Unsung Heroes and Silent Pioneers: An Interview with Sound Designer Walter Murch

In the 1970s, Walter Murch and a few other sound creators pioneered a range of sonic techniques in cinema, including compilation tracks, worldizing and proto-digital sound, and Murch became one of the most renowned sound designers in all of film history. In fact, Murch was one of first people in film to ever be called “sound designer” (he is even said to have coined the term back in the 1970s), and his work consisted (and consists) of more than simply adding a soundtrack (cf. Sider 2003). Instead, Murch and others like him would build a total sonic design, including music, sound effects and expressive silences, at times even editing the movies, himself, to make certain that sound was a pivotal part of the audiovisual style and storytelling. Interviewed for a forthcoming book about sound design (Moving Sounds), Murch talks about sound, listening and shifting paradigms in terms of technology and style. Murch’s filmography is long, and he has also written extensively about sound and editing, yet this interview focuses mostly on his work with the famous New Hollywood directors George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola.

Cinema has often been recognized as a profoundly visual medium, and we talk about films in terms of visual metaphors such as pictures, photoplays and moving images. Audiences are said to watch films, and media like television and video (meaning “I see” in Latin) include the concepts of visual stimuli and watching in their very names. This makes sense, at least historically, inasmuch as optical and magnetic soundtracks were not invented and implemented in films before the 1920s, but cinema has always been an audiovisual medium.

“The silents were never silent,” as Kevin Brownlow (1968: 383) correctly argues, and, in fact, there were cue-sheets, musical accompaniments, intertitles and live narration in the earliest films from the so-called “silent” era. What’s more, Thomas Edison had originally thought of the motion pictures as “an accessory to a sound recording device” (where the pictures made by the Kinetograph were meant to illustrate the sound from the phonograph), not the other way around (Cook 1990: 6). In that sense, film sound is an under-acknowledged and often ignored aspect of the film experience, and audiences often miss or misinterpret sonic information during a cinematic or televisual experience.

In the 1970s and ‘80s, however, sound design became a more recognized and popular field, pioneered by sound creators and engineers like Alan Splet, Randy Thom, Ben Burtt and Walter Murch (fig. 1).

Fig. 1: A private photo of Walter Murch mixing Apocalypse Now in 1979. Courtesy of Walter Murch.

Preparing a book on sound design in films and television, written together with the Danish sound designer Peter Albrechtsen, I talked with Walter Murch about film sound, listening and technology. Particularly, we talked about his work with American directors Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas and their uses of sonic inventions, music and expressive sounds and silences in films like American Graffiti (1973), The Conversation (1974) and Apocalypse Now (1979).

The forthcoming book is called Moving Sounds: Sound Design in Film and Television, and it will be published in a collaboration between the authors, 16:9 and The University Press of Southern Denmark.

The Primacy of Sound

You have written a great book called In the Blink of an Eye in which you argue that film editing is often – and is often supposed to be – an unnoticed art. Similarly, film sound is usually described as an unnoticed art, and some people argue that film sound and music should, at best, be inconspicuous or even “unheard.” What is your view of film sound, and why do you think that we tend to overlook that part of films, however central it may be to our visceral and emotional experience?

Most people who watch films are so overwhelmed by the visual aspect – the photography, the acting and the scenery – that they are not aware what is happening on the soundtrack, even though it is affecting them in many ways and it’s also affecting how and what it is that they see.

But it probably has to do with the nature of the way the human brain is wired. We have so much of our brain dedicated to processing visual information and a tiny amount of our brain, in comparison, dedicated to processing aural information.

Nonetheless, sound has such a huge influence on us, and I think that is probably because our first perception of the world is through sound, and that is because, of all the five senses, sound is the one that turns on first, about four and a half months after conception. And, so, for the next four and a half months of our time in the womb, we are living in a very rich sonic environment with no competition from the other senses, which have not yet really been turned on. So, because of this primacy, even though sound is smaller in the processing area of the brain, I think it has a deeper resonance with us, and yet, when we are thinking of films, we tend to ascribe the qualities that the sounds make us feel to something in the visual.

So it’s a very complicated rat’s nest – the balance of those two senses – and I think it’s very good for those of us who do film sound because it means that we are flying under the radar of the audience most of the time. Not all of the time, but most of the time we are able to have an effect on the audience without them being aware of it, which is kind of an ideal situation. It’s significant that in the case of human beings the eyes face forward, we confront the world visually, but our ears face out to the side, and we can’t see what’s behind us, but we can hear what’s behind us and what’s above us and below us very well, so we hear in a 360 degree spherical pattern, but we see in a much more restricted way.

