The Walter Murch-opedia
Film Editor Walter Murch is a legendary figure within the annals of film editing’s 130+ year history.
I think Walter’s legendary status comes in part due to his achievements in film editing; having been nominated for 9 Oscars across sound and editing, winning three. Two for his work on The English Patient (one for editing and one for best sound) and another for best sound on Apocalypse Now.
Walter also has nine BAFTA nominations, with three wins. Two for The Conversation, sound and editing and one for film editing on The English Patient.
But I think his exalted status is also due to his unusually in-depth articulation of his analysis of the art, science, psychology and philosophy of film editing and sound design. The aim therefore of this article is to bring together all of the best interviews, books, videos and articles I can find on Walter Murch, into handy place. Of which, there are a lot.
I’m not the first to do this, the Walter Murch Archives Twitter feed is a growing list of Murchian treasures, and his Walter Murch’s Wikipedia entry, includes details of his many other awards and honorary doctorates.
Walter Murch started working in the film industry editing and mixing sound on Francis Ford Coppola’s The Rain People (1969) before working with George Lucas on THX 1138 and American Graffiti. He then worked again with Coppola on The Godfather. In 1974 Murch edited picture and mixed sound on Coppola’s The Conversation, picking up his first Academy Award nomination in the process.
Throughout his long career he has often been credited as a re-recording mixer on many of the films he has cut as an editor. Unusually for an editor he has also co-written and directed a feature film, Return to Oz, in 1985.
Don’t miss the final section in this long post that features more sound design focused interviews and articles on Walter’s work.
Browse through his IMDB.com listing for all his credits, but for younger readers highlights include: Apocalypse Now, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Ghost, The Godfather: Part II, The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Cold Mountain, Jarhead, Tomorrowland.
In the latter part of his career he has also edited two documentaries Particle Fever and most recently Coup 53.
I think every age has a medium that talks to it more eloquently than the others. In the 19th century it was symphonic music and the novel. For various technical and artistic reasons, film became that eloquent medium for the 20th century." #WalterMurch #filmediting #filmmaking pic.twitter.com/4wzNtlIb8h
— Inside The Edit (@insidetheedit) November 29, 2018
The Best Books on Film Editor Walter Murch
These three books are the best that I know of when it comes to reading your way through Walter Murch’s thoughts on film editing, art, life, science, philosophy, music and many other topics!
Walter is currently working on a new book, Suddenly Something Clicked, which should be out in 2021.
In The Blink of An Eye
One of the best known, and most frequently referenced books on film editing is actually written by Walter Murch himself; In The Blink of An Eye.
First written as an essay and then expanded in this 2nd edition, Murch’s take on film editing is often more metaphysical than technical (although he is that too) and In The Blink of an Eye addresses the fundamental question of ‘why do cuts work?’
One of Walter’s main theories is that the eyes blink when the brain’s thought changes, like a full stop at the end of a sentence. So if good actors are immersed in their performance, cuts will come just before they blink.
Another famous extract from the book is the idea of the ‘rule of six’, which breaks down the six elements of what makes a good cut.
Art of the Guillotine has a really interesting post on some of the history behind the book and even a free pdf download of the original introduction from Australian editor Ken Sallows who first transcribed the lecture on which the book is based and pushed it to publication. Without Ken there would be no In The Blink of an Eye!
If you’ve not read Walter’s In The Blink of an Eye then you’re missing out on a major pillar of the books-about-film-editing genre.
That’s the main point of my Rule of Six in the book “In the Blink of an Eye”. Emotion, Story and Rhythm are the top three – with Emotion at the very top – and issues of continuity are at the bottom – with three-dimensional continuity at the very bottom.
In some abstract world, every cut would tick each of those six boxes. But we don’t live in that abstract world, nor would we want to. And since we live in the real world, to make every cut work you’re going to usually have to let go of something. And my recommendation is to let go from the bottom of the list up.
Let go of three-dimensional continuity first and then work your way up. After that, if the only way to make a cut “work” is to abandon two-dimensional continuity – the 180? rule – then, by all means, do that.
But when you get to the top three – rhythm, story, and emotion – by all means try to hold on to them.
If you have to sacrifice one of those top three then sacrifice rhythm first. But only if doing so preserves a powerful emotional impact and story sense.
If you have to let go of story for a moment and just go with pure emotion, do that.
But it’s risky – you can’t stay in that zone too long – you have to get grounded in story as soon as possible. It’s kind of like those training flights which allow astronauts to float within the belly of the plane, so they’re weightless for forty-five seconds or so, but they can’t stay there long. Gravity has to exert its force again.
