Cutting Unbranded - part two by Scott Chestnut

After cobbling together an opening and a title sequence I went back to cutting the film by working backwards through the "trips", looking at each section, pulling selects and making a cut.   During the ride, at each stop along the way, Phil and/or Korey would do interviews with the four riders to recap and talk about the next leg.  After transcribing the interviews we had 5 huge binders.  When he wasn't doing other things, Paul would go through the interviews and try to make selects of usable material.  It wasn't a very good system because most of what the riders said seemed redundant to the visuals.  What was really surprising to me was that in our vertie' material, after 150 nights around a campfire, there wasn't one interesting conversation about the wild horse issue or any other social issue - at least not while the camera was rolling.   They seemed like smart guys to me but there was never a serious discussion about, say, politics or even sex.  I kept digging but other than the two big arguments I used in the finished film it was a bit disappointing because I was looking for ways to integrate the discussion of the elephant in the room - the mustang issue - to justify making the ride but there was nothing.  I couldn't figure it out.  Did someone tell them early on to be careful that they didn't reveal too much because they might be made to look bad?  If that's the case, I guess I can understand the worry but still, they had a forum, they could have said anything.  Maybe it was question of focus.  Maybe they were so focused on getting through the trip that they didn't have time for discussion on anything outside of getting to Canada.  In any case, I suppose it was another one of those things that made it harder to cut the movie.

It took almost six months to have a version of the journey we could screen for friends.  That version, though three hours long, played as a complete movie with music and scenes and a fairly good pace.  When I'm cutting a film, I usually cut an intricate temp score that feels customized to each scene which helps the flow and will become a music template for whatever content ends up being in the finished film.  We committed to a scheduled date for the screening and to help meet the deadline Phil worked on the Grand Canyon section.  Later on, he pitched in on a few more sections which was really helpful - because he can cut.

The screening went over well but it was just the beginning of a series of screenings following changes based on notes and comments from groups of friends and the team.  Some notes were good and some were kinda crazy - which is common.  The important thing is to try to understand what motivates the comments people make.  I hate notes but they are critical to the success of a film.   Thanks to God we had no imperious blowhard who insisted on their way or the highway.   We had Dennis, Phil, Ben and Cindy.  Great partners in the process.  One of my pet peeves are comments that are not based on what's on screen but based on prior knowledge from the shoot.  Some people making comments repeatedly reacted to things based on what they experienced off camera and not on what an audience would see and wanted changes based on what was really an inaccurate perception. 


The Farrier survived and gave the riders credit for saving his life and when they shot the reenactment of the heart attack, they even got the same shirt which had been cut open by the EMTs.  It was hard to believe they were able to put it all together and it seemed like something that should be in the movie but...

After a couple of screenings it became obvious my attempt at a grave omen, i.e. the heart attack, fell flat as a gopher on the interstate.  Everyone felt it portended too much doom and didn't fit the character of the film as a whole.  Some people were really disturbed being convinced the riders were all going to die.   In an attempt to save it, I could have tried to make it less dramatic or figure out what wasn't working but we were long and had bigger fish to fry, so we just got rid of it.   Then I added the stuff of the cactus at the beginning and that seemed to enhance the feeling of risk for the rest of the film anyway.  


(spoiler alert). Some folks involved wanted the arrival at the border to be triumphant and happy but I didn't think that made any sense.  The real event and Ben's disappointment seemed to illuminate the problem of wild horses and also express my personal take on the theme (I had in my head) which is there are no simple answers especially when humans are involved.  Wild horses are a problem because some people mythologize horses and in the process buy into a way of thinking that isn't supported by facts and the result is an abdication of responsibility for good stewardship of resources.  There are parallels everywhere in society.   The hope for, or belief in, some kind of Santa Claus who solves problems so we all don't have to make hard choices is something you see more and more. Horses reproduce easily in the wild and too many horses overwhelm the rangeland so toxic weeds proliferate.  They don't eat rainbows and they don't poop butterflies.   The truth is the horses that are removed from the rangeland and taken to long term holding by the Bureau of Land Management get old and eventually have to be euthanized. But it's done after feeding them for 25 years.   We euthanize horses but in the most expensive way possible. Advocates think the BLM is sending horses to slaughter but the truth is 80% of horses sent to slaughter are domestic horses that breeders have bred and don't want.  The vanity horse, the unused 4 legged lawn ornament - that's the horse that goes to a slaughterhouse.  The wild horse goes to Kansas and eats expensive hay for 25 years.