Fig. 2: The expressive opening of Apocalypse Now (1979) is full of sonic and visual layers.

Impressive Sounds and Expressive Silences

I teach film at university, and I always use the opening sequence from Apocalypse Now when talking about film sound (fig. 2). It is very interesting in terms of colors, superimpositions and sound design, and everything seems to give the audience a sense of Willard’s situation and emotional state. Could you say a few words on that opening sequence and the way that the fan melds with the sounds of helicopters?

As far as the fan goes, there is no sound of the fan. It’s all helicopter sound. There is, however, a blend of a synthesized helicopter sound – what we called a ghost helicopter sound, which was a synthetic kind of a Lego kit of a helicopter that we built analyzing the different elements that make up the helicopter sound (e.g. the slap of the blade, the whine of the turbine, the rush of air, and the pulse of the exhaust).

We created each of those or simulated each of those using an Arp synthesizer, so this is technology ca. 1978, almost 40 years ago, and it was an analog synthesizer. This gave us the ability to blend the synthesized sounds with the actual sound of a helicopter for to disassemble the helicopter into its constituent parts depending on what we needed in the film.

In the beginning of the film, all you hear is the whap sound of the blade from this ghost helicopter – you don’t hear any of the other sounds. Then, gradually, as the music comes in, this sound disappears slightly, before it comes back again. And it’s only when Willard begins to wake up from his dream, that we start to introduce the realistic sound of the helicopter, and that’s what you hear when you are looking with Willard, and the fan is rotating on the ceiling. So that was a realistic sound of a helicopter, and that was one of the discoveries we made in the process of putting together the film. That was not part of the original plan for the film, but it seemed to work very well, so we went with it.

The metallic scream is something in the music [“The End” by The Doors] that fell into a nice sync with what Willard is doing, and that was when I was editing the picture and arranging the picture relevant to the sound.

To me, it gives this great sense of a person trapped between two different places.

That was what we were after.

Another interesting example from Apocalypse Now is the classic cross-cutting sequence where helicopters attack some civilian people in a Vietnamese village (fig. 3-4). That sequence has become famous for its use of Richard Wagner’s music, but I am even more interested in the other sound elements and in the great contrast between sound and quietude in this sequence. I have read in a book that you call this use of silence (when we cut to the schoolyard) “locational silence,” but I think that the shifts in volume and intensity serve so many different functions. What were your thoughts and ideas when creating that sequence?

It’s not total silence, but relatively to what you’ve been hearing it seems very quiet. It was something that Francis was interested in, but he had a different idea for silence. He wanted the soundtrack to suddenly drop to silence as we were looking at the helicopters, so the music would drop away, but the helicopters would continue. And then he shot a scene where it cut in close, and the soldier who had turned the tape recorder on was frantically fiddling with the tape recorder because the tape had broken, and then he eventually got it up together again, and the sound came back. And I got into a big discussion with Francis about this, and I said that I felt that once we launched the helicopters, we couldn’t play that kind of a game – sort of a Brechtian game – with the audience.

“It is just too powerful to play that kind of trick,” as I said to Francis, but “I understand the nice thing about going to silence. Let me see what else I can find.” And that’s when I used the cut to the schoolyard with the kids, and the original plan was not to have that schoolyard be so quiet as it was, but that was supposed to be in the middle of the attack, but I editorially implied that the helicopters were further away, and this was right at the beginning of the attack.

Fig. 3: A famous cross-cutting sequence from Apocalypse Now (1979) which uses classical music, contrasts and relative silence to great effect.
Fig. 4: A sequence from D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), which might have inspired Francis Ford Coppola and Walter Murch, especially in the use of cross-cutting and Richard Wagner.

There is a scene in Jarhead that directly paraphrases the aforementioned sequence from Apocalypse Now (fig. 5). Have people mistaken Apocalypse Now for a pro-war film? To me, it seems like a very evident example of an anti-war film, illustrated in the Griffithean use of cross-cutting and Richard Wagner. 

There’s an essay, I think you can find it online, called “Valkyries over Iraq,” and it is about the irony presented in Jarhead of making an anti-war film, which Apocalypse Now is, but you can excerpt sections from that film or any other film and put them in a different context, and they seem to celebrate war.

