Walter Murch and the Editing of Jarhead


When Oscar-winning editor Walter Murch tackled the complex task of cutting Cold Mountain using Apple’s Final Cut Pro, it generated a lot of press and credibility for Final Cut but also boosted the chatter of many online creative forums. The use of Apple’s upstart NLE software on such a high-profile project generated praise by many and questioning by others. Was it a successful experience and would he take the same path on the next movie? To get that answer, I contacted Walter Murch and associate editor Sean Cullen in New York. Murch is currently editing Jarhead, a memoir of the first Gulf War written by former U.S. Marine, Anthony Swofford, which stars Jake Gyllenthal, Jaime Foxx and Peter Sarsgaard. It is being brought to the screen by director Sam Mendes (Road to Perdition, American Beauty) and is his first collaboration with Murch. The post-production team started in California during production and then relocated to New York for the remainder of the post schedule.


Cutting in High Definition


For the first time, Murch is cutting the footage using the DVCPROHD codec, instead of the draft resolution standard definition video he’s used on past projects.  The electronic workflow for Jarhead starts in Los Angeles at Technicolor with a transfer of the film to Panasonic HD-D5 tapes in the 1080p/24 format. The sole purpose of these tapes is to facilitate real-time capture to the 720p/24 format used in Final Cut. From that point on, the rest of the workflow is largely tapeless. Director of photography Roger Deakins (The Village, A Beautiful Mind, Kundun, O Brother Where Art Thou?) prefers screening film dailies, so Deluxe (the film lab) printed workprint that was screened by Mendes and Deakins on location.


Walter explained it this way, “I initially screened the workprint while we were still in Los Angeles and gained enough confidence in the HD transfers to do all my logging from the HD media alone. This was definitely representative of the actual film, so I was comfortable working with the HD image as my primary reference. The biggest difference from Cold Mountain is the use of the DVCPROHD codec. I am using a Panasonic 50-inch plasma display, so I can really detect issues in the image such as critical focus. That’s something you could never trust with a standard definition video image. HD also changes some of your perceptions about the sequence as you edit, because the rough cut is finally seen in a high-quality and high-resolution form right out of the workstation.” One of the reasons for using 720p (and not a higher resolution codec) is that it is the highest quality HD image that will still play on a laptop.


Tapeless Workflow


Sean Cullen has been Murch’s right hand man for numerous films (Touch of Evil, Apocalypse Now Redux, K19, Cold Mountain) handling much of the daily support functions. Sean described the layout on Jarhead. “We have a total of six Apple Power Mac G5 workstations: Walter’s editing station, plus one for the director, two for the visual effects team and the two that I use. These are equipped with AJA Kona 2 cards for HD playback to external monitors. All the media is shared among the six stations using Apple’s Xsan shared storage network that’s now up to 5.2 terabytes. Five of these G5s have Final Cut Pro 4.5 installed and the sixth system, which is my auxiliary Power Mac, was upgraded to Final Cut Pro 5. Our entire workflow for ingest and review has been tapeless. Technicolor LA captures from the HD tapes and sends us drives. We use a secure collaboration service called PIX for review purposes, because it allows us to connect our crews across the country, and it’s easy with their player to make notes tied to a specific frame or to the whole sequence. This was particularly useful for the twelve weeks when Sam Mendes was on location in the Imperial Valley and Mexico, since it allowed Walter to send him cuts of the scenes as soon as they were finished. Since the review video is a more highly compressed QuickTime movie, one of my systems was tied up much of the time compressing the high definition Final Cut movies down to a file size that can be easily sent over the web. In fact, when we get to the dubbing stage to mix the film, we will probably be mixing to the 720p image instead of tape.”


Another part of this tapeless workflow included magless dailies – something Murch and Cullen initiated on The Talented Mr. Ripley in 1998. Even though the dailies were projected from film, the synced audio played from hard drives. Location sound has been recorded on the Zaxcom DEVA digital field recorder, which records four channels of sound in a 24-bit BWF audio file format. These files are delivered to the editors on DVD-ROMs. Through an application called Metaflow, developed by Gallery Software in England, the logging information for the dailies along with the BWF files are turned into Pro Tools sessions. These are then synchronized to the picture, transferred to a digital dubber and played back in sync with the film image by locking the projector and dubber together using a BiPhase signal. This process is handled on the Final Cut stations and achieves two objectives – capturing audio that is needed for the edit and eliminating the waste of hundreds of thousands of feet of magnetic film stock.


