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Camerimage: Walter Murch on Editing, Cinematography and the Change to Digital

Walter Murch is extraordinary even within his own field: He was six times Oscar-nominated for film editing, three times nominated for sound mixing, winning for mixing on “Apocalypse Now,” and achieving a landmark double when he won both editing and mixing for his work on “The English Patient.” This week, he attends the Camerimage film festival, which is devoted to the art of cinematography, to receive the Special Award to an Editor with Unique Visual Sensitivity.

In a career that spans over 40 years, Murch is perhaps best known for his collaborations with Francis Ford Coppola, beginning in 1969 with “The Rain People.” After working with George Lucas on “THX 1138” (1971), which he co-wrote, and “American Graffiti” (1973), Murch returned to Coppola for 1974’s “The Conversation,” receiving his first Academy Award nomination as a result. Murch’s pioneering achievements were acknowledged by Coppola on his follow-up, the 1979 Palme d’Or winner “Apocalypse Now,” for which he was granted, in what is seen as a film-history first, the screen credit “Sound Designer.”

Murch’s subsequent resume has been typified by its versatility, notably several successful partnerships with the late Anthony Minghella. Continuing to work across many genres, including action, thriller and drama, Murch recently completed editing duties on recent Disney sci-fi fantasy “Tomorrowland” and is currently in London putting together a documentary about the 1953 coup in Iran that led to the installation of the Shah.

Variety: What are your thoughts on receiving this award?
Walter Murch: It’s a fantastic honor when you consider it’s one group of film technicians giving an award to another group of film technicians: cinematographers and editors each depend fantastically closely on what the other one does. For obvious reasons, the editor couldn’t begin to put the film together unless the material was generated in the first place — and generated with a high degree of quality, with the ability to interact with itself in an editorial sense. And then of course the cinematographers depend on us to present the vision that they have in the most effective way, telling the story in the clearest way, presenting images that work together with each other in a way that hopefully enhances them — the concoction of the images can be greater than the sum of its parts, if we’re all lucky. So I take this award very seriously. I’ve never gotten anything like it.

Variety: In terms of editing, how would you describe your working relationship with the cinematographer?
Murch: It is relatively distant, and it has gotten more distant over the years, because of digital. We start editing as soon as possible, meaning that within the first week of shooting we are beginning to edit. Frequently the production might be on location, and we are either back at the editorial office or at the lab or wherever we happen to have our set-up. Sometimes we’re thousands of miles away from where the film is being shot. So we aren’t on set on a daily basis. Some editors like to go on set if the opportunity arises, I don’t.

Variety: Why not?
Murch: I like to stay as impartially removed as possible, because I don’t really want to know the conditions under which a film was shot — because the audience doesn’t know. If I do go on set, which I sometimes do, then I literally know what it smells like, how cold it is, what the mood is, where the craft service table was… And in subtle — and sometimes not so subtle — ways, that influences how you look at the material. So I prefer to step back from that.

Variety: Is anything else different in the digital age?
Murch: The thing that has changed profoundly over the last 15 years, and I haven’t seen much writing about this, is that the experience of going to dailies has almost completely disappeared, because of shooting with video tape and now shooting digital. The impression is that… You’ve seen it! [Laughs] There are 20 plasma screens around the set as the scene is being shot. Every department has its own screen, so as the material gets shot, there is a direct feed from the camera to all of these screens. Everyone’s tired at the end of the day, everyone works very long hours, so why do they have to go and see it all again? From a practical point of view, that’s absolutely true, but in the days when we had to look at dailies, there was what I’ll call a religious component to this: you assembled at lunch on the following day, or the evening of the following day, and as tired as you were, all the heads of department came together. The only agenda was to look at what was shot the day before and to pick up the mood of the director — in the same way that the director wants to pick up the mood of everyone else. So there’s a kind of cross-fertilization that happens on overt and many times covert levels that I think accelerated a certain kind of creativity that is under threat now.

