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Edison's recording admitted to the National Registry of Significant Films


Syncing the only piece of sound film from the 19th century
Walter Murch Film-maker
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And this was a problem that faced the library – how do we sync it up? And Rick Schmidlin, who I'd worked with on Touch of Evil, was at a conference in Italy, at a silent film festival [Pordenone Silent Film Festival]. And he went up to Patrick afterwards and said, 'Send that to my friend Walter, he'll do it.' And so here it was. And of course, I was right in the middle of Apocalypse Now Redux, and had very few brain cells left to spare. So I put it on the shelf, and every morning when I came in to work, there it is. Yes, okay, well. Eventually, the guilt overwhelmed me and I thought, 'Okay, let's do it.' And I gave the film, the tape to Sean [Cullen], my assistant, and we digitised it into the Avid (I was working on the Avid system). We digitised the sound and the picture, and the picture was clearly... It looked in slow motion. And that's because Edison shot at 40 frames a second, rather than 24 frames a second. And that's how you couldn't... Right from the get-go it was hard to synchronise it, because the sound is real, and the image is slow-motion. So the first thing was: let's see if we get this image down to 24 frames a second, which digitally is a fairly easy thing to do. We compress the time base of the image, looked at it and thought, 'Well, that's probably correct.' But it's hard to exactly tell because there were no records of, it was exactly 40 frames or what. So we got it in the ballpark, and then transferred the sound. And now it was just a case of brute force, trying stuff out. My dad played the violin, so we had a violin in the house and I kind of knew what that would sound like and what that string sounded like. And I had this valuable fragment of somebody saying, 'Go ahead.' And I thought, 'Well, that's probably where... if this is it, this is where they started the projector, the camera.'

And so I started to line up the beginning, and I would get: 'that looks pretty good', and then it would pretty quickly drift out of sync. So maybe that's not it. Let me try this, let me try that. No, no. And then I found something that was 'that's pretty good.' Now, we go to the end and find where he goes at the end, and see if I can get it synced there. And I did the same thing, just trying various things. And I finally got something that I thought was pretty good. And then I did the math to figure out what's the displacement between here and there, and then I would be able to expand the soundtrack, as it turned out, to fill in the gaps. It's like hanging clothes on a clothesline. I had a clothespin here and a clothespin there, and then I would move the clothespins to make the sheet hang evenly. But it didn't work. That's disappointing. And now hours had gone by, I started to feel guilty again. But I kept at it, inevitably... Okay, I'll try it one last time. And then I found the right clothespin for the end, did the calculations, and it was in sync. And instantly, I felt the hairs on the back of my neck rise up, because I was seeing something... I was seeing a piece of film, and the sound for that film that was recorded at that time, you know, 110 years ago, slightly less, but over a century ago. The only piece of sound film from the 19th century was there, and it was in sync. And not only was I seeing it for the first time in over 100 years, it's the first time anybody had seen it in sync, because they hadn't been able to get it in sync back then. As I said, 'They just didn't understand the difficulty of doing this.'

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: Patrick Loughney, Rick Schmidlin

Duration: 4 minutes, 52 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2016

Date story went live: 29 March 2017