Over at Slate today, Seth Stevenson takes on the "supercut," aiming to explain why some people "spend so many hours stitching footage into YouTube collages." He spoke to Chris Zabriskie, who put together the Lost "What?" reel, along with a few others, and also put together his own supercut – one of all the frames in which the bunny-cased iPhone of Zoe Deschanel's New Girl character Jess appears. Here's the takeaway:
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.
Stevenson's gotten to part of the draw of the supercut (a term originally coined by Wired's Andy Baio back in 2008 — Baio, curiously, wasn't contacted for the Slate piece), but not the half of it – the supercut is a specific medium in which one does specific things that will operate in a specific way. It's not just video editing, which in any setting gives absolute power to the person staring at Final Cut; it's a particular kind of video editing, one that teases out tropes and truths and usually relies on the effectiveness of repetition. And even in the general sense, Slate video producer Chris Wade, who assisted Stevenson on his foray into editing, gives a quote on editing with more insight than any of the other piece's sentences: "It's just the right balance of puzzle-solving, technical detail, and creative choices to keep your brain endlessly engaged."
Right. When I make supercuts (I've done a quite few, including one referenced in the piece and "I'm Not Here To Make Friends!", which you can watch above), I get my math on in a way that writing does not allow. However, the most basic motivation comes not from being able to assert my dominance over preexisting material, but my own ideas. Supercutting allows me to tailor and package my argument in a more specific way than a written essay. A list of examples to support an observation would be dull, but a tightly edited display of examples has the chance to entertain and enlighten. Writing forces a critic to make judgment calls, but video editing can create something far more elliptical that turns a spotlight to a trend and has viewers decide for themselves what it means (which they were going to do anyway if knee-jerk reactions to post headlines are any indication). Feedback on "I'm Not Here To Make Friends!" has always ranged from, "This is so sad," to, "This is hilarious," with plenty of discourse filling the gray between.
As someone who has opinions that I just need to get out in order to feel satisfied, what modern technology is allowing for in this case, is a fuller expression of self. The Internet allows us so many tools beyond words to say what we think or what we need to say, so why wouldn't we take advantage of that?
Stevenson touches on this up high when he deems supercuts "a sort of video essay," but that's about as far as he goes. His sources (and he himself) also have supercuts with relatively short gestation periods (the two weeks and three days it took for Bryan Menegus' every drink in Mad Men cut is longest). It's taken me months to put some cuts together, and only passion could fuel the setting aside of so much time for one thing.
There is also an argument to be made for the dispassionate supercut: People make them because they perform. (Or at least performed – as Stevenson's piece alludes to, we may be reaching a saturation point where at least the traffic-driving wow factor is greatly reduced.) It actually is possible to get work from the practice — Duncan Robson's "Tumbleweeds" was commissioned by the Columbus Museum of Art. I've gotten offers for work as a result of my own supercuts, and some of have taken on a life of their own as a result of improper crediting. Playing "visual media god" is only the beginning, or the first cut - it's not necessarily the deepest.