The Conversations

[I’m writing this while on vacation, staying in a cabin near Mazama, WA. Since I don’t have Internet access here, I’m writing this in BBEdit and will post it when I return. (Full disclosure: I could probably get online via dialup, since there’s a phone line in the cabin, but I’m going to hold out as long as I can, being on said vacation.)]

I’m currently working on two book projects about video editing (editor of Final Cut Express 1.0: Visual QuickStart Guide and author of iMovie 3: Visual QuickStart Guide), so I’ve also picked up a book recommended to me during a presentation at Macworld Expo: The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, by Michael Ondaatje. Up to this point, I’ve mostly been reading a few pages at night while my computer chews on something (such as running a Photoshop Action that converts all the FCE screen shots to grayscale). But now that I’m on vacation, I’ve spent most of my time reading. Okay, so maybe I’m bringing my work along with me a little by reading a book about editing, but as you’d expect from a good book, I’ve gotten more out of the book than just that.

Ondaatje, the author of The English Patient, befriended Murch, the editor of the film version, and the two talk primarily about film editing and sound design. If you’re not familiar with him, Walter Murch isn’t just another editor. Coming out of the same group that formed American Zoetrope in the sixties (Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, for example), Murch edited such impressive works as The Conversation and Apocalypse Now.

But Murch is clearly one of those spongelike people who absorb all sorts of information, so really the book becomes a tome on perception, direction, and just how much damn analysis can go into a film before it’s ever released. To give you an example, here’s Murch:

What you’re constantly trying to find, as you distill it, is ways that these images can go together at deeper and deeper levels. What will immediately attract your attention — unless you’re very lucky or very wise — is something on the surface. …Why do I select that shot? Something about it made me select it. Once having selected it, a process of organic crystallization begins. I can think of no higher tribute to a film that than — that you sense simultaneously that it’s crystalline and organic at the same time. Too crystalline and it’s lifeless, too organic and it’s spineless. The human body is made of amorphic crystals — our DNA is an amorphic crystal which provides just enough structure to make it persist in a world that is trying to undo it. Yet it’s random enough to be adaptable.

Ondattje sums it up nicely: “Walter is a filmmaker whose interests are in no way limited to film. There are very few in Hollywood who could speak of Beethoven and bees and Rupert Sheldrake and astronomy and Guido d’Arezzo with such knowledge. In fact, it soon became clear that the one weak link in Walter’s knowledge was film history” (Murch doesn’t watch movies while he’s working, he says, “I get too easily depressed. If they’re bad, I begin to despair for filmmaking in general. it seems proof that it’s impossible to make a film. … On the other hand, if I see a film that I love, I think: I can use those techniques — and I become like a magpie.”

What this boils down to, for me, is that Murch isn’t just editing films and doing it well. He’s always on a quest to improve himself, improve his work, do what no one else has done in the field. And it’s worked… he’s pioneered much of what we see today, especially in terms of sound design.

So, looping this back into the context of a self-centered blog, the question before me is thus: what am I doing to improve myself? This is a question that becomes more difficult to answer with age, and also with success. I’m now 32 years old, an author or co-author of 12 books, a published magazine writer, and a self-employed freelancer going on 8 years. That sounds rather impressive to write it down, and I know that ten years ago I wouldn’t have guessed that I could make those claims (except for the age, of course). But I think about the other things kicking around in my head, the ideas and aspirations I haven’t yet tackled for too many reasons, and I wonder: am I actually improving myself in the ways I feel I need to be improved?

It’s difficult to pursue this actively; or rather, I’ve found it difficult. I’m currently swamped with work, and it is fulfilling work, but I find myself consumed by the work without thinking about the bigger picture until the work is over and I then need to look for more work. Or, in this case, go on vacation, read a book, and toss these ideas around.

  1. Walter Murch on film editing

    Murch has discovered some secrets about the art of filmmaking, and, to his credit, he is not only willing to share them, but also, with an evangelist’s glee, he wants to share them. When he spoke to the FCP group, we didn’t want to let him go,…

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