The Brilliance of Walter Murch


Walter Murch is, of course, a renound editor and sound recordist. In the process of doing some research on cutting for my masters degree, I had the pleasure of reading his book, “In the Blink of an Eye” (Murch, 2001) which is a transcription of a talk he gave.

Asking: “Why do cuts work?”, Murch says: “nothing in our day to day experience seems to prepare us for such a thing, Instead, from the moment we get up in the morning until we close our eyes at night, the visual reality we perceive is a continuous stream of linked images”.  (Murch, W. 2001:5). Cognitive scientists disagree. They have learned that things such as saccadic eye movement (and shifts in our gaze and or attention) imply that the input is quite ‘jittery’.  Although “raw visual perception is in many ways discontinuous, … normally we are unaware of this gappines” (Bacon 2011). 

This disagreement should be no surprise because the body-brain processes that give us the conscious perception of continuity operate in a pre-conscious domain. The term “prenoetic” is used by cognitive scientists. Even the most reflective and insightful people fail to consider the implications of this because these processes are unavailable consciously. One might think that Murch is one of the unaware, but you would wrong.

Well into his talk, he returns to this thought saying: “Something to consider, though, is the possibility that there may be part of our waking reality where we actually do experience something like cuts” (2001:59) and then he goes on to speak about blinking and looking about as examples of discontinuities. Astonishingly, he is lecturing on cognitive film theory and is exactly correct. Indeed Murch is cited in Tim Smith’s paper: “An Attentional Theory of Continuity Editing” which expands on these and other cognitive aspects of cognition as it relates to editing in an academic context.

This is not a new idea. D. W. Griffith said: “[A shot of a whole battlefield would be incomprehensible because] Looking at real things, the human vision fastens itself upon a quick succession of small comprehensible incidents, and we from our eventual impressions, like a mosaic, out of such detail… The director counterfeits the operation of the eye with his lens.” (Griffith, 1926, quoted in Jesionowski, 1989:46)

As I work on my studies in cognitive film theory, people remind me that “filmmakers don’t talk in those terms”. Indeed, they do not but they DO talk about the subject. At least the brilliant ones do. They navigate to it because it is important to making film and because they can observe the implications through watching audiences reactions and their own; treating cognitive processes as a black box and discussing the results in everyday terms. This interest in cognition (if not cognitive science and neuroscience) dates back to the roots of hollywood film and the first days of continuity editing.

Brilliant, simply brilliant



  • Bacon, H. (2011). The extent of Mental Completion of Films. United States: Berghahn Journals : Projections Volume 5, Issue 1, Summer 2011: 31-50.
  • Festival International du Film de La Roche-sur-Yon FIF 85 (1985) Header Image: Walter Murch. Downloaded from Flickr Accessed Nov 14 2015. used Creative Commons terms Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic
  • Jesionowski, J. (1989) Thinking in Pictures: Dramatic Structure in D. W. Griffith’s Biography Films. California: University of California Press
  • Murch, W (2001) In the Blink of an Eye Ed 2 USA: Silman-James Press
  • Smith, T. J. (2005) An Attentional Theory of Continuity Editing Scotland: Institute for Communicating and Collaborative Systems School of Informatics, University of Edinburgh Available on the web: accessed Nov 14 2015

Reflection on Research

Format Image


Is deep necessarily focused and narrow?


Metaphor has always been known as a powerful way to communicate. In recent dacades it has been investigated as a mechanism of thought (Lakoff, G. Johnson, M. 1980, 1999). A metaphor maps one thing onto another in order to imply attributes. They give the example of the metaphor: argument as war and point to how that gets embedded in language: (1980:4)

• “Your claims are indefensible
• He attacked every weak point in my argument.
• His criticisms were right on target”
and so on. The point is that, when we accept a metaphor in out conceptual system we accept the mapping of attributes from the source of the metaphor onto the subject we are thinking about or discussing. “we don’t just talk about arguments in terms of war. We can actually win or lose arguments”. For example, if you are told that the criticism of your work was on target, you skulk away to do better. You accept the metaphor. Then the authors play a very entertaining trick. They postulate a culture which uses the metaphor of argument as dance. In such a culture, “people would view arguments differently, carry them out differently, and talk about them differently. But we would probably not view them as arguing at all” The result would have the goal of being “balanced and aesthetically pleasing”

So I would like to dance around the topic of research and, particularly research in depth. This came up because a proposed bibliography of mine seemed to have too many references and surely mining or drilling down to the depths of the subject should necessarily require focus. This, without being explicit, implies the metaphor of research as mining (or perhaps well drilling). The metaphor has merit in many (perhaps most) contexts and the comment was a welcome and useful caution not to wander off topic. (remember, we are dancing here, not warring).


I dutifully reflected on this and wondered why it seemed best to have a large bibliography. Indeed, I seem to need one and it is growing as I work. One thought is that my work is both cross disciplinary and, within each discipline spans a number of topics. I feel more like a hunter gatherer seeking berries and fruits wide and far for dinner than a miner. I think that is a more fitting metaphor for the task at hand. It seems that depth comes from completeness as much as it comes from a laser focus. That said, reflecting on mining, that metaphor will also serve as long as I’m mining for something very valuable (diamonds?) or very sparsely spread. Yes, an open pit mine will do.

Regardless, the caution was well intended, apt, and something to keep an eye on. This tiny paper is simply a different caution: that we should be very careful when we apply metaphor, particularly when they are implicit and not something we have consciously explored.

References and Rights


• Lakoff, G. Johnson, M. (1980) Metaphors We Live By Chicago: University of Chicago Press

• Lakoff, G. Johnson, M. (1999) Philosophy in the Flesh New York: Basic Books


• Cover image: “Open pit of the Rio Tinto Rössing uranium mine, Namibia” by jbdodane uploaded to Flickrused under the creative commons Attribution- NonCommercial 2.0 Generic licence