A Conversation with Walter Murch – Part 1

Her Name was Moviola

Walter Murch is not one to sit around quietly in retirement. In recent years, he’s spent a lot of time living in London, working on a book and giving lectures, along with numerous film projects. I caught up with him via Zoom after his return from the 2022 Rome Film Festival last October. He was there for the screening of a multi-part series about the South African artist, William Kentridge. Murch is serving as the consulting editor for the South African production team with whom he is able to exchange Premiere Pro project files, complete with his markers, comments, and suggested edits.

Murch describes another production that’s been taking up his time as “a love letter to the Moviola.” Called Her Name Was Moviola, the documentary is about the history of the machine that defined film editing technology for three-fourths of the last century. Invented in the early 1920s, the Moviola hits its centennial anniversary. That’s where we’ll start this four-part discussion.

______________________

Walter, please tell me about the Moviola project.

Moviola was an idea that I cooked up fifteen years ago, I think. I pitched it to Norm Hollyn, who was head of post-production at USC. He was very interested, but then he died suddenly while in Japan a few years ago. It never really had a home at USC, because it didn’t get beyond just talking about it. The simple idea is to recreate an editing room from half a century ago, 1972, with what you would have – a Moviola, a rewind bench, a synchronizer, trim bins, an Acmade coding machine and pressure sensitive tape. Plus, something to cut.

We did find a home for it at the University of Hertfordshire, which has a cinema program. Howard Berry, the head of post-production there, put together crowdfunding through IndieGoGo [the IndieGoGo funding round has been closed]. We raised £30,000 and then also some money was kicked in from people like Dolby. So I think the money for it is somewhere on the order of £50,000.

Cutting room at the BBC Studios

We were able to recreate a cutting room at the BBC studios in Elstree. We convinced Mike Leigh, the British director, to give us the digital files from one of his films, which turned out to be Mr. Turner (2014). We took those files and reverse engineered them to print up 35mm film in 1.85:1 aspect ratio and the sound onto magnetic stripe film. That was probably the hardest thing to get, because nobody deals with mag stripe anymore. I don’t know where Howard got it all, but he was checking with post-production people here in London and combing through the catalog on eBay and eventually put together everything we needed.

I worked with my long-time British assistant, Dan Farrell, who I met on Return to Oz back 40 years ago. We had about 70 minutes of dailies for two scenes from Mr. Turner and treated them just as you would have back then… The lab has delivered the dailies from yesterday. OK, start syncing them up. Dan and I were wired up with radio mics and it was being covered by two tripod cameras, plus an iPhone with Filmic Pro for extreme close-ups. Dan and I were giving what you might call ‘golf commentaries’ describing the process. And occasional reminiscences about disasters that had happened in the past.

Walter Murch and Dan Farrell

Next, these were synced up and screened. I took notes the way I used to on 3 x 5 cards. We printed Acmade numbers on the film and the sound to keep it in sync using the British system. That’s a little more work than the American system. The American system starts at the beginning of the roll and runs sequential numbers all the way through. Here in England, you stop at the end of every take and reset the footage number to zero, corresponding to the clapstick. For example, if you are 45 feet from the clapstick, then there is a number that tells you that you are 45 feet into this take. You also have at the head of it what set up it is and what take it is.

Dan did all of that and broke it down into little roll-ups, put tags on them, filled out the logbook, and then turned it over to me. Then I started cutting the two scenes. I didn’t have a script. I just cut it using my intuition.

Did you have any script supervisor notes?

No. I was riding bareback. [laugh] To tell the truth, that’s what I usually do. I only refer to the script supervisor’s notes on a film if there’s really some head scratcher. Like, what were they thinking here? Usually – and it was certainly the case here – it’s very obvious how it might go together. 

I had seen Mr. Turner five months earlier. So, just based on the coverage, how would you cut this together? That took about two days. And as I was cutting it together, I gave a running commentary about what I was doing technically and also creatively – why was I making the cuts where I did and why did I choose the takes that I did. It wound up being about 750 feet long, three quarters of a reel.

We wanted to screen it in a theater with double-system sound, but that was impossible. There is no place in London where people have maintained a mag dubber that can sync up with a projector.

I would imagine that sort of post-production gear – if it still exists – probably isn’t in working condition.

Right. You know, it was amazing enough that we found somewhere to transfer the sound from digital files to mag. Howard found a place owned by a guy who’s into this stuff, maintains it, but mostly specializes in projectors. He had a mag recorder, but didn’t really know how it worked, so the two of them worked it out together and managed to get the transfer done. He’s probably the only person in London who still has that working machinery.

Walter Murch, Mike Leigh, Howard Berry

Anyway, we needed to screen it, because we were going to show it to Mike Leigh. Howard works frequently with the Stanley Kubrick estate. So we drove out there and they kindly let us use Stanley’s Steenbeck, which he bought for The Shining. It still had the original cardboard-core power transformers in the feet, which were dangerous and tripping the fuse. So as part of the production we also repaired the Kubrick Steenbeck and it then worked perfectly!

Mike arrived and we screened the scenes for him. At the end his only comment was, “You used too much of the sailboat.” [laugh] In the dailies there was a shot of a sailboat anchored off the coast. They also had shots of William Turner – the actor Timothy Spall – looking out a window at the ocean. So I put those two things together. I asked, “Why did you shoot it then?” And he said, “The cameraman shot it just because it was there.” It was one of those shots.

I guess he figured it would be useful B-roll.

Exactly. It’s a seagull type of shot. Use, if necessary. I had used it three times at transition points – seagull points. Interestingly, he said, “If you use something three times, it means it’s important,” which is true. It means that at some later point, somebody from this boat is going to come ashore and murder people or find treasure or whatever.

After that, I recut the scene and used only one shot of the sailboat. Then we pulled out a laptop and looked at Mr. Turner streaming and discovered how those scenes had actually been cut in the film. Essentially they were very similar. It’s that old question – give the dailies to two different editors, what do you get? In Mike’s version, the dialogue scene starts on the master and then goes into closeup. And once he was in closeups, he just stayed in closeups. I didn’t do that. In the middle of the scene the conversation changed completely and then got into more serious stuff in the second half. I used that as a carriage return, so to speak, to the change of topic. I cut back out to the master and then went in again. It’s a minor thing and that was essentially the difference there.

The full documentary is now being cut together by Howard, who was the director of it. Since that part was shot digitally, it’s also being cut digitally. At some point I’ll get a call from him to look at the first assembly. That’s where it is at the moment.

______________________

This conversation continues in Part 2.

An abridged version of this interview also appears at Pro Video Coalition.

©2023 Oliver Peters