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December 20, 2003

Walter Murch Edits "Cold Mountain"

Dear Friedrich --

You may enjoy this interview with the film editor Walter Murch, here. Murch, who was a film-schoolmate of people like Lucas and Coppola, edited the new movie "Cold Mountain" on a bunch of Macs, using the off-the-racks software package Final Cut Pro -- evidently the largest, most complex film project yet edited on Macs. He's enthusiastic, and he seems to have no major complaint about his experience, though it has to be kept in mind that the interview was done by Apple.

He gets off a couple of thoughts I found especially interesting. When asked what he misses about traditional celluloid-based editing, he responds:

I think there are only two areas where something is missing. When you actually had to make the cut physically on film, you naturally tended to think more about what you were about to do. Which — in the right proportion — is a good thing to do. The cut is a kind of sacramental moment. When I was in grade school they made us write our essays in ink for the same reason. Pencil was too easy to erase.

The other “missing” advantage to linear editing was the natural integration of repeatedly scanning through rolls of film to get to a shot you wanted. Inevitably, before you ever got there, you found something that was better than what you had in mind. With random access, you immediately get what you want. Which may not be what you need.

I love that distinction between bolting directly to what you want and stumbling into what you need. He seems to be nailing something that a lot of people sense happens when you move from the analog world to the digital world.

Murch is a thoughtful guy, by the way -- a bit of a philosopher as well as a sensitive film editor. (He's probably best-known for his work on "The Godfather, Part II" "Apocalypse Now" and "The English Patient.") I've enjoyed his book In the Blink of an Eye (buyable here), as well as Michael Ondaatje's book-length set of conversations with him (here).



posted by Michael at December 20, 2003


Murch does raise some interesting questions. Perhaps the most interesting is the notion of cutting his film as a silent movie, and then finding out what is weird when the sound is turned up.

I think the tensions between cinema as the silent movie and cinema as sound movies are at the heart of good moviemaking. Most of my favorite, all-time-knock me on my keister movies were made either as silent films (e.g., "Steamboat Bill Jr.") or by directors who had extensive experience making silent movies (e.g., Fritz Lang's "M" and Carl Dreyer's "Day of Wrath.") I would say that the clear problem with the average Hollywood movie of today is that it how little sense you can make of itwith the sound turned down. (I watch a lot of movies on airplanes without the sound; if I can follow them, I'm amused and otherwise I can usually make up a story from the images that is more interesting than what the soundtrack--which, typically, carries all of the storytelling in the average Hollywood movie--will give me.)

Maybe I'm more of a modernist than I realize: what I seem to prize above all in moviemaking is that it heightens your awareness of what the medium is or can be. Sort of like those moments in songs where various instruments go silent and let you see the internal workings of the music as they are added back in. It seems like there are two ways to go with movies: slam-bam, shove everything in the mix, go for energy-energy-energy or cut back, and be thoughtful about every element that you let in the movie. I know which approach I prefer.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on December 21, 2003 12:23 PM

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