Variety: What do you think makes a great cinematographer?
Murch: Three things. First, a vision, and that vision has to co-fertilize and exist with the vision of the director — but that’s a decision the cinematographer makes when he or she decides to work with that director. Then, during shooting there is simply the ability to deal with the tactical and strategic problems of getting through the day, through the week, through the whole shoot, managing a vast, complex machine and solving very practical, persistent problems. Lastly, they must be someone who has pledged to generate, to create, the materials out of which the final film can be made: “Did we get the shot?” So the cinematographer also has to think editorially, about how all this is going to cut together.

Variety: Do you ever have input into each other’s processes?
Murch: No.

Variety: You’ve collaborated with many cinematographers over the years, as well as working on restorations such as Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil” (1958), which was shot by Russell Metty. What changes have you noticed?
Murch: At the basic, fundamental level, I haven’t noticed any changes at all. It’s still the same question: how do you visualise the story and get the best out of it? Superficially, of course, there are huge differences: Russell Metty is a very different cinematographer than Freddie Francis, who was very different from David Watkin, who was very different from Sven Nykvist, who was very different from Gordy Willis — and on and on and on. There’s a famous quote from [“The Wizard of Oz” director] Victor Fleming. He was talking about editing, but I think it also applies to cinematography. He said, “Good editing makes the director look good, great editing makes the film look like it wasn’t directed at all.” Basically, great cinematography makes it look like the film that’s unrolling in front of you is just happening, and you’re unaware of the huge levels of artifice involved.

Variety: What are your thoughts on the film-versus-digital debate?
Murch: I was at a conference at the Tate Modern a few weeks ago. There were representatives from the BFI, Kodak and various film schools. Christopher Nolan and Tacita Dean were there — maybe 35 people around a table, talking about the future of film — literally, the physical substance of film. There was considerable talk about the quality of film itself, the nature of grain and how one color bleeds into another when you mix photochemical as opposed to pixelated, right down to the value of a slight jitter in the frame, and the desire of people not to lose these things. But at the same time, there is obviously a huge pressure to simply roll over and let digital take over. Nobody came to a conclusion. But it’s very, very hard now, in Great Britain and the United States, to show a film on film. You can shoot on film, sort of, but to make release prints and get them shown is increasingly difficult. And I think it will continue to get more difficult.

Varety: How do you feel about that?
Murch: I would unfairly call it issues of wine connoisseurship — we talk about film in that way: “Well, it has a walnut quality with overtones of cherry, and I don’t want to lose this vintage…” [Laughs] The advocates of film would compare digital to a kind of blended wine. Another thing that’s happening is that the sanctity of the frame is being invaded by recomposition after the fact, so that whatever gets shot at the time… Well, now we’re using the word “acquiring” rather than “shooting,” which means the director will decide later on what framing is correct or how best to combine different takes into the same take. David Fincher is a big proponent of this: shooting at 8K, overscanning, then deciding later on how to frame it, how to stabilize, and combine different takes of different actors in the same shot. The cinematographer in that case has less control of the final image. And that’s only going to increase with time. Shooting at 8K means you can go anywhere within the frame to create a new frame that still will hold up at 6K or 4K resolution.

Variety: Is that a problem for you?
Murch: [Laughs] Well, no. I am a practitioner of recomposition!

Variety: You seem to be very open-minded about new technology…
Murch: Again, it all depends on the goal of the film — the prevailing aesthetic of the director and the vision of the cinematographer. Films are notoriously hard to predict, how they will finally tell themselves in all detail.

Variety: You’ve been described as “a Renaissance man.” How do you feel about that mantle?
Murch: I just have wide-ranging interests, I guess. [Laughs] Even within motion pictures I’m not only a film editor I’m also a re-recording mixer and a sound mixer. I’ve directed a film, and I’ve written films, so I’m not just one thing. Beyond that, I’m interested in lots of other things. I translate poetry, and there have been books published on that subject, and I’m interested in astronomy and history. I’m reading a wonderful book by Nick Lane at the moment about the origin of life. Y’know, we’re her on earth to experience as much as possible — so that’s what I’m trying to do.

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