Stories in the Dark
Walter Murch '65 is a three time Academy Award winner for sound and film editing. Below, he edits Cold Mountain using inexpensive, mass-market software from Apple Computer. (Photos from Behind the Seen: How Walter Murch Edited Cold Mountain Using Apple's Final Cut Pro and What this Means for Cinema.)
Photos by Greg Williams
As a boy growing up in New York City, Walter Murch '65 was fascinated with sound. When he was 10, he discovered a reel-to-reel tape recorder that belonged to a friend's father and cajoled his friend into letting him borrow it. He hung a microphone out of his window to capture the sounds of the city. Then he bent metal into various shapes, inserted a microphone, and tapped on the sculptures to record unusual sounds. He discovered that he could cut and splice audio tape to rearrange time, or even layer sounds to make new combinations.
That childhood fascination has served Murch well. Today one of Hollywood's most respected sound specialists, Murch won an Academy Award for his sound work on Apocalypse Now and two Oscars for his film editing and sound mixing on The English Patient. His sound- and film-editing credits include The Rain People, Julia, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Ghost, American Grafitti, the Godfather trilogy, The Conversation, and The Talented Mr. Ripley.
Murch developed what is today's industry standard for editing formats while working on Apocalypse Now. In 2002, he was the first to edit a big-budget feature film (Cold Mountain) using an inexpensive, mass-market software package from Apple Computer called Final Cut Pro.
The film earned critical acclaim and more than $150 million worldwide at the box office (Murch's use of the software was so significant that New Riders Press devoted an entire book to it: Behind the Seen: How Walter Murch Edited Cold Mountain Using Apple's Final Cut Pro and What This Means for Cinema, released last fall). But before Murch pulled it off, Apple's own software developers had been skeptical.
"I think you have to listen carefully to your intuition and remain alive to those little 'what if' voices, which can easily get crushed in practicalities," Murch says.
"Film takes us out of ourselves. For two hours we are all dreaming the same dream."
He has never been one to let practicalities get in the way. After a Hopkins study-abroad trip introduced him to the French New Wave cinema movement, Murch became devoted to what he calls "the unchanging human hunger for stories in the dark" and pursued graduate studies in film at the University of Southern California. There, the department head told him and his classmates, "'There are too many of you, and there aren't enough jobs. If you leave now you can still get your tuition back.'"
Murch and his friends were undeterred. "The mood was pretty hopeless," Murch remembers. "But in a weird way, that almost encouraged us. We just wanted to make films."
After graduating from USC's cinema program, Murch got a foot in the door of the educational division of Encyclopedia Britannica by sweeping floors and doing odd jobs. "I hung around long enough and showed enough interest that I got a chance to edit educational films," he says. That led to some freelance work, but nothing steady until he joined two film-school friends, then-unknown George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, in their newly created company, American Zoetrope Studios.
"Hollywood was so compartmentalized that we found we couldn't make the kinds of interesting films that we had made at film school," Murch says. "Zoetrope was a way for us to perpetuate that creative experience and collective excitement."
Murch believes that, no matter what the process, the "power that film has over the audience is not its physical strength, but its emotional coherence and the fact that with an audience of 1,000 you have 25,000 years of human history coiled there in the dark, ready and anxious to make a collective leap." In other words, he says, film "takes us out of ourselves. For two hours we are all dreaming the same dream."
Murch's next film is Sam Mendes' Jarhead, edited on Final Cut Pro High Definition, to be released in October.