ART OF THE CUT with Walter Murch, ACE

In December of 2019, Walter Murch extended me a generous invitation to come see a screening of his documentary, Coup 53, in San Francisco. Shortly before I went – armed with a ton of questions of my own – I asked the Facebook group of Blue Collar Post Collective if there was anything they’d like to ask Murch. I took their questions with me and presented them in this interview.

Walter Murch, ACE with Steve Hullfish
Walter Murch, ACE with Steve Hullfish in San Francisco, CA. December 10, 2019.

This interview is available as a podcast.

(This interview was transcribed with SpeedScriber. Thanks to Martin Baker at Digital Heaven)

ANGELICA GONZALEZ: Should the cut happen on the blink or before the blink?

MURCH: Just before the blink. IF the actor is in character.

The main take away from the whole idea of the blink – and I think the animal blink as well, the vertebrate blink — is that it’s the “save to disk” moment where a thought has reached a certain level of understanding and then: DUNK — that little sound that the disc makes when you’re saving something to disk. It’s the “I get it” moment.

With the blink, we are trying to articulate — to render grammatical — a constant fire-hose of reality: To insert semicolons, commas, and periods, so to speak, into an otherwise continuous stream of reality. To help us digest it in smaller bites.

If an actor is into the character — as Gene Hackman definitely was when he was playing Harry Caul — those blink moments are solid, reliable, because he’s thinking what the character is thinking. They’re at the right rhythm. He’s not thinking, “Am I double parked?” Or “What does the director think of my performance?” In those cases, his blinks would be inconsistent with the content of the scene. They would fall at awkward “unrhythmic” moments in the dialogue, and you couldn’t use them as indicators.

Gene Hackman in “The Conversation”

You can often see this when you look at politicians giving interviews. Their blink rate is usually very high. The record is James Clapper who ran the NSA under Obama. His blink rate during one interview was one hundred and fifty blinks per minute, which is more than two blinks a second. I mean, just try to do that some time. It was astounding to see it.

But a cut, a film edit, actually while the character is blinking is not a good thing, because it looks like how it feels when you get something in your eye — that kind of twitchy feeling. But generally the point at which you decide to cut is probably a frame or two before the actor actually blinks.

There are some times when — for dramatic reasons — you would want to cut right after the blink. For instance, if you want to create a double-take moment, where the character is thinking, “What was that?” Let let the character blink and then cut: that creates a little stutter which goes along with surprise.

I was at a neurological conference in Spain in September of 2019. Some neurologists in Barcelona had read “In the Blink of an Eye” and had studied blinking scientifically and had come to somewhat same conclusions, and so they asked me to come and talk to the audience about these things from a cinematic point of view.

What is mysterious still — the Spanish didn’t have the answer — is: Does the blink, the interruption of the visual stream, help to articulate our thoughts, or is it a side-effect?


HULLFISH: Is the blink causal?

MURCH: Exactly. In other words, does the insertion of those two hundred milliseconds of blink in the stream of data coming in…. Does it help to chop up reality? Or is the blink just an inevitable side effect of the chopping up that’s already happening in your train of thoughts? Is the blink a reflex to an event that’s happening inside the brain? My hunch is that it’s the second. But I would love to know what the answer is.

SARAH BETH SHAPIRO: Director’s often use “The Blink of an Eye” to encourage me to make a blink of an actor near the cut. I have an aversion to blinks near edits. My interpretation is that the footage’s blink may not be a good time to cut, but then the cut REPLACES the blink. For my taste, you can’t keep them both. Could you clarify?

MURCH: Everyone should figure out their own approach. You can’t always rely on the actor’s reactions – and you have to be true to your own feeling of the rhythms of the shot. Override this blinking thing if it feels like the right thing to do.

THEO GOBEL: One thing that makes you stand out from other editors for me is how you don’t limit yourself to scripted films. I’ve always wondered if you like to work on docs to push yourself creatively? What’s the value of switching?

MURCH: The editor of a documentary is helping to write the story, especially a doc like Coup 53 or like Particle Fever which were not script-based to begin with. Also they both had around 500 hours of material, which is potentially overwhelming.

ROBBIE MANN: What is one of the most important personal traits you look for in a colleague or coworker?

