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The Brilliance of Walter Murch

26/05/2018, Author: Audio Academy

Pioneer, Sound Designer, Film Editor

Multiple Academy award winner, Walter Murch is known as the Godfather of sound design. Also known for his expertise in film editing, he has won Academy awards in both categories multiple times. Murch is credited with coining the term ‘Sound Designer’ and along with his colleagues developed the current standard film sound format, the 5.1 channel array. This development in the industry helped uplift the art and impact of film sound to a higher class than ever before.

His first Academy award win, often referred to as his greatest work, was for Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 thriller The Conversation. Using sound in bold, unusual and unique ways, the film told the story of surveillance expert Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), who thinks he has uncovered a murder plot involving the couple he is secretly recording. Among his memorable works, the epic war film, Apocalypse Now, for which he won Academy awards in both sound and film editing, was the first multi-channel film to be mixed using a computerized mixing board. His groundbreaking work in sound design include films with George Lucas (THX-1138, American Graffiti) and Francis Coppola (The Godfather trilogy, Apocalypse Now) and are often studied for the manner in which the sound design of these films redefined the way audiences listen and engage with movie sound.

The Use of Sound in the Godfather films

The memorable scene in Godfather where young Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) kills rival gangster Sollozzo (Al Lettieri) is brilliant in its use of sound. With half the scene in Italian with no subtitles, sound was used to heighten the awareness of the audience of the things that happen during the scene– the disagreement, the body language, the expressions on people’s faces. Adding no music to the scene, Walter Murch instead drew from his childhood experience of growing up in New York not far away from some railway tracks. Using the sound environment that he was familiar with, he raised the tension in that scene. When Michael Corleone goes to the toilet to get the weapon, the train can be heard in the background. When he comes back to the table and the audience is expecting him to kill the men, he doesn’t, instead sitting down at the table. Then the audience hears the sound of the train and railway tracks again, stronger and more intense– suggestive of the chaos and intensity in Michael’s head. The pulse of sound functions as a reminder of how his life is going to change irreversibly. His transformation from a man who was in the army but who had never killed anyone at close range and who at one point was determined not to join the family business to a person who is now on the cusp of doing what he is about to do.

The effective and dramatic use of silence at the end of Godfather Part 2 is said to have come about spontaneously in the mix. Walter Murch and his team had prepared sound effects for the scene in which Michael is sitting by the lake and the camera moves slowly to show the vacant expression on his face. However, Walter started fading the sound out much too early and as the camera gets into him, the rest of the world fades away and the audience is left with this big close-up with absolutely no sound. It became a type of negative space which is a metaphor for where the character finds himself at the end of the movie.

Apocalypse Now & American Graffiti

The creepy sound textures for the scene with Terry The Toad (Charlie Martin Smith) and Debbie (Candy Clark) in the woods in George Lucas’ American Graffiti was also Murch’s work. Again a scene that had no music, it was shot in northern California in which the characters are walking by a drainage canal and there is a eucalyptus forest to their right. As someone who has lived among Eucalyptus trees, Walter Murch was well-acquainted with the series of strange sounds that they make when the wind blows through them. Though he tried to record those sounds, he was only partly successful. However, when he got back to the studio and began listening to the wind with his headphones, he realised that the ear-pieces he was using made a creaking sound against the headset. So he ended up making recordings by manipulating and almost destroying a plastic headset. After slowing it down and editing it, this sound was used in the final film to create the spooky effect.

The beginning of Apocalypse Now is iconic because of the sound of the helicopter blades. The opening eight minutes of the film, which any film buff can instantly recognise, wasn’t even in the original screenplay. Emerging over the process of the editing of the film, the opening sequence shows helicopters in super slow-motion and was suggestive of a different type of sound. So, he and his team came up with this sound that they called the “Ghost Helicopter”, which was just the blade of a helicopter and nothing else. An almost bat-like sound, the wamp-wamp-wamp-wamp sound at the start of the film is now a classic.

Walter Murch’s work clearly shows that sound can be a very powerful tool for telling a story. As Walter says, the great thing about sound is that humans have a very large range in which we hear and that is one of the many reasons why sound is such a persuasive tool in weaving a compelling narrative. Innovative soundscapes and nuanced use of sound are critical to the success of a film and sound designers are an indispensible part of this process.