Over at MTV, they don’t seem to feel terrible about this. A company fact sheet asserts, as a kind of slogan, ”MTV zooms by in a blur while putting things in focus at the same time.”
Music Television began broadcasting in the summer of 1981, with the Buggles singing, appropriately enough, ”Video Killed the Radio Star,” followed by the Who, the Pretenders, Rod Stewart and others in hybrid blends of music, images of musicians performing and other rapidly intermixed images, real or surreal, related to the music or not, but always cut to the music. The basic MTV unit was a three-minute movie created around a song. You might have been forgiven for thinking it was meant as a sort of wallpaper, something to put on in the background when you didn’t want to watch television. Wasn’t it really a descendant of television’s Yule Log, burning away eternally at Christmastime before a fixed camera while carols played on the audio track? Certainly the music video was premised on short attention spans. It is a three-minute format within which no single shot is likely to last more than a second or two.
Now MTV is one of America’s foremost cultural exports, playing to 270 million households, including those reached by the Palapa C2 satellite over Southeast Asia, the Morelos 2 satellite over Mexico and Panama and the Sat 3 over South America. Besides music videos — which have evolved into a fantastically crisp and artful genre — the network has sent out its own talk shows, pick-a-date game shows and, most intriguingly, animated cartoons, like the famous, dimwitted, superironic Beavis and Butt-head.
The not-so-hidden premise of Beavis and Butt-head is that even music videos are slow-paced and boring, so you need an overlay of comic commentary. In their own way, though, Beavis and Butt-head are painfully slow — MTV going conventional and letting story, rather than music, dictate the pace. The MTV animation style is deliberately static; it makes the typical Disney feature look like a madcap action film. The dialogue staggers along as if through dense mud, and the comedy relies heavily on pauses and reaction shots (so standardized that the animators call them by name: ”Wide-Eyed 1,” ”Wide-Eyed 2,” ”This Sucks”). ”We love pauses. Pauses are like, hey!” says Yvette Kaplan, the supervising director, as a bit of tape makes its way through the editing room, a segment involving an impotency clinic.
”Oh, yeah,” Butt-head is saying in the sequence now running over and over again through the editor’s screen. ”Huh-huh. Me, too. Huh-huh. Maybe that place can help us score.”
Of all the visual arts, animation takes the tightest control of every fraction of every second. On carefully diagrammed sheets, each consonant and vowel of each word is assigned to its precise one-twenty-fourth-second frame. The characters’ mouth movements have been reduced to an essential grammar of just 7 to 10 basic positions, enough to cover all English speech. This particular joke strikes the team in the editing room as . . . slow. There seems to be a lag in the line. ”The pacing is everything,” Kaplan says. ”When it’s flowing, it’s just safer — you don’t have time to drift away and miss the humor.” They delete the ”me, too” and nudge the pace forward a bit more by deftly overlapping the final fraction of a second of the soundtrack with the visual track for the next scene. Alternatively, they might have jumped to the next scene’s dialogue before cutting away visually, or they might have started the music for the next scene early — clever pacing techniques that viewers have learned to interpret automatically and unconsciously.
”The audience has gotten more sophisticated, and you can take certain leaps without people scratching their heads,” says Abby Terkuhle, the president of MTV animation. And of course, we’re starting young. ”It’s intuitive,” he says. ”Our children are often not thinking about A, B, C. It’s like, O.K., I’m there, let’s go! It’s a certain nonlinear experience, perhaps.”
Problem for the next generation: ”Movies at a theater take FOREVER to watch — no fast forward,” says a character in ”Microserfs,” a 1995 novel by Douglas Coupland. ”And VCR rental movies take forever to watch, even using the FFWD button.” The solution: ”This incredible timesaving secret: foreign movies with subtitles! It’s like the crack cocaine equivalent of movies.” You can watch even an art film in less than an hour. ”All you have to do is blast directly through to the subtitles, speed-read them, and then blip out the rest. It’s so efficient it’s scary.”