The Art of Motion Picture Sound Design, Pt. 2

So, you survived Part 1 and, masochist you are, you’re back for even more. Impressive…most impressive.

As you’ll recall, previously we covered in very broad strokes the history of motion picture sound technology. Now let’s take a look at the artists responsible for creating the soundtracks performed via those ever-improving audio technologies. Known within the film industry as “sound designers,” they are defined, via Wikipedia, as “principal members of a production staff with creative authority equal to that of the film editor and director of photography. [They are] responsible for all aspects of a film’s audio track, from the dialogue and sound effects recording to the re-recording (mix) of the final track.”

For the first 40 or so years of synchronized film soundtracks, “sound editors” (as they were known back in the day) were more technicians than artists, studio sound department employees tasked with churning out workmanlike soundtracks on tight deadlines.

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This all changed in the early 1970s, when a variety of factors spurred sound editors towards more robust levels of imagination and creativity. Which factors exactly? Let’s once again lean on the good folks at Wikipedia:

  • Cinema sound systems were [now] capable of high-fidelity reproduction, particularly after the adoption of Dolby Stereo [in the 1970s]. These systems were originally devised as gimmicks to increase theater attendance, but their widespread implementation created a content vacuum that had to be filled by competent professionals. Before stereo soundtracks, film sound was of such low fidelity that only the dialogue and occasional sound effects were practical. The greater dynamic range of the new systems, coupled with the ability to produce sounds at the sides or behind the audience, required more creativity;
  • [A new breed of] directors [e.g. Coppola, Spielberg, Scorsese, Scott, Lucas et al.] wanted to realize the new potential of the medium. [Additionally, many of these directors] made their early films outside the Hollywood establishment, away from the influence of film labor unions and the then-rapidly dissipating studio system;
  • Filmmakers inspired by the popular music of the era. Concept albums of groups such as Pink Floyd and The Beatles suggested new modes of storytelling and creative techniques that could be adapted to motion pictures.

While nothing would give me greater pleasure than discussing in detail three of my favorite sound designers, I’ve been told in no uncertain terms by Mrs. Conflicted Film Snob that posts running over 2,000 words are a bad idea. (I disagree, but…). Therefore, onto the cutting room floor with sonic pioneers (and multiple Oscar winners) Ben Burtt (Star Wars 1-7, the Indiana Jones quadrilogy; E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, WALL•E) and Gary Rydstrom (T2: Judgment Day, Titanic, Saving Private Ryan, Jurassic Park). Which leaves me to address the granddaddy of all sound designers…

Walter Murch

Widely regarded as one of the foremost creative geniuses of the cinematic arts, Walter Scott Murch–also an award-winning film editor–basically ushered in a new era of film sound, Unknownone in which a supervisor completely oversees the design and execution of a film’s soundtrack, from recording to cutting to mixing. For his landmark efforts on 1979’s Apocalypse Now, Murch not only received the very first “Sound Designer” credit (officially “Sound Montage & Design” on the film prints), but also an Academy Award.

A product of USC’s famous School of Cinematic Arts, Murch joined Francis Ford Coppola’s privately run movie studio, American Zoetrope, in 1969. This led to him creating the sound mixes for many of Coppola’s early work, including The Godfather 1 & 2 and The Conversation, the latter, ironically, about a surveillance expert who records and manipulates sound for a living.

For an early example of his unique, psychologically thoughtful approach to sound design, let’s take a look at a scene from 1972’s The Godfather, the one in which Michael (Al Pacino) kills the two men threatening the Corleone family: Sollozzo and his heavy, corrupt NYPD Captain McCluskey. The story goes that director Coppola didn’t want to overlay any of Nina Rota’s score in the lead up to the murders, his concern that any music would diminish the dramatic power of the Rota cue he did have planned, one coming just after Michael drops the gun and makes for the door. However, watching an edit of the scene, Coppola felt it played a bit flat. So he and Murch decided to amp up the tension with sound effects. Murch suggested a screeching EL train, a provocative sound from his New York City upbringing:

