsoft Word:

But as with most things in life, there are tradeoffs. I’ve spoken before about how the ease of typing in Word has deprived me of some of the creative moments that occasionally arise when writing by hand. John Gardner’s typo of “murder” for “mirror” obviously has much greater impact on a typewriter, when it stares you in the face until laboriously corrected, than on Word, where it can be deleted and retyped at once. And it’s even possible that Rossini would never have composed his Prayer of Moses in its current form if he had been using blotting paper instead of sand.

Walter Murch, the legendary film editor I’ve mentioned before, experienced a similar loss of providential randomness when he switched from old-fashioned editing machines to nonlinear systems like Apple’s Final Cut Pro. Charles Koppleman describes the issue eloquently in his wonderful book Behind the Seen:

The efficiency, speed, and increased choices of non-linear editing all have their benefits. But systems like Avid or Final Cut Pro obliterate some film editing tasks that contribute to the editor’s creative process. As Murch often points out, the simple act of having to rewind film on a flatbed editing machine gave him a chance to see footage in another context (high-speed, reverse) that could reveal a look, a gesture, or a completely forgotten shot. Likewise, the few moments he had to spend waiting for a reel to rewind injected a blank space into the process during which he could simply let his mind wander into subconscious areas. With random-access, computer-based editing, a mouse click instantly takes the editor right to a desired frame; there is no waiting, no downtime—and fewer happy accidents.

Murch, like most artists, has developed ways of injecting “happy accidents” into a creative process that might otherwise seem too efficient. Tomorrow, I’ll be discussing some of the methods that Murch has used, as well as a few more tricks that work for me.

Written by nevalalee

December 18, 2010 at 1:04 pm

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