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Walter Murch: How new technologies affect filmmaking

Walter Murch Apocalypse Now editing filmmaking Steven SpielbergIn a recent masterclass held in the UK, award-winning editor and sound designer Walter Murch (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now and recent documentary Particle Fever) outlined the effects of digital technology on his profession. Here are some of the highlights.

It is not just what he says, more how he says it; you can understand why a director would believe in Murch’s vision when you listen to his booming authoritative voice. With his Spielberg-like looks he even airs that real classic Hollywood-vibe.

A perfect match according to his own logic, in that sound and image love each other “like twins separated at birth”.

“My job is to be the person who challenges the director and bring the real vision out of hiding.” Key to getting a good edit, he says, is that you “feel” the rhythm of an edit. “That's why I stand when I edit, to feel this rhythm.” A simple technique, one that technology has not yet been able to improve.

It did, however, have a profound impact on other areas of the industry and editing specifically. Think for example about the difference between needing tons of work print to edit a film and being able to work from a few drives.

Here’s a simple stat from Murch on how much film was used in the documentary Particle Fever and how that compares to what was needed when he edited Apocalypse Now, when everything was still done in analogue form.

  • 1000 feet of picture and sound is 11 minutes worth and weighs 11 pounds
  • 1 minute of 35mm film and sound weighs a 1 pound
  • Apocalypse Now: 14,160 minutes  = 7 tons of work print
  • Particle Fever (had it been shot on film): 30,000 minutes =15 tons of work print

As you can see, the digital revolution prevented Murch, who simply needed a few drives to store his latest film on, from doing his back in, lugging around 15 tons of work print.

But, as the editor points out, there is a downside. The technological advances of the past few years have had a profound effect on the distribution and exhibition landscape, so much so that even Spielberg complained of having a hard time getting Lincoln into cinemas and was contemplating a television release only. Gone would have been the Oscar glory he eventually received for the film.

Murch is not convinced though that we have already reached the peak of the ‘digital revolution’. As he points out, currently you can conduct an edit by simply a few mouse clicks. However, as the separation between filming and post-production disappears, the next step could be that filmmakers are able to “plug in and simply ‘think’ a film into creation”. Perhaps then footage could be edited instantly as well?

Whether this singular approach to filmmaking would be a good development is doubtful. As the three-time Oscar-winner points out, there is a reason creative views are currently being sculpted and kept in control. It should be to the tastes of many, not just the one. But this is all ifs and buts, what will really happen is probably in the hands not of those in Hollywood but in Silicon Valley . What is nice to see though is that Murch is not that fazed by it all. He still has his blink theory and maps out his film through stills stuck on the walls of his edit suite and an elaborate system of post-its to direct him through the madness that is editing.

Particle Fever, Walter Murch’s latest documentary project, follows six brilliant scientists during the launch of the Large Hadron Collider, marking the start-up of the biggest and most expensive experiment in the history of the planet, pushing the edge of human innovation. It is currently doing the rounds on festivals and hopefully we will see it appear on the big screen soon.

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