Murch with the director of the documentary Coup 53, Taghi Amirani. Photo by Ali Amirani.

MURCH: Compatibility, but that covers a multitude of things. If the editorial team is at all compatible, and you’re good people, working hard, you will find that creative synchronicity will evolve spontaneously. You’ll start to think each other’s thoughts. You can re-edit something that another editor worked on, and vice versa, and it’s all transparent as it can be.

I like working with multiple editors. It’s a very convivial way to work.

COSTITA BRAVO: Did your editing vision or narrative taste change throughout the years? I think you mentioned in   “In the Blink of an Eye” that when you switched- at least when you switched from film editing to NLE editing – that you felt like your pacing and timing was still the same.

MURCH: I don’t think my approach has fundamentally changed.

HULLFISH: You don’t think so?

MURCH: I remastered “The Conversation” soundtrack twenty years ago, and watched the film with this question in mind: would I change anything now in 2001, almost thirty years after the film was edited? And I thought that I wouldn’t change anything.

TOM TRAYNOR: Standing versus sitting while editing?

MURCH: Standing, definitely!

HULLFISH: I love the example in your book that said, Have you ever seen a surgeon sitting.

Walter Murch, ACE editing
Murch at his standing desk in the cutting room for Coup 53. Photo copyright, Taghi Amirani.

MURCH: Right. Or a conductor. Or a cook.

HULLFISH: Yeah. Most violinists, or singers.

MURCH: The thing that unites cooks and surgeons and conductors is that all of them are doing highly time-dependent jobs. You have to have a very strong sense of time if you’re a surgeon or a conductor or a cook. And editing is all about time. Creative work that doesn’t involve time — like painting or writing — you can sit to do it because you don’t have to have that kinesthetic sense of the passing seconds. But there are great editors who sit to do what they do. Most editors sit, in fact. So I’m a proselytizer. I’m not a fanatic, just expressing my personal opinion on this.

But it is healthier not to sit for long periods of time, and editors work very long hours. There’s some great recent research about how our lymphatic system is actually connected to the brain, which we thought wasn’t true as recently as a couple of years ago. The flexing of your legs, even micro-flexing as you stand, is one of the pumps that drives the lymphatic system, so it helps to stand to clear the junk out of your brain, which is what the lymph system is designed to do.

MARC WIELAGE: What do you think are the strengths and weaknesses of the current NLEs — Avid, Premiere, Resolve and FCPX — and what are you using today?

MURCH: I’m using Premiere on Coup 53, and very happy to have done so. I haven’t used Resolve, though I’ve heard good things about it. I’ve also heard good things about the evolution of Final Cut since the great shift back in 2011.

Walter Murch at mixing studio July 2019 ©Taghi Amirani.

Ultimately, I think what will happen to NLEs is what happened to cars. In the beginning of automotive evolution, there were steam cars, electric cars, diesel cars, gasoline cars. Every manufacturer had a different operating system. Ford cars, in the early days, didn’t have brakes – you somehow used the clutch in order to stop. Some didn’t have steering wheels. They had tillers, and the pedals were in different places.

Now, when you get a rental car at the airport, they don’t ask you what brand. They just ask: compact, medium, large or whatever, and you know that when you sit behind the wheel, the operating system is going to be aligned to a common standard. You’re going figure it out easily no matter what the make of car. So ultimately NLE systems will wind up in that same standardised place. They’re not quite there yet because it’s still early days, and NLEs are more complicated than driving a car.

PAUL PELTEKIAN: How you find your creative motivation when you’re working on a troubled scene or if you’re just not feeling 100 percent mentally and physically that day? Do you just power through the edit session or do you put your focus on other aspects of the process that make more sense to him?

MURCH: I would focus on some other aspect of the work. If you’re having a problem, it’s either because of some blind spot in you, or because of something inherent in the material, or the interface between the two. So let your unconscious mind find the solution. If you hammer away too consciously at a problem, you’re in danger of over-articulating the decisions. So just back off for a while. Go do something else – some relatively mindless database work, or edit another scene, or go for a walk, or call it a day and sleep on it.

