Since the beginning of time, humans have reshaped the creative works we encounter. Oral tradition invited storytellers to embellish existing narratives. Sheet music was powerless to prevent the parlor pianist’s reinterpretation. In the '70s and '80s, turntable jockeys led a sampling explosion. And today, of course, we have the “supercut.”
As YouTube crawlers well know, the supercut strings together rapid-fire, out-of-context movie or TV scenes to create a sort of video essay. Many supercuts provide hard evidence of the existence of tropes long suspected but never quite proved: imperiled characters fretting that they have no cellphone signal; high-tech investigators asking their imaging software to "enhance"; action movie toughs girding for battle by announcing, "We've got company." But what motivates the supercutter to slog through hours of footage to compile these minute observations? And what distinguishes the masters of the form?
The supercut has its proud forebears. Think of Bruce Conner's 1958 found-footage collage, A Movie. Or What's Up, Tiger Lily?, Woody Allen's 1966 reimagining, overdubbing tour de force. And then there’s artist Christian Marclay, who may be the godfather of the supercut. Marclay's 1995 "Telephones" edited together seven minutes of existing movie footage featuring people talking on telephones. Color, black and white, dramas, comedies, Hollywood stars from every era. In its day, "Telephones" was no doubt mesmerizing. Marclay played with dynamics like pacing and visual juxtaposition. And there was the novel thrill of seeing personalities like Humphrey Bogart, Sean Connery, and Meg Ryan all joined on an infinite, imaginary phone call.
These days, "Telephones" seems rather quaint. It moves slowly and has no obvious aim. In the years since, Marclay's turf has been invaded by casual marauders armed with Final Cut Pro (editing software introduced in the late 1990s) and YouTube accounts (allowing for rapid propagation). Back in 2008, for example, Chris Zabriskie was working as a videographer for the local library system in Orlando, Fla. His co-workers all loved Lost, but the show left him cold. Around his office, Zabriskie kept threatening to demonstrate how often Lost characters say the word "what" as an excuse for other characters to recap expository points. Finally, a colleague handed him the DVD set and dared him to execute. It took him four hours (plus the time required to convert the DVDs into an editable format). He searched Lost dialogue transcripts that fans had posted to the Web in order to locate every "what" instance, then quickly slapped them together. "I put it up on YouTube on a Friday, just for my pals to see. When I checked on Monday, it had somehow leaked out and gotten 50,000 views. It got picked up by newspapers, Entertainment Weekly, G4 TV. Within a few weeks it was over 700,000 views," Zabriskie said.
Similar backstories accompany more recent supercut hits. Earlier this year, a guy named Dan (he didn't want me to use his last name), a Brooklyn-based copy editor for a print publication, learned Final Cut in his spare time and then spent two weekends putting together a supercut showing every time Don Draper says "what" on Mad Men. To his amazement, it garnered more than 900,000 views. This fall, Bryan Menegus, a recent college grad and another self-taught video editor, made a compilation of every single drink ever drunk on Mad Men. It took him two weeks to rewatch the whole series and then three days to edit his supercut together. He sold it for $150 to slacktory.com. Beyond that modest payday, neither of these guys has derived any material benefit from authoring a viral sensation. No lucrative job offers and—because their source material is copyrighted—no advertising windfall.
To better understand what motivates supercutters like these, I asked Slate video producer Chris Wade to help me create a supercut of my own. I wanted a project that was bounded and wouldn't eat up more than a couple of days. So I began by limiting my material to Season 1 of the Fox sitcom New Girl. It's a show I like and, more important, this meant I'd only need to deal with a total of about 8.5 hours of video (23 episodes that last 22 minutes each). I decided my supercut would edit together every single frame in which the character Jess' cellphone case—a pink dealie with giant bunny ears—appears onscreen. The bunny case is openly referred to only once in the entire season. (When Jess first wields it, a friend asks “What is that?” and Jess replies “My phone.”) But it seemed it was introduced as a shorthand way to instantly brand Jess as a hypergirly quirkster. The repetition and lack of deeper resonance I felt a bunny phone supercut might deliver seemed basically on par with the supercuts mentioned above, which made me feel I’d be undertaking a project of similar scope and aim. Plus, because looking for the bunny phone frames was a strictly visual hunt and the pink phone was easy to spot, I'd be able to fast-forward through episodes instead of painstakingly listening for specific dialogue.
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.