Walter Murch: Sound Designer Interview

Walter Murch Interview

We got the chance to interview legendary Editor and Sound Designer Walter Murch on editing sound. Thanks to Sound Track Cologne 2022 for facilitating this interview.

Headshot of Film Editor and Sound Designer, Walter Murch
Sound Designer Walter Murch

Walter Murch is known for his work with Director Francis Ford Coppola, with whom he has collaborated frequently. He has worked on some of the world’s most iconic pieces of cinema, including The Godfather Trilogy, The Conversation, Apocalypse Now, The Talented Mr Ripley, Jarhead and many others, and was the first person to ever be credited as a Sound Designer in a film.

Walter has spent his career editing image and sound for cinema, sharing his experiences and knowledge along the way through interviews, talks and through his 2005 book, In the Blink of an Eye – A Perspective on Film Editing, which covers both image and sound.

Watch our full interview below to gain some insight from the original Sound Designer for cinema, a title given to him by Coppola after his work on The Conversation. Murch covers some fascinating topics including Apocalypse Now, THX 1138, and Murch’s iconic ‘Law of 2 and a Half’ Philosophy, which provided a framework for syncing sound designing multiple sources that is still in use today.

Watch The Full Walter Murch Interview Below from the Krotos YouTube Channel

One of your first experiences was assisting with live broadcasts and radio production. Did this shape your career in any way later on?

Yes, I got very interested in sound from the age of three on, maybe because my ears stuck out! (laughs). But when I didn’t know the word for something, I would imitate the sound of it. And so I got very good at imitating sounds and my friends would all say, “now imitate the sound of a saw!” “now imitate the sound of a seagull!” or whatever. And perhaps for that reason, I was very intrigued when I heard about tape recorders, which would have been around 1951 and became available to the world in the years after the war.

Walter Murch Sound Designer Editing Tape

A friend of mine’s father bought one for business reasons. So I would go over to the friend’s house and play with the tape recorder. And like kids do, they have an intuitive understanding of things. So I immediately knew that if it was tape, you could cut it and you could reposition it, turn it upside down or back to front. So I was editing and recording sound from the age of eleven or twelve. So in New York, a job became available at a local radio station in 1961 for the summer, and I leapt at the job, which was cataloging the record library.

If one robot is walking, the footsteps need to be in sync. If two robots are walking side by side, those footsteps need to be in sync…

Suddenly, I discovered – if it’s three robots, none of them has to be in sync because the brain simply can’t keep track of everything!

Walter Murch

But I was in that environment surrounded by tape recorders and it was very exciting for me. For the radio station, we broadcast Bob Dylan’s first performance on the radio as part of a hootenanny of folk music in the summer of 1961!

And then I got interested in film, but I didn’t immediately understand the potential. And when I went to film school, if the teachers said, “yes, we know all about your interest in sound, but we can’t do that in film, we can only use the sound recorded at the time”, I would say, “well, that’s a shame”.

But of course, I found the opposite, which is that it’s very difficult to get sound and image to synchronise in the first place, and then you can be very creative in how all of those things align. So all of those things came together for me.

One of the concepts that you talk about is this ‘concept of three’…can you talk about that?

So I recorded the sound effects and mixed George Lucas’s first feature film, THX 1138, and we couldn’t afford to record the footsteps for all of the actors at a studio, so I took upon the job myself. And this was particularly difficult for these robots, who were the equivalent of the clone soldiers in Star Wars. They were just completely covered with metallic faces, and the idea was that they weighed 300kg and were made of metal.

One of the robots in THX 1138
One of the Robots in THX 1138

So what did their footsteps sound like? So I created special shoes and I went to the Museum of Natural History in San Francisco, a big space, and recorded myself walking in that space, but then the nightmare of how to synchronise all of this, each footstep at a time, and I had this headache.

Walter Murch Editing Sound for Apocalypse Now
Walter Murch Working on Apocalypse Now

If one robot is walking, the footsteps need to be in sync. If two robots are walking side by side, those footsteps need to be in sync…Suddenly, I discovered, that if it’s three robots, none of them has to be in sync because the brain simply can’t keep track of everything!

I’ve since called it my ‘Law of Two and a Half’ – something happens between the numbers two and three. And this has religious overtones – the whole idea of the Trinity and Chinese idiograms. You can find many examples of it even in a book by George Gamow. It’s called One Two Three… Infinity. So it is a general principle that when you have more than three similar layers at the same time, something almost chemical happens in the relationship and you can use that to your advantage, but you certainly have to take it into consideration.

