“A good film that is well-edited seems like an exciting extension and elaboration of the audience’s own feelings and thoughts, and they will therefore give themselves to it, as it gives itself to them.” (pg. 72)
In the Blink of an Eye, Walter Murch, 1995
I’m going to take you back to May of 2015. After a long journey filming with a prototype 360-stereoscopic rig — a very early predecessor to this one — I found myself in Seattle preparing for an edit. I stared into the familiar void of an empty timeline, but I was suddenly without experience or expertise. There were no books on editing in virtual reality, no one with advice, no theory on how to proceed.
So much like I had dealt with the many other parts of VR creation up to that point, I just winged it.
The first assembly went as well as expected. Rough in parts. A few nice visual match-cuts. Music with layers that gently guided the visuals. Compositionally sound, wides to close-ups and back again. I even managed to convince one of our engineers to do a read of the Kurt Vonnegut passage that had inspired where we went to film. I had spaced the voiceover patiently throughout the piece. Overall, I felt the edit had a lot of promise, and I was quite pleased with myself.
And then I watched it in a headset.
I don’t think I’ll ever be able to truly describe how much the edit sucked in a headset, but I’ll do my best.
The cuts that were fluid before had become crazed and jarring. The layered music was overbearing and distracting. The spacing of the voiceover made me lose track of it and when it came back, it was really disturbing. I had trouble concentrating on anything for more than a few seconds. I was confused, bewildered, annoyed…
When I said there wasn’t anyone with advice earlier, that wasn’t completely true. There were a few blog posts and articles by reputable VR creators who said that editing in virtual reality was impossible and fundamentally wrong to do.
But I wasn’t convinced these people were right. The edit didn’t fail because editing in VR was an impossibility. Nor did I believe it failed because it was wrong to do in the first place. It failed because I didn’t do it right. There was something fundamental to making it work that I was either missing or royally screwing up.
Since I was using traditional editing techniques to drive the first assembly, I figured that perhaps the key to what had gone wrong had something to do with those techniques. At least I was right about that.
I’m respectfully oversimplifying here — but this is what film editing looks like:
It’s a frame, followed by another frame, followed by another frame, and so on.
But in VR, a “frame” is a relative window of experience derived from the visitor’s field of vision. This makes everything a potential frame, but also makes a premeditated frame based on my own interests presumptuous and, well, wrong most of the time.
If I had kept editing the way I had, it would have been frustration after frustration. The edit would never have worked.
I had to create a new visual in order to grasp what I was really trying to accomplish. Something that was more reflective of the spatial reality of the medium, more apt to its multi-verse tendencies where every path exists simultaneously.
Something more along the lines of this:
Worlds of experience extending from one another much like ripples in a pond or rings in a trunk of a tree (or our ever-expanding universe, if you want to get real deep).
To go a step further — if I could identify the potential experiences in each world, evaluate the probability that they will occur, and then take into account how a visitor might engage with them, I could then identify possible paths. I could rotate these worlds around each other like some kind of intricate cipher, using the most probable potential experiences to guide someone through.
And then what of the worlds themselves? If the craftsmanship of these worlds directly affect how an edit unfolds, then perhaps I could work backwards. Take what insights editing these worlds provide and use them to help shape the creation of these worlds from the get-go.
A slew of other possibilities have been revealing themselves, and they all seem to be converging on the existence of a unique link between the mind of the creator and the mind of the visitor. It appears to be very specific to this medium and something that could have never existed until presence became a factor.
But as unique as this is to VR, the best person I’ve found to describe what’s going on here is the great Walter Murch who — twenty years ago — eloquently honed in on an editor’s role in traditional cinema. Oh, the irony.
Your job (as an editor) is partly to anticipate, partly to control the thought processes of the audience. To give them what they want and/or what they need just before they have to “ask” for it — to be surprising yet self-evident at the same time. If you are too far behind or ahead of them, you create problems, but if you are right with them, leading them ever so slightly, the flow of events feels natural and exciting at the same time. (pg. 69)
Editing has always been so much more than just cutting out all the bad stuff. More than just slapping stuff together. Editing harnesses the power of discovery. It’s a craft that celebrates the paths our minds choose to take, the psychologically interesting, complex and ‘correct’; patterns that reflect the kinds of shifts of attention and realization that go on in real life (pg. 67). There is significant potential here — and we’ll explore this in the series of blog posts to come.
And for those still wondering about that sucky rough cut from earlier — I’m happy to report that the second attempt was a heck of a lot better.