Fig. 5: Jarhead (2005) and ‘the misappropriation of Valkyries.’

The reason I ask you about the use of silence in Apocalypse Now is that it seems to be something of a trademark on your part. Many of your films have those noticeable passages of silence or quietude. The ending of The Godfather: Part III is an interesting and quite touching example of this, where Al Pacino’s character cries, but where the sound of his voice is removed (fig. 6). Before that point, it is as if there is a slight echo effect on some of the characters’ voices, and then the music takes over, giving us a very subjective and psychological sense of what he is feeling. What were you going for? This scene reminds me very much of a Danish film called Bang Bang Orangutang (Fig. 7) where the main character accidently kills his own son and where all the diegetic sound is removed at the very moment when he realizes that he has run over his son?

When I was editing that scene where Al Pacino’s character, Michael, was screaming, Francis said that he wanted, while Michael was screaming, to look at the other people in the scene, like his wife, Kay, and the other characters in the film who are now looking at Michael. And I thought, well, it’s strange people are just looking at somebody who is screaming like that. What if, instead of screaming, he just opens his mouth and no sound comes out at all, which is a suspension of a kind of tension. It’s like, “What’s happening?”

As horrible as screams are, they are a release of tension, so I thought, let’s experiment with not releasing the tension, so that he throws his head back and opens his mouth and no sound comes out, and the question is: “Is he having a heart attack? What’s happening?” I think that shot is repeated maybe two or three times, intercut with his wife and other people looking at him, and then finally, on the fourth shot, he really does scream. As it was photographed, to begin with he is actually screaming in all of those shots. But in the editing and the preparation of the soundtrack I eliminated the scream so that there was just this silent screaming image, and then he finally does scream, and the tension is released, and people run over to him and try to help him.

Film is really the only art form that can use silence in such a creative way. Music uses silence, but it can’t stay silent for a long time, unless you’re John Cage, and that’s really a conceptual art kind of idea. It’s not music so much. And in theatre, yes, you have the actors suddenly stop talking, and people like Samuel Beckett use those long periods of silences, but he’s a very special case.

But cinema, because the visual element can continue in a very active way, even though the soundtrack may have disappeared, allows us to experience the story and the visuals and the unfolding of the events in a very different way. Exactly as you say with the film Bang Bang Orangutang.

With every film I work on, I always try to see, “Is there some place where we can use silence in an unanticipated way.” And, you know, screenwriters can use silence, but rarely do screenwriters take advantage of the kind of effects that silence can bring.

Fig. 6: The silent screams in The Godfather: Part III (1990)…
Fig. 7: … and Bang Bang Orangutang (2005).

New Concepts and Technologies: from cubistic sound to worldizing

Another film that you have done is THX 1138 (fig. 8). That film is very interesting in terms of sound, inasmuch as many of the scenes and sequences take place in white rooms where you can hardly sense the physicality or dimensions of the room, had it not been for the sound. In a featurette on the DVD, I believe that I have heard you talking about “cubistic sound” in that film. Could you explain that concept and how you did the sound for that film?

We discover in the final shot of the film that this was about a civilization that, because of some crisis on earth, maybe global warming or nuclear winter, had chosen to go underground. But we wanted to give a dimension or a sense of size to this landscape, and because the budget was so low on this film, sound was the easiest way to create this sense.

Sometimes, you hear sound that is not explained, and this was what I, somewhat jokingly, referred to as cubistic sound because like cubistic painting we are distorting the perspective. We do things with sound that are similar to cubistic paintings, and the idea, again, is that in some way we are kind of posing questions to the audience, asking them, in their own mind, to figure out what kind of world this is.

Fig. 8: Minimalistic set-designs and cubistic sound in THX 1138 (1971).

We cannot talk about sound without discussing The Conversation (fig. 9-10). I think that The Conversation, by many people, is seen as the epitome of sound cinema. Sound is so integral to the movie’s plot. The opening to that film is just wonderful. We begin on an extreme long shot, a jazzy tune is playing, and as the camera slowly zooms in, sounds are gradually added to the soundtrack. As the zooming becomes more evident, we hear some electronic (glitch-like) sounds that give us the idea that somebody is using some electronic equipment. That this person is looking at and perhaps recording other people. Finally, we zoom in on a couple, and what they seemingly say becomes very pivotal to the action. But what I like about this lengthy opening is the use of zooming and sound. Gradually we come closer, and gradually more layers of sound are added, but in a subtle way, slowly building suspense. Could you say a few words on the sound design for this movie and how you designed the sounds of the electronic recording devices?

