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The Conversation: 'Plunged into the editing'


Appreciating linear table editing systems
Walter Murch Film-maker
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The KEM, however, is very different, because it requires you to store the film in ten-minute rolls. So these one-minute takes are built up, and you can get maybe ten of them on a roll, and then that roll has a number. And if you want to look at something, you have to find out which roll it's in, get the roll, put that roll on, and then speed through the machine to get down to where you want to get. And this is a version of what we call linear editing, where things are not separated out into bits, but they are put together into larger chunks. And this is... On the one hand, it's kind of a disadvantage. On the other hand, I came to appreciate this system, even though on the face of it, it was more cumbersome, because on the way to look at a particular shot that I was looking for, I would see, at high speed, a number of other shots before I got to the one that I was looking for. And half of the time, before I ever got to what I wanted, I would stop, because now I saw something that I needed. The film would say, basically, 'What about me?' Or, 'I could be in your film.' So there was a little audition happening as you would roll down in this process.

Whereas the Moviola system, and unless you prepare it correctly, digital random access systems, something that is marked as no good, not good, can linger forever in a bin somewhere and you never look at it again. So I appreciated the extra work that I had to do with the KEMs and Steenbeck systems, these linear table systems. But there was an advantage, which is that you got to know the material better, because you were always going through these rolls. Seeing it sometimes with great attention, sometimes just out of the corner of your eye. But in a sense, the compost pile was always being turned, you were always taking stuff that was in danger of not being in the film, and reconsidering it. Because, as frequently happens and certainly happened on The Conversation, the premise of the film and the premise of individual scenes starts to shift. And what was not good for the original intention of the film now becomes good. And in fact, that moment where the actor looks at the camera, just as an example, you may say, 'Well, that's no good.' But if the scene changes and now, having that actor actually look at the camera is exactly what you might want. And yet, you might forget that unless you kept being reminded of it.

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 Conversation

Duration: 3 minutes, 17 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2016

Date story went live: 01 March 2017