Story has – or should have – a kind of compelling gravitational force to it. – Walter Murch
Editor Steve Hullfish has interviewed Walter at length for his excellent Art of The Cut series, and in one portion they discuss two of the three books listed here, which is well worth a read as it’s packed with interesting anecdotes and insights.
Behind The Seen
Behind the Seen: How Walter Murch edited Cold Mountain using Apple’s Final Cut Pro and what this means for Cinema, is probably one of my favourite books on film editing and the filmmaking process, that I’ve ever read.
Why is it so good?
Because it provides such a rare in-depth, personal and insightful guide to the editing of a film, as experienced by the editor day by day. For example, there are copies of Walter’s own journal entries and emails scattered throughout the book, which is something I’ve not seen except in Eleanor Coppola’s amazingly intimate Notes: The Making of Apocalypse Now.
It’s also provides an interesting read given the technological revolution that the film’s use of Final Cut Pro 3 (and early 4) was at the time. If you want to know what it looks like to use uncharted technology on an $80 million movie then read this book!
It’s also an excellent read for anyone wanting to know what life is like as a film editor on a film of this size and scope, how it evolves through the post production process and so much more. Behind the Seen is a lovely big size, stuffed with behind the scenes images and the glossy pages carry a comforting weight to them.
If you love film editing, you’ll love this book.
A different kind of book all together, The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, is a series of transcribed conversations between Walter Murch and Michael Ondaatje the writer of The English Patient, who became friends during the making of the film.
Film is really a kind of theater of thought. You’re watching people think in movies, which is the fascinating and completely unique experience of film versus other kinds of theater, where the thoughts have to be expressed in words.
In film, of course you have words, but mostly you have thought and attitude, and that attitude is mostly expressed in the eyes of the characters.
The book’s focus roams fairly freely during their many conversations, covering a whole heap of topics, including many of Walter’s films. It is also packed full of behind the scenes black and white photographs and tid-bits from several decades of iconic filmmaking including Apocalypse Now and The Godfather Part III.
Film editing is now something almost everyone can do at a simple level and enjoy it, but to take it to a higher level requires the same dedication and persistence that any art form does.
If you like Murch’s work and want to know more about the man and his musings on the craft then this is an excellent read. If you just want to know more about film editing then you’ll be in for a treat too.
Christopher Nolan / Paul Thomas Anderson
Two wonderful film directors.
Two different styles of storytelling.
Consider pace, rhythm and shot length.
Which film editing style do you prefer?
more analysis: https://t.co/oU72sfyYRu#filmmaking #averageshotlength pic.twitter.com/7fybEdIZiM
— Vashi Nedomansky, ACE (@vashikoo) December 3, 2018
Not Murch, but a similar Murchian thought from Editor Vashi Nedomansky, which reminds me of this moment in In The Blink of an Eye, where Walter talks about how he worked on Apocalypse Now for nearly two years, while the final film only has a a certain number of cuts in it, resulting in a 1.47 edits per day ratio.
He reasoned that if he knew exactly which edits to make ahead of time he could have come in each day, made one edit and thought about the next one before going home. The next day he could have come in made that edit and another and then gone home again and so on. In this way he could have edited the film in the same amount of time.
How to Edit like Walter Murch
OK so full disclaimer, this part of the post obviously won’t teach you how to edit like Walter Murch, but it will break out of a few of the techniques he likes to use when editing.
First you need to stand to edit. Walter Murch used a standing desk before it was cool.
I believe every editor should stand to edit. That’s just my particular soapbox.
Some things are so delicate and depend on such fine, delicate work. One frame in one direction or another can make such a difference and it is, in that, like brain surgery.
Next you need to cut in silence.
When I’m actually assembling a scene, I assemble it as a silent movie. Even if it’s a dialog scene, I lip read what people are saying.
You’ll also need to cut out some little people to put around your monitor or TV (preferably surrounded by a black cloth for that cinematic experience) to remind you that this image will one day be seen on a much larger cinema screen.
For film nerds, here's Walter Murch's audience perspective thing updated for 2017 movie screens. pic.twitter.com/Ru7xaQaGja
— Taika Waititi (@TaikaWaititi) August 5, 2017
It also helps if you craft complex visualisations of your storylines through a system of coloured post it notes to represent different character arcs, cross cutting of scenes and story-turning points.