Murch with director Taghi Amirani
Taghi Amirani and Walter Murch in the cutting room of Coup 53.

Of course you have to persevere up to a point. But past a certain point the effort becomes counterproductive – it doesn’t help anymore. You’ll get an idea in the shower the next morning. (snaps his fingers) “There it is. Now I know what to do.”

AIDEEN JOHNSTON: Do you have any editing pet peeves? Something like — you mentioned — cutting on action.

MURCH: I don’t mind cutting on matching action when other people do it. It’s a peeve only if they do it mindlessly, and think it’s achieving something that it’s not.

The genesis of overlapping action came from in the early days of editing: there was a fear that audiences would not accept a cut from one shot to another. That it would make them seasick and confused. And in the very first film that Edwin Porter directed — The Life of an American Fireman — all the cuts are little four frame dissolves.

People were used to dissolves involving projected still images in the 19th century Magic Lantern Slide shows. These were dual-barreled Lanterns, so the projectionist could switch from one slide to the other via a dissolve — he would slide the shutter down on one and simultaneously open the shutter on the other one.

And the idea in film early on was: “Oooh. Can we do this?” And eventually people realized, “yes, you can.” And people don’t get seasick watching edited film. Most of the time !

But using matching action unthinkingly, just “this is the universal formula.” — free yourself of that obligation. Of course I’ve cut on matching action when it’s appropriate, but I don’t do it all the time. And I don’t think it achieves the invisibility they thought it achieved.

For instance: a shot of a hand moving through so many degrees to a cut point. And then the next incoming shot completes the action, with the hand moving to its final position.

Well, as soon as the hand starts to move, the audience’s brain thinks, oh, something’s happening, and right at the moment — a couple of frames in — where you think, “oh, a hand is moving” — then there’s a cut, which is a kind of a smack to the head that interrupts that. And then you have to find that motion on the other side of it. So there is a kind of stutter to it, even though the original thinking was that that motion would sort of be like we were talking about with pre-laps — that it sort of blows some smoke across the cut, to diffuse the shock, so to speak.

I was interested to learn that one of the pre-eminent editors of the 1920’s through the 1970’s, Bill Hornbeck, hated matching action.

CALEB THOMAS: How do you handle feedback? How do you feel editors should conduct themselves? It takes more than just being good at your job to have a career as long and successful as you’ve had.

MURCH: One of my daughters is a makeup artist, and that’s her point of view about makeup. 50 percent of the job is doing the right makeup. 50 percent is getting along with people and getting a grumpy actor at 5 o’clock in the morning ready to be in character and to face the day ahead of them.

Film is all about collaboration with other people in an intensely artistic work where dozens and hundreds of people are all trying to make this thing happen, and happen on schedule. And so you have to integrate yourself into that system.

author Michael Ondaatje interviewed Murch numerous times. This book includes their conversations.

HULLFISH: You mentioned in “The Conversations”, I think, about how an editor has to think about who he’s talking to and when he’s talking to that person. You don’t want to needlessly worry a producer about a scene that you think is a problem, for example.

MURCH: Editors are notoriously closed-mouth about what they do because they’re kind of like the priest in the confessional in the sense that they see the problems and they see people who are tired and disgruntled and euphoric and all different kinds of emotional states, and discretion is very important to do what we do.

JESSE GORDON: How do you approach a scene, watch dailies and have your footage prepped? What are the mechanics of you getting a new narrative scene? What do you do?

MURCH: Well, one thing we didn’t talk about in terms of the transition from analog to digital is that there is no longer a communal screening of dailies. And that’s — for me — the biggest shift in the transition from analog. Forget the technical stuff, the “film look” and so on. That’s all solvable.

But we’re in the digital world — despite Christopher Nolan and other diehards, film will disappear. It’s not going to be with us for very much longer. Digital is where we are now and where we will be. But one of the side effects of digital is that there are six plasma screens all over the shooting stage. Every department has its own screen: makeup, costume, production design, camera. And so they all see what the camera is seeing as it gets shot. The feeling at the end of the day is: “we’ve seen it.” But you haven’t really seen it. You saw it as it was happening, but you’re working and so you’re thinking about lots of other things as you watch the screen. And then there is frequently a long pause between setups, which disturbs the flow.

