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Perspectives On Editing: A Conversation With Walter Murch

Oscar winning editor Walter Murch opened his discussion at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with a quote by Victor Fleming:  “Good editing makes a director look good.  Great editing makes a film look like it wasn’t directed at all.”


Murch began his career as a sound mixer/sound designer.  After being hired to work on the sound mix for “The Conversation,” director Francis Ford Coppola asked him to  take on the role of film editor as well.  Since then, Murch has continued to work in both sound design and editing.  Sound credits include “American Graffiti,” “The Godfather Part II” and “Jarhead.”  Editing credits include “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” “Cold Mountain,” and the upcoming feature “Tetro.”


Before he spoke at length about film editing, Murch presented a brief history of film.


“Film itself is 120 years old and editing is 100.  Film spent its adolescence with one trick: ‘Look at me move.’  Editing provides a sexual joy of the creative elements.  Mixing together different ideas to provide the birth of a third idea.”


Murch went on to examine the paradox that editing provides.


“Life is like one continuous dolly shot.  How life and motion pictures comes together is a mystery.  The paradox is that images are coming together to tell a seamless story, even though our life is not like this at all.  The way we put films together is a challenge.  A film editor must encourage this challenge.”


Before providing examples of editing styles, Murch presented the “Rule of Six” necessary for good editing: 3D space (where people are placed in the space), 2D plane (the stage line between the characters), eye trace (where the audience will place their eye), rhythm, story, and emotion.   Murch indicated there are times when all these rules can not be maintained during editing, so an editor must pick away at the rules from the bottom up.  Above anything else, he felt that the emotional integrity of the scene was the most important element for the editor to observe.


The first clip Murch shared of his editing was from “Tetro.”  In addition to the scene, Murch provided stills of the edit suite to discuss his personal style.  In addition to an intricate color-coded time line and thumbnails from each camera take, Murch takes extensive notes while watching dailies, then takes another, more specific set of notes with time codes after watching the clips a second time.


“I spend a lot of time in preparation, but it is invaluable,” said Merch.  “I don’t want to rearrange a script everyone liked.”


“Tetro” utilizes black and white footage for the present tense, and color footage for flashbacks.  Murch explained the process of reducing the color shots to 2/3rds the size of the black and white.   This prevents the viewer from associating the black and white as a downgrade from the color images as the movie cuts between the two film formats.


After showing a scene from “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” Murch explained the process of mixing archival footage with what was shot, creating a seamless blend between many different styles.  Tricks, including adding audio scratches and film run outs, helped the various film formats to be edited together in a manner that looked completely cohesive.


Murch discussed the discovery of “the blink” while working on “The Conversation.”  As he was editing, he noticed his cuts came simultaneously with the blinks of actor Gene Hackman’s eyes. 


“When we get an idea, we tend to blink,” said Murch.  “Gene Hackman is such a strong actor, that he was able to completely embody his character, including adapting that character’s thought process.  I found that I was cutting where Gene Hackman blinked, each time he had a thought.”


“Return to Oz” was a movie Murch directed as well as edited.  After presenting a clip, Murch felt he “knew too much” about what went into creating each shot.  He prefers working as an editor knowing very little about what it took to film each shot. 


“There are some directors, such as the Coen brothers, who are very skilled at editing the films they direct,” said Murch.  “I believe, however, that there is a benefit that arises between the collaboration between the editor and the director.  The editor has the ability to lend a guiding hand in the direction of the story that a director, who is so immersed in the shots, may not see.”


“Apocalypse Now” had three editors that were assigned the beginning, middle and end of the film.  Murch, who came on last, was given the beginning.  After Francis Ford Coppola expressed the desire to open the film with the jungle explosion, Murch utilized his sound design skills to match the chopping sounds of the helicopter blades with the rhythm of a ceiling fan actor Martin Sheen lies underneath.


Before the evening concluded, Murch referenced one last quote from Jean Luc Goddard to send the masses off with:

“Editing is the transformation of chance into destiny.”


For more information about the Perspectives on Editing series and other Academy events, please visit: