In 2011, Supercut.org was launched in order to “collect every known example" of a supercut, which the site defined as “a fast-paced montage of short video clips that obsessively isolates a single element from its source, usually a word, phrase, or cliche from film and TV.” Supercut.org was a valiant, but Sisyphean effort. As of today, the site’s archive lists just over 500 supercuts. Meanwhile, a search for “supercuts” on YouTube comes back with over 1 million results.
The sheer number of supercuts on the internet means that if you’ve noticed a particular trope in film or TV, chances are someone’s already catalogued and compiled it into a bite-sized clip. In a quick survey of YouTube I found a three-minute supercut of characters asking, “Where’s my money?”; a two-minute clip of characters saying, “We’re not so different, you and I”; and a 90-second compilation of physical violence in Disney movies. (Multiple scenes of male characters hitting female characters, but none the other way around?)
At their most primitive, supercuts thread together non-sequitur clips with little or no editorial commentary—"Famous People Playing Themselves Supercut" offers nothing more than what its title suggest. Others, like the infamous "Nicolas Cage Losing His Shit" resemble "best of" compilations. Good supercuts can have a magic eye effect and reveal glaring patterns that we never recognized before. But at their best, supercuts posit pointed criticisms—these are visual essays that convey an argument more economically than text ever could ("Sorkinisms - A Supercut" ). By sticking to source material, these visual indictments of sloppy film-making and lazy writing seem irrefutable. And on the very rare occasion, supercuts can achieve a certain meditative nature. Before the term was ever coined, Christian MarClay had elevated the practice to an art form with "Telephones." His most recent work, "The Clock," easily qualifies as the most elaborate (and certainly the longest) supercut ever made.
But whether they're intriguing or entirely inane, all these compilations take an enormous amount of time to put together. With over a million supercut clips available online, surely the market is close to saturation. Supercuts today are less impressive to audiences and less lucrative to their creators than they were just a few years ago. So why do people continue to supercut?
To find out, this week I discussed the craft with two well-respected supercutters: Rich Juzwiak and Duncan Robson. Juzwiak is a Gawker writer and the creator of the wildly popular “I’m Not Here to Make Friends!” supercut. Robson is a visual effects artist from the U.K. who made the viral “Let’s Enhance” clip as well as “Tumbleweeds,” a supercut commissioned by the Columbus Museum of Art.
What inspired you to make your first supercut? A few years ago, before there was YouTube even, Ben Mandelker of B-Side Blogs made this cut of Julie Chen on Big Brother saying ‘But first.’ That was her transitional language when she was presenting on that show. It was just, “But first, but first, but first,” over and over. I just thought the repetition was so hilarious. And also TV Carnage, which isn’t typically supercut kind of stuff, but it’s still a cut up, mix-tape, mash-up free association that really inspired me. When supercuts were young, they were super impressive—it was just such a good challenge to pull off a successful one. So that’s when I made "I’m not here to make friends!"
Why did you pick that as your subject? It seemed really specific to reality TV and it was something that for some reason, people kind of just had a tendency to say in similar situations in almost a similar cadence. I got the idea from hearing it a million times. That’s always how it works, you have to absorb and observe this so many times before you decide that this is something you should make a video for. It was like, Where is this coming from? A lot of the time, they said the line in situations. It wasn’t something that happened in interviews, where they were clearly being fed lines. What is it about this environment that makes all these people say this thing that in normal life it would never behoove you to admit? It came from a general critique of reality TV and the state of society.
How much time went into putting it together? A lot. With reality TV, and attempting to go through all of the examples…I did a lot of recap searching, and then it was really just my own knowledge. Even a few years ago, it was a lot harder. Five years ago there were some really shady sites that would host TV shows, or I’d have to download them illegally or torrent them. If I was going by a recap, there’s no time code or anything, so I’d have to watch a certain amount. It’s very tedious to find that exact moment, but it becomes a kind of obsession.
