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Appreciating linear table editing systems


You are a sound man – you can edit the picture
Walter Murch Film-maker
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I was mixing American Graffiti at the same time that Francis [Ford Coppola] was shooting The Conversation, which I was editing. So my attention was definitely split. So I would be mixing American Graffiti during the day, and then I would go to the dailies of The Conversation and watch what they had shot that day, and try to keep up with things. I wasn't able to do any editing on the film during the shooting, I mean, while I was mixing American Graffiti. So... And that certainly weighed on me. Up to that point, I hadn't edited a feature film, picture. All my work had been editing sound and doing the mix. And when Francis got the go-ahead to do The Conversation, he approached me and he said, 'Well, Walter, you work in sound, you're kind of like this Harry Caul character, and you have edited movies.' And in fact, I had edited short films and some documentaries and some commercials. 'And you've worked on features on the sound. So why don't you edit the picture of this?' And I wanted to be an editor of pictures on a feature, so I leapt at the chance, and then of course, I had to confront the reality of what that meant and how I was going to approach this. And I was going to work for the first time on these new editing machines. New to us, which to us, which were the German Steenbeck and KEM machines. THX and Graffiti had been edited on a Steenbeck, but I hadn't worked that way, George [Lucas] had. And now, Francis had bought, as a result of The Godfather, he had bought some new... These European editing tables, which require a very different approach to the editing than the machines we had been using, which were the... Called the upright Moviolas. Which really had not changed much since they were invented in the 1920s. So for 40 years, other than the addition of... a head to play the soundtrack , the Moviola was a relatively fixed and known entity.

Despite its antiquity, it is... The Moviola is a random access machine, in the sense that when the film comes from the laboratory, the first thing that happens to it is that it is broken down into individual shots, which last, let's say, an average of a minute to a minute and a half. Sometimes more, sometimes much more, sometimes much less. But on the average... And it's about that big, you can handle it, you can physically cope with it. Ten minutes is about that big, and that's problematical. But two minutes is about that big, wound up on itself. And all of these pieces of film, rolls of films are stored in boxes with labels on the side of them. And the editor's room is lined with boxes, and there is an assistant with you in the room, most of the time. And you're sitting at the Moviola, and you have assembled all of the shots that you're going to be working with, and if what you want isn't there, you say to the assistant, 'Could you bring me the close-up of shot 37, take two', from your notes. And the assistant goes to that box, pulls out this object, this roll-up, and gives it to you. And you put it in the Moviola, and find the right frame to cut on, and put it into the shot, into the scene. That is not all that different from what we now do with computers, where everything is broken down into individual shots, and if I want a shot, I double-click on the icon of that shot, and the computer says, here it is. And I see it in my viewing screen, and I get it ready to put it into the assembly of the scene, which is showing up next-door on the other screen.

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: American Graffiti, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola

Duration: 4 minutes, 41 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2016

Date story went live: 01 March 2017