Walter Murch on Editing

Walter Murch speaks.

Fights, Seduction and Negotiations

21nichols2-master315Mike Nichols, the beloved director of stage and screen—from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate, to Barefoot in the Park and Working Girl— died Nov. 19, 2014 at the age of 83.

I was once sitting at a high class hotel bar in Houston Texas with my friend Steve Farr, and he leaned over to me and said “Holy shit… sitting next to you. It’s Mike Nichols.”

To both of our great shame, we simply sat there dumbstruck and left he poor man alone.

Upon the passing of Mr. Nichols, here is a quote that our friend Chris Smith is fond of (from The New Yorker):

“…there are only three kinds of scenes: fights, seductions, and negotiations.”

At least, only three kinds of good scenes.


Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling

Former Pixar Story Artist, Emma Coats recently tweeted 21 story basics in 140 characters or less way back that Pixar uses for the essence of good storytelling.

#1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.

#2: You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.

#3: Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.

#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

#5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.

#6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?

#7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.

#8: Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.

#9: When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.

#10: Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.

#11: Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.

#12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.

#13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.

#14: Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.

#15: If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.

#16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.

#17: No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.

#18: You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.

#19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

#20: Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?

#21: You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?

#22: What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

Sandwich Makers vs Spaghetti Sauce Makers

According to Academy Award winning film editor Walter Murch there are two different types of video editors: sandwich makers and spaghetti sauce makers.

Sandwich makers build an edit one clip at a time… like making a sandwich. Put this sound bite here, add this image, and build up to a final edit. Making a sandwich is fairly intuitive and simple.

We, however, make spaghetti sauce.

In the video clip below he mentions that the advantage of boiling the footage down, as with cooking, is that all of the ingredients “manage to infiltrate each other over time… all of those flavors begin to work together in ways that is very hard to track. By doing it slowly there is a simmering effect.”

As laborious as it seems for our assistant editors to keep watching the same footage over and over again as they cut the raw footage down for our editors, it actually makes the process go faster in the end, because all of the best of the best pieces are kept throughout the process. Even the revisions can happen faster, because you spend a lot less time hunting and pecking for the right footage since there is a ‘bread crumb’ trail back to the raw footage.

When the editor takes over the project from the assistant, the footage continues to get boiled down further and further until there is a ten minute assemble of the broad story. Cutting continues even further, then, until we reach the under 2 minute goal length.

It takes days to ‘make this sauce’ properly, but as Mark Twain has been quoted as saying, “I’d have written you a shorter letter if I’d had more time.”

Here is another clip from the same symposium. In it he surmises that in a 50 shot scene there are “as many possible variations as there are subatomic particles in the universe.”

Something for our assistants to chew on as they cull down the typical 300 plus clips (and three to six hours of raw footage) shot in a typical September Club shoot day.


Orson Welles – “F for Fake” by Mark Borchardt

Soon after I entered the wonderful world of filmmaking, I became aware of Orson Welles. I was entranced with his eclectic work and larger than life reputation. Of course it was his films that got me: The StrangerCitizen Kane and The Trial were, most likely, the first ones I encountered.

Something was different with Welles’s filmic style; it breached the prosaic and didn’t fall within the iron templates of conventional filmmaking. The pace of the montage, and the disparate but rewarding cacophony of the angles at times proved eccentric, creating spatially and circumstantially confusing scenes—but that was a good thing: it made a Welles’s film a Welles’s film. You just had to get acclimated to it.

I realized another thing as well, that which set him apart from the crowd: he wasn’t just creating stories with plot and character, he was creating narratives with the camera—the camera itself became a character. It was a unique and provocative presence throughout the films, providing psychologically off-setting dutch angles, the infinite clarity of full depth of field, and its persuasive and pesky sense of place to heighten quirky sensations.

I devoured all of these cinematic possibilities as an enthusiastic neophyte would. Everything was new and I had the blessing to be taken in by the cream of the crop, a master of the form. It was the energy of Welles’s cinema that I carried with me for my own aspirations. He, along with Scorsese and Romero, were my strongest formative influences.

Welles has about a dozen finished films attributed to his oeuvre, – depending on how you ultimately look at some of the projects—some incomplete, some realized into completion by others, footage biding time in faraway vaults. It’s a common but misguided consensus to decry Welles for his fall from grace with Hollywood while at the same time speculating as to the greatness that might have been. What might have been would be a path taken by any other Hollywood filmmaker; and who needs that? Welles was his own man and cinema remains damn lucky for that. He was the independents’ independent; so what if they wore bed sheets for costumes in Othello?