In this example from Particle Fever, you can see how he uses post it notes in creative ways to mark time, breaks, turning points (diamond notes) and more. Using this level of detail probably emerges of time and practice, but sitting down to think about what you need to see, with the notes before trying to create that visually can help you start with a workable system.
Seeing things visually often helps you to think through the problems in the story and see how the current layout is causing those problems.
Using different colours also helps to keep multi-character pieces, whether scripted drama or corporate talking heads – it doesn’t matter, organised in such a way that you can see how much of each character there is. Maybe you have too much of one, or it’s too clumped together.
Ideally you would replicate the Post It notes colours in your timeline clip colours so that you can keep both your Post It Notes and your timeline in sync as you progress through the edit.
Another favourite technique of Walter’s, and many other editors, is to print poster images of each shot available to them in a sequence and stick those images to poster boards that they can have on the wall. This helps the editor to familiarise themselves with, and create serendipitous collisions, of images and shots in the footage.
In this video from Walter editing Cold Mountain you can see everything we’ve talked about – the poster boards, the post it notes, the little people, the standing desk and the different NLE.
Use a different NLE – Walter has edited feature films on Final Cut Pro (versions 3 to 7), Adobe Premiere Pro and Avid Media Composer. No doubt he’s also tried his hand at Lightworks, FCPX and DaVinci Resolve by now too.
In the 50 minute presentation above you can learn how Walter edits from the man himself and more about his experiences switching to Adobe Premiere Pro.
In these short clips from Walter’s latest feature length documentary edit of Coup 53, you can pick up a few tips on how Walter likes to edit in Premiere Pro.
More on the Rule of Six
Walter Murch somewhat scientific approach to judging the qualities of a cut is described in his book In The Blink of an Eye as:
- it is true to the emotion of the moment
- it advances the story
- it occurs at a moment that is rhythmically interesting and “right”
- it acknowledges what you might call “eye-trace”—the concern with the location and movement of the audience’s focus of interest within the frame
- it respects “planarity”—the grammar of three dimensions transposed by photography to two (the questions of stage-line, etc.)
- and it respects the three-dimensional continuity of the actual space (where people are in the room and in relation to one another).”
Walter likes to weighs the importance of the criteria with the following percentage values:
- Emotion (51%)
- Story (23%)
- Rhythm (10%)
- Eye-trace (7%)
- Two-dimensional plane of screen (5%)
- Three-dimensional space of action (4%)
“The values I put after each item are slightly tongue-in-cheek,” he writes, “but not completely: Notice that the top two on the list (emotion and story) are worth far more than the bottom four (rhythm, eye-trace, planarity, spatial continuity) and when you come right down to it, under most circumstances, the top of the list—emotion—is worth more than all five of the things underneath it.”
You can hear Walter describe these in a bit more detail in the short video above.
Walter Murch – The Documentary
The 2006 documentary, Murch, is a full-length documentary by editor Edie Ichioka and directed by her husband David, which provides an interesting journey through Walter’s “unconventional approach to his craft, leading us through the productions and experiences that have influenced his methods and techniques in filmmaking.”
Edie worked as a First Assistant editor for Walter on Godfather Part III and The English Patient and in this clip from the Edit Fest LA 2018 women in editing panel, Edie shares a clip from the documentary and a brief thought on what it was like to assist him.
Walter Murch – The Movie
Another feature length documentary on Walter Murch is Sight & Sound: The Cinema of Walter Murch by Jon Lefkovitz. The trailer is above and a 2 minute introduction is below.
Mining over 50 hours of lectures, commentaries and interviews given by Walter over the years, Jon Lefkovitz, a self-described ‘mash-up’ artist, editor and director, decided to make Sight & Sound: The Cinema of Walter Murch as his fourth feature film.
You can watch the full film for free right here!
How Walter Murch Edited Coup 53
At the time of writing the latest film Walter has edited is Coup 53, for which he also has a writers credit. Directed by Taghi Amirani it tells the story of Operation Ajax, a staged coup by the CIA/MI6 that overthrew the Prime Minister of Iran in 1953.
Watch Coup 53 online
The filmmakers have self-distributed the film by partnering with over 150 independent cinemas and festivals, splitting the revenue from each ticket sale (£10/$12) 50/50 to help support these smaller operators. You can watch the film online and support your local house of culture (in the US, UK, Ireland and Canada) through the Coup53.com site.
As history lessons go, this is a powerful one in which a wealth of interviews and stunning graphics have been pulled together, with extraordinary attention to detail, into an intricate but lucid whole. – Wall Street Journal
Coup 53 is getting great reviews (100%) on Rotten Tomatoes right now from a broad spectrum of reviewers, so be sure to check it out!
