In the Blink of an Eye

by Walter Murch

In the Blink of an Eye (Amazon)

In a nutshell

This book is based on a lecture given by Academy Award winning film editor and sound designer, Walter Murch, examining the processes that he employs when editing films.


 Inspiration  n/a

Key quotes

“Editing is structure, color, dynamics, manipulation of time”

“Always try to do the most with the least … Because you want to do only what is necessary to engage the imagination of the audience – suggestion is always more effective than exposition.”

“If they [the audience] are feeling what you want them to feel all the way through the film, you’ve done about as much as you can ever do.”

My thoughts

As an animator, you play an integral part in bringing a story to life, so it helps to have some knowledge of the language of film and this book has been recommended on several different “further reading” lists for animators, so that’s why I am reviewing it.  Although I love watching films, I know very little about the filmmaking process itself, so I found it fascinating to gain some insight into how an editor works.

This book is short and easy to read, so it makes a great introduction to the editing process.  It really got me thinking about film in a new way.  Murch makes the point that for millions of years humans experienced life as a continuous stream of linked images.  Then suddenly at the start of the 20th century we were confronted by edited film – an “instantaneous discontinuity of the field of vision”.  Why were we able to accept this?  There is every reason to suppose that we would find the sudden cuts jarring and disorientating but we didn’t.  Murch believes that the explanation for this may lie partly in blinking.  Whenever we make a large shift in the direction we are looking in, we blink.  This breaks up the otherwise continuous stream of images that make up our vision (similar to a cut).  Murch then goes on to examine in detail the reasons why we blink (emotional as well as biological) which is also very helpful from an acting and animating point of view, and how an editor can use blinks to determine where and when they make cuts.

Although this book is chiefly about editing and filmmaking, which is useful for the cinematography side of animation, there are all kinds of insights that I think are also applicable directly to the creative process of animation itself.  For example, in the chapter “Seeing Around the Edge of the Frame” the author stresses the importance of the editor’s impartiality.  They will most likely be ignorant of what happened around the shooting of a particular scene.  Whether it cost a lot of money, or effort to shoot, or if there was a nasty argument before the scene was shot.  Unlike the director who is personally involved in its creation, an editor judges a scene solely on merit – they see it from the audience’s perspective and are responsible for creating the best film they can with the shots available to them, regardless of what went into making them.  This reminded me a lot of how we as animators can get too personally involved in our shots.  We often find it hard to accurately judge the outcome of a finished shot because we were so personally invested in its creation.  Sometimes we put so much hard work into a shot that we can’t bear the idea of it being cut – either from a production, or our own demo reel – despite it maybe not being up to scratch.  Or we had such major issues that when we watch it, all we can see are the problems which then blind us from seeing the merits of a good shot and we just want to bin it and never look at it again.  So this chapter reminded me of the importance of animators getting a trusted second opinion from someone who wasn’t involved in the process, and how we must leave behind our personal experience as much as possible when assessing the finished product.

The chapter on the “Rule of Six” is also helpful from an animation perspective if you have a sequence of shots and are concerned about continuity.  In animation, unlike live action, you can animate some shots, knowing that when you come back to it a day later, or even a year later, everything – the props, the “actors”, the lights, and the cameras will be exactly where you left them.  And you can cut on one frame, and continue with the action on exactly the next frame in the next cut.  So when I first started animating shots in a sequence, I didn’t realise that often it will be necessary to “cheat” things by moving things around a bit, or that often you’ll need to cut ahead slightly in the action to keep things feeling dynamic and not stagnant.  But making these decisions about where to cut, and what to show, can be difficult, so I found this “Rule of Six” that gives you a list of priorities to guide you, interesting and helpful.

There are some parts of this book that aren’t relevant to animators at all.  Large parts of it are dedicated to the more technical side of editing, and most of the second half of the book looks at the progress in technology, and digital versus film.  However, I think nearly all animators are also film fans, so may still be interested in the technical aspects.  If these elements don’t hold any interest for you though, these passages are easy enough to skip over.  Also, this book is very specifically about editing – not so much cinematography as a whole, so if you’re after a broader overview of filmmaking, then this isn’t the book for you.  The author also makes the point that this is more a collection of his thoughts on the way he personally edits, rather than a technical how to, but there are still lots of great tips on just the general creative process, as well as the technicalities of editing.

Not essential reading, but an entertaining look behind the scenes of film editing, with some helpful insights animators can take away.


Foreword by Francis Coppola

1 Cuts and Shadow Cuts

2 Why Do Cuts Work?

3 “Cut Out the Bad Bits”

4 Most with the Least

5 The Rule of Six

6 Misdirection

7 Seeing Around the Edge of the Frame

8 Dreaming in Pairs

9 Team Work: Multiple Editors

10 The Decisive Moment

11 Methods and Machines: Marble and Clay

12 Test Screenings: Referred Pain

13 Don’t Worry, It’s Only a Movie

14 Dragnet

15 A Galaxy of Winking Dots

Afterword: Digital Film Editing: Past, Present, and Imagined Future

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