Introduction, and Caveats
This article is based on my own personal subjective experience of watching certain music videos, which I attempt to parlay into a general theory of the emotional effect of fast cutting in music videos.
It could be that I am the only person in the world who experiences this emotional effect, in which case it is a general theory of how I experience fast cutting in music videos, and not a theory of how anyone else experiences fast cutting in music videos.
In my experience the effect depends on the music being music that I find to be strong. So if you, the reader, are not particularly affected by the music in the examples that I give, you will have to hunt down your own personal examples that work for you.
Also, the effect happens more strongly for some music videos than others, and it doesn't doesn't necessarily occur in every fast cut music video – so your search for examples that work for you personally may require a certain amount of effort and persistence.
The Honeymoons Metaphor
There is an expression "the honeymoon period". This refers to the idea that the best part of a marriage is the honeymoon, and sometimes this applies to other things, like the first so many days of a new politician's term of office.
If we take the view that the honeymoon is the best part of a marriage, then we can work backwards from that, and construct the ideal married life, which should consist of nothing but the honeymoon.
Actually, the critical aspect of a honeymoon is the newness of the relationship, and also the novelty of the chosen location for the honeymoon. So to experience the ideal lifestyle of an everlasting honeymoon, you can't just extend one honeymoon forever. Instead you have to go on an endless series of different honeymoons, with a new marriage partner each time, and going to a new location each time.
This is just a crude metaphor, and I haven't yet explained how it applies to the subjective emotional experience of fast cut music videos, but to make the metaphor work slightly better, we can allow for a couple of variations:
- Sometimes it is not necessary to start a new honeymoon with a new partner, and it is enough to stick with the same partner, and just go on a holiday to a new location.
- If you are not extremely desirable as a marriage partner, you may eventually run out of new partners willing to marry you for a marriage that lasts only for a few weeks of holiday. However, if, for example, you have been on ten different honeymoons, with ten different spouses, you may have already forgotten what it was like to be with the first spouse. So you can start again with the first spouse, and it will almost be like being on a honeymoon with someone that you haven't been on a honeymoon with before. And then start again with the second spouse, and so on.
Fast cutting is a style of video cutting where the content switches very quickly from one shot to the next.
Typically the cutting happens so fast that it is difficult for a viewer to fully process what is happening in a shot before the shot ends and cuts into the next shot.
If you are creating a narrative film, where you want your audience to have some understanding of what is going on as the narrative proceeds, overly fast cutting does not usefully contribute to the artistic quality of the film.
However, the goal of music video is often to enhance the emotional quality of the music, and it may sometimes be the case that this can be achieved by not giving the audience enough time to understand what is happening in any given shot.
(Caveat: music videos can have many different goals, which can include doing whatever it takes to publicize the song in the video. However I am primarily interested in music videos where the video successfully enhances the emotional quality of the music. Partly because that is the kind of music video I like watching, and partly because I believe that the emotional effects of these music videos have something important to tell us about the emotional nature of music.)
The best example I have found of a video using fast cutting to emotional effect is El Perdón - Nicky Jam y Enrique Iglesias.
I have also made a Youtube playlist which contains a few more examples – some of which only partially achieve the effect I am describing here.
I had hoped that I could include a much longer list of better examples in this article, but it turns out that not that many music videos use fast cutting to maximum effect (more on this below).
My own personal subjective experience of a video like El Perdón is that it conveys a constant emotional quality, which does not vary as the video proceeds, even though one might expect individual shots within the videos to convey different emotions.
To give an example of the variety of material, here is a description of the first 14 shots that occur once the music actually starts in that video, from about 20s to 45s into the video:
- Distant view of house in city
- Closer view of some houses, some people on a balcony
- Nicky close-up, thinking about something
- Young lady (the primary romantic interest of the singer/singers) sitting on stairs outside
- View of part of a power pole and some messy cabling
- Distant view of houses and grassy/bushy hills
- Enrique leaning against a wall
- Two women looking down from a balcony
- View over houses, group of boys in distance messing around on bikes and a motorbike
- Enrique walking through a narrow alleyway
- Children outside, some walking down a path or steps
- Enrique standing in front of a blank wall (somewhere)
- Children outside, one carrying some washing
- Nicky, closeup, starting to sing passionately
Individually, each of these shots, if extended beyond the approximately 1.8 seconds allotted, would be expected to result in a different emotional feeling experienced by the watcher.
But, when experienced as a sequence of relentlessly fast cut shots, the emotional experience is fairly constant, and seems to be more guided by the emotional feel of the music itself.
My hypothesis is that this ~2 second initial period of a shot constitutes a "honeymoon period", where the shot creates an emotional experience in the watcher, but that emotional experience is very generic and non-specific.
The editor of the music video "fast cuts" all the shots, so that each shot only appears for long enough for the audience to feel the generic emotional response, and then, before a more specific emotional response is felt from the specific content of the shot, a cut occurs, and the next shot starts.
