I was lucky enough to meet Walter Murch in 2011 when he presented as part of the Chicago Humanties Festival. He made a distinct impression. Arguably the most celebrated editor in the film business, he has won three Academy Awards, in both sound and film editing categories, and has been nominated for numerous other honors. This success is due, in large part, to a nearly insatiable drive to connect cinema within the larger canvas of human experience.
1. The Power of Extreme Curiosity
Murch is a polymath. He wears many hats: artist, philosopher, historian, technician. He is fascinated by how the brain works and how our minds process images and sounds. Murch’s latest film, “Particle Fever,” examines the world of high-energy physics. He both directed and edited the film, a prime example of how he stretches normal boundaries.
His talks also cross borders. Topics range from quantum particles to ethics and anthropology. He keeps bees, studies music and architecture.1 This is no accident. He actively seeks out new information beyond the film world, new ways to connect and combine ideas. Ultimately, this knowledge becomes raw material for his creative work.
That’s good advice for students and professionals alike.
2. Being “Good in the (Edit) Room” – People Skills
Meet Walter Murch and you will likely see a quiet confidence. He is open and generous with his time, invites others to share their ideas. I watched him lament the demise of Final Cut Pro with an editor colleague, then turn to speak with TFA Focus Post student, Adam Bruno. Whether with professionals or students, Murch has that ability to make one feel that they are talking to an old friend. These are the marks of not only a successful artist, or successful professional, but also of a successful person.
Now, some of the film stuff.
3. The Importance of Sound Design
It is no secret that sound is often an after-thought for filmmakers. “Film is a visual medium,” we are sometimes told. Murch again reminds us to think more broadly. If we consider sound from the beginning of our project, we exponentially expand our creative possibilities. Consider “Apocalypse Now.” Think of the fan blades in a lonely Saigon hotel room, how they meld with the sound of helicopter rotors, or how the Do Long Bridge sequence sounds like a macabre carnival.
These are two instances of what makes the film not just art, but a masterpiece.
4. Cutting for Emotion more important than for Continuity
In his book, “In the Blink of an Eye,” Murch emphasizes the emotional value of an edit far more than simply the mechanical smoothness of the continuity cut.2 This underscores a larger point: he is more concerned with human interaction, meaning and desires, rather than just the mechanics of matching action and “continuity.” This is often difficult for beginning editors to grasp. This is perhaps because students are often more concerned with the concrete over the abstract, the tools rather than the art. As Murch acknowledges, these things are all connected. But editing rises to its highest form when the tools serves the aesthetics and the art; the concrete is subsumed by metaphor. Remember the Dawn of Man sequence in Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” One of the most famous edits in film history, the animal bone, used as a primitive murder weapon, flies through the air, it’s action matched by the spacecraft floating above Earth.
Tens of thousands of years pass, civilization rises, spaceflight emerges, all in less than 1/24th of a second. One edit. There is continuity to the action, but the art comes from the metaphor: mankind as the savage and the sublime.
5. Organic Growth & Connectedness: The Blink
In many ways, the creative process mimics organic growth and evolution. Ideas are born, they grow, disperse and collide. Most die off, but if they are good, or simply useful, they can live on, combine, spread and continue to grow. Art connects humans with meaning in the world. But what makes motions pictures unique as an art form is not the motion, but the editing of the motion. The power comes from the collision of images, and sounds, which creates a third idea. This organic process is the foundation of our introductory Production Module class at TFA. Murch tell us why it works. The cut works because it is based on human experience, on the way we perceive the world. We blink, we see something novel, we embrace a new idea, we create, we grow. The “Blink” works because it has grown organically from our experience as human beings seeking meaning, in perhaps the best way we have discovered: by telling stories.
1. http://www.theguardian.com/film/2013/jun/20/walter-murch-sound-god-particle-fever. Retrieved 8/3/14.
2. Murch, Walter. “In the Blink of an Eye,” Silman-James Press, Beverly Hills, CA. 2001, p.18.