1973 brought Welles’s last cinematic trick (not taking into account a feature documentary on his Othello that he did for German TV) to the screen. This magnificent coda, F For Fake, was a delightful patchwork of old footage and innovative new work; the boy magician casting one last enchanting filmic spell, conjuring a range of disparate delights; a lyrical tapestry of charming personalities and conniving ambitions.

Featured are Clifford Irving, whose claim to fame was faking a biography of Howard Hughes (and duping Morely Schafer on 60 Minutes) and forger-painter Elmyr de Hory who sadly ended up taking his own life rather than face a prison term for his precise replications. These guys are fascinating in the way that they had imposed themselves onto life, and in their subsequent fall from false-grace as the con-men they really were. And like good magicians, these intriguing personas also operated by persuasive sleight of hand, and specifically in their case: word and paint. It‘s fun being allowed to spend some time in their raffish company.

Irving even unwittingly brought the super-reclusive Howard Hughes back from the dead, figuratively, and back into a public appearance, at least aurally, to defend himself against Irving to state that he had never even met the faux author. Irving had walked away with a $300,000 advance for the book and eventually into a prison sentence. This bizarre event returned to the spotlight when it was turned into a film, Hoax, with Richard Gere inhabiting Irving‘s mystique.

Beautiful, exotic Oja Kodar is also featured, equal soul-mate and help-mate, (for the last twenty years of Welles’s life) a necessary alchemy intertwined in the great man’s existence, aiding and abetting him in his continuing pursuit in a productive work-life. Intelligent, ambitious, loyal. Lucky him: a conservator of his work and a protector of his much maligned image. She’s sensually portrayed in a beautiful montage with an intoxicating score from Michel Legrand, and it’s bits in the film like this that give it a stand-apart presence from run-of-the-mill documentaries.

Welles, himself, is a joy to behold in F For Fake and even more so, to listen to—his bassy voice resonates with a dubious but delightful authority. His immaculate presence remains intact throughout the years. He, too, sponsors his own worlds of possible true and false: the realm of braggadocio lays no small claim on almost anyone in this boisterous firmament of braggarts; each with a gleam in their eye, telling and retelling sordid tales of intrusions into the hallowed halls of veracity.

Ultimately, Welles was a factotum in his own servitude, a prodigious polymath: writing, directing, acting and cobbling together the money for his various ventures. A charismatic conjurer assembling all the necessary elements to conjoin his cinematic adventures. He never gave up the ghost until the ghost got him, as it will all of us: but the man was taken away figuratively standing, always a project in mind, a lunch to attend, a tale to tell, a dream to pursue.

Orson Welles will always remain one of my cinematic heroes.

Ken Burns on Storytelling

Celebrated documentary filmmaker Ken Burns talks about what makes for an interesting story in this short film, “Ken Burns On Story”

It’s always interesting to see what storytellers see as the building blocks of story, or even the X Factor for what separates an ordinary story from a great story.

Pixar’s Andrew Stanton on Storytelling

From his TED Talk, Filmmaker Andrew Stanton (“Toy Story,” “WALL-E”) shares what he knows about storytelling — starting at the end and working back to the beginning.


We enjoyed this YouTube mini-series with master storyteller Ira Glass of This American Life and would like to share it with you. It’s a great breakdown on what a story actually is — in it’s most primal form.

Part 1: Ira speaks on avoiding everything you learned writing high school term papers and maintaining good story structure.

Part 2: Ira continues on finding great stories and avoiding “the crap”

Part 3: On the importance of having good taste, and the value of experience.

Part 4: Finally some sound advice on avoiding common story errors. 

As creative of a medium the story can be, it’s actually a very mathematical process. Every story has the same basic principles. How you use these principles is where art meets math.

So, if anecdote+reflection= story, then ±√anecdote÷(reflection+Bill Murray)×∞= Ground Hog Day

JJ Abrams Ted Talk on “Mystery”

From his recent TED Talk, J.J. Abrams traces his love for the unseen mystery – a passion thats evident in his films and TV shows, including Cloverfield, Lost and Alias — back to its magical beginnings.

Good storytelling advice here. And if you haven’t seen CLOVERFIELD yet, do so. It’s great!