NATE’S RANTS: MTV style editing

Some of you may be familiar with the term “MTV style editing.” This phrase refers to sequencing shots with really short durations (always less than 3 seconds and usually less than 2 seconds). The purpose behind this technique is to have a stronger grip on a viewer’s attention. When a new shot appears every 2 seconds, your brain is often more stimulated than if a new shot appeared after 10 minutes (watch a few Tarkovsky movies). Even if the 2 second shot is lit horribly and the ten minute shot looks beautiful, the 2 second shot will still be more stimulating (maybe not more beautiful or meaningful, but almost certainly more stimulating). Some might conclude that if a shorter shot duration is a more effective way of grasping the viewer’s attention, then it’s a superior editing technique. Here is something to consider.

I will agree that a short shot duration is not intrinsically inferior. Many of Sergei Eisenstein’s films have scenes with short shot durations. The problem with the MTV style of editing is a lack of judiciousness with short shot durations. EVERY event in MTV is covered with short shot durations. I’m pretty sure that’s not an artistic constraint MTV has self inflicted to liberate their creativity. It’s not a phase in MTVs artistic journey. An editor having a short-shot duration axiom is kind of like a painter having a “blue paint axiom,” or a photographer having a 1.8 fstop axiom. Even Picasso’s blue period wasn’t entirely blue. Sometimes a photograph needs a different fstop. And sometimes a shot needs a different duration.

Let me give you an example which exposes the real problems. We’re editing an MTV reality show. There’s a wide shot of a living room which has 5 people, a television, 4 pictures on the wall, a cool coffee table shipped from Japan and lots of other crap. Then there is a close-up of a girl’s bra. Which shot has more information in it? The wide shot! More information requires a longer amount of time for your brain to process. The wide shot needs more time, not only to see the objects but to see the relationship of the objects. Yet MTV will treat both of these shots the same and they will both be 2 seconds long. Often the sequencing is confusing and you can’t even really see what’s happening. That’s why the editing in a Michael Bay film often sucks.

If you can’t see what’s going on, how do they maintain your attention? They remedy this problem by telling all the information on an audio track. The visuals function purely as a flashing function to captivate your attention. So you’re essentially watching a book on tape (what’s worse, it’s a Jersey Shore book on tape, you can’t even see the polyester). It’s an insidious trick compensating for a lack of content. Imagine that I had a bag and I said I was going to show you the objects one by one. The first thing I pull out is a piece of dog shit. But I only show it to you for 2 seconds and then I reach in the bag again to show you another piece of dog shit. 2 seconds later I pull out another piece of dog shit. With the right sense of timing I could captivate your attention for a minute or maybe even longer. Every time you would wonder “What is he going to pull out?” And before you have time to be disappointed, I’m already getting ready to pull out the next thing. If I just tried to show you a piece of dog shit for a minute straight, you would be bored after ten seconds. But even though the first version of the show was engaging, you’re still looking at the same dog shit.

So just because a sequence is engaging, doesn’t mean it’s good. Conversely, some of the most boring films in the world are masterpieces

Here’s a short list:

Silent Light, Chloe in the Afternoon, L’Aventurra, The Deer Hunter, In the Mood for Love, Stranger Than Paradise, Paris Texas

Do yourself a favor and watch a boring movie.


By the way, I don’t include “The Evangelist” as a boring masterpiece! Seriously, it’s pretty fast paced (but still coherent).


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