A Conversation with Walter Murch – Part 3

Sound design and the film mixing process

Walter Murch is not only known for his work and awards in the realm of picture editing, but he’s also made significant contributions to the art of film sound. That’s where we pick up in Part 3.

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Walter, let’s switch gears and talk about sound and your work as a sound designer and re-recording mixer. There’s an origin story about the term ‘sound designer’ credited to union issues. That might be a good place to start.

Frances [Ford Coppola] tells the story, but he gets it wrong. [laugh] There were union problems, because I was in the San Francisco union. Many of the films were financially based in LA, so what am I doing working on that? On The Rain People, for instance, my credit is sound montage. I wasn’t called sound mixer, re-recording mixer, or sound editor. We were just trying to avoid blatantly stepping on toes. I had the same sound montage credit on The Conversation. Then on Apocalypse Now I was credited with sound re-recording, because it was an independent film. Francis basically was the financier of it. So, it was an independent film, partially supported by United Artists.

The sound design idea came up because of this new format, which we now call 5.1. Apocalypse Now was the first time I had ever worked in that format. It was the first big film that really used it in a creative way. The Superman film in 1978 had it technically, but I don’t think they used it much in a creative fashion.

As I recall, at that time there was the four channel surround format that was left, center, right, and a mono rear channel.

Star Wars, which came out in 1977, had that format with the ‘baby boom’ thing. 70mm prior to that would have five speakers behind the screen – left, left-center, center, right-center, and right. What they decided to do on Star Wars was to not have the left-center/right-center speakers. Those were only used for super low frequency enhancement. Then the surround was many speakers, but all of them wired to only one channel of information.

Walter Murch mixing Apocalypse Now

We didn’t use those intermediate speakers at all and brought in Meyer ‘super boom’ speakers. These went down to 20Hz, much lower than the Altec speakers in those days, which I think bottomed out at around 50Hz. And then we split the mono surround speakers into two channels – left and right. Basically what we call 5.1 today. We didn’t call it 5.1, we just called it six-track or a split-surround format.

This was a new format, but how do you use it creatively? I couldn’t copy other films that had done it, because there weren’t any. So I designed an entire workflow system for the whole film. Where would we really use 5.1 and where would we not? That was a key thing – not to fall into the trap that usually happens with new technology, which is to overuse it. Where do we really want to have 5.1? In between that, let’s just use stereo and even some long sections where it’s just mono – when Willard is looking at the Kurtz dossier, for instance.

Willard’s narration section, if he’s in the focsle of the boat at night reading the memo, it’s just mono – it’s just his voice and that’s it. As things open up, approaching Hau Phat (the Playboy Bunny concert) it becomes stereo, and then as it really opens up, with the show beginning, it becomes full six-track, 5.1. Then it collapses back down to mono again the next morning. That’s the design element. So I thought, that’s the unique job that I did on the film – sound design – designing where we would fully use this new format and how we would use it.

Mark Berger, Francis Ford Coppola, and Walter Murch mixing The Godfather Part II

In addition, of course, I’d cut some of the sound effects, but not anywhere near most of them, because we had a small army of sound effects editors working under Sound Effects Supervisor Richard Cirincione. However, I was the main person responsible. Francis at one point had a meeting and he said, “Any questions about sound? Walter’s the guy. Don’t ask me, ask Walter.” So I effectively became the director of sound. And then, of course, I was the lead re-recording mixer on the film.

Some readers might not be familiar with how film mixing works and why there are teams. Please go into that more.

Previously, in Hollywood, there would usually be three people – DME sitting at the board. That is how The Godfather was mixed. If you are facing the screen behind the console, then D [dialogue mixer] on the left, M [music mixer] in the middle and E [sound effects mixer] on the right. On the other hand, in San Francisco I had been the solo re-recording mixer on Rain People, THX-1138, and The Conversation. 

Walter Murch handling the music mix, Particle Fever

As soon as you have automation you don’t need as many people, because the automation provides extra fingers. We had very basic automation on Apocalypse Now. Only the faders were automated, but none of the equalization, sends, echo, reverb, or anything else. So we had to keep lots of notes about settings. The automation did at least control the levels of each of the faders.

Of course, these days a single person can mix large projects completely ‘in the box’ using mainly a DAW. I would imagine mixing for music and mixing for film and television is going to use many of the same tools.

The big difference is that in the old days – and I’m thinking of The Godfather – we had very limited ability with the edited soundtracks to hear them together before we got to the mix. You had no way to set their levels relative to each other until you got to the mix. So the mix was really the creation of this from the ground up.

Supervising the mix, Coup 53

Thinking of the way I work now or the way Skip Lievsay works with the Coen brothers, he will create the sound for a section in Pro Tools and build it up. Then he’ll send the brothers a five-track or a three-track and they just bring it into the audio tracks of the Premiere timeline. So they’re editing the film with his full soundtrack. There are no surprises in the final mix. You don’t have to create anything. The final mix is when you hear it all together and put ‘holy water’ on it and say, that’s it – or not. Now that you’ve slept on it overnight, let’s reduce the the bells of the cows by 3dB. You make little changes, but it’s not this full-on assault of everything. As I said earlier, bareback – where it’s just taking the raw elements and putting them together for the first time in the mix. The final mix now is largely a certification of things that you have already been very familiar with for some time.

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Click here for the conclusion of this conversation in Part 4.

A Conversation with Walter Murch – Part 1

A Conversation with Walter Murch – Part 2

©2023 Oliver Peters