Talking about THX 1138, another thing that you experimented with is speeding up dialogue and re-recording it to another tape recorder. Once you have brought it back to its original speed…

Yes! Again, that was because we didn’t have the money. We didn’t have the money to have access to a real echo chamber. And this is all pre-digital -now, of course, everyone has it – but at that time, access to an echo chamber was a golden prize, and we didn’t have it!

THX 1138 Still, Directed by George Lucas and Co-Written by Walter Murch
A Scene from THX 1138, Which Walter Murch Co-Wrote & Designed

So I found out that if you take dialogue, or any sound, and you record it on a tape at three and three-quarter inches per second, then play it back in a space at 15 inches per second, then finally slow that back down to three and three quarters, you effectively enlarge the acoustic space by 64 times!

So an ordinary room like this would become like a cathedral. And there’s a lot of this in THX 1138.

It’s incredible that a lack of resources can be used in this way.

Necessity is the mother of invention!

That workload became essentially digital convolution right, but you essentially invented that process!

Well, Orson Welles had done similar things in Touch of Evil with his music tracks. He also had original recordings by Henry Mancini, and he played them through a cheap speaker in an alleyway at Universal Studios and then recorded that sound.

He didn’t speed them up or slow them down, but he was after the same kind of thing, which was to place these sounds acoustically within the implied space of what the photograph said.

You very famously worked on Apocalypse Now. What was the story behind the film only being shown only in a place in the centre of the United States?

This was Francis (Ford Coppola)’s dream – Apocalypse Now would show in one theatre in the geographic centre of the United States, somewhere in Kansas or Nebraska, and people would come from all over the country and they would look at the film in basically what was a version of IMAX.

It would be very long. It would show in two sections, they would have dinner, and then they’d watch the final section, and it would have a fantastic new sound format. The only thing that survived from that idea was the 5.1 sound!

Apocalypse Now was the gateway drug that got people interested in this…we did not intend the 5.1 format to become the standard that it has.

Walter Murch

But it was a fantastic adventure. We learned a lot because we were the first to really explore the potential of that space. I think Superman, the first Superman film, came out before Apocalypse. It was technically shown in 5.1 at a number of cinemas, but my memory is that they didn’t really explore all of the potentials of that space.

Apocalypse Now Poster
Apocalypse Now features some of Walter’s most Innovative sound design ideas

There is a lot of talk about immersive formats. Are you excited about the way they are explored and used nowadays?

Yeah! I was very nervous going into Apocalypse Now, because I’d only mixed monophonic films prior to that. For aesthetic and philosophical reasons, when I designed the approach to the sound for Apocalypse, I wanted there to be sections of the film that were in mono for five minutes at a time, and then you would move into stereo, then 5.1, then back to mono again – so there would be an organic pulse to the sound, rather than having it be in 5.1 all the time.

So yes, I’m interested because, in a sense, Apocalypse Now was the gateway drug that got people interested in this, and we did not intend the 5.1 format to become the standard that it has.

Walter Murch Editing
Walter Murch Editing

But I’m ambiguous. It’s a tool. And like any tool, it can be overused. I’m allergic now to the word “immersive” – it’s a buzzword now that’s used almost everywhere. The most immersive thing you can produce is a compelling story for a film that really engages the audience on an emotional level. That’s real immersion.

The danger of multi-track in the theatre is that if it’s not used correctly, (whatever that means), it reminds the audience that they are in a three-dimensional physical space and that has the potential to remove them from experiencing the film. You can push a multi-track experience in a theatre, but you can push it too far. So each film has to find the correct level.

Alfonso Cuarón is very aggressive in his use of this format and I think it works especially well in films that have no editing. In the first 18 minutes of Gravity, there’s not a single cut, and you get the audience used to that single point of view and then you can be very free around it and you can move space behind the audience because their imagination is at a different place.

Alfonso Cuaron, Whom Directed Gravity, Roma, and Children of Men
Alfonso Cuarón, Whom Directed Gravity, Roma, and Children of Men

But as soon as you start editing and you have an ordinary dialogue scene where you’re going 180 degrees back and forth, do you put the other actors’ sound behind the audience? This is what Cuarón did in Roma, and I disagree with that. My personal feeling is that it’s artificial, and it just reminds the audience that they are in a theatre rather than with the characters in their own space.

With immersive formats, once you position music in a specific space, it becomes source music and it loses its narrative power.

