‘Maybe we will have 150 years ahead of unimagined excellence in film’
Editor and sound designer Walter Murch, who worked on Apocalypse Now, The Godfather Part II and the upcoming Tomorrowland, thinks the digital revolution has militated against reflection – but could also lead to a golden age
Walter Murch in Galway. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy
Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now
Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott-Thomas in The English Patient
Robert De Niro in The Godfather, Part II
A combination of “plumbing, writing and performing” is how New York-born editor and sound designer Walter Murch describes his work. Murch, who pioneered north California cinema with George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, is regarded as a master of his craft.
The first of Murch’s nine Oscar nomination was for sound on Coppola’s The Conversation (1974). He won the gong for Apocalypse Now (1979) and took a record double Oscar for sound and film editing on The English Patient (1996). The Godfather, Part II (1974), The Talented Mr Ripley (1999) and Cold Mountain (2003) are also on Murch’s CV, as is the just released Tomorrowland, starring George Clooney.
Murch has written several books, makes honey from his bees and “even invented the splicer”, as fellow editor Declan McGrath reminded an audience of some 200 film-makers who came to hear Murch speak at a recent event hosted by the Galway Film Centre as part of the Unesco city of film. Murch, who is now in his early 70s, is a polymath who, at some other time, might have been an astronomer, a physicist or an artist like his father. As he told the audience in Galway, his profession has experienced a very rapid evolution.
“Of all the arts – dance, theatre, writing and painting – it has been the one that has developed almost completely within one human lifetime,” Murch says.
A business without a future
He recalls that Auguste Lumière, who invented the moving picture with his brother Louis, once told a potential investor that cinema was a “business without a future”. Lumière was convinced that the public would eventually become weary of the short, YouTube-type images that he and his brother developed: these “single shots capturing human motion, and then what?”
The “then what” was resolved by those early editors who began to cut and splice film images together and arrange them, jigsaw-like, into a coherent “continuous reality” that engaged an audience. Motion pictures had spent a “blissful childhood” of some 13 or 14 years without knowing how all that worked.
Murch says the ability to draw the audience, Lewis Carroll-like, through the screen and allow it to feel as if it is “moving around with the characters in the story” is something that every editor strives for. He loves the “mass intimacy” that cinema offers. He also loves the French, Spanish and Italian description of his craft as a montage, comparing the fluid connection of “images and sound and ideas and emotions” to “a type of metaphysical plumbing”.
Some “plumbers” have experienced so many technological advances that it almost demands a postgraduate degree just to keep up, he quips. When Murch worked on Apocalypse Now, some 1,000ft of 35mm film lasted just 11 minutes and weighed 11 pounds, which translated into seven tons for the entire workprint.
On Particle Fever, the 2013 documentary he edited about the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, the digitised workprint would have been the equivalent of some 16 tons of film – “unthinkable” even with the budget for Apocalypse Now.
In Murch’s view, this “transubstantiation of matter into information” is one of three big events that have had profound impacts on human activity over the past 500 years. The first, money and currency and the invention of banking, grew out of a realisation that “we don’t have to take this half ton of gold from Rome to Florence just to prove we own it”.
The second, energy, also had a practical focus, when the human race realised that the invention of electricity meant that “we didn’t have to have a steam engine or water wheel at every factory any more”.
The third, the information revolution over the past 15 years, has reduced time, energy and equipment requirements with “the flick of a wrist”, Murch says. There is now an “agonising first week” of every film, where workflow has to take account of technological upgrades, and where metadata, or summaries of basic information about data, is “as important to keep track of as the image itself”.
The “tsunami of material” that digital technology allows for is “definitely a problem”, Murch says. On Apocalypse Now there were four film editors, whereas he was on his own for Tomorrowland, and he had to deal with a record 36 resets of one shot.
It also militates against reflection. “Because everyone is looking at what the camera is seeing, they think they’ve seen it,” he says. “And no one looks at the dailies any more” (the “dailies” being the daily raw and unedited footage). In his view, that gathering in the “inner sanctum of the projection room” has a “sacramental quality, which picks up the vibes . . . particularly those of the director”.
Murch classifies directors into two types. There is the “black box” type who, if confronted by Mephistopheles holding a black box of films, would reach into a wallet and buy 10 of them. Alfred Hitchcock was one such. Then there are the “snowflake” directors who love the process of making a film, and believe the final piece of work to be “greater than anything they could imagine”.
The “random beauty” of snowflakes is in their rapid crystallisation as they fall to the ground, with each one encountering slightly different atmospheric conditions, Murch explains, turning to one of his favourite topics. “If a snowflake had all the time it wanted, every one would probably resemble a bathroom tile . . . so it’s the process that adds the beauty and irregularity.”
Murch prefers not to spend too much time on set with either category. “I don’t really want to know how big the set is, or what it smells like, as it burdens the mind unnecessarily.” He prefers to “put his head down and look at the director’s shoes” if he has to venture on set.
His preferred way of editing is standing, “because it is better for your health, and because, like the work of cooks and composers and surgeons, editing is a temporal art which demands time”.
McGrath asks Murch if he thinks the craft of editor is under threat, now that everyone can use an editing suite.
“We are heading towards a situation today that exists in football, where everyone can play and this allows them to watch the World Cup as informed players,” Murch agrees.
However, far from feeling threatened, he sees the benefits, pointing out how ordinary folk had little or no access to published music or musical instruments in the early 18th century. By the end of that century, publishing houses were producing music, composers were upping their game, and ordinary families could afford to buy a good piano or violin.
“The phenomenon demanded excellence in performance, and produced a surge of great classical music from the mid 18th century,” he says. “So maybe we will have a century and a half ahead of unimagined excellence in film . . . just as we had with music from the 1720s.”
Murch quotes Victor Fleming, director of Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz: “Good editing, whatever that is, makes the film look well-directed,but great editing, whatever that is, makes the film look like it wasn’t directed at all.” Tomorrowland is on general release