Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Cooking & Brain Surgery

Last night I was re-inspired to love cinema by being in the presence of legendary editor Walter Murch who was guest speaker at an evening gathering of the excellent professional network Cinema Jam in Shoreditch.

He said some beautiful things and some insightful things and here are a few of them to share with you:

  • "It is like writing history with electricity," said president Woodrow Wilson when he saw one of the earliest feature films (happened to be DW Griffith's ideologically indefensible Birth of a Nation, which is a sad start to cinema, but there it is).

  • Murch showed us a picture which he said was of a moment that happened on every film - first blood. The editor had cut his finger on the machinery. "You knew you were really making a film when blood began to flow".

  • Murch edits at a standing desk. "Film editing is a combination of short order cooking and brain surgery," he said. This is because it has such a strong time component that sometimes you just have to bash something out as quickly as possible and other times you need the fine precision of a surgeon.

  • If a film is really good, you forget any of the artifice that went into making it. "It's happening right in front of you". That's how he explained Victor Fleming's quote: "Good editing makes a director look good. Great editing makes a film look like it wasn’t directed at all."

  • How do you know when to stop? Murch says it's when the scene is "just happening" and you can't see yourself anymore in the decisions you made.

  • The author Milan Kundera said: "Your novel should be smarter than you are" and Murch feels the same way about films.

  • What is the future of actual celluloid film, the physical stuff, in the face of a digital revolution? Murch says watching celluloid is like swilling an expensive glass of wine with overtones of ebony and cinnamon. You have to ask yourself - what it takes to make those overtones, well, is that worth it?

  • Murch spoke highly of Adobe Premiere Pro which he's currently using and which has apparently been very responsive in its development to filmmakers including Fincher and the Cohen brothers. For example, the software company installed an option for "dynamic trimming" at Murch's request. He explained there are 3 critical points in a shot: Which shot? Where to begin? Where to end? The end is vital and that cut point is for him "a place of musical sensitivity". He said he would never scrub and go frame by frame to find that end point, but rather run the footage and feel the cut.

  • Apocalypse Now was 14,160 minutes of film which meant it actually weighed 7 tons. That kind of physical material needed an army of attendants and much higher budgets.

  • "The motion picture and music love each other - sometimes too much". Murch said they are both temporal arts in which the viewer has to accept the time created by the medium. Personally, one of the things that has always annoyed me about watching films for work purposes vs reading screenplays is that in the former I can't skim or speed through at my own pace - I am bound to the pace of the picture or risk losing massive chunks of information and pretty much the essence of the work.

  • Murch also said cinema and music are both modular. They go through modules of being in one state and then another and great power comes from the change between states.

  • Both cinema and music are also very specific - in cinema, you see an actor's face in a moment in a specific light and you cannot imagine anything else. As a side-note he added that's what makes a good movie star - an actor whose face allows the audience to both see them for who they are, but also at the same time project a penumbra of hopes and desires onto them.

  • Music in cinema can help make the very specific nature of the image more universal. For example, in Star Wars: A New Hope when Luke looks up at the sky on his home planet, the score lifted that moment out from the specific and made it a universal moment of "boy becomes man".

  • As an Editor, Murch advocates working with the Composer and music like a trellis vine - keep an active exchange going and grow one off the other.

  • Used incorrectly, Murch says music can be like steroids - it can buff you up emotionally, but it's not healthy in the long run.

  • He said (jokingly) if he had a magic wand to change one thing about the industry it would be that every Executive who greenlights a project should be forced to retype the screenplay. Then they would have a forensic understanding of the project and be able to see in advance how much can be changed and moved etc. before its even shot.

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