Photo by Benjamin McMahon.

Walter Murch on Cinema as a Tool for Human Connection

Walter Murch discovered something. It’s strange.

At 79, the man who innovated sound design—for whom the credit “Sound Designer” was basically invented—has pioneered methods of film editing, and whose book In the Blink of an Eye remains a key text 27 years since publication could rest on his laurels. But one evening, looking at a supercut celebrating his own exercises of film theory, Murch noticed that almost every cinematic image of a human face—from his work or another’s—fell on a distinct space of the cinematic frame: the golden ratio, a proportion considered the most pleasing to the eye, revealing “cinematographers have tended to place the eyes of the actors, in closeups and many medium shots, along that dividing line.” It also recurs time and again across nature and—depending on who you ask—is the strongest known sign of evolution or intelligent design.

What’s going on here? He’s asking the same question.

Murch will explore this phenomenon in next year’s book Suddenly Something Clicked, which collects various essays regarding his experiences with and observations on cinema. To my great fortune, we both attended this month’s EnergaCAMERIMAGE festival, where he gave a lecture on the golden ratio (a variation on which may be found here), and Murch was kind enough to chat with me in Toruń’s trendy Copernicus Hotel.

The Film Stage: Last night I was reading a bit about your study of the golden ratio and watched a couple video presentations. I also just saw a movie here. Lo and behold, kept spending so much of it looking for it. You look at photographs, TV broadcasts…

Walter Murch: I know. I showed it at the National Film School in London a couple of months ago and one of the students said, “Now I can’t unsee it.” In my case, I look at everyone’s faces and films and… welcome to the club. [Laughs]

And it got me thinking about the process of intellectualizing, verbalizing something that is… possibly a work of mass unconscious. I’d like to know about discovering this and putting it down on paper.

I knew about the golden ratio—1.618, etc.—because it’s one of the things I learned at school. I studied art history at university and that’s where I first encountered it. I was writing this chapter of the book and the starting point was the fact that, now, with films being overscanned, shooting at 8K or 12K or some very high number, leaving it to post-production to decide the final composition of the shot—which is turning some of the authority of the cinematographer over to the editor and director in post—how do you, if you’re an editor, decide what to do? Which is what a cameraman does: you have a field of vision and you have to say “that’s it.”

At the same time, I was sent a film by a film teacher and cinematographer named Jon Lefkovitz who had taken a number of my interviews online and compiled them into a 70-minute film, uniting them all thematically. Naturally, in some of the interviews when I mention a film, he would then cut to a clip of that film. But he also would cut to clips from other films—Hitchcock or Fritz Lang or whatever—and I was looking at it with my wife. I began to notice, because of the juxtaposition of films I had worked on with films I hadn’t worked on, that the eyes of the actors were floating on a horizon line from shot to shot. And I thought, “That’s… strange.”

Aggie, my wife, was knitting, so I asked her for a section of yarn and I taped the yarn to the screen, where the eyes of the actors were. Then we sat back and watched the rest of the film, and 98% of the time, when actors were photographed in a close-up, their eyes were on the line. We left it there and started looking at television—ordinary news programs—and sure enough the same thing was happening. So then I got really curious and measured the distance from the bottom of the screen to the yarn, and then the yarn to the top of the screen, and came up with two numbers. I divided one number into the other and it turned out to be the golden ratio. That basically sent me down a rabbit hole into this theory.

The quick answer to the question is that cinematographers don’t purposely put the eyes at that line. I interviewed Vittorio Storaro and Caleb Deschanel and John Seale and a number of others, and universally they said, “We don’t think about that. We react intuitively.” John Seale put it most succinctly: “I just try to make the face feel comfortable in the frame.” Why is that? Why is it comfortable in that location? So I started looking at the human face, and with this new sensitivity I realized—by far, on average—between the hairline and the chin, the eyes themselves are at the golden ratio in the human face. There’s a whole section of the brain dedicated to facial analysis; it’s the first thing a baby does after looking for a mother’s breast, is to look at the face and eyes in the face.

It’s obviously deeply, deeply imprinted in us, and it took off from there. In fact, not only are the eyes at the golden ratio—but the relation of the eyes, the nostrils, and the lips are at the golden ratio. And the relation from the nostril to the lips to the chin. So there are many golden ratios in the architecture of the human face. And cinema, if it’s anything, is an analysis of human emotion conveyed through the human face. Cinema is the unique art—the first art—to be able to choreograph human emotion in subtle, sometimes not-so-subtle shifts in the human face without any words. So that’s it, in a nutshell.

So you can discuss this in established, mathematical terms. But it’s all very heavy. Almost spiritual.

Yeah. It’s obvious to me, but at the same time very mysterious. What is it that produces this? One of the slides I show in the presentation is the human skull, where you see the eye sockets and bottom of the nasal cavity and the meeting of the teeth with the chin. If you compare that with a chimpanzee, it also goes across. It’s even non-human. It seems to be something in the architecture of the primate skull. So why is it there? Is it the thing that unites all of the golden ratios that they seem to be present in systems that evolve, from living systems like the petals of a flower or chambers of a seashell or seeds of a sunflower? But also the vortexes of galaxies, the spirals of DNA all have this golden ratio.