Anyway, as a salve to the bittersweet arrival at the border, I tried to create a feeling of triumph and accomplishment for the audience when the riders left their last campsite.  I tried to create a scene where the music swells and there are shots from the trail so that the audience would have some positive emotion, like, look what we've overcome. 

After the ride, Phil had shot Luke being auctioned and I did cut of it but I kept feeling like we needed something more from Ben where he wraps it up.   We shot a few shots of Ben near my house with Dinosaur, Tuff and Gray Horse and I wrote a voice over where Ben could bring it back to the horses and use what I thought was a key word: "gratitude".  I thought if there were any lingering feelings among the audience that would hinder them from loving the film I thought it would be that the horses suffered during the trip but I thought I could help that perception if Ben said something like, I wanted to prove their worth but they did it themselves.  Ben added some stuff to my VO about the land and I added the very last line where he says ..."and a really good horse."  Then we moved the Luke auction later and Phil cut the end credits.  I wanted to give people permission to like the movie and that sometimes means addressing the possible negatives, either head on or in a subtle way.

I cut a new opening describing the fundamentals of the issue and we shot an interview with an expert, Bob Garrett, in Dennis' backyard.  Now we finally had an interview about the issue on which to hang that part of the film.  Ben and Phil went on a trip and shot a round-up and protests and I started cutting that once they returned.  We took that new version to NY to screen for an audience and we got useful comments.  One big comment was the issue part of the film didn't integrate into the ride very nicely and it was too long.  So running out of time to make a Sundance submission, Phil and Ben did a cut down of that material while I worked on other stuff and as a team we tried to work out better ways to integrate the issue.   I wrote the text of all the title cards while working out a way to describe the issues and we got there in the nick of time.  We still needed a firm statement of the purpose of the ride though.  Early on, Phil shot something of Ben talking about it but there were some tech issues so I asked him to re-shoot it.  We needed an economical statement to set everything up so I wrote out text for Ben to use - but something always seemed to go wrong, and it took five different tries to get it right.  And I don't mean 5 takes.  I mean 5 different trips out to a location to re-shoot.   When I asked them to go out to re-do it for the 5th time, Phil was about ready to shoot me.   Such is filmmaking.

Phil cut the book reading section and Thamer describing himself and we locked picture and shipped a cut.  

While we waited for word from Sundance, Phil and I worked together to choose a composer and we settled on Noah Sorota who was really a treat and did amazing work.   Working with him was the first time in my career where I felt I could tell a composer to recreate the changes and hits I had cut into my temp score.  He knew what I meant and he did it perfectly.   Andy Hahn saved our bacon with the maps and titles.   

I could go on about all the choices and decisions that were made in an attempt to make an enjoyable film because there were a lot.  You may have made films before but that doesn't mean you've made THIS film.  So making a film is what my dad used to call a SWAG, a scientific wild-ass guess.   Maybe what I've said in this look under the hood is a bit too inside.  If I've offended anyone, I apologize.   

I want to shout out for Korey who did amazing work on the trail.  His coverage of the true events made possible creating scenes like Dinosaur falling off the cliff or Donquita deciding to follow or Cricket's death.  Over the years I've had to pour through a lot of camera waving but Korey and Phil consistently made every effort to bring back real cinema.

Sundance did not take the film which was disappointing and worrisome but then we won the Audience Award at the Hot Docs festival even though most of the docs that had been at Sundance were there also.  Then a few weeks later we screened the film at Telluride Mountain Film to a packed house and a standing ovation.  At one point during the Q&A, I held the microphones for Val while he led a sing-along to Ghost Riders in the Sky and I wondered if I were in an alternate universe.

