Friday, April 12, 2013

Favorite Supercuts

Part of a series of Lists of Cool Things.

Saving it up
And spending it all
On moving pictures,
Silent films.

—"Moving Pictures, Silent Films," Great Lake Swimmers

Today I'm going to be talking about supercuts. To quote one definition, a supercut is "a fast-paced montage of short video clips that obsessively isolates a single element from its source, usually a word, phrase, or cliche from film and TV."

Supercuts are an Internet phenomenon; they've come into being as a genre of Internet video over the last 5-10 years as people have had better access to (1) video editing software and (2) editable versions of movies and TV shows. There are a number of different kinds, each with their own purpose.

The first and probably the most widespread form of supercut is the supercut for its own sake: an obsessive cataloging of every instance of something, more or less just for fun. My favorite example is the clip below isolating every time someone says "double oh" in a James Bond film (this clip organizes them by length, for a dizzying acceleration effect).

Other noteworthy examples include a cut of Don Draper from Mad Men saying "What?" and this famous clip of every "dude" in the Big Lebowski (warning: language). The big problem with this kind of clip is that it often requires prior knowledge of the source material to seem interesting; it is not the kind of thing that functions well if you haven't seen the stuff it's taking material from. (For example: watch any of the above if you haven't seen any James Bond movies, Mad Men, or The Big Lebowski, respectively, and then gauge how much you enjoyed the experience.)

An often related supercut type is the critique supercut. In this genre, the editor uses the supercut to make a comment on popular culture, usually trying to say something about the overuse of a phrase or trope. In the clip below, the editor has created a collage of instances of different characters using the totally impossible "enhance" function to clean up images and catch bad guys. Note how the editor clusters similar phrasing and actions to point out the typical structure of an "enhance" sequence, commenting on the laziness of the show creators in using this trope.

Other noteworthy examples in this type include a supercut that deftly points out and lampoons the "I'm not here to make friends" cliche in reality TV, and a clip that critiques Aaron Sorkin's reliance on stock phrases ("Sorkinisms") in his TV writing. The critique form is a little bit easier for an outsider with no specific foreknowledge of the subject to enjoy than the supercut for its own sake, because it is making an external point, rather than simply reminding the viewer of a single element of something they may or may not have seen.

Another kind of supercut wants to say something or simply ask a question about something without necessarily being critical, such as "Why does Harrison Ford seem to be constantly talking about his family?" These supercuts often draw lines between the same actor's performances across many movies or shows to create a sort of catalog of an actor's tendencies or even obsessions.

A similar question is "Why is Nicolas Cage so mad all the time?" (warning: language and stuff), but see also the supercut which wants to investigate the matter of "breaking the fourth wall." Because of their nature as encouraging thought, questions, and even analysis, these supercuts can be even more engaging to the outsider than the critique supercut, though like that genre they sometimes actually discourage you from watching the source material altogether.

The most important type of supercut in my mind is the one in which the editor uses the superclip method to create something unique and beautiful. While it is still an obsessive catalogue of a single kind of thing, the best superclips give a sense that an entirely new and fascinating piece of art has come into being from the obsession, a true piece of collage that is greater and vastly more wondrous than the sum of its parts. A decent example is a recent pre-2012 Oscar video that collects scenes from all of the best picture winners to date, set to haunting music:

Academy Awards: Best Picture Oscar Winners from Nelson Carvajal on Vimeo.

My favorite, though, is this supercut of people standing with their backs to the camera, looking at things. It's a masterwork of editing, setting the images to the music in a way that's almost balletic in its synchronicity and beauty. Take a look:

The View: A "Back-to-the-Camera Shot" Supercut from Zach Prewitt on Vimeo.

In creating a new piece of art from the dismembered bodies of others, the creators of this kind of supercut obviate almost completely any need to have experienced the original material, but unlike the critique supercut or the question/comment supercut, they rarely discourage engagement with their sources.
If you're interested, some more thoughts on the current provenance of supercuts can be found here, and a great history of the phenomenon stretching back before the Internet can be found here.

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