Walter Murch is the smartest person in America.
If anything, this understates the case. Yesterday I attended a talk at the Chicago Humanities Festival given by Murch, the legendary editor and sound designer of such films as The English Patient and Apocalypse Now. Regular readers of this blog know how much Murch means to me: he’s a longtime friend and colleague of such directors as George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, and while he never quite ascended to their levels of wealth and power, he’s their equal, or better, when it comes to intelligence, artistry, and innovation. Murch is a polymath whose work expresses both a universal curiosity and a meticulous level of craft, as amply chronicled in his own book, In the Blink of an Eye, and such fascinating portraits as Michael Ondaatje’s The Conversations and Charles Koppelman’s Behind the Seen. And while he may not be as famous as some of his collaborators, he’s an esteemed figure within the world of film, as demonstrated by the crowd of groupies who pressed in afterward for an autograph. Confession: I was one of them.
In addition to everything else, Murch is a wonderful public speaker, an inexhaustible source of anecdote and insight delivered in perfectly formed paragraphs. (Not least, he’s the first speaker I’ve ever seen who actually knew how to use his own laptop to give a presentation—not surprising, since Murch is one of the great users of Apple products.) Inevitably, our hour with Murch flew by much too quickly; his interlocutor, critic Lawrence Weschler, spoke of another incident in which a presenter was booed for ushering Murch off the stage after he’d held the audience enthralled for six hours. But the conversation we did get ranged from discussions of Chinese calligraphy to the recent financial crisis, and from THX-1138 to The Conversation to The Clone Wars, an episode of which Murch recently directed. I wish I could quote it all here. Instead, I’ll just touch on a subject central to the talk: the transition from analog to digital.
For most of the history of cinema, editing film was both intellectually difficult and physically taxing. The sheer bulk of the materials involved was daunting enough: Murch points out that for combined sound and picture in 35 mm, one minute of film equals a pound of celluloid. For a movie like Apocalypse Now, this comes out to something like seven tons of raw footage. And when an editor working on film is seeking a particular frame, weighing only a few thousands of an ounce, he needs to keep good records—and, Murch adds, to have “a strong back and arms.” Today, of course, the situation has changed dramatically: with an editing platform like Final Cut Pro, which Murch famously used to edit Cold Mountain, instead digging through a bin for the right piece of film, you can call up the necessary frame at once. This makes the process much more efficient, but it also leads to certain losses. Here’s Charles Koppelman in Behind the Seen:
As Murch often points out, the simple act of having to rewind film on a flatbed editing machine gave him the chance to see footage in other context (high-speed, reverse) that could reveal a look, a gesture, or a completely forgotten shot. Likewise, the few moments he had to spend waiting for a reel to rewind injected a blank space into the process during which he could simply let his mind wander into subconscious areas. With random-access, computer-based editing, a mouse click instantly takes the editor right to a desired frame; there is no waiting, no downtime—and fewer happy accidents.
I’ve spoken before about the paradoxes involved in increased efficiency, and how to compensate for it, in my post on Blinn’s Law. And one of the most fascinating aspects of Murch’s work is his effort to deliberately introduce randomness and chance into the creative process. One of my few regrets about yesterday’s talk was that he was unable to discuss this in detail, since it’s one the most valuable lessons he has to share. Murch sometimes reminds me of Steve Jobs, with whom he corresponded at times, both in his fondness for black turtlenecks and in his efforts to bridge the worlds of the humanities and the sciences—and, even more crucially, the worlds of analog and digital creativity. As we pass ever further into the random-access age, it’s all the more important to listen to Murch, who tirelessly explores the future even as he unsentimentally points out the usefulness of the past. A computer, he notes, always gives you what you want; an older system, with its inherent unpredictability, often gives you what you need. Tomorrow, I’ll be talking more about how artists of all kinds can deal with this dilemma.