In the end, people seem to love the film which is very gratifying.  And if they love it, then back in the editing room we must have made some lucky SWAGs.


Cutting Unbranded - part 1 by Scott Chestnut

Unbranded is the story of four guys from Texas A&M who adopt 14 wild horses, (mustangs) and ride them 3000 miles from Mexico to Canada through public land in the West.   It took 5.5 months to do the ride and ten months to cut the film.   A few people, who sorta understand what a doc editor does have asked me about the process, so I thought I would shed a little light here.


Before they left on their trip, the horses had to be shawed (get shoes).  It was a hot day in Texas.  And it's no small feat to shoe 14 unpredictable mustangs.  The Farrier (horse shoe applicator) was a 68 year old record holder who had put shoes on thousands of horses, even a buffalo, but he was sweating profusely and looking pale.   Ben Masters, the leader of the four riders, was worried.  He was worried the Farrier would have a heart attack and it wouldn't be a very good way to kick off a journey of 3000 miles.   A new guy with a camera was filling in that day to shoot the proceedings for the documentary.  When the Farrier collapsed clutching his chest,  the camera guy turned off his camera. 

 "Wait" I said.  "He did what?"


The producer, Dennis Aig, asked me if I would be interested in working on the film while the ride was still in progress.  Dennis and I had worked closely together on a couple of projects in the past and I enjoyed working with him.   He's the kind of guy who will be there with you at 4am checking outputs when you have a deadline to ship a cut - not home in bed like most producers.

He showed me the Kickstarter trailer and also some of assemblies of sections of the trip that Phil Baribeau had cut.   The footage was great and it seemed like it could be a cool doc but I had a mixed reaction at first.  I thought making a doc about a big ride on mustangs to raise awareness of the plight of wild horses would be a good hook for a film - as long as it didn't turn out to be just a travelog.  I didn't think a chronicle of a long ride by itself would be that interesting for 90 minutes.  I also told Dennis after seeing Phil's clips that the ride seemed to be a lot of stress on some poor horses for the sake of what could be interpreted as just a frat boy lark, and might be a turn off for an audience, that is, if the wild horse issue wasn't prominent and the mission of the ride wasn't front and center.  And it seemed to me the real journalistic truth of the wild horse issue, not just the cliche or the myth, would have to be a part, maybe a big part of the film, to give it a level of social significance that IMHO docs need to have.  But at that point they were just trying to get to the border and nothing was planned.  No one involved in the project was a journalist as far as I knew (I'm not ) and I wondered who would take that role.  I didn't want to navigate that by myself but it looked like they were thinking that I would do it.  That worried me.

Mustang n. A stray horse commonly thought to have descended from Spanish horses.  Origin: From Spanish mestengo, a horse without a home.

A few days later I met Ben Masters, on the street outside the Unbranded office in Bozeman when he was on a break from the trail.   Ben was the guy who dreamed up the trip.  I called him out by name and he was a little surprised since he didn't know me.  He said he probably should get used to people recognizing him on the street and I liked him right away.  Based on the footage I had seen, I already admired his respect for the land and his concern for the horses.

A few months later, after the ride was finished and Will Springstead had finished syncing the dailies and Paul Quigley had finished logging, I started to work on the film.  Paul and Will both did an amazing job setting up the projects for me even though both had only graduated from film school a couple of months earlier.  The syncing took a heap of time but it was essential.  The audio is one of the unsung heroes of the film.  You can hear what people are saying. 

Paul had started out logging dailies in Final Cut 7.  At the time there was no money for Avid and none of us knew if Premiere could handle the amount of footage that was coming in and since I'd already done several films using FCP 7, I suggested staying with it.  Korey Kaszmarek and Phil were shooting so much footage on the trail that one project couldn't handle all the clips and ultimately Unbranded dailies took up 17 or 18 different FCP 7 project files.  I'm not sure how much footage there was.  Dennis always says 500 hours.   Whatever it was, it was a lot.

