Supercuts bring attention to the phrases and devices that jaded movie and TV viewers already see over and over—the tics of film and television—and repeat them to comic effect. The video compilations add context to these clichés, present them in a new light, or inspire a moratorium on them. What makes the best ones stand out, however, isn’t rote repetition, but style. It’s the next-level premise or the perfect song cue—or any number of other details that the novice video editor might not consider.
The supercut as we know it arrived the year after YouTube itself did. In 2006, an audience that eventually grew to more than six million watched CSI: Miami’s David Caruso don a pair of sunglasses after making a glib remark about a victim. He kept doing it for seven minutes, in basically a möbius strip of shades and awful one-liners. This clip was perhaps the most prominent supercut before the term was even coined, and it was not by accident. It was because of the way its creator cut away to the screaming finale of the opening credits in between each iteration, establishing a jokey rhythm and a perennial callback. Details like these are key.
Some supercuts end up garnering YouTube views in the hundreds of thousands, and sometimes even the millions. One of the people responsible for a large portion of those views is Nick Douglas, editor of the comedic website Slacktory, which satirizes pretty much everything about the Internet. Although his site puts out original comedy videos that don’t remix copyrighted content, and sometimes makes fun of Siri ads too, Slacktory also happens to be leading the charge in supercuts of late.
Along with Douglas, Slacktory has three main video editors who do most of the idea generation and cutting: Debbie Saslaw, Bryan Menegus, and Alex Moschina. Together, they’re pushing the boundaries of what a supercut can do, beyond just call out clichés and get some quick laughs. This team also advises anyone else to jump in and do so as well. Douglas spoke to Co.Create recently to explain how it’s all done.
Supercuts are more than a gimmick, they’re a genre. Some of our ideas come from an editor, and sometimes from me. Some are inspired by blogs, and sometimes they’re requests from people on Twitter or YouTube, or my girlfriend. Lately I’ve tried to emphasize single-show cuts. They look nicer, because there’s only one aspect ratio and it’s easier to get high-quality footage. They have a specific target audience that gathers in groups on Tumblr and Reddit. And they’re more about celebrating something than mocking it. It’s harder to find something no one’s noticed about a single show—we didn’t realize that Dot Com is a persecuted intellectual until Alex’s cut revealed how every time he says something smart, a main character punishes him for it. Tracy calls him a showoff, Liz calls him boring, and Jack calls him "off-putting."
That said, I love when an editor notices that a lot of rappers reference the TR-808 drum machine or that no one in a movie ever finishes a phone call. We often tweak an idea a few times before it goes up.
My friend Andy Baio, who coined the term and runs supercut.org, told me that most editors use TV Tropes (my favorite site on the whole Internet). When New Yorker TV critic Emily Nussbaum tweeted that she wanted a supercut of TV characters saying "this isn’t a TV show, this is reality," Bryan started with the TV Tropes page for that very phenomenon. ("Walking and Talking" is also mostly sourced from TV Tropes, where we realized we had enough walk-and-talks to just do the ones that mention walk-and-talks.) Debbie showed me Subzin, which lets you search film subtitles for specific words or phrases.
The research is the hardest part, but almost every popular television show has a wiki. There are tons of script databases where you can search for a specific phrase. Sometimes they even include the timecode where the phrase appears within the movie or television show. Downloading 40 or 50 films is the most time-consuming part. From start to finish, the process usually takes about a week.
People don’t often know how much work goes into these. We’ve gotten emails from a few of our subjects—actors or writers of shows we featured—thanking us and acknowledging that a good supercut takes real creative talent. At the very least, an editor needs to crawl through a lot of footage and do a lot of grunt work; that’s why the "tricks" aren’t precious, because the real hurdles are time and effort. Identifying and recognizing visual cues while skimming through a video is the "big secret" behind supercuts. From there, it’s just about compiling enough selections before editing.
I’m frequently blown away by the creativity these editors can fit into the genre. Alex experiments with "megamixes" like our compilation of Community’s "Shut Up Leonard" lines. Bryan timed the incredibly fast-paced Mad Men drinking supercut to some classic Horace Silver. Debbie made matching cuts called "I Can Explain" and "No Time to Explain," and she started our series of single-actor "career" supercuts with Claire Danes Cry Face. When Bryan Menegus was picking segues from Sex and the City, he realized he could string them into one long kind-of-coherent sentence. Also, we knew Wes Anderson loves to make people walk in slow mo, but it took us a while to set all those scenes to Ja Rule.
So far, my personal favorite supercut is "Louis C.K. Is Sorry For Everything." I’m often wary of conceptual cuts, as you can easily lose track and a supercut devolves into a mere "best-of" reel. But with this one, Bryan caught an essential part of the Louie experience and preserved the show’s tone. It’s like he got to the core of Louie: A guy steeped in disappointment.
Two terrible things can happen to a supercut. One, we can get a takedown notice because a clip runs too long. Supercuts are legal because of the fair use doctrine, which has mostly been legally defined on a case-by-case basis (which is a good motivator to be so transformative that no one could mistake our intention for mere piracy). And on YouTube, you don’t just have to follow the law, you have to not get flagged by bots that detect copyrighted footage. Thankfully, YouTube generally only takes down really non-transformative content. I’ve made a couple of mistakes using long clips and have learned to be more careful.
The second terrible thing is when someone replies to a supercut naming one fantastic clip that we missed. I can’t fix it and re-upload it, so I’m stuck knowing the cut is incomplete. Of course this happens all the time.
I don’t want to hide the tricks of making supercuts. I want more people making them! There are far too many to ever run out, and sharing techniques can only help everyone. I actually would really like to work with more editors, so please, any video editors out there should email me with samples of their best work.
Watch some of Slacktory’s best supercuts in the slide show above.
[Nick Douglas Headshot: Flickr user Scott Beale]