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Walter Murch and "The Rule of Six"

Written for Aotg.com by Parker Mott
Parker's Site: www.thefinaltake.com
Twitter: @parkermott

When it comes to leading educators in the field, the name “Walter Murch” ought to resonate with editors the way Robert McKee would with screenwriters or Constantin Stanislavski with method actors. The Academy Award-winning Murch (editor of The English Patient, Jarhead, and also the coeditor of many of Francis Ford Coppola’s pictures) is perhaps most eminently regarded for his 1995 book, “In the Blink of an Eye”, where he ascribed the essential role of editorial in film and television to “partly anticipate, partly to control the thought process of the audience.” (Murch 69)

“In the Blink of an Eye” is basically a manifesto for editors that has been translated into many languages including Chinese, Italian, Hebrew, Spanish, French, German, and Hungarian. Murch approaches editing by looking beyond basic human instinct; he, quite seamlessly, integrates technology and neurology into his thesis. You could say the book is interested in where this art borders on a kind of science: a medium that is measurable and testable, with unlimited room for expansion insofar as it obeys certain well-established laws.

While experimentation is encouraged and in fact, necessary – there are rules that an artisan must consider when in the cutting room. Murch breaks these “rules” down into SIX CATEGORIES, assigning each individual one with a percentage of value proportionate to the whole. The six rules a) enumerate the specific ways a CUT is motivated and b) quantify what makes a good cut.

What is laudable about these rules is their lack of didacticism. They don’t have the dusty air of a FILM 101 lecture, where students (in this case, readers) are bound to a rigorous rubric. Instead, Murch’s rules are terse, leaving plenty of room for experimentation. His rules should be seen as guidelines. After all, Murch admits that The Rule of Six is ultimately a personal choice: “An ideal cut (for me) [sic] is the one that satisfies the following six criteria at once.” (18) And that criteria is...

RULE NUMBER ONE: Emotion (51%)

Murch asks: how do you want the audience to feel?

Murch views Emotion as an invaluable resource. Without it, your movie is in trouble. If your work has a through line of emotion that is true to what you intended your audience to feel, then “you have done about as much as you can ever do.” (18) The key point here: the audience should always be first in an editor’s mind.

Murch is after a sort of expressionism when he explains that an emotional cut should take precedence over a cut that’s only meant to preserve the continuity of the narrative. Criterion Collection released a helpful video called “Emotional Editing”, wherein Danish writer-director Lars von Trier discusses his non-classical editing style in Breaking the Waves. Watch it here:

RULE NUMBER TWO: Story (23%)

Murch asks: does the edit move the story forward in a meaningful way?

This is essential. A story must be dynamic. There must be motion behind it; an underlying force hurdling the events forward. If the cut does not advance the narrative or make the audience feel they just put one foot forward, then that’s trouble. Emotion and Story, Murch submits, are the most important. He leaves what tangibly moves a story forward up to the editor. All he asks is the editor’s decision be “interesting” and “unique”. (19)


Murch asks: is the cut at a point that makes rhythmic sense?

One can assume that the reason why the last four rules are of less priority is not because they aren’t important, but because they are implicitly (but nonetheless vitally) linked to Emotion and Story. Murch likens them to “the bonds between the protons and neutrons in the nucleus of the atom.” (20) He states that an editor should use an emotional cut if it serves the story AND the rhythm. If the rhythm is there, the audience will become unaware (or unconcerned) of lapses in continuity or the 180-degree rule.

For those interested in learning more about Rhythms, watch Dr. Karen Pearlman discuss Rhythms from her book Cutting Rhythms: Shaping the Film Edit. You can also watch Dr. Pearlman in other videos on Timing and Non Visible Rhythms here.

RULE NUMBER FOUR: Eye Trace (7%)

Murch asks: how does the cut affect the location and movement of the audience's focus in the frame?

A cut must not disorient the viewer, to the extent that their eyes cannot comprehend the action. Action movies tend to be the main offenders of this rule, mainly because they must account for so much hyper-kinetic movement to keep up with the pace of the events. Writers will often resort to a cliché like “MTV Style” editing to describe a movie, TV show, or music video that fails to maintain this fourth rule. If an editor employs Eye Trace, this will likely minimize issues with the last two rules, which are...

RULE NUMBER FIVE: Two Dimensional Plane of Screen (5%)

Murch asks: is the axis followed properly?

If not, don’t fret. Remember: Yasujiro Ozu’s visual style made its name off breaking the axis. That said, a filmmaker/editor should learn the rules first before breaking them, or “crossing the line”. First, one must respect, what Murch calls, “planarity”: the grammar of three dimensions transposed by photography to two. (18) Here is a thoughtful video on The 180 Degree Rule and how it is applied in the films of Ozu.

RULE NUMBER SIX: Three Dimensional Space (4%)

Murch asks: is the cut true to established physical and spacial relationships?

Up until the 1960s, these last two rules would have been sacrosanct in Hollywood. The reason being that classical style, the leading editing style of the golden age, depended on clean continuity and clarity of space. Rule Five and Six are to be followed if the editor intends to craft a movie or TV show that truly falls under invisible art. The editor is to maintain a certain fidelity to the mise-en-scène – where sets, props, actors etc. are located. Once established, the space should not change. But there are many exceptions to this rule, thus is why Murch puts this rule at the bottom of the list.

Wrap Up

Overall, The Rule of Six is “a list of priorities”. (20) Murch ends this chapter of his book with this important bit of advice: “If you have to give something up, don’t ever give up emotion before story. Don’t give up story before rhythm, don’t give up rhythm before eye-trace, don’t give up eye-trace before planarity, and don’t give up planarity before spatial continuity.” (20) Stressed? Don’t be, as Murch reassures in the name of his next chapter: “Don’t Worry, It’s Only A Movie.”

Click here to listen to the story behind how "In The Blink of an Eye" got made!

Works Cited

Murch, Walter. "The Rule of Six." In In the Blink of an Eye: A Perspective on Film Editing. 2nd ed. Los Angeles: Silman-James Press, 2001.

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