Those sounds were not described in the screenplay. There was no indication of anything like that. It was something that arose as an answer to a dilemma, which is that at a certain point in the film Harry Caul is able to eliminate the sound of some pretty loud music, a band, and to hear the voice that was underneath it the whole time.

And, you know, we shot the film in 1972 – many years ago – but I thought that the only way, theoretically, anybody could hope to achieve that would be through some kind of digital sound which had not yet been invented. There were some experiments that were being done at The University of Utah, in terms of digital sound at the time, but it had not yet become practical. But I thought, well, it will come, and if anyone would be able to invent that, it would be someone like Harry Caul, some genius like him, so I thought that in the device he uses is some kind of digital device that in some inexplicable way can tune out the frequencies of the music and unveil the voice underneath. So, thinking digitally, then I thought, “Well, what does digital distortion sound like?”

Even though I had never heard a digital soundtrack, I tried to imagine what digital distortion would sound like, and I started playing around with the voices and filtering them through this modern synthesizer I had and controlling them using control circuitry, controlling the voices with the square wave and then tuning the square wave to various frequencies until I began to get something that sounded like digital distortion would theoretically sound.

Then I began to apply it elsewhere in the film, and that also solved a problem for me which is: How, in that opening scene, do you indicate that somebody has gone off mic slightly? Since we were in a digital world, theoretically, I came to the idea that when the voices were on axis, so to speak, they would be clear, but when they were off axis, they would begin to distort, and the more off axis they would be, the more distortion there’d be.

I, then, started applying that rule to the preparation of the soundtrack for that film. It’s always nice to pose a question for the audience, and in the middle of this urban landscape – a soundscape with music, a dog and traffic – suddenly, kind of singing through the soundscape, is this abnormal sound, a lightning bolt of sound which poses the question “What’s that?” We don’t answer the question, but then we hear it again, and one or two shots later we begin to piece together this idea: “Well, maybe this is a distorted voice.”

Fig. 9: The glitchy and intriguing title sequence form The Conversation (1974).
Fig. 10: Harry Caul and his sound recording system in The Conversation (1974).

American Graffiti (fig. 11) opens to the sound of a radio switching between channels, which is very indicative of the entire movie that has an iconic jukebox-like soundtrack. The film is known primarily for its use of popular music, but it also has some more ‘quiet’ scenes that I think are very important to the film, if nothing else then as a contrast to the constant music. There is a scene where Curtis says that he may find that he is not a competitive type either. That scene struck me as interesting in terms of sound, being slightly more quiet and intense, albeit still involving many different elements of sound. Could you say a few words on the use of sound in that film, especially the relation between diegetic music and other sound elements?

George’s idea for the film was that there would be a continuous soundtrack, from beginning to end, except for two scenes. We would hear this rock ‘n’ roll radio station playing on all the radios in the town, whether it was coming from cars, drive-in restaurants or people’s homes. Wherever. This posed a problem: How do you keep the soundtrack going like that without making everyone crazy?  And we, for that film, used a technique which I had developed and used on The Rain People, THX 1138 and The Godfather, which is what I called worldizing. This technique involves taking a tone, in this case music, and re-recording it acoustically in the same environment that you saw on the screen – and in the final mix being able to balance the dry studio recording of the music with this reverberant field, but a reverberant field that has a particular character to it.

We are very used to this now because of digital technology; in reverberant plug-ins you can select any kind of environment that you want. But, again, this was 40 years ago, and we didn’t have that technology, so we actually had to go to these different places and re-record the music. I would play the music on a Nagra, and George would have the speaker, and he would wave the speaker around, and then I would have a microphone, and I would record the reverberant field on another Nagra, and then we would wind these tracks up, keeping them in sync of course.

What this allowed us to do was to create a sonic equivalent of the depth of field in photography. If you’re shooting a portrait of somebody, photographically what you would tend to do, is use a fairly long lens and then to have the person in focus and throw the background out of focus, allowing the person who’s looking at the photograph to know instantly what he’s looking at because the person is in focus and the background is present, but out of focus. And that had never been developed in sound until we started doing it, although Orson Welles had prefigured it in Touch of Evil (Fig. 12), as I discovered later.

