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Jarhead: The war without combat


The costs of film editing then and now
Walter Murch Film-maker
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To give some feeling for the difference between editing a film 30 years ago and today, simply on an economic level, it's worth remembering that the machine on which we edited films long ago was the Moviola. And in today's dollars, pounds, that machine would cost somewhere around $45,000 to get this machine. And film itself, ten minutes of 35mm film today, in today's dollars would cost $650 for ten minutes of 35mm film. Back then, it was 10¢ a foot. If you do the math, that's $100 for ten minutes, and working inflation and... So $650 for ten minutes of film. And then even splicing tape, the tape that you used to put the things together was then $10 a roll, and today that would be $65-$70 for just a roll of tape. Because it was very special tape that had a kind of adhesive that would make it possible to go through projectors. So simply to get in the door with equipment was this big investment of money that...

And that has simply disappeared. Everyone now has an iPhone, and you can actually edit a movie on an iPhone. And almost everyone has a laptop or a desk computer, and that's what I use to edit with. So I'm not using... Even on very expensive films, I'm using the same equipment that you use to write cooking recipes. And you know, the software for editing, you can find free software to edit. So people starting out in film today, editorially, are already way ahead of the game in terms of what... 'Give me something to work with.' 'Well, there it is', you know? Or you can shoot it yourself with your iPhone and start editing. And the downside of that, of course, is that because it's generally available and free, that there's more people doing it. Whereas back then, the bottleneck was much narrower.

It didn't seem, you know... In retrospect, it didn't seem... We knew, oh, that's very expensive, for a roll of tape? You know, you'd be used to, in those days, pay, you know, 35¢ for a roll of Scotch tape, and I'm paying $10 for a roll of Mylar tape? Well, the explanation that was given to us was: the tape has to be perforated and perforating the tapes... The machine has to be very finely machined, and it's only for this one industry, and the Mylar is actually very tough. And so the machines wear out and they have to be replaced frequently, and that's why it's $10 a roll. So it's reasonable, but nonetheless very expensive. So the doorway has vastly widened, and more films are being put together now. In some form than ever before, we live in a completely media-saturated environment compared to the way it was 40 or 50 years ago. And even then, we felt we were living in a media-saturated environment. But compared to today, there's just no comparison. So on the one hand, be very thankful that the costs have come down. On the other hand, be wary of the fact that that means that many more people are trying to do the same thing you are, and it's harder to make your voice heard. But there are forums for this, if you do something interesting, all you have to do is post it on YouTube and hope that it goes viral, and somebody says, 'Who is that person? Let's talk to that person.' So it's... These are inconceivable differences that are very hard for us to conceive who have grown up on the other side of that. We're used to them now, but still, when we compare one with the other, it's a big, big difference.

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: film editing, equipment, Moviola, costs, iPhone, editing software, tape, perforation, Mylar, media-saturated environment, media, viral

Duration: 4 minutes, 54 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2016

Date story went live: 29 March 2017