I’ve known about Murch for a long time but it wasn’t until this past year that I really got interested in him. I think it was because one of my friends in NZ said that when he edited movies, he’d do it standing up (true) and when he wanted to make a cut he’d hit this giant button in front of the monitor and go “HA!” (not completely true). My interest was piqued and during the holidays I read two books on him. The Conversations and Behind the Seen, which I mentioned in the previous post. Both are great, but Behind the Seen is invaluable because it follows Murch through his whole process, from pre-production through post. The stuff I’ll be posting about here is taken from that book.
Before he begins to create the first assembly, Murch spends a couple of days making some tools to help with his process, the first being these scene cards. As Murch had worked with Anthony Minghella (director of Cold Mountain) before, he was given free reign to do whatever helped him most. “Blue with a yellow background means Inman (Jude Law) is in a scene; plain blue means Inman is not in that scene. A lot of blue cards in a row means not much Inman – which makes me wonder ‘is that a good idea?’ A triangle indicates I feel it is a pivot scene. The size of card equals the approximate length of a scene.”
Another tool are the picture boards, which you can see off to his right. It’s a system he’s used on every film since Unbearable Lightness of Being. Murch selects from one to eight representative frames from every set-up – “defining moments,” he calls them – that best represent the “story” of that particular shot, emotionally or visually. They are mounted side by side, in story order (or, as the story was written in the screenplay). Walter uses the picture boards because it lets his eyes dance through the film and discover hidden patterns and rhythms.
Once Walter finishes the first assembly, which was around four hours for CM, it’s on to the first cut. One of the biggest problems here, along with editing in general, is maintaining objectivity. “When I’m working on a film, the image I have is of myself swimming in a fast-moving river. The film is always changing and I’m kind of in the middle of it. Objectivity would mean trying to swim to the shore, clambering up, and looking at the river go by. The dangerous thing about doing that is that’s when most people drown – when you’re trying to get out of the water. On the other hand, if you relax and let yourself be carried along, and even swim in the direction of the current – somehow, given the editor’s particular dilemma, that’s a better thing to do than to try to go back and forth from objectivity to subjectivity. Heightened subjectivity means learning to listen to very tiny voices that you hear in the corner of your head that say, ‘What if? What about this? What about that?”
The big technique at play here is his edit on-the-fly which Murch wrote about in his book In the Blink of an Eye.
Murch starts at the beginning, with the opening battle scene. After watching the entire sequence play, noting all the possibilities for trimming shots, he returns to the beginning. Now he sets Final Cut Pro into trim mode so it will loop, or replay, the same shot over and over. Murch holds his index finger over the “K” key and watches the shot play on the monitor to his left. As he feels the moment where it ought to end, he presses the key. The shot is trimmed by six frames, and a small readout “-6” appears. The shot replays. Again he feels the moment and presses the “K” key: the readout again reads “-6” which means he hit the same frame twice in a row. “If I can’t do this, if I can’t hit the same frame repeatedly at 24 frames per second, I know there is something wrong in my approach to the shot, and I adjust my thinking until I find a frame I can hit.”
Murch’s on-the-fly technique derives from his theory of “the blink.” The edit in film isn’t so different from what we do thousands of times every day in real life when we blink our eyes. While editing Coppola’s The Conversation, Murch realized his decisions about where to cut shots were coinciding with Gene Hackman’s eye blinks. Murch took the idea one step further by noticing that we also blink when separating thoughts and sorting things out. “Start a conversation with somebody and watch when they blink,” he says. “I believe you will find the listener will blink at the precise moment he or she ‘gets’ the idea of what you are saying, not an instant earlier or later.”
Next, we have the Rule of Six.
1. Emotion (51%)
2. Story (23%)
3. Rhythm (10%)
4. Eye-trace (7%)
5. Two-dimensional plane of screen (5%)
6. Three-dimensional space of action (4%)
“An ideal cut (for me) is the one that satisfies all the following six criteria at once: 1) it is true to the emotion of the moment; 2) it advances the story; 3) it occurs at a moment that is rhythmically interesting and “right”; 4) it acknowledges what you might call “eye-trace” – the concern with the location and movement of the audience’s focus of interest within the frame; 5) it respects “planarity” – the grammar of three dimensions transposed by photography to two (the dimensions of stage-line, etc); 6) and it respects the three-dimensional continuity of the actual space (where people are in the room and in relation to one another).Emotion, at the top of the list, is the thing that you should try to preserve at all costs. If you find you have to sacrifice certain of those six things to make a cut, sacrifice your way up, item by item, from the bottom. The values I put after each item are slightly tongue in cheek, but not completely… emotion is worth more than all five of the things underneath it… there is a practical side to this which is that if the emotion is right and the story is advanced in a unique, interesting way, in the right rhythm, the audience will tend to be unaware of (or unconcerned about) editorial problems with lower-order items like eye-trace, stage-line, spatial continuity, etc. The general principle seems to be that satisfying the criteria of items higher on the list tends to be obscure problems with items lower on the list, but not vice versa.”
I’ll end it now with a quote from the end of the book from a talk Murch gave to editors in LA about the future of editing/filmmaking.
Feature filmmaking, as we’ve known it, also requires a collaborative community. We can all be painters now if we choose, and the art form has benefited from such pluralism. But there may be a price to be paid for such freedom. As Murch points out: “The presence of other people during the act of creation kept painting grounded in a way that it is obviously not today, when it’s done almost exclusively in isolation. Likewise, the artist who inhabits a self-contained world of silence and imagination is vulnerable to demons and distempers – look at Van Gogh.”
Movies have only been around for 100 years but the comparison to fine art is instructive. Digital technologies are to today’s filmmaker what inexpensive art supplies were to European artists four centuries ago. Economical editing systems such as Final Cut Pro, used in conjunction with other new digital filmmaking equipment and techniques, permit a filmmaker working alone to take on complex functions previously handled by dozens, even hundreds of crew members and craftspeople – shooting, editing, graphic effects, color correction, music recording, and sound mixing – and there are no apparent sacrifices in production values. Digital films can be exhibited just as widely as expensive productions made in traditional ways. For directors who prefer taking on more and more jobs themselves – and who have the energy, disposition, time, and talent to do so – methods are available for them to become one-person bands. This may be a good thing – lower costs, more efficient workflow, singular visions being realized – but this trend discourages collaboration – not necessarily a good thing. Movies seem to magically appeal to widespread groups of people because they are created by a team of diverse people, each bringing something different yet essential to the final creation. Take those creative contributions away and a pure, individually expressed conception can become odd, bizarre, and appeal only to the narrowest audience.
“The future is in the Final Cut direction,” Murch says. Editing systems from here on, he predicts, will give users maximum flexibility and be engineered so third-party developers can invent elegant solutions for niche users (like editors of big feature films), while also providing high-quality images at affordable prices. But there’s a catch. “As with all digital non-linear editing, its greatest strength is also its greatest weakness,” says Murch.” It gives you what you say you want, but that may not be what you need.” The speed and precision with which digital editng systems deliver results for the editor can also cut out artistic surprises that come by accident. “These systems don’t talk to you very well. The picture boards and the scene cards are my way to kick back at non-linear editing.”