Before I started in earnest, I asked Phil and Korey to assemble the trips they shot so we could watch them as a team.  Between the two, they put together a long assembly - 13 hours worth.  It took the team, Phil, Dennis, Korey, Paul, Will, Vanessa and me,  a couple of days to watch the assembly and though it probably seemed like a crazy exercise it was a huge help for me - and I'm grateful everyone was up for it.   It was mind numbingly long but it revealed a lot.  The willingness to do the assembly is emblematic of the tone Dennis and Phil set for the post of the film.  Almost no request was too great.  Phil basically handed it off to me to do what I would do and he stayed available to make sure nothing got in the way of the process.  Even though it was a heap of material to go through and a real puzzle at times, the respect for the editorial process and the whatever-it-takes-attitude was a life saver. Still, on some levels, it was a real slog.  I had hoped the assemblies would help me cut the film, that I could cherry pick and build something from them, but I never looked at them again.  Sadly there is no short cut: I had to start the process of looking through everything.  With digital it seems like they never turn off the cameras and I've been told by producers on some projects that the assistant could watch everything and pull selects for me so I wouldn't have to do it myself.  But it doesn't work that way.  Editing is a process of deciding what to use but those decisions are based on deciding what to make out of what you have and what you might need.  I didn't really want to sit through 100 hours of GoPro footage of a horse's butt going up a trail.  But what if something happened in that footage that I could use or could give me an idea that would help the film?  I had to look at what we had.  Luckily Phil had been an editor so he understood the process and wasn't standing around looking at his watch, as in, what's taking so long?


The Farrier's son was pumping on his dad's chest but the old guy looked pretty well gone to Ben.  The ranch was miles from the nearest town.  Somebody yelled to call in a helicopter.  Tom Glover, one of the riders, ran to the ranch house and found a defibrillator hung on the wall.  He brought it out, tore open the Farrier's shirt and zapped him back to life.   He was still breathing when the helicopter arrived.

 - "Dramatic stuff.  Pull it up.  Let's watch it."

- "It was never shot." Paul replied. "Shoeing the horses was covered but once the Farrier went into cardiac arrest the camera guy put down his camera."

- "Are you telling me, at the start of a 3000 mile trek on wild horses, the subject of a feature documentary, a guy has a heart attack and the riders save his life and someone is there with a camera but he doesn't shoot it?"

- "Right..."

- "How is that possible?"


Phil and Korey would switch off during the tip every 12-20 days.  There would be cards to ship back to the office and batteries to charge and since Korey and Phil not only had to shoot, they had to take care of their horse and do all the things the other riders had to do, they really needed a break, so they would switch places.  As a result the dailies came in in chunks and that's how the FCP 7 projects were built.  We called them trips; trip 1, trip 2, etc.  I started cutting the film with the last section of the trip, trip 15 where they traveled through Glacier Park toward the Canadian border.  I started there because on most films I've worked the ending gets the least amount of work but needs the most.  I thought if I started there, I would have a clearer sense of where I was heading and also, the last part of the film would have the most time to marinate in my head while I was cutting the rest.  I watched every frame and made a selects sequence as I went.  Then I did a cut.  That cut was 15 minutes long.  Too long.  I did some math in my head and since there were 15 trips, I figured for a 105 minute film each trip would have to be about 7 minutes.  And that was just the travel part, that didn't include the documentary about the plight of the mustang for which there was no material anyway.  And there was still about 460 hours of horse back riding to watch.   Of course I knew we would have to drop some sections of the journey but I thought everything had to have its day in court so to speak so I wanted to cut everything with some kind of eye on the real time constraints.

