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Apocalypse Now and Then

A Conversation With Editor/Sound Designer Walter Murch
by Jennifer Wood

With a filmography consisting of such celebrated films as The Conversation, Apocalypse Now, The Unbearable Lightness of Being and The English Patient, Walter Murch has worked with some of the film industry's most talented directors-and stood alongside each one as an equal collaborator in the success of these films. His careful rendering of image and sound (often simultaneously) proves his definition-and understanding-of cinema goes deep beneath the surface. He displays an unerring ability to capture each movie moment with honesty and realism; with each gesture displaying a powerful emotion and each sound furthering the story. With eight Oscar nominations to his credit and three wins-including an unprecedented double Oscar in 1996 for editing and sound on The English Patient-no one could argue that Walter Murch is not one of the all-time great masters of his craft.

In this conversation with MM, he talks about the digital revolution that has taken over his craft, the benefits and challenges of having a dual career and how his experiences on Apocalypse came to define his career.

Jennifer Wood (MM): You just released the second edition of your classic editing book, In the Blink of an Eye. There have been a number of changes in your craft since the book's initial release in 1995, most notably the use of digital technology. Previous to 1995, what were your own experiences with digital technology?

Walter Murch (WM): I'd done The Godfather trilogy-which is all three of The Godfather films together. We did that on the Montage system, which was an analog system. It used many, many, copies of VHS tapes all controlled by a computer, but the image itself was analog. I'd done a few music videos using the Avid and I'd done a montage sequence for a film using an Avid. I'd been an interested observer of all of this since the '60s when I saw the first CMX system that was capable of doing five minutes of film at a time in black and white.

MM: But The English Patient was the first feature film you edited digitally?

WM: It actually started out on film and we switched to digital-probably the only time that ever happened-and now, obviously, nobody will ever do that again. It was quite a thing to, in the middle of shooting, switch from one system to another.

MM: You were in California doing the editing at this time. The challenges of learning of a new system coupled with the fact that you were 7,000 miles away from the director, Anthony Minghella, must have been posed a number of challenges.

WM: The learning curve was very steep, which in computer language is very good. I was up and running in a couple days-not operating at maximum efficiency, but operating. Edie Blyman, my assistant, had experience on the Avid so if I had any questions I'd just lean around the corner and ask her.

MM: This may seem like an archaic question, but as someone who's had great success editing both digitally and mechanically, what are the advantages and drawbacks to digital?

WM: As a complete system-meaning you shoot a film and 10 months later you have the film in theaters-it takes about the same time now as it did then. Our schedules haven't really changed that much. It takes a certain amount of organizational and human resources to get film into the Avid. Once it's in there and cataloged and databased, then certain parts of the editing can go much faster, but then you have to get it out at the other end and that also takes a certain amount of time. When you're editing film alone, you look at dailies and you can come right back to the room and start editing the very footage that you just looked at. And as soon as you've edited it, you can take it immediately to a screening room and look at it. In other words, there's always a lag with the Avid because the film needs to be telecined and then digitized before you can cut it. And then once having cut it, if you want to look at it in a projection room, you have to conform the film. So certain parts of the process-the part that I concern myself with-move much faster if you're working in a completely digital world. But if you look at the whole system from the outside, there isn't really that much of a gain.

Because we have to operate simultaneously in the digital world and in the analog world, we hire just as many, if not more, people. The advantage, of course, is great flexibility-in the middle of a cut you can suddenly switch from reel six to reel four and then go to reel five and jump around, You can save those versions and then create a whole other version. You can go instantly where the spirit wills you, whereas with film, once you've started on editing a reel you really have to stick to that and get it done; it doesn't make any sense to jump around. You can follow your creative impulses with digital, as there's less furniture to move around.

