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March 9, 2005 at 11 AM

Walter Murch on Sound

If you’ve never thought about the relationship between sound and image while watching films, don’t blame Walter Murch. The films with which he is most associated, principally as editor, include Apocalypse Now and the Godfather trilogy, and nearly all were groundbreaking in their use of sound design to tell a story.

Knowing the truth behind illusion can sometimes lead to disappointment, and indeed the “magic of Hollywood” relies on a fundamental principal: the suspension of disbelief. To enjoy a movie at the moment of viewing, you normally forget that there was a camera, that there were lights, and that the White House you just saw explode was a scale model strategically demolished in a studio. If actors seem too much like they are acting, the result is usually disappointingly phony (unless we’re talking about Mark Hamil or Keanu Reeves, and then it’s enjoyably camp).

In many ways, sound is the least apparent ingredient in this process, yet often the most important. Anyone who’s yawned through a silent film realizes that an exploding White House needs to sound like it’s exploding to have an effect on the viewer, who is really, after all, also a captive listener. As it turns out, movie sound engineers discovered early on that the most effective recording of an explosion for a film is not necessarily the most realistic, and so the sounds we hear during a film are normally processed in any number of ways before being let out into the wild of the theatre.

Walter Murch was a pioneer in the way he edited and processed sound, but also in his use of many different layers of sound to add meaning to film, often metaphorical rather than plainly realistic. In Apocalypse Now the sounds are by turns realistic, emotional, atmospheric, cacophonous, tranquil. Music comes from the external score as well as from sources within the world of the film.

The effects are stunning, and yet the process is anything but obvious. Really, sound has to be carefully edited for it not to call too much attention to itself so that it seems organic rather than totally artificial (which it is, in fact). In an essay at Transom.org, Murch explains all this as well as offering a fascinating explanation of the spectrum of sound in terms of “encoded” and “embodied” meaning. He presents a clip from Apocalypse Now with six isolated layers of sounds unmixed, and then explains how they combined to make the final mix. Watching and listening to the clip six times, each with a single layer, offers a revealing glimpse (or should I say an ‘ear-opening listen’) at how different types of sound work to impact the viewer/listener.

(Note how even I struggle against our shared vocabulary which is so biased towards the visual. We speak of ‘viewers’ who ‘watch’ ‘move-ies’. What is the aural equivalent of ‘to glimpse’ or ‘to visualize’?)

Actually, the level of detail in this clip is nearly unbelievable, since in the end mix it seems “just right”, if a hair on the loud side. You could remove a lot of the layers and still have a decent clip of film, but not one with the same resonance and power. Apocalypse Now is one of those films where the soundtrack is fundamental to the work’s ability to — pardon the cliché — blow your mind, man.

This is top notch stuff for anyone with an interest in sound or film. Murch apparently enjoys explaining his craft because after the very long essay he goes on to answer questions from readers (most recently yesterday, so it’s not too late to ask one yourself).

Incidentally, if you find Walter Murch’s enthusiasm and youthful curiosity as infectious as I do, you might want to get a hold of The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, a book by Michael Ondaatje which is a series of interviews with Murch. It’s more about the visual side of his work, but it’s no less riveting. And the film referenced by the title, The Conversation, is one of Francis Ford Coppola’s lesser known works (perhaps not one of his best overall) which also featured some very novel sound design by Murch.

Comments

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Previously: Drawn and Linked

Subsequently: The Right Not to Be Used as a Metaphor

March 2005
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