Part political drama, part history lesson, part gripping spy thriller, Coup 53 gives what has been relegated to a small footnote in Iran’s story the big, expansive, dramatic treatment it deserves. – Empire Magazine
Walter Murch gave this presentation at a LACPUG meet up, describing the ins and outs of his four year journey with the film. The style of the film brings the audience into the filmmaker’s journey of trying to bring to light what really happened.
The clips Walter shares make it look like a fascinating process!
My first day on the job was in June of 2015 and here we are talking about it in August of 2020. In between, I was teaching at the National Film School and at the London Film School. My wife is English and we have this place in London, so I’ve been here the whole time.
Plus I have a contract for another book, which is a follow-on to In the Blink of an Eye. So that’s what occupies me when my scissors are in hiding.
Oliver Peters interviews Walter in this great article on the film, which also reveals there’s another book coming! Walter emailed to say this will be out in 2021 titled Suddenly Something Clicked.
[OP] Between the old and new material, there was a ton of footage. Please explain your workflow for shaping this into a story. [WM] Taghi is an inveterate shooter of everything. He started filming in 2014 and had accumulated about 40 hours by the time I joined in the following year. All of the scenes where you see him cutting transcripts up and sliding them together – that’s all happening as he was doing it. It’s not recreated at all.
The moment he discovered the Darbyshire transcript is the actual instance it happened.
By the end, when we added it all up, it was 532 hours of material.
The whole interview is packed with interesting creative and technical insights, well worth a read!
Walter is interviewed at length by editor Steve Hullfish as part of his superb Art of The Cut series, focusing in this article on Coup 53 specifically.
Some of those scenes that were shot in the editing room, you see these colored cards up on the wall. That was how Taghi and I wrote the original eight-hour timeline — by thinking about what things are essential scenes for this story in its biggest version.
And then I would cut a little card and decide on the right color and decide on the right size and then up on the board it would go. And then once we had all of them in a provisional structure then we started moving them around — seeing how we could improve that structure.
And at a certain point you just kind of leap off the diving board and start putting stuff together.
The whole interview is well worth a read and has a very detailed breakdown of how Walter uses those post it notes to map out the storyline of the whole film.
By using colors you’re talking to a different part of the brain and the colors mean different things to me about the emotional content of the scene. And if it’s a big scene then it tends to be a bigger card if it’s a kind of connective-tissue scene, then it’s as thin as I can make it.
And if it’s what I call a “pivot scene” or an “elbow scene” — a scene where the direction of events suddenly change — then I make that scene into a diamond shape. Graphically, this shape declares “This is a pivot scene. Things are leading up to this scene, and after this, things are not going to be the same as they were before.” In any film, there are probably six or seven of those diamond-scenes.
The ultimate answer is: when I come in in the morning and the first thing I see is a wall of color, it communicates something to me in a wordless way that every time I see it, I learn something more about the film’s structure.
You can listen to Steve’s interview with Walter in a 3-part mini-series from the podcast version of the Art of The Cut interviews.
- Walter Murch – Art of The Cut – Part 1
- Walter Murch – Art of The Cut – Part 2
- Walter Murch – Art of The Cut – Part 3
Editor Walter Murch on the Art, Craft and Science of Film Editing
In this epically long interview you can pick your way through 320 short clips from a conversation with Walter, which will run back to back if you play the whole thing, or has been helpfully clearly labelled to allow you to jump through various topics.
The interview covers Walter’s early life and up-bringing, his personal life and career trajectory, including major milestones and key movies. It’s an amazing way to dive into his brain on various topics.
Here are some randomly selected highlights, but it’s easy to get lost down the rabbit hole!
- You are a sound man – you can edit the picture
- Worldizing film sound
- Editing Apocalypse Now, the opening scene
- The penultimate take phenomenon
- Why I always time the screenplays
- Working with a director always in the room
- Switching to Premiere Pro
Walter delivered a 70 minute masterclass on film editing and sound design at the Gothenberg Film Festival.
In part 2 Walter chats with Swedish editor Linda Jildmalm and moderates questions from the floor. The first question is about how Walter chooses his projects and includes why he was fired from Tomorrowland after 15-months of working on the film.
As he says sometimes you have to “kill the chicken to scare the monkey.” In this case (and is so often the situation) the editor is the chicken and the director is the monkey.
It’s all in all an excellent conversation!
A nicely edited short film A Conversation. With Walter Murch.
BAFTA Guru interviews Walter.