For a musical experience with no image, if you put people in a concert situation, then it’s fine. But as soon as you have a rectangle of light that orients, it’s like, suddenly the space is magnetized. And there’s a very powerful north, which is the screen and therefore, what that is, it becomes very ambiguous.

When we mixed Apocalypse, we had lists of “we can do this, we cannot do this”. We had forbidden things, never putting dialogue behind the audience except in a completely chaotic situation, like the riot at the end of the Playboy Bunny concert. Then you can do almost anything. But under other circumstances, dialogue needs to come out of the centre speaker.

Still of The Conversation, by Francis Ford Coppola with sound by Walter Murch
Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘The Conversation’, Sound Edited and Mixed by Walter Murch

In Apocalypse Now, you cut the sound to a black and white screening – Do you think that influenced the sound design of that film?

Yeah. Our first experience of that was mixing THX 1138, which we mixed into a black and white image. It was only after we’d finished the mix that we saw it with the colour image.

It was clear from that screening that we had been too aggressive with the sound. Not only was it black and white, it was really not completely in focus and it was very dim. So the optic nerve was receiving very little information, and therefore you had more brain available to deal with complex sounds.

When suddenly it was in focus and in colour, there was lots more information so that your brain didn’t know what to do with this extra sound. So we remixed the film after that experience, and as aggressive as it is now in THX, it was much more aggressive prior to that.

If you want to let your imagination loose, I would say turn the colour off and just look at the black and white image and see what happens!

Walter Murch

So when we did Apocalypse, I was very aware of my experience ten years earlier with THX. So we would mix the black and white because that was what we could afford to do. But then we would have check screenings.

We had fitted out a nearby theatre with 5.1, and we could run the workprint there in colour. So we would mix a reel and then we would walk to this other theatre and listen to that reel in 5.1 with a colour image and make notes and then go back and make any changes necessary.

If you want to let your imagination loose, I would say turn the colour off and just look at the black and white image and see what happens!
An excellent video from Metaflix, explaining the infamous restaurant scene in The Godfather

At Krotos, we embed performance into the sound design process. Do you think that with the transition from analogue to digital, the element of performance was lost?

Certain things are lost, but certain other things are gained. I’m very happy that I started working in the analogue world, but I’m happy that I don’t have to do that anymore!

But specifically, to your question, the projection of a film from the sound perspective is a performance relative to the image. When you think about it, the projection of an image has to be in focus. There has to be enough light and the light has to be evenly spread across. And that’s it.

Walter Murch editing audio
Walter Murch Editing Audio

Whereas when I go to a preview and I check the theatre out, there are many more variables. What are the speakers? What is the quality of the speakers? What is the colouration of those speakers? How do they interact with the acoustic space of this theatre and this theatre filled with people versus this theatre empty? How is the balance of this channel relative to that channel?

It’s fairly easy to get a good image on the screen. It’s not that easy to get a balanced recreation of the mix in any particular theatre. There are always little variations and hopefully, you can minimize the variations.

There’s a recent article about film dialogue not being as intelligible anymore and Christopher Nolan is quoted as an example. Is it true? Do you think there is a change?

Yeah, I think there is. I find Nolan’s approach… Difficult. That’s just my belief! The classic scenario is when mixing, and the director is sitting behind us and we are working on a line of dialogue to make it clear. The director says, “what are you doing?” and we say, “well, we’re just trying to make this line clearer”. But the director says, “don’t worry about it. It’s not an important line!”.

But if the audience doesn’t understand that line, how can they know whether it’s important or not?

When we started working in mono, we were dealing with what was called the “Academy Curve”, which in every projection, was taking the high frequencies and rolling them off to reduce surface noise. So in mixing the dialogue, we had to compensate for that. It was like a wind that was blowing against us, and we had to do things to the dialogue to make it better.

With Dolby, and now with digital, the Academy Curve is gone. Theoretically, digital is a transparent medium, but practically it’s not, because you’re dealing with a theatre with unknown acoustics, with an audience of maybe 200 or 600, or even a thousand, which absorbs sound, and the nature of the dialogue is -unlike music, dialogue is relatively restricted in frequency, and it’s impulsive.

Each word has to energize a very large space in order to be intelligible. Speaking personally, we have to help to energize the space correctly, and people who have never experienced the dictatorship of the Academy Curve feel that they don’t need to do much. But I don’t think that’s true.

With dialogue, you have to help that dialogue to survive in the acoustic space of the theatre.

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