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Sunday, 11.20.05:  Walter Murch

Last night, for a change of pace, Jim and I went to the George Eastman House. The International Museum of Photography there was honoring Walter Murch and showing "The Conversation" (1974).

Who is Walter Murch?

He started splicing audio tapes at the age of 11 and grew up to go to film school with Francis Ford Coppola. He started out as a sound guy who could also edit film. Now he is a sound designer + film editor extraordinaire. Not only did he sound/film edit "The Conversation," he did the same for "Apocalypse Now" -- turning over a million feet of film into an Academy Award-winning blockbuster.

Murch is proof that obsessive-compulsiveness isn't always a disorder.

I'm a great admirer of Francis Ford Coppola, but I love Walter Murch because he's not the big ego out in front getting all the glory. He's the backroom guy who contributes his special way of figuring things out. The ultimate problem-solver. The quintessential systems thinker. Murch has to be able to hold the whole project, its goals, and every scene in his head all at once; then he has to zoom in and apply his craft frame by frame, with no blink of the eye ignored. He has to be someone of enormous passion and enormous patience. He sweats the details.

In my lifetime I've worked with too many people who grandly consider themselves "big picture" types. Have a vision and the details will take care of themselves. Wrong. It's the details that derail you. Big Picture blowhards who are not systems thinkers obsessed with detail turn out to be mediocrities and blame "circumstances beyond our control" for their failures.

Hard work doesn't guarantee success. But successful people work really hard. It's one of those life lessons I'm always intrigued with. Maybe because in school my kind of hard worker got labeled grind or brainiac or whatever today's slang is. Murch is proof that obsessive-compulsiveness isn't always a disorder.

I should also say that Murch's "In the Blink of an Eye: A Perspective on Film Editing" was enormously helpful in my own foray into film editing.

Anyway, the evening was fun. "The Conversation" is a classic. Afterwards, Murch showed us a clip from "Apocalype Now." He showed it about 7 or 8 times, each time with a different layer of sound: voices, music, helicopters, explosions, small arms fire, etc. Then showed the final product with all the sounds blended. You might have 20 layers of sound, he said, but the human ear can only process 2 or 3 at a time or it all turns into a ball of noise. His art and his craft are about which sounds to bring forward at any given moment. The audience was full of questions for him.

At the end I bought "The Conversations" and he autographed it for me. And he looked me straight in the eye. Cool.


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