Open Data Systems


Murch was initially attracted to Final Cut Pro because of his interest in an open system that could integrate some of the tools he had developed on his own. One of these is a custom logging database written using Filemaker Pro, a popular database application. “This is a log that I have used since 1986 to track every piece of information about each take and scene in every film. In addition to scene numbers, ink numbers and so on, it includes just about every creative comment about the shot. I access it through my laptop, but it is kept on an office server and Sean integrates much of the data into the logs he creates for use with Final Cut.” Sean continued, “I work with Walter’s Log Book database, to integrate the transfer logs from Technicolor and the Metaflow files. This information ends up in an Apple Cinema Tools database. Together it tells us everything we need to track the film. By generating an XML export and importing that into Filemaker, I can automate the continuity process, with a nearly instant list of scenes and descriptions reflecting the current roughcut of the film. XML is also ideal for needs like audio change lists.”


Soundtrack Pro


Walter Murch is unique as an Oscar-winner for both picture editing and sound mixing and has worked on both fronts on all of his films since The Conversation in 1972. In fact, after the Jarhead cut is locked, Murch will also serve as one of the three re-recording mixers. By the time you read this article, Murch will be in New York mixing Jarhead in one of Sound One’s film dubbing (mixing) stages. If you were at NAB, you may have noticed Murch’s testimonial for Apple’s new Soundtrack Pro application. I asked Walter if Soundtrack Pro would have a role on Jarhead. “Yes. Typically when I prepare my cut for screening, I like to have it look and sound as polished as I can make it. I want it to look like a finished film. This means adding six tracks of temp sound effects and four stereo tracks of temp music to the four tracks of dialogue. We are using much of composer Thomas Newman’s music from his other films to build a temp score for the cut. I’m not doing the sound editing on Jarhead, so I’ll end up sending an XML file with the Final Cut media to sound supervisor Pat Jackson and her crew who are working at Lucasfilm’s Skywalker just north of San Francisco. Some of the features I like in Soundtrack Pro are the de-noising and clean-up tools, which are handy for fixing location dialogue tracks. The weakest part of Final Cut has always been in the sound manipulation area, so full integration of Soundtrack Pro is a real plus.”


Xsan Enables Collaborative Environment


Shared storage can be temperamental, so it’s encouraging to see Jarhead as another successful Xsan site. Post-production started while Xsan was still in beta testing, so the team turned to Pivotal Post for assistance. Pivotal Post has a working relationship with Apple and Technicolor and was ready to iron out any kinks in the workflow adopted by Jarhead. They handled system rental, Xsan installation and location support in New York. Previous films for Murch and Cullen had used TransSoft shared storage, but so far they have been quite happy with Xsan, which enables easy media interchange among Murch, Cullen and the visual effects team. Jarhead involves many effects shots, primarily involving Kuwait battle and oil well fire scenes, which are being created at Industrial Light and Magic. Murch comps some of the shots on his editing station, but there is also an on-site effects supervisor and routine videoconferences between New York and San Francisco to insure effective communication with ILM.


Success with Final Cut Pro


Walter contrasted his experiences on NLEs. “Before working on Final Cut I was using Avids from 1996 to 2002. From my point-of-view as an editor both interfaces are fairly similar, so I think it’s really a testament to Apple that this thousand-dollar software application can do the work of a system costing far more. It is also a great teaching tool because for the first time in film history the cost of duplicating the media and the tool to manipulate that media are almost insignificant. Final Cut really shines, though, when you move into the ‘backstage’ of editing. I think that it offers us such excellent input and output capabilities because it uses QuickTime. This is more compatible with modern workflows and lets us do some of the media-related tasks in a simpler and quicker fashion.” Cullen chuckled, adding, “I’ve gone on a few of the forums to set some of the posts straight! We really are using these applications and it’s working well. These products, like Final Cut Studio, are simply better tools. They are more efficient and more flexible.”


Jarhead will be finished as a digital intermediate, handled by E-Film in Los Angeles. Cullen will generate negative cut lists using Cinema Tools and Filemaker that become the template for cutting and scanning the negative at a 2K resolution. Firmly on the path of open film workflows, both Murch and Cullen assured me that Final Cut Pro will return on film number three!


Written by Oliver Peters for Videography magazine (NewBay Media, LLC)