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Catching 'Particle Fever': Walter Murch on Editing the Universe Down to Size

The editor for The Godfather trilogy, Apocalypse Now, and Particle Fever, a new doc on the hunt for the Higgs boson, opens up on a long-time passion for reading about science, and a story about 200 horses that explains the Higgs mechanism.
June 6, 2013, 1:15pm
Courtesy of Particle Fever

The documentary Particle Fever tells the story of the search for the Holy Grail of physics, the Higgs boson. Even before the moment when scientists flipped the switch and turned on the $10 billion particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a film crew was documenting what would be the sexiest, priciest, and most metaphysically important science experiment of the last 50 years.

The film tells the human narrative behind the scientific discovery and follows three experimentalists who operate the LHC and three theorists whose theories will be proven or disproven by the results. The filmmakers themselves knew intimately just what was at stake with these experiments. Producer David Kaplan is a professor of particle physics at Johns Hopkins University and director Mark Levinson has spent decades in the film industry but also happens to have a doctorate in particle physics up his sleeve. The film's editor, the Academy-award winner Walter Murch, is a bit of a physics autodidact, finding time to read up the origins of the universe in between editing films like The Godfather trilogy, Apocalypse Now, and The English Patient.

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A few weeks before Particle Fever's world premiere at the Sheffield Documentary Festival in England, I dropped by the studio in New York where Levinson and Murch were reviewing footage, deciding exactly how the musical score would punctuate a physicist frantically scribbling formulas on a blackboard.

Murch and I chatted about the film, how it's married his editing career to his long-time passion for reading about science, and how a story about 200 frozen horses helps explain the Higgs mechanism.

A trailer for Particle Fever (2013)

MOTHERBOARD: I am surprised at how young the physicists seem. How old are they?

Murch: Of our featured theorists, one is 60. Everyone else is in their 20s, 30s, and early 40s. And what that represents is the generation that has grown up with no data.

We have all these theories. And theories, in the absence of data, just proliferate. It was like 'how many angels dance on the head of a pin?' Now it's starting to happen that data comes. And there will be a big wash out. Goodbye. Get rid of it. One of the theorists said, "All my models, I have to throw them out. That's sort of neat." Even if it's bad, it's a relief to know. But that younger generation, people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, to them this is the way it's always been. They came into graduate school in the late '80s, early '90s. Getting data is going to be a new experience for them.

What were the reactions to the data that they've begun to find? Were there disappointments?

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There is a concern among the scientists that they haven't seen anything except the Higgs. They built this machine to see new physics. It's like you build a telescope to see new galaxies, and sure enough, we predicted a galaxy, there it is. But where are all the other galaxies? There was a secret hope that this machine would turn on and it would just flood them with all this data. But that hasn't happened. Part of that is because an accident happened and as a result they have had to run the machine at half power.

They have seen the Higgs. The mystery about it is that it's at a very strange value. Every particle–like the electron or the neutron or the photon or the proton–all have energy states. How heavy are they, basically? How much energy do they pack? And it was not possible to predict theoretically how much energy [the Higgs] would have.

So that's one of the reason you do this experiment, 'What's that value going to be?' And it came out at a very strange number. And there is a collective scratching of heads now. It is the Higgs--but what does this mean?

One of the things that it means is that, without any other data, the universe is inherently unstable. Its material substance, which is a result of the action of the Higgs particle, is actually poised on a very delicate knife-edge. There could be a lower energy state of the universe into which we suddenly tumble and we'll all disappear. This universe will disappear. Which has metaphysical overtones to it.

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It's like learning about your own mortality. "You mean I'm going to die someday mommy?" We are learning about the mortality of the universe now. And it's tied to the value of the Higgs.

And how is this data translated into music and how did you incorporate that into the film?

It's really just a function of the fact that the data is all digital. Basically the collider is a huge 5-story digital camera. And these particles spread out and they leave tracks, not on film, but on CCDs just like a digital camera.

The data is digital and you could convert that digital information to sound information and play it. They took these photographs what they call splash diagrams and they just took that information and rendered it in the audio spectrum rather than the visual spectrum.

It isn't really useful to the scientists. In fact, the scientists don't even use the splash diagrams, which are very beautiful–they look like '60s pop art these kind of targets with splashes. What they deal with is just numbers. And then they crunch those numbers and then they represent them on a graph and say, “look, there's a bump there.”

But having the sound and pop-art type visuals is good for the film?

Absolutely. Otherwise it's hopeless. It's just people staring at spreadsheets. There's actually a cute part, one of the post docs says, "hey look at my graph" and she goes around right after the experiment showing the graph. It means stuff to them. But what's nice about it is her enthusiasm, but you look at it and it's just a spreadsheet.

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Spreadsheets are a far cry from the fiction films you've spent most of your career editing. What were some of the biggest differences in editing a documentary?

In a documentary, and certainly this documentary, one of the babies you immediately throw out with the bathwater in film terms is spatial continuity. In features, we are very careful not to cross the line of action unless we choose to deliberately. It's just one of the rules of the road that we try to obey. In a documentary, it's gone. It's observed more than 50 per cent of the time but I don't spend any time agonizing over putting people on the right side of the line.

Why do our brains make sense of things differently? Why do we need to follow these rules in fiction but not in documentary?

There's an interesting section in The Unbearable Lightness of Being that I edited. That's a dramatic film, but in the middle of it, there's a ten-minute documentary section about the invasion of Prague. And then it goes back to being a dramatic film and it's kind of Alice In Wonderland in that all of the things that would be destructive in the fiction part, you actually enhance in the documentary part. For example, you would never in a fiction film, allow a piece of film to run out. When that happens the image gets whiter and whiter and then it turns pure white when the film stops in the gate. But in the documentary section, not only did I include those moments, I actually manufactured them.

