The Search for Order in Sound & Picture
by Tom Kenny
When Walter Murch walked to the stage of the Shrine Auditorium in March 1997 and accepted his second Oscar of the evening for The English Patient, most of the billion people watching, even the ardent film fans, probably asked themselves, "Who is this man, and why haven't I heard of him before?" Good questions. He is not a household name, as are his peers and fellow Hollywood emigres Francis Coppola and George Lucas. But his was the rarest double in 69 years of the Academy Awards--Film Editing and Best Sound--and his contribution to the success of that film, and to many others, cannot be overstated.
Among producers and directors he has worked with, Murch is a co-conspirator--a friend who speaks the language of film and inspires confidence at every level of the filmmaking process, from dailies to final release. When he's standing at the Avid, the intensity of the frame is captured in his eyes. When he walks into a dub stage, his soft-spoken, gentle manner permeates the room and lends a sense of calm, a sense that everything will come out all right.
In many ways, his dual role as picture editor and re-recording mixer makes him an informal "director" of post-production. Nobody working today in post-production for major films can claim such an influence on the final product. Murch, in his typical humble, understated style, looks around and wonders why nobody else does it this way; it's just how he's worked since moving north to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1969 to join Coppola and Lucas in the formation of American Zoetrope (nee TransAmerica Sprocket Works) and the production of The Rainpeople.
"George and I had been finalists for the Warner Bros. scholarship in 1967," Murch recalls. "We were going in for our last interview, and we knew that one of us would make it and one of us would not. So we made kind of a blood pact that the one who got it--if something interesting happened as a result--would turn around and help the other guy. George got it, went to Warner Bros. and met Francis Coppola, who was the only other person with a beard making a film on the lot at the time. So Francis and George paired up, and Francis was as aware as anyone of this gradual decline in Hollywood and wanted to make films in a new way--an American version of the European way--so he wrote, got financing, and then directed a film called The Rainpeople, starring Shirley Knight and James Caan.
Murch went on to co-write, sound edit and mix THX-1138 with Lucas, then supervise the sound editing for The Godfather for Coppola, then mix American Graffiti with Lucas, followed by The Conversation, Godfather II, Julia and Apocalypse Now (for which he also won an Oscar for Best Sound). He has directed and co-written a film, Return to Oz, and has assisted on scripts including The Black Stallion. After 30 years in the business, his filmography (see sidebar) is not long, but the films he has worked on have had a profound influence on the shape of American cinema.
Mix sat down with Murch in early January, in the screening theater at the Saul Zaentz Film Center in Berkeley, Calif., as he was preparing to view a friend's film. Despite his pioneering work in the use of automation and nonlinear editing, the conversation had very little to do with technology. His is a mind that centers on art, creativity and the workings of the human brain. In a sense, his lifelong mission has been to find order amid chaos.
Let's begin with a cliché question. What was your first experience with film that had an influence?
Well, the first thing that struck me forcefully was the invention of the tape recorder and its dissemination as a consumer item, which started to take place in the early '50s. The father of a friend of mine owned one, so I wound up going over to his house endlessly, playing with this recorder. And that passion, which was a kind of delirious drunkenness with what the tape recorder could do--that it could capture an aspect of reality and instantly play that reality back, and that you could then reorder that reality by transposition, and that you could even do layerings of sound--was just intoxicating, and it occupied nearly the whole first half of my teenage years. So, my entry into the world of film is really through sound rather than image.
The moment that the whole idea of filmmaking hit me was when I was 15 and went to see The Seventh Seal [by Swedish director Ingmar Bergman]. I'd seen lots of movies before that, of course--the average number of films a kid growing up in New York City would see. But The Seventh Seal was the film where I suddenly understood the concept that somebody made this film, and that there was a series of decisions that could have been different if someone else had made the film. I really got a sense of a single person's interest and passions through watching that film, which in fact was true. This was Ingmar Bergman, after all.
Then I became interested in architecture and oceanography and art history and French literature, and those were the things I mainly pursued as an undergraduate. It was only later on in my college years that I started to get interested and see the actual possibilities of working in film, which was largely through having spent my junior year in Paris in 1963. This was when the New Wave, the Godard&Truffaut style of filmmaking was at its peak. I came back buzzing with the idea of film, and then I found out that there were actually schools that you could go to to study film--graduate schools in film, which I found incredible. I applied to a number of them, and I got a scholarship at USC. Strangely enough, it was only when I got to school that I discovered the fact that films needed sound, and that somebody had to record it, and then you had to "cook it," in a sense, in post-production. And I saw immediately that this was exactly what I had been doing ten years earlier.
