As a middle school student in Cleveland, Tennessee, Ben Murphy (’15) spent afternoons making skits and videos with his brother and friends, tapping into the creativity that would later fuel a career working on Hollywood blockbusters like the Academy Award–nominated Avatar: The Way of Water.
As one of the first graduates of UT’s Cinema Studies program, Murphy has made a name for himself as a film editor, starting out working on studio movies like The LEGO Batman Movie and Smallfoot. His work on those films earned him a spot on the team editing the sequels to the 2009 film Avatar. The first sequel has already grossed over $2 billion and is nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture. (See update at bottom of story)
Murphy knew he wanted to go into film production after taking media production classes in high school. When he came to UT, he followed in the footsteps of his older brother, Scott, and decided to major in journalism and electronic media with a minor in cinema studies.
During his second year, cinema studies became a major, and without hesitation Murphy added cinema studies as his primary major.
“When the cinema studies major became a reality, I really put all my focus on that,” Murphy says.
He had learned the technical side of film production through his journalism classes, but the new major allowed him to tackle creative projects like The Merry Death Collector, a documentary on an antique store in LaFollete, Tennessee, which screened at the 2015 Nashville Film Festival.
He also helped his brother with the full-length feature Ain’t It Nowhere, about a group of friends in the South, which starred East Tennessee residents and UT alumni like Dale Dickey (Winter’s Bone, True Blood).
Murphy says the projects he worked on during his time at UT helped prepare him for the world he’s in now.
“I just took advantage of my time at UT and really pushed myself with all the projects I got involved in,” Murphy says.
He credits his current job as an editor to an independent study he did during his senior year that showed him the creative side of editing and made him want to pursue it as a career.
“What I really equate editing to is writing music,” Murphy says. “It’s very musical. There’s a rhythm to most films and most stories, and that’s what I love—crafting and putting it together.”
After college, Murphy took a leap of faith and applied for the American Cinema Editor Internship, which gives two college graduate interns the chance to learn from and network with other editors as they pursue a career in postproduction motion picture and TV editorial work.
“I applied to it not thinking they would actually take anyone from East Tennessee—some person not really connected anywhere to LA at all,” Murphy says.
He was staying at a friend’s house in Los Angeles when he got the call that he had been selected out of 10 finalists to complete the internship.
“I got the call and they’re like, ‘Hey, you’re one of the two selected interns for the program. Can you meet in an hour?’” Murphy recalls.
The internship was a huge stepping stone in Murphy’s journey, and the next one came just after its conclusion.
Most Hollywood films require their editors to be a part of the Motion Picture Editors Guild, which represents more than 9,000 editors throughout Hollywood. During Labor Day weekend of 2016, Murphy was trying to get into the union while also discussing a potential assistant editor job with a connection he had made during his internship.
“That weekend was the most nerve-wracking weekend of my life, because I didn’t know if my paperwork going to clear or if I was going to have a job or not,” Murphy says. “And I couldn’t do anything about it.”
His paperwork did clear, and Murphy landed his first job as an editor for The LEGO Batman Movie.
“That was another huge step in my career as well,” Murphy says. “Just getting into the union and landing my first job as a union assistant editor on such a big Hollywood film at the Warner Bros. Studios.”
Murphy worked on a few more films before hearing from two different people about another assistant editor job. He gave his resume to both contacts, and a few weeks later he became the newest editor for Avatar: The Way of Water.
His time working on the Avatar sequels took him from an editing room in Manhattan Beach, California, to the mountains of New Zealand. He helped build dailies and assisted the editors and director during production, and spent hours editing in post-production.
In December 2022, the film Murphy had been working on for more than five years came to life and he finally got to show his friends and family.
“It’s just very gratifying to know that all of our hard work that we put into this, that it has paid off,” he says.
Murphy has his sights set on other goals in the industry, like getting more into cutting films and television, but for now he’ll continue working on the Avatar films—a job he doesn’t see himself getting tired of.
“If I was bored at my job every day, I feel like I would want to move on to do something else,” Murphy says. “But it’s very complex work that we do. I find it very enjoyable being able to know that I have a thumbprint on something that a lot of that a lot of people around the world will see and enjoy.”
UPDATE 3/17/23: Murphy was among the winners at the 2023 Academy Awards as part of the team for Avatar: The Way of Water that won for Best Achievement in Visual Effects.
“I am beyond proud of our crew. So many people contributed to the making of this first Avatar sequel,” says Murphy. “It is very gratifying to see our team get recognition by our industry peers for the artistry and craft put into the film. Now we just have to put the same passion and hard-work into the next three Avatar films! Onward to Avatar 3!”
Photos courtesy of Ben Murphy