Walter Murch’s simple approach to the rule of six
By Justin Chang
Born in 1943 in New York City, Walter Murch is widely recognized as one of the leading authorities in the field of film editing, as well as one of the few editors equally active in both picture and sound. A graduate of the University of Southern California’s School of Cinema-Television, he received his early sound credits mixing and sound-supervising Francis Ford Coppola’s The Rain People (1969) and The Godfather (1972), and George Lucas’ THX 1138 (1971) and American Graffiti (1973), before picture-editing his first feature, Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), which he also sound-designed and mixed. He also wore dual hats on Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), for which he and his collaborators devised the now-standard 5.1 sound format.
Murch has edited picture and mixed sound on films including Coppola’s The Godfather: Part III (1990), Youth Without Youth (2007) and Tetro (2009); Jerry Zucker’s Ghost (1990) and First Knight (1995); Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient (1996), The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) and Cold Mountain (2003); Kathryn Bigelow’s K-19: The Widowmaker (2002); and Sam Mendes’ Jarhead (2005). He has been nominated for nine Academy Awards and won three, for best sound on Apocalypse Now, and best sound and best film editing on The English Patient. Murch’s contributions to film reconstruction include 2001’s Apocalypse Now Redux and the 1998 re-edit of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. He is the director and co-writer of Return to Oz (1985).
My rule of thumb is generally to not present more than two-and-a-half thematic layers to the audience at any moment, because I’m interested in the balance between clarity on the one hand and density on the other. If you shove four simultaneous layers at an audience it just becomes a spectacle; they’ll catch one or two things, but they won’t enjoy the harmonic integration of all the elements, and the number of layers that seems optimal for this is two and a half. In other words: two full layers and another layer coming in or going out, all of this shifting every ten or 15 seconds. Ideally, it is like a good shell game where the audience is kept guessing about where the pea is.
The rule of six
When should you cut? Few editors have put as much rigorous thought into answering that question as Murch, who has compiled a hierarchy of priorities for when and where to transition from one shot to the next. As Murch writes in his book In the Blink of an Eye: “The ideal cut (for me) is one that satisfies all the following six criteria at once:
- it is true to the emotion of the moment
- it advances the story
- it occurs at a moment that is rhythmically interesting and “right”
- it acknowledges what you might call “eye-trace”—the concern with the location and movement of the audience’s focus of interest within the frame
- it respects “planarity”—the grammar of three dimensions transposed by photography to two (the questions of stage-line, etc.) 6. and it respects the three-dimensional continuity of the actual space (where people are in the room and in relation to one another).”
Murch’s simple approach to the rule of six
Murch has his own personal take on the rule of six. He weighs the importance of the criteria with the following percentage values:
- Emotion (51%)
- Story (23%)
- Rhythm (10%)
- Eye-trace (7%)
- Two-dimensional plane of screen (5%)
- Three-dimensional space of action (4%)
“The values I put after each item are slightly tongue-in-cheek,” he writes, “but not completely: Notice that the top two on the list (emotion and story) are worth far more than the bottom four (rhythm, eye-trace, planarity, spatial continuity, and when you come right down to it, under most circumstances, the top of the list—emotion—is worth more than all five of the things underneath it.”
Excerpted from FilmCraft: Editing by Justin Chang © 2012 Elsevier Inc. All Rights Reserved