I was always a believer in following that little voice that whispered 'why don't you try it this way?' It just meant in the old days that I had to push furniture around to do it, and it took a little more time to file the trims and to put away all those rolls and bring in the rolls for the next reel, but I would do it. The disadvantage of digital systems, from a creative point of view, is that it is so effective at random access that it inhibits the browsing that you had to do by necessity if you were editing on a KEM or a Steenbeck. By browsing I mean putting up a 10-minute roll of film and scanning down through the roll to find something that you wanted. Invariably, when I would do that in the old days, I would find three or four other things that would flick by that would be different or in some cases better than the very thing that I was looking for.

MM: Do you think that it's a good idea, then, for those who are just starting out in the craft to learn to edit mechanically, then advance to digital?

WM: Probably not. It is a disadvantage, but there are so many other advantages to digital and the whole purpose of being young and starting a new technology is that you're going to discover things that I never knew. So if it happens that you edit a film normally, it's not a bad experience to have under your belt. On the other hand, the wind is blowing so irrevocably in the digital direction, I think you just have to be aware that the creative process should push you in directions not necessarily that you want to go but that you need to go. Doing what you want is not always the best thing. What I've done to compensate is come up with techniques such as printing a frame or two or three from every setup and mounting those on boards and putting those boards up on the walls of my room as I cut a film. In a sense, that compensates for the lack of browsing because I'm browsing with my eyes over these images always. They're always saying 'Don't forget about me.'

Eventually, we will find the digital solution to my problem. But it's a fairly deep problem because it relates to the way images are played on a computer. When you thread up a roll of film on the KEM and run at high speed, you're actually seeing every frame of the film as it goes by very fast, whereas if you ask any of the digital systems to go fast, they do it by deleting material. If you want it to go 10 times normal speed, it will show you one frame out of every 10, so you're just not seeing 90 percent of the material. It's a very different kind of experience-and not a pleasant one for me at least. That's why I don't browse so much in the digital world-it just isn't as rich an experience.

MM: In addition to the work you've done as a film editor, you really helped to revolutionize the way sound was used-and perceived-in film. What are the differences in editing sound and film, or do you look at them as one in the same?

WM: No, they're different sides of the same coin. When I assemble a scene for the first time, I do it silently. Even a dialogue scene, I'll cut without listening to the sound because it tunes me more closely into the body language and the little tiny things that an actor does. If you're listening to what they're saying, you're a little blind to them. I feel I'm a hunter and I need my night vision goggles in a sense, so I edit silently.

That's a great advantage of the Avid system. The sound is always there, but you can choose to hear it or not. Whereas with KEM, Steenbeck and Moviola, you had to work with the sound simultaneously, or you had to go through the laborious process of adding it later.

The main thing is that sound is like music; it's harmonic, meaning you can have lots of different sounds at the same time as they all interpenetrate each other-whereas picture is more exclusive. If you're looking at a picture of somebody's face, you can't see visually what's behind them; if that face was a musical chord, you could. You could hear not only the note, but you could hear other notes simultaneously, so you hear that totality of the musical chords and you still hear the individual notes out of which it's composed. Image is exclusive. You can see Harrison Ford's face, but you can't see what's behind it. He has to move out of the way if you want to see what's behind him.

The same thing applies to film editing: a shot is onscreen and, by necessity, if it's onscreen then the next shot is not onscreen, except for when you're doing a dissolve. When you're editing images, you think in a more on/off way: something is either seen or not. With sound, everything is slightly transparent and the edges are less clearly defined, and that gives you a great amount of creative flexibility in what you do with it.

MM: Can one help storytelling more than the other?

WM: They both can. The disadvantage of doing a story through sound cues is that the audience is less aware of what's happening. Sound has the peculiarity of seeming to simply be there and not to have been placed there by the filmmakers. The bell in the background or the freeway or the creaking stair, all of those little sounds that happen are in fact all placed there by the filmmakers very deliberately and chosen to be that and not something else. When an audience looks at the film, if the film is working, they simply accept all of that as a given whereas an image, by its nature, is more present in kind of a confrontational way. It says 'Here I am, do you like me or not?' whereas sound can insinuate itself into your thinking without you being aware of it. It's kind of like what happens if the alarm clock goes off while you're sleeping: you incorporate that sound into your story. Versions of that are happening all the time in films-or at least in films that make a creative use of sound.

