[Written by Tim Nielsen]
I want to write a series of relatively small ‘thought for the day’ type articles on a variety of topics. In the first, I want to expand on something that came up in the introductory interview, when I said that my main advice to people entering into their careers should learn when to stop.
One of the things that I love and admire, not only in sound, but in filmmaking and art in general, is economy. And I do not economics. but by economy, I mean simply:
“To achieve the maximum effect for the minimum effort.”
My favorite example of that statement is found in the movie Harold and Maude. I’m going to spoil something, so if you haven’t seen the film, you might want to skip the rest of this paragraph. There is a shot in that movie, I haven’t counted the frames, but I’d be shocked if it was longer than 20 or 30 frames total, that is the best example I’ve ever found. Harold and Maude are sitting near a garbage dump, and she’s describing how glorious seagulls are. There is an insert shot, so short that most people miss it, to Maude’s arm, where you can make out what appears to be a tattoo. A number. And when you realize what the shot is, a concentration camp tattoo, and you understand that Maude survived the concentration camps, the entire movie changes. What was a wacky story of an eccentric old weirdo becomes something a whole lot more powerful. Suddenly Maude makes sense. In one shot, she goes from crazy old lady to concentration camp survivor, and her actions, her very being, suddenly explained.
But for something so powerful, something so important, Hal Ashby made the decision to keep the shot on frame for such a short duration that many people miss it. I can’t think of a director today who would have taken one of the most important pieces of information for truly understanding the film, and letting most viewers miss it. Hal Ashby was an editor before he became a director. And he must have somehow known the exact length of the insert that a percentage of the people would get it, and a percentage wouldn’t. Regardless, the insert itself is such a great reminder in general of how much can be done with so little. One little shot, a second or so in length, can change your entire experience watching this film. I’ve seen the film at least a dozen times. It’s certainly in my top ten of favorite films, and Hal Ashby one of my favorite directors.
One of my favorite books of all time is The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Seemingly a children’s book written by an adult, it’s really a book written by a child for adults who have lost their way. I had never read it as a child, a good friend gave me a copy while at USC film school, along with the Graham Greene novel The Power and the Glory, and Graham Greene was also a master of economy, and quickly became one of my favorite authors. But Saint-Exupéry also wrote one of the most beautiful books every written, Wind Sand and Stars, about his time spent in the desert after his plane crashed. And in addition to those two brilliant books, he’s also the author of one of my favorite quotes, and really the idea behind this post:
“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”
I wish I had found that quote, and understood it, long ago in my career. So to all of you starting out, memorize those words.
In sound, what I’ve found after years of editing, is that after I’ve completely cut a scene, after I believe I’ve added everything that’s needed, I’m able now to go back and delete about half of what I’ve cut. In every case, the result is a much more defined track.