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The English Patient: The first steps in digital editing


The English Patient: The complicated switch from film to digital
Walter Murch Film-maker
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And then, about a month into shooting, I got a phone call from my wife, who said that our son, also named Walter, was in the hospital, and had been diagnosed with a brain tumour, and, 'Come home.' So I phoned up Anthony and Saul, and I said, 'Well, it's been great.  But here's the situation. You should find another editor because I don't know what's going to happen here. And if I were you that's what I would do.' And they put their heads together. And very quickly said, 'No, we want you to stay on the film. We're sure it's going to be all right.' It, in the end was all right. But how they knew to say that, I don't know. You know, 'Go home, deal with this situation. And then, we'll figure out what to do later.' So I did, I flew home.

And on the way home I thought, on the flight I thought, 'Well, it's very nice of them to say that. And I obviously hope that things will be okay. But I think I will re-pitch to them. If they want me to stay on the film, now I think we should use the Avid because we're going to lose a bunch of time editorially here. I'm going to be off the radar for a couple of months, anyway, while the film is being shot. So if we switch to the Avid, I have a chance of catching up because it's a faster system, supposedly.' So I phoned them when I got home. And I said, 'Here's what I think we should do.' And they said, 'Okay.' So we put that into motion, and starting getting the equipment, and figuring out how to negotiate the very complicated switch from film to digital, at that time. From one country to another, while you're shooting a film, you can imagine the detail that has to be gotten into to do that. And meanwhile, I was dealing with the hospitalisation and operation that eventually my son went under. And it was a successful operation. And he's still healthy and alive. And that's now 20 years ago. But you can imagine the emotional situation that that produced. Anyway, this happened in October. By mid-December we had installed an Avid editing system that was in the barn that was adjacent to my house. And I had hired assistants in the United States to help me with that. And I had kept my film assistants in Rome. And so we worked out a modus operandi of getting the material from there to here, with all of the ancillary complications that go along with that.

I think it was then, and will be forever, the only time that somebody made that transition [from film to digital] during the shooting of the film. That there had been instances where people shot on film, and were editing on film. And then, after the shooting said, 'Let's digitise everything.' And there were decisions made late to say, 'Let's digitise before shooting.' But to do it during the shooting, let alone with 6,000 miles difference, and many time zones difference? So it's a tribute to everybody that it worked, and worked very well. That I was in fact, able to catch up with the shooting.

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: The English Patient

Duration: 4 minutes, 22 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2016

Date story went live: 29 March 2017