This hypothesis about fast-cutting in music videos fits with my more general hypothesis that music motivates constancy of emotional state.
For the type of music video I have described in this article, constancy is achieved by only showing each shot for long enough to generate a generic emotional response in the viewer, as a result of which a constant quality of emotional response is sustained for the length of the video.
To get the strongest emotional effect in a music video, the video should avoid aspects of content that can conflict with the invocation a constant non-specific emotional response.
In particular, one thing that can, surprisingly, reduce the emotionally effect of a music video, is a story line.
The temptation to include a story line in a video is hard to resist, and many, many music videos tell some kind of story.
However, it is my experience that any kind of well defined narrative structure has the effect of requiring the viewer to experience different emotions at different times within the video.
These different emotions conflict with the goal of achieving emotional constancy, and they also conflict with the goal of invoking only a generic emotional response.
It can be OK for a music video to have a back story – as long as the video itself is limited to painting a picture, rather than expounding a narrative.
We can see this to some extent in El Perdón.
The protagonist is Nicky and/or Enrique (but this isn't at all a song about two men chasing after the same woman). The protagonist lives in a large South American city (actually filmed in Medellin), and is unhappy that his girlfriend has moved on and she doesn't want to be with him. The video portrays his ex-girlfriend, but we don't really know if she hears the song, or if she even knows or cares that he is out there somewhere.
The music video portrays the situation, but does not tell any actual story with a beginning, middle and a resolution at the end. Also much of the content is very tangential to the situation of the protagonist, consisting of views of the city and various people who happen to live there.
Other Shooting and Editing Techniques
Apart from fast-cutting, there are a number of shooting and editing techniques that are heavily used in music videos, including the videos in my list of examples.
Can we explain these techniques in terms of the "eternal honeymoons" hypothesis?
One major category of technique is that of visual degradation. This category itself divides into two major sub-categories:
- Shooting techniques
- Editing techniques
Examples of shooting techniques are:
- Poor framing
- Poor lighting conditions
- Poor focus
Examples of editing techniques are:
- Adding various forms of visual noise to the shot
- Reducing image resolution
All these techniques make it harder for the viewer to figure out what is going on.
It may be hard to see who is in the frame, it may be hard to figure out what the main subject of the shot is doing, and it may be unclear where the subject is, and what their general circumstances are.
What does this have to do with honeymoons?
Within the honeymoons hypothesis, the "honeymoon" is the period of time during which there is an emotional response, but the viewer has not yet determined an appropriate specific emotional response to the specific events and circumstances in the shot.
It is plausible that visual degradation slows down the process of determining these specifics, and as a result, it effectively extends the "honeymoon period" of the shot, and therefore the shots themselves don't have to be cut quite so rapidly.
One special effect used heavily in music videos is that of slow motion.
We might suppose, in the first instance, that slow motion is just another form of visual degradation, and the same logic applies as for other forms of visual degradation.
However there is another simpler explanation for the effectiveness of slow motion, which is that slow motion is, well, slower.
If the viewer's brain learns to recognise slow motion for what it is, ie everything is slowed down, then the brain may adapt to this added slowness by simply slowing down its own processing to match.
In which case the honeymoon period will be extended by exactly the same factor that the motion is slowed down.
(There is probably a limit to how much slow motion can be slowed down, while still being effective, because, correspondingly, there is probably a limit to how much the brain can slow down its own normal computational processes in this way.)
Other Explanations for the Emotional Effect of Fast Cutting
I have suggested that the emotional effect of fast cutting is at least partly due to the nature of the initial period of the viewer's response to each shot.
However, there are probably multiple aspects of the viewer's response to a fast cut video which contribute to the overall response, including:
- Cutting "to the beat", where the cuts match the beat or rhythm of the music, similar perhaps to how dancing matches the beat of the music.
- The contrast between what is happening in each shot and what is happening in the next shot. This can include contrast between fast, normal or slow motion.
It follows that a video producer who wants to make the best possible music video using fast cutting to generate an emotional effect needs to take account of all these different aspects.
(The beginning of Greenlights has a good combination of fast cutting, cutting to the beat and slow motion.)
Paucity of Examples
As I mentioned above, not that many music videos make use of fast cutting to maximum effect.
It could be, as I also suggested above, that I am one of the few people that feel this emotional effect, and that's why it's not used much.
It could also be that the people making music videos haven't worked out how to systematically exploit fast cutting for its emotional effect – and in the future we might see a lot more of it.
It also might be that video-editing tools don't make it that easy to experiment with fast cutting – for example substantial UI manipulation might be required in a video editor to create each component of a sequence of fast cuts, and the UI overhead may be even greater when visual degradation effects and slow motion are included in the mix.
For those of us who are fans of these effects in music videos, we may have to wait and see what the future brings.
Or alternatively, some of us might have to get out of our lazy-chairs and make the future happen ...