Supercuts: The Art of Presentation
A supercut is a fast-paced video montage of short clips designed to highlight a single element—usually a repeated word, phrase, or image. A supercut might take the form of a politician repeating a particular campaign promise, or a compilation of movie villain one-liners. The best supercuts are not just hastily edited compilations of clips, but self-contained short films with their own rhythm, flow and narrative.
Supercuts represent a unique format for distilling and visualizing data from different sources. They are especially effective at showing the ebb and flow of a single idea or concept. The melding of art and information in these montages delivers information in a concise and snackable package, which explains their viral success on Facebook.
Well-crafted supercuts are unbeatable at delivering attention grabbing, sharable content for three simple reasons. Let’s discuss.
Supercuts allow the creator to control the viewer experience from start to finish. With many infographics or video displays, the audience has the freedom to take in only what appeals to them—the data points that happen to catch their eye. With a supercut, the viewer receives the information exactly as the filmmaker intended. This was true even in the oldest supercut, Joseph Cornell’s 1936 short film “Rose Hobart“, a twenty-minute long, meandering film built that focused exclusively on one character from the film East of Borneo. Today’s supercuts are much faster on their feet, but the core element of control remains.
Consider the supercut above from 2011, which features actual footage of reporters, both local and national, accidentally announcing that President Obama, not Osama bin Laden, had been killed in Pakistan. From start to finish the order of clips was carefully chosen so that each clip sets up the next or responds to the previous. If this same information were displayed in another form, perhaps each as a separate video on a tumblr, the viewer might be amused, but wouldn’t pick up on the vocal patterns and professional embarrassment the filmmaker is trying to emphasize.
Supercuts make large amounts of information manageable without fatiguing the viewer. For example, “Previously on Lost“, the video that spawned the term “supercut”, is a whirlwind tour of the first three season of Lost, condensed into a little over two minutes. While the actual creation of these supercuts requires a lot of tedious editing, the finished product effectively condenses a lot of data into short, snackable content.
In the supercut above we see the phrase “We’re not in Kansas anymore” and its myriad occurrences through the history of film. Appropriately, the video begins with the original scene from The Wizard of Oz and then blends scenes from other films and television shows as disparate as Little Shop of Horrors and The Animaniacs, demonstrating that this phrase has had a cultural impact far greater than we realize. Though somewhat long for a supercut, the unpredictability of this video has the viewer hooked from the very beginning. With no way to predict what will come next—and the possibility of recognizing the next scene too enticing to pass up—the viewer is able to handle a staggering amount of input: 58 clips spanning decades and genres, all in 5 minutes and 50 seconds. And before you know it, you’re back in Kansas again.
Supercuts’ most impressive feature is their ability to give meaning to an aggregation of singular events that alone might seem to be of little significance. These moments often subtly present a particular emotional cue or symbolic imagery that really becomes clear when viewed repeatedly.
A great example of this is the above supercut of tumbleweeds. This wordless video evokes a mix of emotions, beginning with old scenes pulled from Westerns. These older clips, together with the music, fills the viewer with loneliness and longing for the solitude and adventure associated with the Wild West. As the video progresses however, the scenes become both sillier and more modern, even incorporating several cartoon tumbleweeds, until the feelings of eerie nostalgia give way to the realization that tumbleweeds are an absurd and overused motif. Still, I could watch this supercut all day long, just for the experience it provides.
Even if your next visualization project doesn’t involve video, the features of a good supercut can still guide your efforts. Remember to walk your audience through your work, emphasizing what you feel is important, while staggering your information appropriately to set the correct tone. Get the balance just right, and you might even start your own supercut-worthy cultural phenomenon.
Still not sold on the effectiveness of supercuts? Need a diversion? Check out the archive of supercuts at Supercut.org