The Secret Lives of Supercutters
Why people spend so many hours stitching footage into YouTube collages.
After we bought the New Girl DVDs, Chris converted them to an editable format, which took about eight hours overnight. Then I got down to work—after Chris gave me a 10-minute Final Cut tutorial. First, I spent four hours zipping through all the footage and grabbing every scene with the cellphone case. (To my surprise, I learned that the phone didn’t appear until Episode 17. I thought it had been a season-long gag, but my memory had tricked me. I also discovered that when we first spot the phone, it has a bunny tail—the tail gets amputated in all later appearances. I even spotted one continuity error, when the phone inexplicably vanished and then rematerialized in Jess’ hand.) After an additional hour to tighten things up, add a hint of black space in between clips so they wouldn't feel jammed together, slap on an opening title, and layer in the show's theme song as a backing track … Voila! I had my very own supercut:
These aren't the most compelling three minutes you'll ever experience. But they were shockingly fun for me to build. Time whizzed by as I pieced the whole thing together. When I mentioned this to Chris, he told me he sometimes stays up all night working on an edit. "It's just the right balance of puzzle-solving, technical detail, and creative choices to keep your brain endlessly engaged," he explained.
I began to understand why all these folks are scrambling to teach themselves how to use editing software. Unexpectedly, I also got a taste of the supercutting urge. I think I now see what drives people to cut even in the absence of monetary reward: In the midst of scanning through all those New Girl scenes, plucking out bits and repurposing them, I noticed a new and unfamiliar little jolt of power was coursing through me. I had asserted my dominance over this slickly produced piece of media. The show was subject to my whims—defenseless against my editorial scissors. I could have done anything to it. Talked over it. Played farting sound effects. Slapped a photo of my face in the middle of the screen.
This sense of autonomy is something that would have been extremely difficult to achieve until the relatively recent past. Before digital formats and easy computer editing programs, an amateur like me would have had little hope of reshaping an entire TV series to fit his own vision. Now anybody with an idea and a laptop can play visual media god. "I sometimes feel like a magician," Chris told me when I confessed that my editing experiment was swelling my ego. "Editing is a powerful way to interact with the modern world."
Perhaps we have reached peak supercut and require no further compilations of people saying "what." Or of Bruce Willis breaking stuff (Bryan Menegus' latest effort, recently noted on Slate). I think at this point we can stipulate that TV and movies recycle plot devices and dialogue. We don't need additional evidence of such. (Though it is true that not all supercuts are created equal. Some have tighter pacing or cleverer juxtapositions; others are ham-handed collages—the video equivalent of a Pinterest board thrown together by a distracted 8-year-old.)
But the supercut craze is really just a small indicator of a larger development. The average Joe is seizing a media Jedi power once restricted to a lucky few. We can rigorously shame TV shows when they go to the same well a few times too often. We can passionately recut Star Wars movies to fix them, spitting in the face of George Lucas' aesthetic choices. And yes, supercuts can be art.
Christian Marclay's "The Clock," first exhibited in 2010, has been widely hailed as a masterpiece. Far more ambitious than "Telephones," it edits together 24 hours of movie scenes in which the time shown or spoken in the film clip corresponds precisely to the actual time at the location where the video is screened. The result is by all accounts mesmerizing—a mind-blowing effort that took years to achieve. Yet I’m starting to suspect that—as media-molding and video searching software becomes more powerful and ubiquitous—any hobbyist teenager a decade from now will be able to surpass it with a few hours of casual editing on a rainy afternoon.
Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.