Well, it goes very deep with me. I've been doing this professionally since The Conversation, which we started shooting in 1972. But I was doing it previously in film school. It's a combination that appealed to me and appeared to be a natural thing to do at the time, and I've now been doing it so long that it seems second nature to me.
An illustration of one aspect of my approach is that when I'm first putting the images together--creating the first assembly of a film--I turn off all the sound, even for dialog scenes. What that does is focus me more intently on the visuals, because I'm reading them the way a deaf person does--I have to extract meaning, greater meaning, out of them because of a sensory deprivation. But also, paradoxically, I pay more attention to the sound because, although I've turned the speaker off, I'm still "hearing" sound; it's just that I'm hearing the sound in my imagination, the way it might finally be. I'm lip reading the dialog, imagining the music, imagining sound effects, I'm imagining all these other things that, were I to turn the bare production track back on, would all disappear, kind of like fairies frightened away by the voice of an ogre. So, at the very first moment that the film is acquiring its shape, it's already welcoming the influence of the final soundtrack.
It's interesting that when I watched you working on The English Patient, you said you prefer to mix to a slightly degraded image because you're going to "fill in" with sound later, which is almost the reverse of what you're saying.
On the other hand, all the months I'm editing picture I'm adding sound little by little. I start out with the sound off--which gives this empty "imaginative" space for sound to move into. It's just the sound in my head at the beginning. Then I add the dialog, then later on key sound effects, and then eventually temp music and then finally the rough versions of the final music. And, of course, you can do mixes on the Avid: You can mix up to eight tracks as you cut the picture. Once you start to actually add the sound and music, it changes how you look at the picture, and the two become synergistically involved.
In In the Blink of an Eye, your book on film editing, you place a high importance on emotion. Can you talk to me a bit about the emotion of sound?
I think the image of the eyes facing forward and the ears facing sideways is metaphorically indicative of how we confront visual reality as opposed to aural reality. The visual seems to be direct and confrontational: You look at what's in front of you, and what's in front is seen and apprehended with a measure of intellect and emotion. And it's seen all at once, in a single grasp--let's call that the front door. The visual material knocks on the front door, and when somebody knocks on the front door, you sort of adjust your clothing, go to the door, take a deep breath, say, "Who's there?" and open the door. Whatever meeting occurs will have an element of formality to it, because it's somebody who came to the front door.
Sound tends to come in the back door, or sometimes even sneak in through the windows or through the floorboards. Remember, the ears point out the side of your head and take in a 360-degree spherical field. And while you're busy answering the front door, sound is sneaking in the back door. It's in the house as much as anyone who came in through the front door, but you're not as aware of it, and so its presence is more of a conditional presence--it tends to condition the things you are consciously aware of. The strange thing is that you take the emotional treatment that sound is giving, and you allow that to actually change how you see the image: You see a different image when it has been emotionally conditioned by the sound. So sometimes you will swear that you actually saw something that never, ever happened on the screen or in the soundtrack, but is the unique combination of the two inside your head.
Also, for some reason that I don't fully understand, I am very emotionally moved by the space around a sound. I almost think that sometimes I am recording space with a sound in it, rather than sound in a space.
Your book also promotes the idea of restraint. Gary Rydstrom on Titanic said he wouldn't know what to do with 100 faders of effects. Could you speak to me about restraint and the number of tracks?
The thing, on a practical level, that terrifies somebody who works in sound is to be in the mix and for the director to say, "Let's eliminate everything except the dog collar." "Uh, we didn't do the dog collar." "Why not? Why didn't you do it?" "Well, because there's a big fight with garbage cans going on over there, and we thought nobody would ever hear the dog collar." "Well, dammit, who are you to say...?" So, the dog collar goes in "just in case," and you multiply that by a hundred and all of a sudden you have a hundred tracks. That's not the way I work. I willingly accept the risk of being humiliated because I don't have the dog collar--for the speed and conceptual clarity of going for the jugular. Now, if the director sees it and overrules it, that's the director's prerogative.
Let's cover it in effects, let's cover it in Foley...