MM: Do you then have to approach a film like The Conversation, which relies equally on image and sound to tell the story, differently?

WM: I always try to make sound important. The thing about The Conversation is that, first of all it's a film about a man who records sound and the film is seen completely through his point of view, so you naturally tend to think about the sound more because that's what he does. If he was a tailor, you'd think about the clothes instead, but he's a sound recorder so you start to think about what he does and listen to the world the way he does.

MM: In that film in particular, the audience is placed in the position of Harry Caul. When he's only hearing 40 percent of the sound, we're only hearing 40 percent.

WM: Yes, you are getting all the information he's getting and no more. The other thing is that somewhere at about the halfway point, the amount of dialogue in the film drops quite low. The 'conversation' keeps getting repeated, but the usual back and forth of dialogue goes away and the amount of words that are spoken by people diminishes. When that happens, it's like at night when the moon has gone away-you start to see the stars more on moonless night. I think people pay attention to sound effects in a film where there's less dialogue, because you're mind is free to think about the little things rather than the big things-which is usually dialogue. It so occupies the human mind that the mind doesn't have a lot of space left over to consciously listen to the sounds. You are appreciating them, but maybe subconsciously. So The Conversation is both a film about sound, and it gave you the space, filmically, to appreciate sound. But in fact I didn't do anything more to the sound than I would on any other film. It's just the shift in focus and the space to allow the focus to happen that I think is significant.

MM: You've talked about suggestion being more powerful than exposition; that moviemakers should try to do the most with the least. How do you incorporate this philosophy into your own work-not just as an editor and sound designer, but as a director and screenwriter, as well?

WM: It's a general principle and the normal flow of a film is that when you have assembled all of the material and stand back and look at the film for the first time, it's usually one and a half, sometimes twice or more, times longer than it should be. If you're aiming for two hours, sometimes the first cut is four hours long-or three, usually. The next impulse is 'Oh my god, what are we going to do? How can we cut out 25 or 50 percent of what's in front of us and still tell the story?' So the initial pass when you first start cutting a film down, that goes pretty quickly-oh well, we don't need that shot-but then it gets much less obvious the deeper you go. What can you remove and still have the film tell itself? And almost always you will find that the film likes things to be removed from it. It's like poetic compression: if you can find one word that will replace three, it's usually better. There's a limit to that, of course. If you have a three-hour film and the producers come and say you need to make it 60 minutes, there's probably trouble.

In general, try to replace dialogue with images that do the same thing. If somebody says 'I'm hungry,' it's better to find the take in which they look hungry or you put them in a situation in which it's clear they're hungry rather than having them say it. It's more a general principle with me and it's something we're doing all the time, this relentless pressure to make a film as short as it can possibly be and still be effective.

MM: Editing Apocalypse Now must have posed a challenge to that principle, with more than one million feet of film to cut and two years in post-production. What was the Apocalypse experience like for you?

WM: It was a multiple editor show, so I was not the only editor on the film. I actually came on to the film late in the process. Richie Marks and Gerry Greenberg were already working on it when I joined the crew so there were three and sometimes four editors working on the material simultaneously. No one editor had all 1,250,000 feet of print to deal with. In terms of the time, we were never told 'You have two years to edit this film.' We were always chasing a deadline that was usually about four or five months ahead of us, and then it was clear as we got close that we weren't going to make it, so there would be a crisis and then it would be extended again. It was not as luxurious an experience as it seems when we say we were two years in post-production.

MM: What did you learn from working on that film that you were able to bring forward into your other moviemaking experiences?