But the experience of getting all heads of departments in a room like this (we’re doing the interview in a film screening room) watching an hour or more of dailies where everyone is picking up the vibrations of everybody else – that’s very different. Very concentrated. The director obviously is feeling something and people are picking that up. But by the same token, the director is picking up what the other people are feeling. It’s a way of us all pickling ourselves in the juice of the film, and that’s gone now, with very few exception. But we do send the dailies — via PIX or whatever system — to the studio and that ironically gives them even more power because they’ve seen the dailies the way dailies are supposed to be seen and we, the filmmakers, haven’t.

There’s that old rule of: “if you bind together, you stick together.” And the experience of dailies — as tired as everyone is at the end of the day or at lunch — it’s a bonding experience. We’re all in this together. The seeing of what we shot yesterday informs what we’re doing today in ways that we can’t even articulate ourselves consciously. And that’s dissipated because of the efficiency of digital.

I look at dailies the ‘old’ way, and I ask my assistants, if I have any, to watch as well. But it is just us editors, none of the other departments. Kind of lonely.

HULLFISH: I never participated in one of those communal dailies sessions on film. Did you actually look at all of the dailies?

MURCH: We looked at all the circled takes, not the B-negative. And there was no fast-forward, so you just had to look at it all. Fred Zinneman was the most decisive director, in my experience. Julia shot for 80 days, but Fred printed maybe only 180,000 feet of 35mm film — 30 hours or something, so each day’s dailies were 20 minutes long.

HULLFISH: Someone told me that when you spoke at San Francisco Cutters, you talked about being let go from Tomorrowland. What happened? And how did how did you recover? I didn’t make it past the assembly on a film and it was brutal when it happened to me.

MURCH: It definitely it gets your attention! There’s a phrase from Sun Tzu, the Chinese general, which recommends, “Kill the chicken to scare the monkey.” And in this case….

HULLFISH: Were you the chicken and the director was the monkey?

MURCH: The studio had the gun, I was the chicken, and Brad was the monkey. They wanted to get his attention.

I had lunch with Brad a couple of months ago and finally was able to ask him, “What really happened?” He said the studio either wanted to move the whole film down to Los Angeles so its easier for them to visit — we were editing at Skywalker in Marin County and Brad did not want to move to LA — or get rid of Walter and hire somebody that the studio felt was more suited to the film, whatever that means.

HULLFISH: I wonder whether that person was someone that they knew they had a bit more control of?

MURCH: No, I don’t necessarily think so. Craig Wood cut Guardians of the Galaxy which was a big success, and so they had confidence in him. I hadn’t had a hit movie in quite a while. The Tomorrowland shooting script was one hundred and fifty pages long but the green light for the film was conditioned on the final cut being two hours long. So there’s around 30 pages that had to be shot and then cut out of the final version. But you don’t know which thirty pages. The film was constantly struggling against that headwind, and I think I was the sacrificial victim to that process.

HULLFISH: We have to get back to: “What is your approach?” You sit down, you look at dailies in the Avid or in Premiere and then what happens?

Murch’s story outline on the wall in his cutting room. Diamond-shaped cards are “turns” in the story. Each color reflects a mood or emotion. Photo courtesy of Walter Murch.

MURCH: So I watch all the dailies and I take notes in the dark. I have a laptop with a notes program in it — a database that I wrote in FileMaker — and I just free associate as I watch. You’re only going to see this material for the first time once, and so whatever your initial impressions are, that’s the closest you’re ever going to get to how the audience is going to feel when they see this for the first time. And anything that occurs to you at that time, just write it down, anything, and those notes are stamped with timecode corresponding to the film. You can write, “A fly just landed on my nose TC 2:06:55” Write that down because It helps you to get back to that first moment, as silly as it may seem at the time.

And then I build the material into what I call a KEM roll: just a continuous timeline of all the day’s material. And I scan quickly through each setup on the KEM rolle and drop markers on what I think might be key frames that answer the question: “Why did they shoot this shot?” Both in terms of staging, and expressions of the actors, interesting body language. A kind of hieroglyph of emotion. Is he angry? Find the decisive angry moment. Is she sad? Find the sad moment. Is there a real shift in the staging during the shot? If so, mark stills to show each of those staging shifts.