Right. And that was the Zoetrope dream at the beginning--the whole concept of what turned into the sound designer in the Zoetrope sense--which is a director of photography for sound. Somebody who took on the responsibility of "auralizing" the sound for the film and making definitive, creative decisions about it. Someone the director can talk to about the total sound of the film the way he talks to the cameraman about the look of the film. If you could establish this dialog and encourage directors to have a sense of sound that was as acute as their sense of picture, particularly at the script level, a lot of these multiple-track overkill problems would go away.
Yet you have the real luxury of being involved early, whereas the supervisor down in Hollywood is not getting that communication.
That's the other benefit of also being an editor--I have months and months to experiment and show things to the director and talk about sound. My heart aches for people who work the other way because they have to start from a dead stop. They have to come up to speed not having really any idea of what is going to happen. And the bad thing that happens is everything gets put in and, as a result, you get a logjam of sound at the mix that frequently results in a kind of conceptual muddiness: all those dog collars. And this I think is related to some general criticisms of films being too loud. Because it is so dense, the ear can't make any sense out of it, so the director asks to increase the level. The mixers make it louder, and you quickly arrive at the threshold at which you can endure it, hoping for some kind of clarity to emerge from the loudness. But it's the clarity of the mallet on the head, and what an audience hears is noise. Because it's conceptually muddy, they can't begin to separate out what they're supposed to hear. And when they don't know what they're supposed to hear, their threshold of where loudness begins is much lower.
There is a rule of thumb I use which is never to give the audience more than two-and-a-half things to think about aurally at any one moment. Now, those moments can shift very quickly, but if you take a five-second section of sound and feed the audience more than two-and-a-half conceptual lines at the same time, they can't really separate them out. There's just no way to do it, and everything becomes self-canceling. As a result, they become annoyed with the sound and it appears "loud" even at lower levels. However, if they "understand" the sound, they can easily take 105 decibels, 110 decibels. But I don't even like to go that high; at the loudest points, I prefer to limit things to just nipping over 100 at most on a digital track. Dolby SR, with a maximum of 97, is just fine with me.
How do peaks and valleys--a phrase I hear often--fit into this?
If there are no valleys, then it doesn't matter how high the mountains actually are; they won't seem high. In every film, I try to find two or three places--and I often like them to be paradoxical places--where you can get absolute quiet, or as close to absolute quiet as possible. A good example of that is the Do Lung Bridge sequence in Apocalypse, where the character named Roach is brought over to kill a sniper. You can see all these explosions going on in the background, but gradually over the three or four minutes leading up to this moment, we've been taking the sound out. So that creates a valley, and it's interesting to me because you're in the middle of a battle, so how can there be a valley? My rationale is that we have evoked out of the darkness this human bat. A man whose hearing is so acute that he can echo-locate a voice to within a foot or two, and that's his skill so he doesn't even need to see. He can tell exactly and shoot the grenade right at that place and blow the person up, which is in fact what happens. At that moment, you are hearing the world the way Roach hears it: just the voice in the darkness. The other quiet moments in the film are just before the the tiger jumps out of the jungle, and the approach to the Kurtz compound.
You can barely even hear the water on the boat.
The best sound is the sound inside somebody's head. What does it take to trigger that? That's the key to it all because those sounds will be unique to each person in the audience. They'll naturally be the most personal and the most high-fidelity of all the sounds.
People eat with knives and forks, they eat with chopsticks, and they eat with their hands. The real goal is getting the food into the mouth. Balzac wrote 80 great novels in 20 years with a quill pen. So from a certain aspect, technology is irrelevant. What is always relevant is what you want to say. If you have something to say, you will find a method irrespective of the technology. But I have to say there is a real excitement and surge of exploration that comes from an emerging technology which now makes easy something that you have been straining to accomplish. The "wow" factor.
In the early days, I was very interested in echo, in reverberant fields, but I couldn't get what I wanted out of the spring-loaded machines that were all we could afford. They just gave out a kind of metallic twang. So I would take the sounds that we had, the voices or the sound effects, put them in their cut form, transfer them onto a Nagra, and then take that Nagra out into an actual environment acoustically similar to what was in the movie. Then I would take another Nagra and turn both on at the same time and record from one to the other through the air. I would then take this new track and put it in sync with the original tracks. Then in the mix I would judiciously blend the two together. [Murch has referred to this process previously as "worldizing."]