WM: When I think about what I've done in film, I always think about my life before Apocalypse and after Apocalypse. For me, and many of the people who worked on the film, it had a defining experience to it. Of course I learned things editorially, but I learned more in sound on that film. The other half of what I was doing in those two years was working on the sound, and it was a film that broke all kinds of barriers in the sound world, inventing this new format. What we call 5.1 today was invented for that film-by us. It was the first film to use an automated mixing board, it was the first film to use 24-track recorders synced up to the picture. Creatively, the use of sound is adventuresome. Francis's advice on the sound was that on one level he wanted it to be realistic-he wanted the weapons and everything to be really what they were. He wanted also to have a psychedelic edge to it because this was the first war with drugs and rock and roll playing an important part in what the soldiers were experiencing. Obviously, having rock and roll is quite easy, you just have rock and roll on the soundtrack, but he wanted there to be this sometimes very strange twisting to the sound. How we achieved that was part of the adventure to the film.

MM: When you were given the chance to revisit the Apocalypse experience 20 years later, what were your initial thoughts?

WM: Well, I was frightened about it in advance, just because I'd been so long on the film before I thought-oh here I am, I'm going to get sucked back in-no one will ever hear from me again! But, in fact, it went very smoothly, partly because we were doing everything digitally, and it was much easier on that level. Also, we were restoring the film to the structure of the original screenplay, so the film was relaxing into itself, so to speak. The first time, to get it down to be two hours and 20 minutes, we had to do some very creative things to bend it into that shape, and it took a lot of time and mental activity to figure out how to do that.

MM: Do you have a preference between the original and the Redux?

WM: Both versions stand equally, as far as I'm concerned. The present version is an indication of the work that Francis set out to make. It's got all of the beats and all of the moments that were in the original screenplay.

MM: What has your experience been on films where there are multiple editors? How many people is too many in the editing room?

WM: I've enjoyed it every time I've done it. You expand the number of people to do the amount of work required. It's always been good, in my experience. I can imagine that it could be bad, but it's never been bad for me. Somehow, even though each of you may have different styles, the film is the thing that rules the roost and everyone finds that they start thinking in the same way. Even though you may be cutting different scenes, you start to become part of the same organism.

MM: Do you like to spend any time on the set when you're editing a film?

WM: No, I try to avoid it as much as possible. I love to see only what's on the screen. I don't like to overly know how the film was shot or under what conditions. It's another thing that allows me, as much as possible, to have the point of view of the audience.

MM: How do you see the collaboration between the director and the editor? What is the ideal collaboration for you?

WM: I think it's similar to the director-actor or director-cameraman relationship. The editing is not unique in any of those senses. The editor is a performer and the editor comes up with a version of a scene, just like an actor comes up with an interpretation of a character. And the director that is presented with that as a fact either accepts it, rejects it or says 'That's very good but what if we modified it in this direction?' The difference, of course, is that the director and editor are in the same room for months and months and months on end with the same material. So you really have to be almost part of the same organism, you have to get along on a human level.


K-19: The Widowmaker (2002): Editor/Sound
Apocalypse Now Redux (2001): Editor/Sound
The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999): Editor/Sound/Score Producer
Dumbarton Bridge (1999): Consulting Editor
Touch of Evil: Director's Cut (1998): Editor
The English Patient (1996): Editor/Sound
First Knight (1995): Editor/Sound
Crumb (1994): Sound
I Love Trouble (1994): Editor
House of Card (1993): Editor
Romeo is Bleeding (1993): Editor/Sound
The Godfather Trilogy (1992): Editor
The Godfather: Part III (1990): Editor/Sound
Ghost (1990): Editor/Sound
Call from Space (1989): Editor
The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988): Editor
Captain Eo (1986): Editor
Return to Oz (1985): Director/Writer
Dragonslayer (1981): Sound
Apocalypse Now (1979): Editor/Sound
Julia (1977): Editor
The Godfather Part II (1974): Sound
The Conversation (1974): Editor/Sound
American Graffiti (1973): Sound
The Godfather (1972): Production Consultant
THX 1138 (1970): Sound/Writer
The Rain People (1969): Sound
It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963): Sound


This article was published in MovieMaker Magazine :

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