Book review: Walter Murch's In The Blink Of An Eye

Submitted by Robert Alstead on Mon, 03/01/2004 - 16:00

A few weeks ago I reviewed the stimulating series of "Conversations" between film editor Walter Murch and Michael Ondaatje, where the two talk about the art of narrative and film editing. In The Blink of An Eye is a much shorter book, a 146 page paperback to be exact, written at an earlier date, in which Murch shares his ideas on the craft of film-editing.

In a way, I've looked at these books the wrong way round. The more compact In The Blink of An Eye reads almost like a precis of Murch's ideas raised in the more loosely structured Conversations. One advantage is that "Blink" is more formally organised than the other book, so you can easily dip into its short chapters at will.

In The Blink of An Eye is a revised transcription of a lecture on film editing given by Murch in the mixing theatre at Spectrum Films in Sydney Australia in 1988, and was subsequently revised to reflect, in particular, changes in digital editing in 2001 (the digital section is almost half the book).

While the time Murch was writing seems some way off now in this fast-paced digital era, Murch's approach doesn't look too worn by age. This is partly because Murch offers a more historical perspective on the development of digital editing since its early days in the late Sixties when he was dabbling with prototype machines and his prognosis for the future of digital editing looks years beyond where we are today. Also, even though technology seems to move at light speed, many of the tenets of film editing remain the same.

Murch's strength is in seeing the bigger picture. He is able to prick the imagination with metaphor and see things differently. He refers to a spectrum of subjects you wouldn't normally associate with film, as well as his career experience of working with some of the most talented filmmakers around - George Lucas, Francis Coppola, Anthony Minghella to name a few - to enliven what could easily become rather abstract or dry subject matter.

He regularly draws parallels between historical artists working with other mediums and film editors sculpting works with keyboard and mouse or the machinery of traditional mechancial editors, in a way that helps deepen one's understanding of the creative process of editing.

For instance, he notes that although digital film-editing systems offer many obvious advantages over mechnical editing - increased speed, reduced cost, fewer assistants, easier access to the editing room and so on - he suggests potential disadvantages by drawing a neat historical parallel. The ability for one person to digitally edit a film will have removed a form of apprenticeship for film editors. "All of the great painters of the Renaissance started out as assistants to established artists," he says, adding on a different note, "I can't count the number of times that feedback from my assistants has kept me honest about what worked or didn't work. They are my first audience."

The early part of the book offers an intriguing explanation on why film cuts work at all - Murch offers a convincing argument that dreams have prepared us for the cut and thrust of film editing.

He goes on to explain how the blinks of our eyes punctuate our thought patterns and how the editor can use the actors' blinks to select his in or out points.

"There are places in a conversation where it seems we almost physically cannot blink or turn our heads (since we are still receiving important information), and there are other places where we must blink or turn away in order to make better sense of what we have received. And I would suggest that there are similar points in every scene where the cut cannot or must occur, and for the same reasons."

Each chapter looks at such questions as how to choose what material to keep and what to discard (" the thing that you should preserve at all costs"), working with other editors ("the main advantage to colloborative editing is speed; the main risk is lack of coherence"), and test screenings ("you get a reaction, but it is a skewed reaction").

There are many practical nuggets of wisdom, like why he starts the editing process by laying out a series of representative stills from the movie and how he places little cut-out figures at the bottom of his computer screen to help create the illusion that he is editing for a big screen.

It would have been nice to have heard similar tips and tricks on solving tricky editing situations, but there are still plenty of welcome insights and ideas. This remains a stimulating read for anyone interested in the film editing process.