Film editing with Walter Murch

Good editing makes the film look well-directed. Great editing makes the film look like it wasn’t directed at all. (Victor Fleming – 1939)

Movie editing has never been an easy job, it requires hard work, super sense of detail, deep knowledge of story-telling, color theory, music, etc. But people don’t really recognize their work and most of them think it’s an easy job. Oh no, not at all. I have been a video editor (film editor) for 5 years and used a lot of video editing software (from Window Movie Maker to Sony Vegas, Avid Media Composer, iMovie, and now to Premiere and After Effects). I understand the struggles in editing videos, even the short one, it takes much more time and energy than shooting videos (just look at the sample screenshot here).


Today I read an article about Walter Murch. He is an Academy award film editor with a huge portfolio which can make everyone envy: Apocalypse Now, Godfather I, II, III, American Graffiti, The Conversation, The English Patient. He has been referred to as “the most respected film editor and sound designer in modern cinema.” The article is about the struggle in choosing a piece of music to fit a scene in Apocalypse Now (1979).


The scene was about American army’s attack on the Vietnamese village of Vin Drin Dop, also known as Charlie’s Point. The screenplay writer John Milius had imagined this scene with the Wagner opera “Ride of the Valkyries” when writing it in 1969. Oh, seems easy, the film crew already knew what music they should use, how it can be difficult?!

Walter Murch has chosen the version which Georg Solti conducted the Vienna Philharmonic. You can listen here:

The “Ride of the Valkyries” was so deeply connected with the attack on Charlie’s Point, and had been for so long—from birth, so to speak—that we who were working on the film, editing the picture and mixing the sound, could barely conceive of separating the two. Francis Ford Coppola (the director) described it as the general consensus in musical circles that Solti’s interpretation whichever can be surpassed. BUT, Decca (the record company) refused Francis and the film crew did not have the right to use that piece of music.

So the task of Walter Murch at that time was search through all the existing recordings with the hope of finding one that was close to Solti’s interpretation and available to use in the film. In 1979, there was no iTunes, no Spotify or Google, Walter has bought all 19 stereo recordings of “The Ride” available at that moment. But the more he listened, the more he figured out the uniqueness in Solti’s version.

Walter said: “The problem with many of the versions of “Valkyries” that I rejected was that they were monotonously rhythmic. The result was a robotic stagger, a simulation of musical life rather than the real thing.”

In his master class, Walter stressed The Rule of Six in movie editing and one of them is Rhythm. There is a complex rhythmic relationship in the film between the visual action on screen and the music. And while the editing of the film, that relationship is constantly being adjusted and tightened, sometimes consciously, other times on a more intuitive basis. But in this case, the relationship took one step further into the performance of the music itself, as Georg Solti balances, note-by-note, the rhythmic signature of the score, show in his understanding and interpretation by adjusting the orchestra he was conducting.


Walter cut the piece of “The Ride” which he would use in the movie and compared one by one with others. In the end, only one other “Valkyries” came close: Erich Leinsdorf’s 1977 recording with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. You can listen here:

Now you can listen back to the Solti’s version. I don’t blame you if you feel they are the same, but try to listen to it why watching the scene in the movie. Walter has done that and he found the significant difference. Although Leinsdorf’s performance of the “Valkyries” was rhythmically in synch with Solti’s, at this moment Leinsdorf had emphasized the strings in his orchestral balance, whereas at that same point Solti had chosen to emphasize the brasses. And they were responsible for synergizing that wonderful acid blue of the ocean. In Leinsdorf’s recording, the strings were soft and pillowy, and as a result, the blue looked DEAD. The chemistry of the image and sound worked against each other to the detriment of both.

At that point, it seems like there are no solutions. But what Walter didn’t know is: when he trying to listen to all recordings, Francis Coppola has contacted directly to Solti in Chicago. Solti responded as one maestro to another, sympathizing with the artistic predicament Francis faced: “Of course, dear boy, why didn’t you talk to me in the first place?”

I wrote this post because I want to remind people and myself how hard the work and the enormous knowledge is required to edit a film. But it also stresses the important of Relationships in making movies.

You can see the scene with music here:


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