The simple explanation for something like the sunflower petal and leaves is that: if the seeds in a sunflower are arranged in a golden ratio, that’s the most efficient way to pack as many seeds as possible within the circle of the sunflower. So there’s a mathematical, physical efficiency about it somehow. Evolving systems, I think, are always looking for the most efficient way to be. It’s easy to analyze why the branches of a tree tend to branch out at a golden ratio—this is also the way branches receive the most sunlight. Why this is true about the major features of the human face: I don’t know the answer.

The word usually tagged to you is “innovator.”

Right.

So there’s this discovery that’ll be in a new book written decades after you’d already been considered a boundary-pusher. Is there a concerted effort to push things forward?

No. [Laughs] Other than the fact that I’m very curious about things. The nature of cinema—of making a movie—is that it’s an almost-ideal test case about human perception. How can we convey these ideas using images and sounds in motion, in time? What we’ve discovered over the last 130 years are more ways to use this to communicate with. So it’s an absolutely new thing in human experience; it’s barely older than one single human lifetime. So there’s a lot of activity going on, and my mind tends to work that way.

Not to put myself in the same league, but people built musical instruments and they played music for 30,000 years—until Pythagoras came along and measured the length of string, then measured the length of string of something an octave higher or lower than that, and realized that these are in a 2:1 relationship. All harmonies—things that, in music, we detect as harmonious—are very simple fractions. The octave is 2:1. The fifth is 2:3. People could play music and build musical instruments without any knowledge of what Pythagoras discovered. This is kind of in that same ballpark: we’ve been looking at human faces ever since we’ve been human. That’s what we do. And we’ve known about the golden ratio for at least 3,000 or 4,000 years—the ancient Egyptians apparently knew about it—and yet why haven’t these two things been put together? I don’t know. Why isn’t it taught in 5th grade or something?

Have you seen any recent films that signal advancements, new waves of applying film form?

No. I couldn’t specify anything. But as a way of answering that question: when I was growing up before television, the only way you could see motion pictures was from going to a cinema or maybe watching them at school—educational films. That was it. Then television came along, and now there’s just an incredible proliferation. As I’m talking to you the screen behind you is doing stuff. [Points behind] There’s one up there. [Points at phone] You have this and I have one in my pocket. You pull up to a gas station: the machine itself has a screen on it trying to sell you some stuff. My wife has an Apple Watch with little movies on it. It’s everywhere, and each of those systems requires a different grammar to function.

If you go into a department store—TriMark or something—that’s selling clothes, there are these big screens with models doing stuff to show how beautiful these clothes are. The style of that filmmaking has to be very aggressive: to have lots of moving camera, lots of jump cuts, lots of sped-up or slowed-down images. Essentially you have walked into a jungle. TriMark is a jungle with many trees that have fruit on them, and this screen is like a bird sitting on a branch that’s flapping its wings to attract your attention.

So that style of editing—which we have discovered that we can do, and it will communicate something to us—is very different from the style of editing you would have in a classic, traditional cinematic experience where you’re in the dark, there are no distractions, the only thing that’s lit is the screen. So that kind of hyper-aggressive stuff clearly has infiltrated into cinema, but by and large cinematic editing is more controlled than the “flapping-bird” editing. So who knows what’s going to emerge. But as you said: I don’t actually go to a lot of films. So I can’t specify one film as having done something along those lines.

So are there remaining ambitions as an editor, people you want to work with, ideas you’d like to approach? Your last editing credit is 2019’s Coup 53, which you co-wrote.

No. No. I mean, I’m writing a book and the 2019 film is a documentary that I gave four years of my life to. It was sabotaged in distribution because of its subject matter, which was Iran. So it was never picked up for distribution. You can see it—it’s available online—and there’s all kinds of strange things that happened to it, which I’m still involved in. I’m working on a series of short films for the South African artist William Kentridge, which just showed at the Toronto, London, Rome, Amsterdam, IDFA festivals. So that’s an ongoing project that hasn’t just released yet.

I’m a big fan of your later Coppola collaborations, Youth Without Youth and Tetro. Have you talked with him about Megalopolis?

Francis asked me to work on it and I declined.

What else will be in Suddenly Something Clicked?

I wrote Blink of an Eye in the early ‘90s, which is 30 years ago, so this has a different perspective on things. Blink of an Eye is almost all about film editing. This has aspects of that, but it’s also a lot about sound, directing, cinematography, writing—there’s a broader palette. And it’s a mixture of film theory, like the golden ratio ideas, and film history. Stories from the trenches, I guess—things that happened that are illustrative of the filmmaking process—and collections of odd pieces: cinematic tips and tricks. The equivalent of “don’t forget to tie your shoelaces when you go out in the morning.” It’s very eclectic and covers more territory than Blink.