How do you know when a supercut is done? When I can’t find any more and I try, and try, and try. It’s impossible to find all of the examples of people saying “I’m not here to make friends,” but if you throw enough at people, you give the illusion of making it complete. Even if it’s not complete, it will convey enough. As irritating as it can be, and as stupid as it may feel, leaving stuff out does create conversation. Everyone loves to comment on stuff and prove you wrong or prove that they’re smarter than you.
Is it gut-wrenching to realize you’ve missed a critical clip? Yes. The worst one was I did this "Mirror Scare" video of horror movies and I left out Repulsion, which is just such a classic, brilliant movie. It’s also probably the earliest example of a mirror scare too. So it wasn’t just this classic thing that I should’ve known like the back of my hand, but it was also formative—it’s where this entire concept evolved from. I felt like a real schmuck.
Now that everyone and their mom has made a supercut, have they lost their magic? Part of the appeal of supercuts was their uniqueness—the fact that not everyone was able to do one. But when everyone starts doing it, then yeah it’s like, Big deal. Now they have to be phenomenal: the best idea that could not possibly be conveyed in any other format. And even then, people still might not care. The supercut isn’t dead, per se, it just needs to be great. It needs to be really specific—it needs to need to exist.
What do you enjoy about supercutting? Part of it is the math aspect. Sometimes when I’m sitting down in front of a computer it can feel so daunting because you can be as organized as possible, but when you start writing, it becomes a different thing and can go in a different direction. There’s something so clinical and precise about supercuts. When I’ve found all those clips, and put them together in a way that is funny and illuminating, I’m done. There’s something so finite about it. It’s like solving a math problem.
What’s your favorite supercut? My favorite is "Jesus Everywhere" by EverythingisTerrible. It’s a supercut of news reports of Jesus being spotted in Fritos, toast, etc. I love that. That whole phenomenon is hilarious and the way that it’s reported on, and the things that people say, and the tropes within the reporting are all so amazing. And talk about knock-you-on-your-ass impressive, I know these guys and I don’t know how they did that. It’s unreal to me. That video is the second coming—it is the resurrection for me.
Do you remember the first supercut you ever saw? It's possible I saw others before they were given the name supercut but "Previously on Lost: What?" could be the first. I'd done a couple of video remixes before but watching those supercuts made me want to try making one myself. Working in visual effects at the time, I was frustrated with how bad some of those movies were and how powerless I was to change that.
Where did the idea for "Let’s Enhance" come from? I saw this CSI clip and immediately thought, "I've seen that a few times in other shows, maybe there's a supercut in it."
What was your process for putting that together? I asked for help on Ask MetaFilter. The first response was a link to TVTropes.org which gave me a really good starting point. I didn't have to watch many films. If there was a film or show which seemed like it might have an enhance scene, I'd download subtitles and search them for certain words. This way you know which part of the episode or movie to watch. This saves a lot of time. If I'd known so many people were going to see it, I would have spent a little longer on it. There are some good ones I missed.
Why do you supercut? I enjoy the initial hunt for material, it feels like detective work. It's fun when you first put it all together and a structure starts to emerge. The stage I'm at with this current one feels like a jigsaw puzzle with some missing pieces which is not so enjoyable.
What's the current one about? 'Percussive Maintenance," though I'm not sure that will be the final title. [TVTropes.com describes percussive maintenance: "A common variation involves a character, having tried every method they can think of to get something to work and after working for hours with no success, hits the malfunctioning device solely for the purpose of Percussive Therapy, only for the device to respond to the Percussive Maintenance and start working again."]
What makes a good supercut and what's your all time favorite? Surprising/obscure source material, careful editing, original music (if music is used). It’s hard to name a favorite. "Hello, I'm Shelley Duvall!" always makes me laugh.
Both Juzwiak and Robson will be speaking on a panel titled Supercut Superstars as part of New York's Museum of the Moving Image’s Cut Up Sit Downs series in September. Find out more about the series here.