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Unbearable Lightness of Being: The Zelig approach vs. intercutting


The democratisation of on-the-spot recording
Walter Murch Film-maker
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It was a wonderful story of Frank Daniel, who later became the head of the Columbia (University) Film School in New York. He was then the head of the film school in Prague. And when the tanks started rumbling through in August of 1968, the film students at the school woke up, and went home, which is to say to film school, which is where they spent most of their time. And Frank was there.

And he said, 'We don't know what's happening. But for all we know this could be the beginning of World War III. Something is going on.' And he unlocked the equipment room, and started handing out 16 mm cameras and raw stock, which were normally kept very carefully under locks. But he started handing them out to whoever film students were around. And said, 'Just go out there and film it.' And this was the beginning of what now you see every night when you watch the news. Basically, let's call it 'the democratisation of on-the-spot recording.' People with iPhones, they're in Syria filming these events. And that had happened to a limited degree in Hungary in the mid- '50s. But very little in comparison with what was now possible because of... We weren't yet in digital, but everything had gotten relatively inexpensive and lightweight. And you could go out with cameras and shoot stuff that would have been very difficult 10 years earlier. So dozens of film students were out there filming this material. And they were telling the passers-by, as soon as they had finished a roll of film... They would wrap it up and find somebody who was leaving Czechoslovakia, a tourist, and say, 'Where are you going?' 'Stockholm.' 'Take this, and as soon as you get to Stockholm, give it to Svenska Television.'

And so this was happening in Brussels, Stockholm, and Rome, and London. It was as if there was an explosion of film that was coming from Prague, and going everywhere else in the world. And that was what you saw on the news the next day about these events.

Born in 1943 in New York City, Murch graduated from the University of Southern California's School of Cinema-Television. His career stretches back to 1969 and includes work on Apocalypse Now, The Godfather I, II, and III, American Graffiti, The Conversation, and The English Patient. He has been referred to as 'the most respected film editor and sound designer in modern cinema.' In a career that spans over 40 years, Murch is perhaps best known for his collaborations with Francis Ford Coppola, beginning in 1969 with The Rain People. After working with George Lucas on THX 1138 (1971), which he co-wrote, and American Graffiti (1973), Murch returned to Coppola in 1974 for The Conversation, resulting in his first Academy Award nomination. Murch's pioneering achievements were acknowledged by Coppola in his follow-up film, the 1979 Palme d'Or winner Apocalypse Now, for which Murch was granted, in what is seen as a film-history first, the screen credit 'Sound Designer.' Murch has been nominated for nine Academy Awards and has won three, for best sound on Apocalypse Now (for which he and his collaborators devised the now-standard 5.1 sound format), and achieving an unprecedented double when he won both Best Film Editing and Best Sound for his work on The English Patient. Murch’s contributions to film reconstruction include 2001's Apocalypse Now: Redux and the 1998 re-edit of Orson Welles's Touch of Evil. He is also the director and co-writer of Return to Oz (1985). In 1995, Murch published a book on film editing, In the Blink of an Eye: A Perspective on Film Editing, in which he urges editors to prioritise emotion.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: Unbearable Lightness of Being, Czechoslovakia, 1968, Frank Daniel

Duration: 2 minutes, 40 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2016

Date story went live: 29 March 2017