Pulling selects is a focused activity.  Most people think you just veg out with a bowl of chips perched an your stomach like Homer Simpson.  But it's not.  You have to watch for stuff you can use and be thinking about what you can create.  You have to watch for ways to communicate tension and look for interesting or funny juxtaposition and ways to quickly convey new ideas - set them up and pay them off.  You're looking for anything that isn't obvious.  I think most editors would agree that it's a bit unjust that no one has any idea what an editor actually has to do to make a piece work, i.e. Not Be Boring.  But see, no one cares.  When people watch a cut which is working, they assume it was conceived that way by the director.  And sometimes that's the case.  But even then they have no idea that the reason the ideas flow and the emotions connect with the audience is because someone cut it the right way.  It even sounds stupid here.


I went back to the beginning and cut the horse shoeing scene, then for the part I didn't have (cardiac arrest and triage) I cut title cards describing the shots I wanted that would show the guys saving the Farrier's life.  I added music and at the end of the scene,  I added a stock shot of a helicopter flying away and a voice-over of Ben saying something about a bad omen.  It seemed to work.  And I thought it was a good way to add a sense of danger or impending doom to the ride.


After my cut of the arrival at the border, I wanted to cut an open for the film so I could set a tone for myself to follow. I like to have some kind of stylistic color in the back of my head to help me make choices.  But I couldn't do it.  First, I felt like it needed to be about the horses in captivity but I had no material along those lines and second, I didn't know that much about the issue.  I wanted the audience to feel there was a pressing issue that needed to be solved at the beginning - an inciting incident if you will - which is story telling 101 and the right thing to do - but it was a head scratcher.  It kept me up at nights.  How was I to add the facts of the damn horse issue to the film?  One of the producers shot some material of a rancher in Nevada and some interviews in DC but the cinematography was so-so (Phil and Korey weren't involved) and I wasn't excited about using it.  I kept telling Phil and Dennis that I needed material of a round-up and the horses in government holding and some well shot interviews but they wanted to be sure about what to get.  So it was 7 months before they shot any more stuff to address the issue.  Not having a feel for how to integrate the issue drove me sorta crazy.  Ben tells people I lost my mind cutting the film.  That's why.

Nonetheless, before shooting anything pertaining to the horse issue,  Phil and Ben decided to go to Texas to shoot some wrap up interviews with the riders and to shoot a reenactment of the Farrier's heart attack.  Maybe they were bothered by my title cards describing the scene.   Anyway, they brought back some fairly unrevealing interviews but they also brought back an amazing Oscar quality reenactment of the heart attack.  

Too bad we couldn't use it.  

To be continued.... 



Unbranded Wins by Scott Chestnut

Unbranded won the Audience award at the Hot Docs Festival in Toronto on May 4, 2015.  210 films were viewed at 476 different screenings by the most attendees they've had in their 22 year history: 200,000!   Next stop: Telluride MountainFilm Festival, Telluride, Colorado - May 22-25.

NAB 2015 by Scott Chestnut

I've been attending NAB in Vegas for many years because shooting has always been my first love and I am always looking for what is new in cameras and lights and grip etc.  I almost put a deposit on a Red years ago when it was just a brochure with a red shape on it.  Wish I had.  Glad I didn't.  Not sure which.

This year I did not get too excited about anything.  But I found several things that were interesting and some that were a bit sad.  A couple of things that were interesting were Lite Gear's new Lite Mat which comes in five sizes.  They are extremely light weight and have a high CRI but I was really surprised how expensive they were.   Of course not that expensive when you compare the Lite Mat 3 for $1500 to the kino flo celeb 400q which is over $6000.

Mole Richardson put LEDs in the old zip soft light.  But the LEDs don't light the reflecting surface of the scoop evenly and there's a hot spot at the bottom which seems to ruin what that light was good at in the first place.  Am I the only one who sees this stuff?  Sad.

The Chinese Kinefinity and the Mini Kinefinity looked interesting but the language barrier in the booth presented a problem.  I'd like to try the Mini out myself because the footage looked great and the price was compelling but I couldn't work out a way to set that up in Chinese.  Nee how....

