Walter Murch Lecture - From The Godfather to The God Particle
Walter Murch gives a lecture about the history of film and filmmaking in general at the Sheffield Doc Fest. The presentation is roughly 45 minutes long, followed by an interview of similar length during which Walter talks a lot about cinema. At 55:00, he mentions his famous picture editing theories laid out in his book, In the Blink of an Eye.
Walter Murch explains the theory that inspired In the Blink of an Eye - blinking
PLEASE NOTE: this theory, i.e. the natural editing rhythm based on the blinking of our eyes, was published in Walter Murch's book In the Blink of an Eye. The book has become a bit of an industry bible and is therefore essential reading for anyone working as a picture editor. I highly recommend it.
Biologically speaking, the human eye has to blink in order to stay lubricated. The eyelid, therefore, is like a natural 'shutter' that blinks constantly.
When Walter Murch was editing The Conversation, he realised that his edit points usually occurred just before lead actor Gene Hackman was about to blink his eyes.
Some time later, Murch stumbled upon an interview with director John Huston, who talked about blinking. In the interview, Huston mentions the following:
Walter Murch quotes John Huston - about blinking 56:10
Look at me, and now, look at that lamp. Now look back at me.
'Did you see what you did?' he would ask. ...No... 'Well, when you looked from me to the lamp, you blinked. And when you looked from the lamp to me, you blinked. That's where the cut is. You're cutting between the shot of the lamp and the shot of me.'
That's when it clicked. From that moment on, I began to engage people in conversation just to see when they blinked.
Walter realised that the rhythm of blinking had nothing to do with the biological lubrication process; it is, in fact, a reaction to an 'interior process' of one's counterpart.
Walter Murch - about blinking 57:10
People blink essentially when they get the idea of a thought. It's a way, in a sense, of saving to disk.
I understood it and will now save it to my hard drive in the blink of an eye.
In terms of picture editing, this means that the cut is the moment when we're saying 'I get it, I understand, I am now ready for the next idea'. The cut, however, never happens precisely when someone blinks but just slightly before it happens.
Walter Murch - about blinking 59:16
Never, never, never look for the blink and back up two frames and cut there. Feel the moment of the cut.
In his explanations, Murch often uses expressions like 'the skin of the film', the spine, the body of a film... When asked about the physicality of his filmmaking, Walter replies:
Walter Murch - about filmmaking
A film is like a frozen dance with rhythms made of pictures and sounds, presented to an audience and then interpreted by each member of that audience.
This is the reason why Walter Murch prefers to work standing up (in his own words):
Walter Murch - about standing at work
I usually stand when I edit. Not only because it is healthier but because I want to feel the rhythm of the scene - just like a sax player who jumps to his feet for a solo or an orchestra conductor.
Who does Walter most closely associate with on a film?
Walter Murch - About Picture Editing
On the whole, I am closest to the film itself. Then the director. As not all visions and ideas can be articulated, I see it as my duty to challenge and provoke the director. If I make a suggestion that takes the film in a certain direction, the director can intervene and suggest another direction - but in a way that he or she could not articulate before. That's how you approach a director's vision.
Walter Murch talks about the use of music in film
Walter Murch about saliva music and music in film
Walter Murch - About Music in Film (1:12:48)
Music and film loathe each other. They're like fraternal twins, separated at birth. They are both highly modular art forms with great repetition. Music has great abstraction, so it's modular, temporal, and highly abstract. Motion pictures are modular, temporal, and highly specific. Each one saves the other from the excesses of itself.
Inevitably, in a theatrical film you cast Al Pacino as Michael in The Godfather. On the day of the shoot, the light hits him at a certain angle and he's wearing a specific costume. What music can do, effectively, is render more universal this particular character and bring the emotions that are caused by the story into some kind of focus and resolution.
A kind of peristaltic action that goes along to help digest the film. If you don't want this kind of peristalsis - and some films with unbearable tension don't want this - then don't use music. Even the scariest, tensest music helps the peristalsis, this digestion.
So, Wages of Fear by Clouzot has no music in it other than what people hear on the radio. 'M', the Fritz Lang film, has no music other than the whistling ('The Hall of the Mountain King'), this sound that you know the killer is near.
But there's no music to relieve the tension, to allow this digestion to take place.
You also use music as much for the silence after the music, as the music itself. Because the silence says 'pay attention, this is something different!'
So it's a way of changing a paragraph. We use this technique a number of times in the film, Particle Fever.
When the music is being misused ... it can be a kind of steroid. There are films that unashamedly use music as steroids, they keep injecting this music into the body of the film to bulk up the emotional muscles of the film. The question really is, in the long term, is that good for this film and is it good for the collective art of motion pictures?
My opinion would be no, it's not good for the same reasons that it's not good for athletes to use steroids. There's a momentary advantage but in the long run it's counter-productive. There's also another kind of music which sort of works like saliva, to help digestion, to help break down the food. I've seen it in documentaries where there's music just noodling along all the time.