The Conversations - Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film

Submitted by Robert Alstead on Mon, 02/02/2004 - 16:00

In 1997, the English Patient won 9 Oscars, with veteran editor Walter Murch claiming two of those for sound and picture editing. The film also saw the beginning of a friendship between Murch and author Michael Ondaatje on whose book the film was based.

Ondaatje was fascinated by the film-editing process, and when he finished his novel Anvil's Ghost, asked Murch if he would do a series of talks with him. Murch agreed and the series of conversations that they had between Spring 2000 and June 2001 was compiled into this inspiring book.

Some of the subject-matter here would have been well suited to a DVD format, perhaps with the two men offering commentaries on the many film scenes that they touch on. However, the range of cinematic and non-cinematic references that these five informal "conversations" make, from the pioneering days of cinema to Murch's recent projects (Apocalypse Redux, The Return to Oz - Cold Mountain, which he recently received an Oscar nomination for, is not included) would have made assembling such a DVD an almost impossible task. The book also makes liberal use of film stills, photos, edit sheets, screenplay notes, edit boards, script drafts and other visual materials which convey aspects of the process being discussed.


Highly theoretical at times, but always stimulatingly so, the exchange sweeps over a range of artistic and scientific endeavour. One minute the conversation alights on the subject of Renaissance painting, the next the texture of a sound effect in a scene from The Godfather, the next Murch is relating mathmatical patterning to the edit process or explaining how the lines in a stanza of poetry resemble cuts in a film (Murch translates into English poems the writings of little known 20th Century Italian writer Malaparte). The range of Murch's learning is quite amazing: someone who can cite Beethoven, Flaubert and Edison as major influences on his thinking and make it sound like a perfectly normal combination.

If you are looking for a primer on editing this is not it. Murch's earlier book, which has become a classic on the subject, In The Blink of An Eye, might be more helpful. The Conversations do go into details of Murch's working methods, which are fascinating in themselves, but these are scattered throughout the exchanges. More on that later.

It is understandable for someone whose career in cinema developed from boyhood experiments in sound montage to audio editing work with George Lucas on his pioneering sci-fi movie THX1138 and American Graffiti and Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather, that Murch has such a well-developed sense of the aural.

Some of the most rewarding passages of the book are of Murch on sound. He talks about using the "shock" of silence in film, and the proper use of music to enhance an existing emotion not to dictate it. He describes how he uses sound to subliminally create character, incident or even to make transitions. He makes you believe that sound can say more than is being seen.

Even when talking about picture-editing it is as if he is talking about sound. He talks about visuals "quietening" and "amplifying" the emotion. In one scene in the English Patient one of the characters, Kip, was completely removed from a scene to allow a greater emotional resonance of the other character. Another scene had to be cut completely because it was too powerful and diminished the power of a climactic scene.

Some ideas keep recurring in the exchange, in particular on the nature of structure and the limitations that existing footage places on editors. Coppola, who shot Apocalypse Now on a ratio of 1:100 (hundred minutes of film shot for every minute of film used), offered Murch great freedom in the edit suite. Lucas, he says, prefers more control in realising his vision.

Here the author's experience offers a good complement to that of the editor. Ondaatje shares Murch's fascination with the process of creativity, the conflict between controlling an original vision in its entirety and how far to allow randomness, colloboration and other outside variables infect and colour a work.

"Too crystalline and it's lifeless, too organic and it's spineless," says Murch succinctly.

Murch likes to get deep into a subject from the start of a project. He offers the director notes before the shoot and builds detailed visual logs of the shoot as it develops. He has a method but that includes being open to randomness.

Films rarely go smoothly from beginning to end, so by necessity he must be ready to improvise on the director and screenwriter's original vision. In The Conversation he had to work without ten days of material from the screenplay because Coppola had to go off and make Godfather II before completing the shoot. Murch describes to Ondaatje shot by shot how he compensates for a missing scene in Redux (it wasn't shot because a typhoon hit the film set) where Willard makes a deal to buy the bunny girls for his crew members for a night in exchange for gas.

It's hilarious to hear how Murch reappropriates shots - for example, he has used shots of actors not remembering their lines "a number of times" because that perfectly natural moment of panic that sweeps across an actor's face can fit a scene so well. And you thought they were acting?

Another memorable Apocalypse anecdote suggests why some footage is unsalvageable. Five months into the editing of Apocalypse Now he discovered an entire rack of film featuring Harvey Keitel as Willard (Coppola replaced Keitel with Martin Sheen after a month of shooting). He realised immediately why the footage was unusable. "It was like meeting a brother you never knew you had, " he says. DVD extra, anyone?

Murch's method

Together Ondaatje and Murch conjure up a headspinning number of metaphors for the creative process. Murch likens filmmakers to cathedral builders of the Middle Ages whose intuition for what is right must compensate for their primitive tools and shortcomings in knowledge. Although Murch has been working with an Avid since 1995 (i.e. the early days of digital editing), he suggests that we are still in the "double-chandelier phase" of filmmaking, half gaslight, half electricity.

At the same time, Murch says that he looks back at the work he produced in the mechanical era of film-editing and he says he wouldn't have edited those films any differently. The principles remain the same.

"The three things that you are deciding over and over again are: What shot shall I use? Where shall I begin it? Where shall I end it? An average film may have a thousand edits in it, so: three thousand decisions."

One of the most important things he thinks every editor should do when chosing an out point for a shot, whatever their approach, is what he calls a "flinch". He rolls the shot and then hits the editing button when it feels instinctively right to turn away from that shot.

When he does this he logs the frame (or marks the neg with a grease pencil) where he stopped the clip, repeats the process and if he catches the same frame again he knows that was the right cut point. If he is out even by a couple of frames (there are 24 frames in a second of film), he knows that it wasn't quite right and he needs to look at that edit decision again.

"It's almost an involuntary flinch, an equivalent of the blink of the eye. That flinch point is where the shot will end," he says. "It's very similar to gunslinging. That's the reason I stand when I edit."

He then looks up to the board for that particular scene, a series of representative stills from each setup in the scene, to find the next picture that his eye is intuitively drawn to. The boards, with around 40 images on each, allow him to juxtapose scenes that would normally appear in a straight linear sequence in the screenplay and suggest to him permutations on the original narrative.

When starting the next edit, he looks for a shot that carries something visually interesting in the focal point of the preceding shot. He likens it to carrying a dot around on the big screen. "The editor's job is to carry that dot around in an interesting way."

He also does the first assembly in silence. "I construct the whole scene silent, run it back silent, and make revisions in silence." Murch says this is partly so that he is not distracted by the often rough dialogue captured at the time of filmming before being cleaned up, so that he can imagine the ideal sound.

That's a very simplified account of his process. To really begin to understand the variations and subtleties of his craft you'll have to read the book.

The Conversations - Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, by Michael Ondaatje, Random House (2002)