One of the most interesting and saddest things is to see Canon continue to tie itself in knots trying to figure how to change the 5D into a video camera while making it more expensive to buy.  Six years ago I was in the Canon booth standing near two suits wearing Canon name tags who appeared to be members of the Canon ENG camera division.  They were talking about the 5D in hushed tones.  There was a small monitor on a table showing some shots from a couple of television series that were using the 5D.  (At this time there were no DSLRs at NAB.)  Canon's ENG cameras were 2.2 megapixel on a 2/3 inch chip.  The 5D was 21 megapixel on a full frame 35mm CMOS chip which looked amazing - and it sold for a fraction of the price of any of the ENG cameras.  Anyway the two suits were shaking their heads, they couldn't figure what it all meant but they didn't like it. (Some may remember how at that time manufacturers of other cameras were saying the Red camera would never work which clearly it did.)

So this is just my guess based on what I witnessed in the booth that day: the Canon still camera division included HD video recording on the 5D because they could do it and why not.  Their sensor and image processing were great.  Problem was the video division was happy in their news camera mediocrity and once they woke up and realized what was going on they were embarrassed by the big tectonic shift the 5D was part of and they cried foul.  And I think Canon created the Cinema EOS line hoping to cash in on the 5D's movie cred and at the same time slowly roll back the still division's foray into video.  

The new camera they just released, the XC-10, seems like another attempt to prop up the video division.  Here's why:  they compare it to the 5D, but the chip in the XC-10 is a one inch chip - which is tiny.  I saw the image and I thought it was not much better than my iPhone.  The 5D looks amazing partly because of the immense sensor.   I understand that a smaller sensor will allow higher data rates - ie 4K but I can't understand why Canon didn't at least go with micro 4/3 like the GH4.   Maybe they mean it to take the place of a GoPro.  But a GoPro is $2000 cheaper.  Did they have parts laying around?  I'm confused.  My assumption is they are trying to release products that address requests from users, like 4K, without undercutting other products in the line but there is a problem with that thinking and I'll get to that later.

Meanwhile they improved the C300, because the original was clearly being eclipsed by other manufacturers like Sony with the FS7 on up to the F55.  I didn't get to handle the C300 mk 2 myself but I think it's probably very nice.  Still Canon seems to have abandoned the large chip - full frame - state of mind.  I mean of course they did.  The video division was happy with 2.2 megapixels on a 2/3 inch chip, right.

The problem with their complicated machinations is that the 5D proved the still division could make a beautiful HD camera with a full frame chip for a low price and the secret is out.  If you add 4K recording with a robust codec and decent ergonomics to that camera for a reasonable price you would have a great camera but they don't because, well I suppose, it would undercut the video division.  Sony gets it.  Look at the A7S.  It's full frame and it can output 4K for the same price as the Xc-10.   Canon gives us the 1D-C which will record 4K with a windowed sensor but it costs three times as much.  I prefer the Canon look to Sony but Sony is stepping into the gap between the Canon divisions and making a killing with the A7S and the FS7.  But the knowledge that Canon can make a great camera for a very low price but won't do it with 4K in an attempt to prop up the price of their other cameras tends to irk some users.  You see it on the 5D user blogs. 

Maybe the Canon folks don't understand the impact the 5D had and the reason why.  Maybe they think it's all about price but Zeiss didn't start making cine lenses with a Canon EF mount because the 5D was cheap.  They did it because the 5D made an amazing image and people like me loved it.   Was it perfect?  No.  But what it did have is being being eliminated.  I shot a feature with a 5D and while there is moire and rolling shutter, that camera consistently made me look good in spite of those flaws.  The Canon still division caught lightning in a bottle with the 5D.  I've seen material shot with Magic Lantern and an anamorphic lens that easily matched the Alexa.

Here's more, the Panasonic GH4 offers 4K and every other feature the 5D mk III and the 7d mk II do not. The same is true of the Sony A7S.  The video features of the Canon DSLRs are intentionally being dumbed down in an effort to drive motion producers to the cinema EOS line.  The C100 mk II is another example because it can't record at a bit rate that is even equal to the 5D mk II at 50 mbps - they dumbed it down.  What Canon is doing is sad because IMHO they have the best sensor - next to Arri.