These selected frames get printed up on paper – about twenty-five images on a page. And then I print out the notes that I took during dailies and read through them with a highlighter. Anything that really stuck out gets an orange highlight. Anything that’s to be avoided, I make that green. Avoid writing “NG” (no good) without saying why it is no good. Frequently, what is bad when you first see it may be exactly what you want two months later when the structure of the film has changed.

Images from Coup 53 as cards on the wall in Murch’s cutting room.

Then I try to get as much of the orange in the first assembly as possible. I have my still images on the wall. I decide what’s the first shot. It’s usually pretty obvious where the director wants to begin the scene because of how it’s shot. So, that’s how I’m going to begin. I think I want to cut… THERE. If that’s the frame I’m going out on now, I look at the wall of images to see what frame jumps out at me as: “CHOOSE ME!”

It’s like a class full of people raising their hand. Let’s say it’s setup 38. So I look at the notes and 38 take 4 has an orange note. “Really good anger at TC (timecode) 1:02:12” So I get 38 take 4 and since I’ve chosen a good possible end frame for the outgoing shot, I try to find what’s a good beginning frame for the incoming shot, sometime that complements or contrasts with the last frame of the previous shot. In that case I will scrub to find the best incoming frame. Splice them together, then run it and see how it looks. And go on to the next decisive moment where there might be a cut.

HULLFISH: Because, as you said, that juxtaposition where one frame goes to another frame — there’s power in that juxtaposition.

MURCH: Absolutely. When I was doing this on film, back in the 70’s, 80’s and early 90’s, I would select frames to print using a Sharpie, marking the edge of the frame with a little black bar — and what I discovered was that, in the end, when I was preparing the film for negative cutting, many of the frames right around the cut point – outgoing or incoming – would have a little black bar on them. I had unconsciously chosen them as cut points because of their iconic nature.

Murch’s cutting room on Coup 53.

And I think that’s generally true of how we perceive things. Let’s say he audience is watching a continuous stream of action. And then — if the editor has chosen correctly — there is striking image at the culmination of the shot — and immediately after there is a cut, which startles the audience’s perceiving brain: as if, subconsciously, “Something just happened. There’s just been a big shift (a cut) I need to remember the last image before this transition, and I will also remember the first image after.” It’s like a little conceptual flashbulb goes off at the moment of the cut, which helps burn these images into the memory. That’s why I don’t care for matching action: it is an attempt to deny the flashbulb moment: when somebody begins to move their hand, there’s usually nothing iconic about that. In fact, it’s chosen for exactly the opposite reason: it’s in neutral. It’s like pushing down the clutch between one image and the other.

HULLFISH: It’s essentially a dissolve.

MURCH: Yes. What I’m talking about, this ‘flashbulb’ effect, doesn’t happen 100 percent of the time, but if a film has enough of it, there are these moments that get burned into the audience’s memory. And the amazing thing about film is that it’s motion pictures, but when we remember the film later on, we hardly remember motion at all. We remember how that person looked at the moment. We remember in still images. The moment of the cut, if used properly, is a way of turning that cut into a branding iron that helps those images get remembered.

HULLFISH: On that iconic thought, I’m going to say thank you so much for spending time with my readers and audience and with me. I am privileged to have had a chance to talk to you. Thank you, Walter.

Art of the Cut book cover
Art of the Cut: Conversations with Film and TV Editors

MURCH: Sure. It was a pleasure talking to you.

To read more interviews in the Art of the Cut series, check out THIS LINK and follow me on Twitter @stevehullfish or on imdb.

The first 50 interviews in the series provided the material for the book, “Art of the Cut: Conversations with Film and TV Editors.” This is a unique book that breaks down interviews with many of the world’s best editors and organizes it into a virtual roundtable discussion centering on the topics editors care about. It is a powerful tool for experienced and aspiring editors alike. Cinemontage and CinemaEditor magazine both gave it rave reviews. No other book provides the breadth of opinion and experience. Combined, the editors featured in the book have edited for over 1,000 years on many of the most iconic, critically acclaimed and biggest box office hits in the history of cinema.

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