Within the movie industry, Walter Murch is one of the
most respected individuals in the
business. He is a talented and
educated man who has not only edited a number of feature films over the
years, but he is considered the inventor of sound design. His imprint on
the art of film editing is impeccable. His mastering of sound is studied
by many who want to get into sound design, as well as by those who
currently work in that field.
As an editor, Murch's credits range from a number of Francis Ford Coppola films like "The Godfather, Part II" (1974) to Anthony Minghella’s "Cold Mountain" (2003). As a sound designer, a term he coined, his work can be heard on "American Graffiti" (1973) and "The English Patient" (1996), for which he won two Oscars; one for editing and one for sound.
Murch is a lecturer, a teacher and a theorist. Much of his insight into art, literature and classical music is fascinating to listen to. Author Michael Ondaatje’s recent book, "The Conversations: Walter Murch and Art of Editing Film" (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2002) goes into depth with Murch on many of his theories, film work and his life. One of the highlights of reading about a great artist is you can see the theory behind the work and even answers to practical questions about financing, like applying to Flagship Merchant Services for help equipping yourself if sound design is a dream of yours as well.
One of Murch’s most interesting theories on film revolves around his three fathers of film. I was fortunate to have him describe this theory, as well as his work on restoring the first sound film, "The Edison/Dickson Experiment."
William Kallay, From Script To DVD: Can you describe your concept of the three fathers of film?
Walter Murch: It’s an attempt to answer a tantalizing question: why did film develop as a storytelling medium so quickly after its invention? It seems natural to us today, but there were many people a century ago, including even the inventors of film - Edison and the Lumière brothers - who did not foresee this development. Lumière went so far as to say that cinema was "an invention without a future." And he could have been right: there are frequently Inventions Without a Future - inventions which are ahead of their time, or outside their appropriate culture: the Aztecs invented the wheel, but didn’t know how to use it except as a toy. The Greeks did the same with the steam engine. So you have to look not only at the invention itself, but the social and cultural context which surrounds it. They all have to mesh, and with film they meshed spectacularly well. Within twelve years of its invention, film grammar is being determined in "The Great Train Robbery" the cut, the closeup, parallel action - along with the social and economic structures that would integrate cinema into the pattern of people’s daily lives and make the whole thing pay for itself. Within another dozen years, the feature film as we know it today was almost completely fleshed out, thanks to D.W. Griffith and "Birth Of A Nation." And then synchronous sound was added twelve years later to virtually complete the equation.
What would have happened, on the other hand, if somehow film had been invented in 1787 rather than 1887? Would we (at the time of the American Revolution) have known what to do with it? Or would this imaginary 18th Century Cinema have remained a kind of "Aztec Wheel" whose inherent potential would not be realized for a hundred years? I rather suspect the latter, because there were cultural movements that matured in the 19th century the idea of realism (from literature and painting), and dynamics (from music) - which are actually as much a part of cinema as the technical nature of film itself. And in 1787, realism and dynamics had not yet been born. And for film to be Cinema, you need three things: film, realism, and dynamics. This is where the idea of the Three Fathers comes in: Edison, Flaubert, and Beethoven. Edison (let’s use him as shorthand to stand for all the technical geniuses of early film) invented the physical side of film: its mechanical, chemical nature. But fifty years earlier, writers like Flaubert (let’s use him in the same shorthand way) invented the idea of realism that by meticulously observing ordinary reality, and writing these observations in a certain way, you can extract a transcendent meaning from that ordinary reality. And thirty years before Flaubert, composers like Beethoven (same shorthand) invented the idea of dynamics that by aggressively expanding, contracting and transforming the rhythmic and orchestral structure of music you can thereby extract great emotional resonance and power.