But we were able to manipulate this, to go in and out of focus in a more fluid way than Welles had been able to achieve because of advances in technology, so in each scene we could determine how much of the music we wanted to hear and how present the music should be, in some cases turning the music into a sort of acoustic mist where it was hardly present, but just merely better than a kind of acoustic perfume or color in the background. And then in the end of the scene, say, we were able to reverse the balance and bring the music up louder and to put it into full sonic focus.

It was the first film to use a soundtrack of 42 songs, and except for two scenes there is music continuously throughout the entire film. I remember a discussion I had with Verna Fields who had put together the first assembly of the film. We were working in San Francisco, and she had to go back to Los Angeles, and she took me aside and said to me, “Walter, please, convince George not to use all this music because it’s going to ruin the film. The audience, after four or five scenes, is going to hate George and is going to want to turn this damn music off.” And I said, “Well, Verna, we have a plan. Nobody has done it before, but I think it’s going to work.” She went away, shaking her head and thinking that we had ruined the movie, but as it turned out the technology did work.

Fig. 11: American Graffiti (1973) pioneered the technique called worldizing.
Fig. 12: … However, Orson Welles had already pre-figured the technique in Touch of Evil (1958). Walter Murch discovered this when sonically restoring Welles’ film.

***

Facts

This interview is from the fortcoming book Moving Sounds.

Authors: Peter Albrechtsen & Andreas Halskov

Publisher: The University Press of Southern Denmark in collaboration with 16:9

Content:

  • Different themes (including the sound of horror, the sound of documentaries, sound and science fiction, sound and food, sound and comedy and sound and animation)
  • A foreword written by Gary Rydstrom
  • A historical introduction
  • Numerous interviews with sound designers, re-recording mixers and other sound creators (e.g. Walter Murch, Randy Thom, Ann Kroeber, Ren Klyce, Ronald Eng, Mark Mangini, Kristian Eidnes, Frank Lipson, Karen Baker Landers, Vncent Arnardi, Nick Forshager, Paula Fairfield, Ruy Garcia, Chris Scarabosio, Jean-Luc Audy and Craig Henighan)
  • Private photos by many of the different interviewees.

Literature

  • Brownlow, Kevin (1968), The Parade’s Gone By… New York: Alfred A. Knopf
  • Cook, David A. (1990), A History of Narrative Film. New York & London: W.W. Norton & Company.
  • Halskov, Andreas (2014), “The Sound of Silence – stilhed på film,” 16:9, August 28.
  • Sider, Larry (2003), “If you wish to see, listen: The role of sound design,” Journal of Media Practice, 4:1, pp. 5-16.
  • Weschler, Lawrence (2005), “Valkyries over Iraq: The trouble with war movies,” Harper’s Magazine, November.
DEL
Andreas Halskov
Andreas Halskov (f. 1981). Cand.mag i filmvidenskab og engelsk med speciale i filmens lydside, ekstern lektor ved Københavns Universitet og adjunkt i engelsk og mediefag ved Egaa Gymnasium. Har undervist, holdt foredrag og udgivet artikler i diverse film- og medierelaterede sammenhænge (bl.a. i tidsskrifter som P.o.v., Cut!, AngloFiles, Soundvenue og Kosmorama). Har desuden bidraget med et kapitel om ”Tendenser og brudflader i moderne dansk reality-tv” til bogen MedierNu – Massemedier og meningsdannelse (Systime 2011) samt et kapitel om fejlæstetik i film til bogen Et fejlæstetisk univers (2011, red. Marie Boye Thomsen), foruden at have medforfattet og -redigeret bøgerne Fjernsyn for viderekomne – de nye amerikanske tv-serier (Turbine 2011, red. Jakob Isak Nielsen, Andreas Halskov og Henrik Højer) og Guldfeber – på sporet af Oscarfilmen (Turbine 2013, red. Andreas Halskov, Henrik Højer og Thomas Schwartz Larsen). Herudover har han bidraget til en kommende amerikansk antologi om The Walking Dead (red. John W. Morehead), og han har skrevet to monografier: Paradoksets kunst (Turbine, 2014) og TV Peaks: Twin Peaks and Modern Television Drama (Syddansk Universitetsforlag, 2015). Halskov har også fungeret som ekspert i diverse medier (fx DR2, P1, P3, P4, Radio 24/7, Tv2 News, Politiken, JP og Børsen), foruden at være fast filmekspert ved Tv2’s Go’morgen Danmark. Og han skriver også fast om film og tv på bloggen "Det røde rum".