by Shelly Schoeneshoefer
Recently I met with my good friend Andrew Levine, owner of blumlein records, who loaned me the book In the Blink of an Eye by Walter Murch. He said it is a must-read for movie buffs, but also for those who are interested in filmmaking. I finished it right before the Berlinale began and was completely surprised to see that Walter Murch was listed on the program at the Berlin Talent Campus. I tried to get a ticket in advance, but was told that there shouldn’t be a problem; they didn’t think it would sell out. Boy, were they wrong. Instead, it was a fight to get a seat, a fight well worth it since Walter Murch had quite a lot of useful information even for the novice film maker.
One of the major themes addressed this year to young filmmakers was sound and editing. So, it seemed only natural to bring on board an old guru in the field: Walter Murch. For many of you who don’t know who he is, he has won Oscars for his work on Apocalypse Now and The English Patient. He edited and/or mixed films such as The Godfather Part II, Ghost, American Graffiti and The Talented Mr. Ripley. He also gives master classes where he has developed theories on the relationships between storytelling and sound design.
He started by saying that when directors begin their films, they shoot the film and then consider the sound and how it will all link together. Murch explained that this is a big mistake. Start from the beginning to think about the use of sound, not only the music but the background sound as well as the dialogue. He reminded us that, even though we see ourselves as having a highly developed visual sense, in fact, our sense of hearing is far more developed; we instinctively take in more information through that sense than we realize. Indeed, the king of the visual world is the mantis shrimp with its sixteen photo receptors.
A very important year for films was 1995. It was the last time that films were edited mechanically; the following year digital editing took over the field. That meant that many experienced editors were now in new territory with little experience. His learning experience came when he began editing the English Patient mechanically and then, somewhere in the middle, it was switched over to digital.
He explained that Apocalypse Now was a ground-breaking film in sound design. It was a discovery film since he wanted to use Dolby with 64 channels so, therefore, it would be a multi-channel film which was quite different from all the films before. He said the director’s dream was to create a cinema in the middle of the US which had the perfect specs needed to show only this film where people would come for miles around and see it. This naturally never happened, but Murch said this film stands alone since it represents not only innovation but also took the longest time in history to edit. The main reason was simply that these 1,250,000 feet of film, equivalent to 230 hours of playing time, needed to be reduced to two hours and 23 minutes in length.
He said with each film he learned more about how to build a mosaic of sound and visual storytelling. He had to look at the silence in a film which is a very powerful tool but doesn’t work in theater or musicals. Causality is the use of random sounds which give films a dynamic exploding feeling. The last is space, which sets up the ordinary environment, such as running water in the kitchen. He said that The Godfather taught him how to use sound to move the story forward. He used causality on a deeper level, e.g., a moving subway sound in the background while a killing happens. It seems that every film brings new territory to the table and that is why this job is a never-ending process of learning.
He explained to the young filmmakers in the audience, “If you are interested in doing this professionally, you need to love working in the dark about fourteen to fifteen hours a day. You need to have a strong sense of rhythm since every film has its own unique signature piece and you have to be able to sense that. You need to be able to deal with these new digital computer programs and have a strong sense of when to cut a film. It needs to be an instinct reaction. It is not something that can be learned.” It was hard to tell if any student was overjoyed to hear this news, especially when Walter Murch said that, internationally, there are only about 2000 professional editors. It seems like a small number but the job description is indeed quite strenuous.