How Do You Put The Shots Together? - Walter Murch On Editing

By Srikanth Kanchinadham. Posted on June 25, 2015

Walter Murch is one of the modern greats when it comes to editing and and sound design. His work in classics like The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, The English Patient & Cold Mountain established him as a master of his craft. He studied at University Of Southern California’s film school where he became friends with other fellow students including George Lucas, Hal Barwood, and Robert Dalva; all of whom would later go on to make a mark in Hollywood.

Murch got his first break in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Rain People where he mixed & edited sound for the movie. He later went on to work on George Lucas’s American Graffiti and Coppola’s The Godfather. His exceptional work in these classics steered him into the world of film editing. His work in Coppola’s The Conversation earned him an Academy Award nomination for sound design in 1974. This, in the same year he designed sound for Godfather Part II.

However he is best known for his work in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. This epic intro scene of the film is a testimony to the sound design & editing brilliance of Walter Murch.

The production difficulties that the film had to go through are the stuff of legends. The movie had a staggering 14,160 minutes of work print to be edited which weighed seven tonnes.  In an interview on the film he shared this key insight into how he approached his craft.

How Do You Put The Shots Together?

Well, on a certain level there's always the basic question of "How do you put the shots together?" Like every editor, I have to find ways to choose the right material, and to cut to the right shot at the right time, and be on the right character at the right moment, and make action scenes dynamic and interesting, and come in on schedule, and all that kind of stuff. But those are not primary issues for me any more. I suppose it is a little like learning how to play a musical instrument: Once you get past the issues of fingering and learning how to read a score, you don't think about them so consciously.

The things that I do struggle with are the issues of structure, length, and what you might call redundancy. The moving image is inherently redundant: Twenty-four times a second it's the same image, but slightly different. That's a metaphor for the whole process, because the art director will read the script and interpret the characters and the situation with set construction. The cinematographer does the same thing with light. The camera operator does the same thing with framing and camera movement. Actors do the same thing with how they act, how they speak the lines. The costumer does the same thing with the costumes.

For instance: Because of something the art director did in scene 3, you may find that the audience already understands something about a certain character. "Oh, if he owns that kind of entertainment center, then I know exactly how much money he makes." So we don't need a later scene about how much money he makes. Nonetheless, that other scene might get shot, and it's only when you see the whole film put together that you realize the extent and nature of all of these kinds of redundancies. Then it becomes a question of what and where to eliminate, at ever more subtle levels.

Advice For Young Editors

Walter Murch is extremely curious and knowledgeable about multiple topics ranging from quantum physics to ethics to anthropology. He also studied music and architecture and this knowledge allowed him to come up with many innovative techniques that can be seen in his work. For those just starting out as editors he had this advice.

“When you're starting out in your career, pay close attention to the material you decide to work on. You may not be able to be selective yet, but ultimately don't be afraid to turn things down. There's a common fear that if you turn a certain project down, you'll never work again. But I think what's more to the point is that if you take whatever comes your way without really looking at it, you're potentially chaining yourself to something that doesn't suit you. And therefore you won't be able to do your best work on it, and the result may damage your reputation.

You also have to realize that most of the time you're in the same room with somebody--the director--whose baby this really is. It's not your baby. Well, part of it is, and you have to take responsibility for that part, but there's a good deal of a certain kind of psychoanalysis that goes on in the editing room, in which you're finding ways to ask the director, "What were you trying to get at here?" And beyond that: "Why are you trying to get at this?" You have to develop a feeling for knowing how to ask those questions, because some directors will respond favorably and some might resent it. This applies to many film jobs, not just editing: Half the job is doing the job, and the other half is finding ways to get along with people and tuning yourself in to the delicacy of the situation.”

Also do check out this really cool video of Walter Murch at the Sheffield Doc Fest where he took the audience through his journey.


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