By Ken McGorry
Issue: December 1, 2003


Walter Murch Career Highlights
LONDON - A month before Cold Mountain's Christmas release, editor Walter Murch was sitting in a Soho audio studio working on the film's soundtrack with veteran supervising sound editor Eddy Joseph. Multiple-Oscar-winner Murch took some time out to talk with Post and summed up a long tour of duty in Bucharest, Romania, where he'd accomplished the first editing of a major Hollywood motion picture on Final Cut Pro.

While Apocalypse Now, with its 1,250,000 feet of film, was the most footage Murch had faced as an editor, he worked then as one of three, sometimes four editors. But on director Anthony Minghella's Cold Mountain, Murch and his first assistant, Sean Cullen, had 597,000 feet of film to cut, the most in his career, and a challenge to asset management and networking (see sidebar).

While shooting took place in Romania's Carpathian Mountains, Final Cut Pro workstations were set up at Kodak's Cinelabs in Bucharest.
In some circles, Walter Murch is held to be the leader in taking Hollywood feature film editing into the Avid Film Composer as he first did in the '90s with Minghella's The English Patient. But why turn to Final Cut Pro, a popular piece of Apple software, and why now?

"It was partly that Avid so dominates the field," Murch says. "It's good that there are alternate systems out there, and I had my eye on Final Cut for a number of years. It's a software-only system, so it can immediately take advantage of improvements in hardware. Immediately you can use the G5, which has just come into availability. You can transfer the material and carry it around with you on a laptop. On a different level, Final Cut is a non-proprietary system - it uses QuickTime to convey images and sounds, and that's kind of the universally used system for file exchanges of images and sounds on the Internet, CDs and DVDs. It's a very transparent system for dealing with the outside world coming into the system and going from the system back to the outside world."

For this Civil War epic, Walter Murch and first assistant editor Sean Cullen cut almost 600,000 feet of film.
Murch was able to e-mail QuickTime image files to visual effects supervisor Dennis Lowe and others at London's Double Negative where they work with QuickTime in a PC environment. "They'd send [the QuickTimes] back to us, we'd drop them in and you could intercut them with the original footage. The only thing that would be different is the visual effect that was added. It's perfect. That was never the case previously."


Murch faced two issues in telling the story of Charles Frazier's Civil War epic Cold Mountain as a Miramax film scripted by Minghella. One was reducing the film's original five-hour assembly to 2:25 and the other was "simultaneously doing this balancing act of present and past and having [the hero's and heroine's stories] come together at the right point so there is still time to resolve their stories together."

During production, Minghella was shooting in the Carpathian Mountains, about a three-hour drive from Bucharest, where Murch and company were set up at Kodak's CineLabs. "We were sending him DVDs that we would burn of both the dailies and the sequences I'd cut," Murch says. "He'd look at them on his laptop and phone me up and talk about them."

Minghella chose to shoot in Romania for reasons of budget and weather, Murch says. The Carpathian Mountains proved a good stand-in for the story's Appalachians, and their higher latitude virtually guaranteed the presence of real snow. The lack of modern development in the region allowed Minghella to get shots in vistas of 360 degrees.

DigitalFilm Tree takes root on Cold Mountain
A big decision for the Cold Mountain team was choosing where to process the negative while shooting in Romania. "Is the lab up to developing and printing over a million feet of negative to the standards of John Seale, who is an Academy Award-winning DP?" Murch says this was the burning question, adding, "They were! John Seale was very, very happy with it." Everything on the film was done at Cinelabs, Murch says, a Kodak-owned Romanian operation that develops and prints 35mm film and does telecine and sound transfer and 35mm projection.


Walter Murch has long experience with editing systems, from basic machines to sophisticated software, including the Moviola, Kem, Steenbeck, Avid and now Final Cut. While recognizing a new tool's potential for improving workflow, he's not afraid of facing the challenges and quirks that are also sure to arise. "Every system that's even marginally different," he says, "forces me to look at the way that I work and examine that; it also makes me look at the material in a slightly different way. I'm very interested in the process of editing films and how different pieces of equipment affect the process. Final Cut 4 has just become available and Apple has made the courageous decision to use the XML protocol which opens up the code to third-party developers - like exposing the DNA of this program. There's going to be a lot of development in the years to come."

Final Cut changed the way Murch worked on Cold Mountain. "Because it's a software-only system we were able to have four Final Cut systems all drawing information from the same set of hard drives." Additionally, Murch says he and his staff, including two second assistants and two apprentices along with Sean Cullen, were offloading media onto laptops equipped with FCP software. His second assistants were also able to cut certain sequences of the film, "just to allow them to get experience in editing." At one point Murch had eight FCP systems going with as many as six people, including himself, cutting scenes at once.

Cold Mountain's Final Cut
Post Magazine

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"When I screen the dailies, I take detailed notes of the material," he says, so when assistants are given a scene to cut, they "can look at it with my eyes and get a sense of what it is that I'm interested in." The assistants would do a laptop assembly of a scene and show it to Murch. "Then I would take the 'sequence' icon, sent over the network, and re-link that icon to the media that are on the hard drives. Then I would integrate it into the flow of other scenes and, where necessary, do some re-cutting of the scene or some final polishing to make it work. It allows everyone on the film to have a chance at editing something - it's exciting for an assistant to have a scene to cut."

Murch says this was particularly useful when his group would be waiting for new dailies to arrive - sometimes they would have hours of time available to work on different scenes. "It's another advantage, to me, of Final Cut," he says. Even with Kems and Steenbecks, he says, "the tendency was to not allow a second assistant to cut a scene - what about the workprint? It's gonna get chopped up! Here it was just the laptops they had, fitted out with Final Cut. The workprint doesn't cost anything and, if it gets cut wrong, it's doesn't get damaged. It's removed a bottleneck [I've faced] for 30 years."