Walter Scott Murch (born July 12, 1943) is an American film editor and sound designer. With a career stretching back to 1969, including work on Apocalypse Now, The Godfather I,II, and III, American Graffiti, and The English Patient, including three Academy Award wins (from six nominations for editing and three for sound mixing), he has been referred to as, “the most respected film editor and sound designer in the modern cinema. “
Murch was born in New York City, New York, the son of Katharine (née Scott) and Canadian-born Walter Tandy Murch (1907–1967), a painter. As a boy, he began to experiment with sound recording, taping unusual sounds and layering them into new combinations. He went to The Collegiate School, a private preparatory school in Manhattan, from 1949 to 1961. He then attended Johns Hopkins University from 1961 to 1965, graduating Phi Beta Kappa in Liberal Arts.
While at Hopkins, he met future director/screenwriter Matthew Robbins and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, with whom he staged a number of happenings. In 1965, Murch and Robbins enrolled in the graduate program of the University of Southern California‘s film school, successfully encouraging Deschanel to follow them. There all three encountered, and became friends with, fellow students such as George Lucas, Hal Barwood, Robert Dalva, Willard Huyck, Don Glut and John Milius; all of them would go on to be successful filmmakers. Not long after film school, in 1969, Murch, Lucas, and others joined Francis Ford Coppola at American Zoetrope in San Francisco. Murch and his family settled in Bolinas, California, in 1972.
Murch started editing and mixing sound with Francis Ford Coppola’s The Rain People (1969). Subsequently, he worked on George Lucas‘s THX 1138 and American Graffiti and Coppola’s The Godfather before editing picture and mixing sound on Coppola’s The Conversation, for which he received an Academy Award nomination in sound in 1974. Murch also mixed the sound for Coppola’s The Godfather Part II which was released in 1974, the same year as The Conversation. He did sound design work on Apocalypse Now, for which he won his first Academy Award in 1979. (He was also significantly involved in the re-editing work that resulted in the extendedApocalypse Now Redux in 2001.) In 1985 he directed his own film, Return to Oz, which he co-wrote with Gill Dennis.
Murch edits in a standing position, comparing the process of film editing to “conducting, brain surgery and short-order cooking”, since all conductors, cooks and surgeons stand when they work. In contrast, when writing, he does so lying down. His reason for this is that where editing film is an editorial process, the creation process of writing is opposite that, and so he lies down rather than sit or stand up, to separate his editing mind from his creating mind.
Murch has written one book on film editing, In the Blink of an Eye (1995), which has been translated into many languages including Chinese, Italian, Hebrew, Spanish, French, German and Hungarian. Before this, he wrote the foreword to Michel Chion‘s Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen (1994). He was also the subject of Michael Ondaatje‘s book The Conversations (2002), which consists of several conversations between Ondaatje and Murch; the book emerged from Murch’s editing of The English Patient, which was based on Ondaatje’s novel of the same name.
Innovations & awards
While he was editing directly on film, Murch took notice of the crude splicing used for the daily rough-cuts. In response, he invented a modification which concealed the splice by using extremely narrow but strongly adhesive strips of special polyester-silicone tape. He called his invention “N-vis-o”.
In 1979, he won an Oscar for the sound mix of Apocalypse Now as well as a nomination for picture editing. Murch is widely acknowledged as the person who coined the term Sound Designer, and along with colleagues developed the current standard film sound format, the 5.1 channel array, helping to elevate the art and impact of film sound to a new level. Apocalypse Now was the first multi-channel film to be mixed using a computerized mixing board.
In 1996, Murch worked on Anthony Minghella‘s The English Patient, which was based on Michael Ondaatje‘s novel of the same name. Murch won Oscars both for his sound mixing and for his editing. Murch’s editing Oscar was the first to be awarded for an electronically edited film (using the Avid system), and he is the only person ever to win Oscars for both sound mixing and film editing.
In 2003, Murch edited another Anthony Minghella film, Cold Mountain on Apple’s sub-$1000 Final Cut Pro software using off the shelf Power Mac G4 computers. This was a leap for such a big-budget film, where expensive Avidsystems were usually the standard non-linear editing system. He received an Academy Award nomination for this work; his efforts on the film were documented in Charles Koppelman’s 2004 book Behind the Seen.
In 2009, Murch’s work was the subject of a tribute, “The Art of Walter Murch,” a program in “The Professionals,” a California Film Institute series at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center.
In 2012, Murch was invited to serve as a mentor for the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, an international philanthropic programme that pairs masters in their disciplines with emerging talents for a year of one-to-one creative exchange. Out of a gifted field of candidates, Murch chose Italian film editor Sara Fgaier as his protégée. Previous film mentors for the initiative include Mira Nair (2004), Stephen Frears (2006), Martin Scorsese (2008) and Zhang Yimou (2010).
Murch is the 2012 recipient of the Nikola Tesla Award given by the International Press Academy Satellite Awards for “Visionary Achievement in Filmmaking Technology”. Previous recipients have included Douglas Trumbull,James Cameron, Roger Deakins, Dennis Muren and George Lucas.
In 2015, Murch was presented with the Vision Award Nescens, at the 68th Locarno Film Festival, for his contributions to cinema. The two previous recipients of the award, initiated in 2013, were Douglas Trumbull and Garrett Brown.
He is the only film editor to have received Academy nominations for films edited on four different systems:
- Julia (1977) using upright Moviola
- Apocalypse Now (1979), Ghost (1990), and The Godfather, Part III (1990) using KEM flatbed
- The English Patient (1996) using Avid
- Cold Mountain (2003) using Final Cut Pro 4