Now I’m not saying that there was a total absence of realism or dynamism in works of art before 1800. That’s certainly not the case. But the 19th century intensely focused and greatly expanded these concepts, and made them central to the novel, to the symphony, to painting. As usual with revolutionary ideas, they were not easily accepted at first. Realism seemed to some readers too ordinary to be literature: if the writer was just describing what the reader could see with his own eyes, why write at all!? When Manet exhibited his painting of Olympia, there was an outcry because she was just an ordinary girl, not a mythical creature. Mythical creatures could be painted in the nude, but not ordinary girls who you could see walking down the street. And when composer Carl Maria von Weber heard Beethoven’s Seventh symphony (1813), he felt that "Beethoven is quite ripe for the madhouse." Beethoven’s music (compared to say, Haydn’s or Mozart’s) seemed to jump maniacally from one topic to another, to abandon thematic ideas and pick them up later, turned inside out. His music didn’t stick to the previous century’s more ordered architectural model of composition - it substituted an organic, wild, natural (sometimes supernatural) model that was exhilarating to the young people who heard it and rather frightening to the older folks. "He takes at times the flight of an eagle, and then creeps in rocky pathways. He first fills the soul with sweet melancholy, and then shatters it with a mass of barbarous chords. He puts doves and crocodiles together in the same cage," wrote a French music critic in 1810. When you listen to Beethoven’s music now, and hear those sudden shifts in tonality, rhythm, and musical focus, it is as if you can hear the grammar of film cuts, dissolves, fades, superimposures, long shots, close shots being worked out in musical terms. By the end of the 19th century these once-revolutionary ideas of realism and dynamism had been thoroughly accepted into European culture: generations of artists, writers, and composers as well as society at large had by 1887 completely (and somewhat unconsciously) internalized these ways of looking, thinking, listening. The whole 19th century was steeped in realism and dynamism. And then along came Film: a medium ideally suited to the dynamic representation of closely observed reality. And so these two great rivers of 19th century culture realism (from literature and painting) and dynamism (from music) surged together within the physical framework of film to crystallize, within a few decades, the new artistic form of cinema.
FSTDVD: Do you mind telling our readers about your involvement in the work-in-progress on the Dickson/Edison sound recording?
Murch: This was a real detective story involving a forgotten, broken sound cylinder at Thomas Edison’s lab in Menlo Park [New Jersey]. Patrick Loughney, the head of television and film at the Library of Congress, developed an intuition that this cylinder might actually be the soundtrack for a short kinetoscope that Edison made in 1894. The film is of one of Edison’s key assistants William Dickson playing a violin into a recording horn: it’s clear from looking at the image that the violin must have been being recorded (on a cylinder) as they were filming. But the accompanying sound had never been located. Until a few years ago, when Patrick located this particular broken cylinder and had it repaired. In fact, it turned out to be a recording of someone playing the violin. But the Library of Congress had no means to put the image and the sound in sync: the film was shot at 40 frames a second (rather than our standard today of 24) and only lasted 17 seconds: whereas the sound on the cylinder was two and half minutes long. So the question was: which 17 seconds of sound went with the film? And then, once you’ve decided that, how do you put it in sync with the film, which is playing at a non-standard frame rate?
FSTDVD: Quite a restoration dilemma. How did you get in touch with Mr. Loughney?
Murch: I was put in touch with Patrick through Rick Schmidlin, who had produced the restoration of "Touch Of Evil," and Patrick asked if I could help them. I wound up digitizing both the sound and the picture, and was consequently able to render the film at normal speed and then find various sync points with the music. I tried dozens and dozens over a period of a couple of hours until I finally found the one that worked the soundtrack and the picture were finally in sync with each other for the first time in a 106 years!
FSTDVD: Is this the first known recording of film with sound?
Murch: Yes. It pushes the threshold of film sound back by a couple of decades. There’s anecdotal evidence of something done a couple of years earlier, in 1891, but neither the film nor the image for that have turned up yet.
FSTDVD: I’ve read somewhere that it was actually Dickson who really did most of the work on the sound elements.
Murch: Well, not only that: Dickson was the man who invented motion pictures as we know them: the use of celluloid, the 35mm width, the size of the image, the sprocket wheel, the four sprockets to each frame, and so on.
FSTDVD: Edison gets a lot of credit for the development of film.
Murch: Well, he should: Dickson was an employee of the Edison research laboratory, after all. There were many, many things, invented there over the years, including film. Edison obviously had a controlling hand in it, but it was Dickson who actually did the detailed work. And as I mentioned, Dickson is the man playing violin in that test. So now you can see (and hear) the man who invented film, appearing in the first sound film ever made!
Special thanks to Walter Murch
Photos courtesy of Walter Murch and www.filmsound.org
Originally posted here on September 27, 2004