I don't do that so much anymore. The digital technology is such that it's now better, certainly easier, than I can do manually. So in that sense, digital caught up with my ambitions and in some cases exceeded it. And more and more research is going on into this area. What I would like to be able to do is to go into an actual environment with a square-wave generator and "snap" that environment, record the snap and use the recording of that snap to create an algorithm in the digital processor to now re-create that sonic environment. Right now, we do it by taste and trial and error. We think, "Well, this room is kind of like a bathroom, but it's got some fabric, so let's start with a bathroom and reduce the high-frequency reverberation. Let's emphasize a peak at around 200 cycles, let's slightly reduce the decay time because of the fabric but add some kind of metallic spike somewhere because of the ceilings and the porcelain fixtures." Now you just twiddle dials until something feels right.
Over the course of your more than 30 years of filmmaking, what technical developments have had the most impact on the film mix or the film's sound?
Apocalypse Now in 1979 was the industry's first multitrack, automated mix. I think Dick Vorisek at Reeves Soundcraft was using automation in New York earlier for mono films, but this was the first automated multitrack mix. We had a tremendous amount of material for that film, so automation had a huge impact. Also, ten years earlier, the innovation of rock-and-roll (punch-in) recording, where you didn't have to do entire reels in one take. The Rainpeople had punch-in, but my experiences mixing before that had all been "one-take" mixes. Dolby--a huge influence in generally making stereo and "magnetic quality" sound easily available to us in theaters. The use of 24-track recorders synched to the film image. And now digital workstations that can feed the sound directly to the stage. And the Avid, with its facility to mix eight tracks as you edit the picture. It's amazing to think that I started before any of these things.
Automated boards were supposed to speed up everything, weren't they?
Automated boards, digital editing, use of the Nagra rather than magnetic film recorders, the use of "punch-in" re-recording--all of these things are initially sold on the basis of saving time because that's how these things have to be marketed. Somebody's going to be paying a lot a money for new technology and they have to have a reason to do it. Well, saving time is fine in theory, but in practice it usually doesn't work that way. What all these innovations do give you, though, is the ability to do more in the time available, and to defer critical decisions until a later point. If you're not careful about it, though, that deferment can precipitate a crisis because having too many deferred decisions is like not paying your taxes for ten years. Suddenly, the IRS is after you, and now you really have to pay up with a penalty. The dangers in deferring too many decisions come either because the decisions never get made--and in that case you just get this big "ball of noise" effect--or you have to make difficult and painful decisions that are the creative equivalent of being audited.
What about the digital release formats? You mixed 6-channel 70mm for Apocalypse, correct?
There are differences between 70mm magnetic, Dolby Digital, DTS and SDDS, but they are primarily in the delivery systems. Creatively, the differences are minute, relatively speaking, between any of these systems. They are all basically discrete 5-channel (7-channel for SDDS) tracks with stereo surrounds and low-frequency reinforcement. That was the format we pioneered for Apocalypse Now and which has now become the standard for both theaters and home theaters, where it is called AVR3 on laserdiscs or 5.1 on DVD. A good 70mm 6-track with split surrounds gave you the same experience--emotionally and technically--as you get today with digital systems. Prints were a lot more expensive, cumbersome and fragile, however, so the new systems are a definite improvement on that level.
Besides film, what are your passions today, and how do they feed your creative instincts? You mentioned architecture earlier...
I think you will find a high percentage of filmmakers who are interested in architecture. Both are a mixture of art and business, where you have to build something complicated that's going to look great but also withstand the storms. And you have to collaborate with a large team of people and build for a price, and it has to integrate itself into the society as a whole and yet hopefully elevate the prevailing standards, as well. Architecture is an exterior medium, film is an interior medium: an architecture for the interior of the mind. The patterns of image and sound and story of a good film have to have a certain entertainment value, but ultimately they also last in the mind as sort of a template or matrix of how to organize reality. After you have seen a good film--a good film--you leave the theater with a better idea of how to make sense of the world, of a world that would otherwise be chaotic or unacceptable. But this is the same function as the arts have always had--painting, music, writing, etc. Architecture, too, of course.
My other passions are translating Italian poetry, and astronomy. Translation is transformative; and astronomy is the discovery of an underlying order in apparent chaos. Both good descriptions of the editorial process.
Have you found order in your life? Are you in a comfortable place?
I guess it's the appropriate blend of chaos and order. I have a big family, and I've been married for 33 years, and we live on a horse/berry/apple/chicken farm out in West Marin County.
Tom Kenny is the managing editor of Mix. www.mixonline.com
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