March 17, 2016

Intriguing Editing Tips from Oscar-Winning Editor Walter Murch

As an Oscar-winning editor and sound designer who has worked on films like THX 1138, Apocalypse Now, and The English Patient, it's pretty safe to say that Walter Murch is a true master of his craft.

In this interview with thefilmbook's Benjamin B, Murch shares a ton of great information about his approach to editing, the benefits of standing while working, and why he thinks editing is like cooking, conducting, and surgery.

Here are a few takeaways from the interview:

Standing gives you a better sense of time

Murch edits on an old IKEA drafting desk and stands about half the time. The reason for this is partly because it's reminiscent of editing on an upright Moviola, but he says standing also gives him a better sense of time. He explains how working as an editor is a lot like being a chef, orchestra conductor, and a surgeon — you're combining elements, directing the "sustained moments", and deciding where to cut, as well as what needs to be taken out and left in. And typically when you cook, orchestrate, or do surgery you stand. He thinks this is because standing gives you a better sense of time.

"Cooking, surgery, conducting — you have to feel time. And I just think it's a natural response when we're feeling time to want to stand. And that's why I stand."

Pro Tip: Cut on the uplift of a step

If you've ever wondered when to cut a shot of someone walking, Murch shares his secret. "Step, step, cut." So, give your subject two steps, and on the "uplift" of the third, that's where you cut. This is only if you want to avoid drawing attention to your editing; Murch suggests cutting right on the third step if you want to emphasize it. Try it! See if it works for you.

Try to hit the same frame 3 times in a row

Can't tell if you should cut on a certain frame? Murch has a great tip on how to find out. He says play your clip, hit stop where you think you should cut, and read the timecode to find out which frame you land on. Then, rewind and do it again. If you land on the same frame, it's most likely the right one. If you're not hitting the same one, it might be because you're subconsciously telling yourself something is wrong with cutting there. He also says that this is a good exercise for learning how to be able to hit the same frame over and over again.

"The ability to hit the same duck at the penny arcade three times in a row when the ducks are going by 24 times a second, that's beyond your conscious control. You can't do that intellectually. You can only do that musically — if you're responding to the rhythm."

The Walter Murch Process

When Murch sits down (or stands up) to edit, he first screens the shots, takes notes, and edits scenes with the sound off. He then refines the edit, then refines again, but all of this is done without any sound. He says that some interesting things happen when he turns the sound on.

"70% of it will be fine. 10% will be wrong — words will get cut off in the middle or something, and I just note, 'Fix this.' But another 15% will actually be really interesting, because it happened by chance. I may have used a reaction shot from somewhere else in the scene — then there was a line of dialog or even a sound effect that happened at that moment that I never would've done on purpose, but now that I hear it I think, 'Oh, that's kind of interesting.'"

You can thank Walter Murch for Adobe Premiere's "dynamic trimming" feature

Yeah, he went to Adobe's offices in San Francisco to let them know he was interested in Premiere, but noticed it didn't have any dynamic trimming feature. A few months later, it did. Thanks, Walter!      

Your Comment

8 Comments

He is absolutely The Legend. I tried this standing tip and damn, how well it worked. It gives you a real grasp of time you spend on something.

March 18, 2016 at 3:13AM

2
Reply

We all love Walter Murch for everything he does and has done. He is close to being a genius or is one. Every time he speeks, new worlds open.

But what happend to the last 5% of his silent cuts? ; )

March 18, 2016 at 4:39AM, Edited March 18, 4:39AM

7
Reply

He remains silent on the last 5% ;-)

March 18, 2016 at 7:26AM, Edited March 18, 7:26AM

2
Reply
WalterBrokx
Director, DOP, Writer, Editor, Producer
5784

I love that he edits with the sound off.

I edit with the headphones on halfway, with the volume fairly low. This helps me focus on the visual rhythm and not get caught up on sound issues during the first few edits. Great article.

March 18, 2016 at 11:17AM

1
Reply

Bonsoir V

Thank you for presenting my first 2 videos of Walter Murch
If possible, it would be great to link "thefilmbook" in the 1st paragraph above to my blog:
http://www.theasc.com/site/blog/thefilmbook

All my best,
your colleague Benjamin B

March 19, 2016 at 3:56PM

3
Reply
Benjamin B
blogger & journalist
18

Done and done! Thanks for this interview, Benjamin. I think we all learned a lot!

March 19, 2016 at 10:48PM

0
Reply
avatar
V Renée
Nights & Weekends Editor
Writer/Director

I find standing also helps by allowing me to move, kind of like a subtle dance to the rhythm of what I'm editing; to flinch, lean, gesture, and just FEEL what the material is asking for its pace and timing to be.

March 21, 2016 at 10:28AM

1
Reply
avatar
Chris Rakoczy
Photographer
6

I love Walter. Not for nothing, but orchestras don't usually come in on the upbeat.

March 21, 2016 at 1:54PM, Edited March 21, 1:54PM

0
Reply
avatar
Scot Yount
Director/Editor/Photographer/Motion Graphic Artist
326