It's hard to imagine anyone who would buy the XC-10.   That camera is a bit of a joke really.  I don't think it's even useful for a drone with that dumb lens.  I think Canon should make a direct competitor to the Alexa and the Red and charge whatever they want and get it over with.  I think their sensor technology is good enough.  But the XC-10 just seems a little insulting when they try to spin it to be as good as a 5D.  They could put 8K on it - it's still a joke.  And that is sad.   

Sorry about the long winded post.

Look here... by Scott Chestnut

When I was a beginning film student I was really worried about smooth cuts.  I couldn't figure out why Hollywood movies were so smooth compared to all the student films at Montana State and I thought smooth cuts were key to keeping the viewer engaged and a key to quality filmmaking.   (Little did I know that years later I would end up cutting music videos where jump cuts were preferred).   Anyway, as it turned out the answer was simple but also complex.  It was simple because the secret to a smooth cut was just telling a good story.  But it was also complex in that there were a lot of small tricks one could use to distract the viewer so that the cut itself didn't distract from the experience of the film but enhanced it. 

For a long while I was obsessed with where the eye was looking in the frame.  I tried to figure out every shot ahead of time to design where the viewer would be looking - the center of interest - and shoot every shot in a way that would direct it.  I used to carry around a small piece of plexiglass and a red pen so I could show my DP where I wanted it.   Eventually I figured out good composition would mean there was something on the upper right or upper left third most of the time to intercept the eye.  So I stopped trying to force it.  But it's useful knowledge sometimes when some cut that should work doesn't.

One day I was watching The Road Warrior and I realized I was mid-blink whenever there was a cut, meaning my eyes were closed during the transition.  Wot??   This was before Walter Murch's book In the Blink of Eye.   (Props to Walter the genius.)  I couldn't figure how the editors, there were three, knew when I was blinking.   I'm still not sure how they knew.  I've worked out my own technique but other than what Walter says I have no idea.  I'd like to ask one day.   (BTW, It's a function of pace and what the actor is doing or the moment when the viewer changes focus or assimilates an idea).   I suppose it could also be that George Miller was having the operator frame everything in the center as he purported to have done on Fury Road.  Maybe.

One thing that always bothered me were match cuts.  You know those times when you want to cut to a wider or tighter shot on some move of the actor.  Those cuts always seemed painfully obvious to the viewer.  Somewhere along the line I discovered the cut improves when you advance the action slightly across the cut.  You cut away on the move the actor makes but instead of picking up the incoming shot where the movement matches you go past it.  I don't know why it works but it does.  Maybe it's because the viewer appreciates brevity even if it's only frames.   Sometimes good cutting is all about a little bit of cutting to what matters and ignoring matching altogether.   Of course there are blatant mis-matches that are impossible to reconcile - one of the end scenes of Fatal Attraction comes to mind... But still, the lesson is the audience appreciates economy.  

One trick I learned from another editor: Sometimes in the interest of efficient story telling you need to put together shots that just won't smooth out and are obvious to the viewer,  his solution is to put three short cuts together which match in length.  If you think about the cuts when you watch, the cuts look jumpy but if you put yourself in the mind set of the viewer and the story, those lousy cuts go by like a hot knife through butter -as long as they are during an interesting conflict in the story that is.

My favorite is a cut which is an answer to a question in the mind of the audience.  It can be an obvious cut or an ugly cut but the viewer will love it if it answers their question in a humorous way.

The best way to distract the audience is to have something going on in the story which creates another layer, in other words, subtext.  Shakespeare used a device all the time, like Polonius eavesdropping behind a curtain, which created a level of reality beyond the artifice of the play.   If you invoke the imagination beyond what is in front of the audience they forget about the fakery.  Inception is a good example of this idea.  When there is subtext, the viewer spends part of the time thinking about what they can't see and when that happens the illusion of reality is complete.