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