How to Edit Better Videos Series – Part 2. 7 Rules of Video Editing and How to Break Them Featuring Walter Murch’s ‘Rule of Six’. Editing Tips for Making Better Video Content by using the key rules of the video editing process.

How to Edit Better Videos – Part 2

7 Rules of Video Editing and How to Break Them
Featuring Walter Murch’s ‘Rule of Six’

When I started to think about this blog and how I would approach it, I did a quick surf (as I often do at the start of an article or edit), to see how others had approached the subject. The first thing that became clear is that there is no end of people happy to plagiarize the work of others. The second was that most of them had chosen to plagiarize Walter Murch.

Walter Murch is a sound designer and film editor who has worked on many famous films including The Godfather II and III, Apocalypse Now, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Ghost, The English Patient and The Conversation. The interesting part about most sites which referenced Murch’s ‘Rule of Six’, is that most don’t seem to realise that he is primarily known as a sound designer. Although he is also an excellent film editor, I’m not sure that he was on Apocalypse Now, although he certainly did the audio design for the film.

(2016 update: since writing this blog way back in 2015, I’ve found out that Walter did indeed work as a film editor on Apocalypse Now, as well as on the sound design. Talented guy!)

Who is Walter Murch? He is a sound designer and editor who has worked on many famous films, including The English Patient and Apocalypse Now

Instead of claiming Walter Murch’s ‘Rule of Six’ as if I’d written them, I’ll refer you instead to an excellent video where he tells you about it himself. You can also read more about Walter’s rules in this article in Video and Filmmaker.

So What Makes Great Editing?

I’m not surprised so many people have lifted Murch’s rules, they are such a cool, succinct and descriptive summary of what makes great editing, which is why I am quoting them here. While not in any way pretending to own them, here’s my own interpretation of what his rules mean:

    • 1 Emotion

      What the film makes you FEEL is the most important thing of all. This applies to ALL types of footage, not just movies. All film and video tells a story, even if that story is as simple as ‘our product is the best’, and to engage an audience means engaging their emotions. Without that, they simply won’t care enough to watch the movie, buy your product, or sit through your holiday video.

    • 2 Story

      How does the editing improve the story or make it move forward? The editing process is all about telling the story, or making it clearer. Edits are not placed just to link clips together, each one should be thought out, and placed where it will work the best. This is one of the great things about non-linear editing – you can take the next clip from anywhere, try it out, and move it if it isn’t enhancing the story. This principle even applies to things like using transitions – before you reach for that fancy transition, think about WHY you are placing it there.

    • 3 Rhythm

      Murch is not talking about music here, he means the rhythm of the film. This is harder to explain and, I think, is the real skill of the editor. I’m sure how you teach this one, or even if it can be learned if you don’t have a feel for it, (kind of the film equivalent of being tone-deaf) but just like playing music, you can certainly improve your editing rhythm with time and practice, and by asking others to review your film efforts.

      Ask for feedback, ask for honesty, and brace yourself – you may just get it! It is difficult to work out the best place for a cut, but viewing someone else’s edit and picking it apart is almost instinctual. Never be upset if someone doesn’t like your cut, you can always do an ‘editors cut’, and it’s only their opinion – you don’t have to agree, and you only have to follow it if they’re paying you!

    • 4 Eye Trace

      This is about focus on screen (where the audience is looking) and trying to flow with it (unless you’re after a jarring effect on purpose). See the Video and Filmmaker article for a nice diagram of this, showing the screen cut into four quarters – ideally you try to keep the movement between cuts consistent, by keeping it focussed on the quarter where your audiences’ eyes have focussed at the end of one edit, to start the next cut.

    • 5 Two Dimensional Place of Screen

      Following the Axis, also called the 180° rule, seems to confuse a lot of people. Think of it this way; imagine that you’re filming a stage play from the front where the audience is. Crossing the ‘line’ would be the equivalent of going to the back of the stage behind the actors and filming from there back towards the audience. Mixing these two angles would be confusing to the viewer and make it hard to understand the flow of motion, for example someone moves to the right from the front, but when you cut to the view from back-of-stage, they appear to have moved to the left.

      Murch’s example, where you want two people to appear to be looking at each other, is also covered by this rule (and is surprisingly hard to achieve!).

    • 6 Three Dimensional Space

      Similar to rule 5, except that you are now trying to ensure that the relationships in space within the frame make sense and stick to the same flow of motion and spacial relationships. As an example, maybe the space had a large table in the centre of it. If you then showed the camera motion flowing across/over/through the space where the table was, it might not make sense. If you showed characters moving around the room in a circle, this might make sense as you know from the previous shot that the table is there. This rule is also about making sure that people within the scene move in a way that makes sense in relation to the space, and to one another.

      Now, here’s a well-known example of how you can break these last two, the dodge sequence from the Matrix:

      Actually, the only part of this which ‘breaks the rules’ is the 360 around Neo, though this was quite a radical departure from convention when it was done. But notice that the exchange between the Agent and Neo is done along a central line of sight between the two – this makes the 360 move ultimately more understandable spatially. If they’d taken this eyeline shot from either the left or right of the two actors, the 360 would have seemed more confusing and jarring. Also note how the rest of the scene pretty much sticks to the 180 rule – the shots are all from ‘stage right’ of the actors, and none from stage left.

      I can see why so many people liked Walter’s six rules. They are a great description of editing must-haves, and perhaps because I’m also both a visual and a sound editor, I think he’s summed it up rather nicely. I also happen to agree with him that the first three are the MOST important, and that the others can be sacrificed in order of priority, to retain these first three key elements.

      I’d like to add one last rule of my own:

    • 7 Breathing Space

      Before and after each edit point, its ideal to have a bit of ‘breathing space’ in the footage. This space makes your edit flow much better, allowing the viewer a little time to ‘digest’ what they’ve seen before you move on.

      The single biggest issue I see in the footage I edit is failure to leave breathing space either before the action (for instance, the action starts immediately after the director says ‘action’ so I have to edit out the director’s voice), or at the end of the section (the camera cuts immediately after the action, or the person filming taps the GoPro camera, or the actor relaxes their face and comes out of character, or the interviewer or subject makes a comment, or any manner of other things).

      So if you are filming, before you shoot a sequence, pause. After you finish shooting a sequence, pause again. There is a reason why in old movies or modern series about film or TV making in the 50‘s and before, you will see the film makers count down from five ‘five, four, three’ and when they reach the number three, silent count 2-1 with their fingers. It was to leave this ‘breathing space’ in each shot for the editor to use, and it is no less necessary now than it was in the days of film-cutting.

That’s it for this blog, in the next blog, I will talk about practical ways you can put these rules to use in your own footage.

For those of you interested in finding out more about Murch, here’s a great presentation, it’s quite long but he’s an interesting guy and it’s well worth watching. There is a clip from ‘Unbearable Lightness of Being’, an awesome movie which clearly shows what Murch means by focusing on emotion, and it also gives an excellent example of a jump cut. Watch it from around 26:10, to 26:33 where the jump cut comes in – you can’t miss it.

I’ll talk more about types of cut later, but you’ll see clearly in this footage, jump cuts are not the same as straight cuts, which are used through almost the entire sequence.

Until next time, happy movie making!

Thalia Kemp is the sound and video editor at Sonic Eye video in Sydney, Australia.

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