In this presentation from the Sheffield Documentary Fest, you can enjoy an hour long masterclass on the Art of Editing.
The next four videos are from an interview with Walter for MovieMachine.TV. It’s quite focused on the technological side of filmmaking but has a classic Murchian bent to it!
Walter on Final Cut Pro’s bumpy transition to FCPX and other industry trends
Walter on camera development and the growth through the K’s (4K, 8K etc.)
Walter on “the highlights” his career.
Walter Murch on the ‘Three Fathers of Cinema.”
Walter on the transition from analogue to digital and then how he used analogue techniques to sync up the oldest piece of sound-film humanity has.
Walter on editing the restaurant scene from The Godfather for BAFTA Guru.
A three-part interview with Walter Murch for the Film Book YouTube channel, which has many other interesting videos on it!
Lectures on Cinema and Film Editing
A 2016 presentation from the Frames of Representation film festival.
Walter Murch speaks at the Boston Supermeet, here’s more information on Hemingway and Gellhorn.
Walter Murch at Aberystwyth University, Wales, in March 2017. Organised by the Department of Theatre, Film and TV Studies in co-operation with Aberystwyth Arts Centre.
Walter Murch – Sound Designer
Although this post has largely focused on Walter as a film editor, his work on sound design is just as influential, to wrap up this post here are some more great interviews with Walter that focus more on his sound designer and mixer origins.
Starting with this excellent instalment of Nerdwriter on how Walter Murch ‘Worldized’ film sound.
In this discussion with Lawrence Weschler, Chicago Humanities Festival artistic director emeritus, Walter discusses the evolution of film technology from the creation of the 5.1 sound format to Final Cut Pro (back in 2012!).
Making Waves – Featuring Walter Murch
Making Waves is a new documentary on the evolution of sound design and it’s key players throughout cinema history, including Walter’s numerous creative contributions to the field.
In this article written by Walter for Transom.org you can listen to different layers of sound that go into a mix and generally get a serious schooling in Walter’s philosophy of sound design. Walter’s responses to some of the comments are also epically detailed!
The bottom line is that the audience is primarily involved in following the story: despite everything I have said, the right thing to do is ultimately whatever serves the storytelling, in the widest sense.
When this helicopter landing scene is over, however, my hope was the lasting impression of everything happening at once – Density – yet everything heard distinctly – Clarity.
In fact, as you can see, simultaneous Density and Clarity can only be achieved by a kind of subterfuge.
As I said at the beginning, it can be complicated to be simple and simple to be complicated.
But sometimes it is just complicated to be complicated.
In this interview for 16-9.dk Walter discusses some of his sound design and sound mixing work on Apocalypse Now, The Conversation and American Graffiti.
It was something that arose as an answer to a dilemma, which is that at a certain point in the film Harry Caul is able to eliminate the sound of some pretty loud music, a band, and to hear the voice that was underneath it the whole time.
And, you know, we shot the film in 1972 – many years ago – but I thought that the only way, theoretically, anybody could hope to achieve that would be through some kind of digital sound which had not yet been invented. There were some experiments that were being done at The University of Utah, in terms of digital sound at the time, but it had not yet become practical. But I thought, well, it will come, and if anyone would be able to invent that, it would be someone like Harry Caul, some genius like him, so I thought that in the device he uses is some kind of digital device that in some inexplicable way can tune out the frequencies of the music and unveil the voice underneath. So, thinking digitally, then I thought, “Well, what does digital distortion sound like?”
Joy Katz has a long conversation with Walter about working on The English Patient, with a strong theme on literary adaptations to film in this article on Filmsound.org, originally featured in Parnassus Poetry in Review: The Movie Issue (vol 22, 1997)
In the screenplay of The English Patient, for example, there was a flashback to the desert quite soon after Hana and the Patient arrive at the monastery. It seemed fine in the text of the screenplay, but when we assembled the film it was clear that we needed to stay in the monastery longer before departing into the Patient’s memory – to get our sea legs, so to speak, and familiarize ourselves with this new location and these two people suddenly alone together. But changing the placement of that transition meant that there were consequences down the line. We had to alter subsequent transitions to compensate for delaying the first.
But later there’s a momentary transition back to the Patient during the sandstorm, just a single shot of him, with a dissolve of Katharine’s hand seeming to caress his face. This wasn’t in the screenplay. If you were to try to convey the complex feeling of that image in words alone, it might take more effort than it was worth.
Walter Murch – What have I missed?
Are you sitting on another Walter Murch gem that I’ve not included here?
Drop me a note in the comments below!