Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Cold Mountain

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 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 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

Cutting the Dragon

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The editing room of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Last week, I picked up a copy of the Blu-ray of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, which is only the second or third movie I’ve bought for myself all year. Readers with long memories might be slightly surprised by this, since I’ve gone on the record as saying that I’m not a fan of the original book and only guardedly positive on the adaption. My initial thoughts on it remain more or less the same: “As the credits roll, we know we’ve been treated to a slick, professional studio product, with isolated flashes of beauty and cruelty, but we aren’t sure why. And I don’t think Fincher knows, either.” Yet I’ve thought about the movie repeatedly over the last two years, thanks partly to my fascination with David Fincher himself and partly to David Thomson’s enthusiastic reappraisal. More to the point, I also had a feeling that the special features on the video release would be spectacular: Fincher is a director whose process is always interesting, regardless of the outcome, and I’m at a point in my life—when it can be hard to find time to sit down for two hours with a movie I’ve seen before—when I’m just as likely to buy a movie based on its production featurettes. (Among other things, this explains why I own a copy of The Lovely Bones.)

And I was right. Dragon Tattoo makes for an intriguing case study, since it represents a first-class director and creative team doing their best to wrestle with some inherently intractable material. The novel provides a superficially complicated narrative with a lot of suspects, not much action, and two leads who never meet until the halfway point, so nearly every scene consists of a solution to problems that the audience, ideally, will never notice. Editor Angus Wall notes that the final cut of The Social Network was essentially the same as the screenplay, minus a few words, while Dragon Tattoo had to be largely reinvented in the editing room. And the featurette “In the Cutting Room,” which follows Wall and Kirk Baxter—who won their second consecutive Oscar for their work here—as they try to figure out a shape for the story they’ve been given, is worth spending ten dollars on the disc set alone. It’s full of the little aperçus of wisdom that all great film editors seem to have at their fingertips, like the fact that they’ve learned to go faster, not slower, if the audience seems confused. And as is often the case, a movie that presents issues that might never be solved to anyone’s satisfaction ends up being more instructive than a tidier project: it’s no accident that the best book ever written on film editing is about Walter Murch and Cold Mountain.

Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

What struck me the most about seeing Wall and Baxter at work is how technology has both increased their range of options and guaranteed that their contributions will remain all the more invisible. Numerous scenes in Dragon Tattoo made use of split screens to combine an actor’s performance in one take with that of a second actor in another, a kind of magic that only works, by definition, when it goes unseen, even if it has the potential to shape the audience’s experience more profoundly than any number of flashier techniques. The large frame granted by the RED digital camera—which provides a margin of unused image on all sides—allowed Fincher and his editors to quietly crop, stabilize, and recenter shots, change the timing of pans and tilts, and even create movement out of nothing in the editing room. It all represents a set of tools, when combined with reshoots and additional dialogue recording, that bring the process of editing a movie ever closer to that of revising a novel, in which the author isn’t strictly limited by the footage that already exists. Traditional film editing is a kind of amalgam between subtractive sculpture, collage, and musical composition; now it feels more like an extension of the act of directing or screenwriting itself.

And this fascinates me, because I’ve always thought of film editing as possibly the closest parallel in all the arts to what a writer does for a living, or at least the richest source of potential metaphors and analogies. Writers soon discover that their artistic freedom, if not exactly an illusion, has to be carefully qualified: you spend about half of every project inventing new material and the other half living with what you’ve already made, and while each day theoretically represents a fresh start, in practice, life is short enough that you find yourself making do with what you have. The editor, in his quiet room far from the chaos of the set, represents the purest expression I know of that confrontation between the possible and the actual. (David Mamet speaks in On Directing Film of the collaboration between the Apollonian side of the writer that plans the structure and the Dionysian side that writes the dialogue, and it’s possible that I’m drawn to the figure of the editor as the detached Apollonian craftsman versus the Dionysian confusion of moviemaking itself.) It’s in the nature of art to blur such boundaries, and ingenious, obsessive directors like Fincher will always seek ways of pushing the region in which meaningful choices can be made as far into the process as possible. And despite—or because of—the fact that writers can take these possibilities for granted, we can learn a lot from the fields in which they’re being realized for the first time, as if the history of storytelling were being played out again before our very eyes.

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.”

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.

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