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Because in the documentary, certainly in that one, you're interested in that the film that shows the invasion. In feature films, you look through the film itself at the characters, but in that kind of a documentary it's the film itself that you're looking at.

Are there certain ethical concerns with documentary? Are there moments where you say, “Oh I would change this if it were a feature, but it is too much of a distortion of reality to do here?”

We are confronting that right now. We are doing some ADR, dialogue replacement. Every film–but certainly every doc–has to find what their sweet spot is. The very fact that you do editing at all and the very fact that you choose to point the camera in this direction and not that direction is a manipulation. So how far do you go?

There's a wonderful phrase in Italian about translating and they say "traduttore, traditore" meaning “the translator is the traitor.” You have to betray the literal surface of it to get to deeper things. And we do that in film all the time. We're not we're not telling any substantive mistruth or falsities in this film but certain things are manipulated.

So this film is about how these scientists in this film are dealing with how their careers are affected by a huge technological breakthrough. Are there any similar moments in your career, because there have been many huge changes since you started editing decades ago? You're the only editor to have been nominated for Academy Awards on four different editing systems [the Moviola, invented in 1924, the KEM flatbed, Avid, and Final Cut Pro.]

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I re-mastered The Conversation a number of years ago for Blu Ray. And I thought this would be interesting because I will now be looking at the film on the new kind of editing machine, I wondered what I would think. And I didn't think anything bad. The equivalent of looking-at-old-hairstyles didn't happen. I would make those same decisions today; I would just achieve them through different technologies.

What's certainly happening on this film Particle Fever because of the digital photography is that you can recompose in the frame. So you are taking what you shot, and shooting it again so to speak. We've always done that in film just that it was very cumbersome in the old days and there was a limit to how much you could do without tipping your hand.

You could blow up a shot, enlarge a shot up until 20 percent. If we did it more than that you would start to see the individual grain of the film. With digital you can certainly go 100 percent. And that is a profound shift in the relationship between the crafts because what that means is the cinematographer is no longer in control of the image. We have to work with what they give us, but we are not limited to that.

And so the science in this film Particle Fever is something you're very familiar with. How did you become so well versed on this stuff?

I had gone to university intending to be an oceanographer, so, science. And then for various reasons, I switched tracks to history of art and Romance languages and then I got interested in film.

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But, I love reading about science as entertainment. When I'm working on a film all day, in the evening I like to read about this kind of stuff. And I have for decades. It was fortuitous that this film came along.

Walter Murch. Photo: Rolex

I love reading about science as entertainment. When I'm working on a film all day, in the evening I like to read about this kind of stuff.​.. It's like eating nothing but hot dogs now.__

What was it like having something that provided a counterweight to your work as the subject of your work?

It's like if you ate the occasional hot dog. It's like eating nothing but hot dogs now. I think about it all the time. I think about it when I'm working on the film and when I read science at night still.

And it was through this passion for reading science books that you discovered your other hobby, translating Italian literature. How exactly was it that one thing led to the other?

It was on Unbearable Lightness of Being. I was on location in France and had expected to stay a week and wound up staying a month. And I had my science books with me but I ran out of reading material. And so I went down the street to a bookstore in Lyons and found a French book on cosmology.

The author is the Carl Sagan of France. He's a physicist, himself, but he writes for the general public. And in the book he was attempting to explain the Higgs mechanism, how matter condensed out of energy at the beginning of the universe. And he made an analogy with a scene from a book by Malaparte.

The story was so fascinating and compelling about a herd of 200 Soviet artillery horses who had been flash frozen in the supercooled water of Lake Lodoga during the siege of Leningrad. I said, “I have to find out who this Malaparte is.” And I got all his books that had been translated into English. And then I started translating the things that had not been translated. And as the wheel of fate turns, a book of my translations of Malaparte were published as I was working on this film–the very thing that the film is about is the Higgs mechanism which is what this French author was attempting to tell by using the story from Malaparte.

How exactly do these frozen horses help explain the Higgs mechanism?

In physics what is known as a "phase shift" is like when water turns to ice. And at the beginning of the universe, there was a phase shift from pure energy to matter. A way of looking at matter is that it is frozen energy–energy that has spun in on itself like an ice crystal and become solid. And the Higgs mechanism is the thing that allows that to happen. I can talk about it but it's hard to write about unless you have an image

And the same things happen in an instant under certain states in nature. If you have water that is below the temperature of freezing it can still remain water if it's very pure and very still; it kind of forgets that it should be frozen. So 31 degrees, 30 degrees, 29 degrees, it's still water, but it's in an increasingly supercooled state. There is a great deal of tension because it is just waiting to freeze--the slightest thing will set it off. You can see it on the Youtube if you search supercooled water.

So this lake is sitting here and there was the Nazi bombardment of the forest adjacent to Leningrad that started a forest fire. A herd of Soviet artillery horses panicked at the forest fire and burst out of the stables and ran through the forest trying to find some safe place. They ran through the flames to get to the lake and they dove into the water. The act of hitting the water instantly turned this supercooled lake to ice and it trapped them. Malaparte was a journalist with the Finnish army and they came out the next day and saw that the lake that had froze overnight. And they walked out onto the ice and found themselves in a sculpture garden of dead horses caught in this moment of being flash frozen. It's a very compelling image.

Also see Motherboard TV: A Death on the Frontier.