“That example of the elevated train in Godfather is something that’s primarily an emotional cue,” explains Murch, in an interview with Michael Jarrett, associate professor of English at Penn State University. “There’s rhythm to it but only to a certain extent, and story-wise it’s a little ambiguous. ‘What is that sound? What is it doing in the film?’ There’s not an easy answer to that. But emotionally you absolutely understand what that sound is there for. You understand it in a subconscious way, but it provokes the audience, partly by virtue of its mystery. It’s a mysterious sound that is nibbling away at their subconscious, and people, being people, like to resolve things in some way. So subconsciously they will say, ‘What is that sound?’ Because there’s nothing in the picture that is anything like a train—although it’s reasonable that a train might be heard in that part of the Bronx—the emotion that comes along with that sound, which is a screeching effect as a train turns a difficult corner, gets immediately applied to Michael’s state of mind. Here is a person who is also screeching as he turns a difficult corner. This is the first time he is going to kill somebody face to face. He’s doing what he said he would never do. He wanted not to be part of the family, and now he’s overcompensating. He’s doing what he alone can do for the family.”

Here’s the scene:

Another example of the deep thinking Murch employed for The Godfather series comes at the very end of Part 2, when Coppola’s camera pushes in on Michael who, having just given the OK to have his brother Fredo killed and closing the door (literally and figuratively) on his marriage, sits outside of his Lake Tahoe compound utterly alone and lost in thought. As opposed to the cacophonous train in the aforementioned restaurant scene, Murch goes a totally different direction, fading out Rota’s score and other sounds, including the Corleone clan, in happier days, singing “Happy Birthday” to their father. Let’s let Murch take it from here, this pulled from an interview on

“Sound has a great power, but it is a conditional power,’ Murch explains. “It places the image in a physical and emotional context, helping us to decide how to take the image and how it integrates itself into everything else. [However], silence [also] can be a useful tool; although it isn’t used that often. One memorable scene that I used it on was the end of The Godfather Part 2, where Michael Corleone is sitting by the lake. I dropped the soundtrack down to the atmos and then shut it down completely, which transmitted the interior emotions being felt by the character.”

Again, Murch uses sound (or lack thereof) to give us insight into the mental state of the characters:

While Murch’s achievement in The Godfather films was impressive, it was child’s play compared to the creative chops he needed to employ for his next project, again with Coppola, 1979’s Apocalypse Now. Interestingly, this would be his first film in stereo. Initially, Coppola wanted Murch to create a quadraphonic sound mix, this due to the director being impressed by a demonstration of an immersive, four-track recording by the Japanese electronic music composer Tomita. However, Murch was able to convince Coppola to go with a five-channel mix, arguing that it made for better dialogue reproduction and localization. He then added a sixth channel when Coppola noted that he really wanted to “feel” the explosions. Thus was born the first 5.1-channel surround mix (center, left and right channels behind the screen, two fully discrete stereo surrounds and the .1 to signify a channel dedicated exclusively to the low-end subwoofer enhancement) in the history of cinema*.

[*What about Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind? you ask. Well, recall from Part 1 that both featured only mono surrounds. Actually, for accuracy sake it should be pointed out that one movie truly can make a legitimate claim for the title of the first fully discrete six-channel mix: 1978’s Superman: The Movie. However, because the film played only a handful of times worldwide utilizing stereo surrounds, we’re making an executive decision and saying it doesn’t count.]

With the six-track format agreed upon, Murch and his team began work, recording from scratch over 200 rolls of effects, from helicopters to artillery to gunfire to roaring tigers. Overall production of the film was anything but smooth, however. Principal photography in the Philippines lasted 238 days over 14 months. (A normal production will shoot over maybe three months.) Post-production then took a whopping two years, including eight months for Murch’s sound mix. As Murch notes, “At the time of shooting almost no usable sound was recorded for the film because of the difficulties of production. [So] we had to recreate the whole sonic environment, item by item, for the finished film, including almost all the dialogue.”

Simply put, Apocalypse Now was a nightmare, the production threatening to capsize again and again as it was broadsided by such disasters as the replacement of its leading man (Harvey Keitel) after filming commenced, the on-set heart attack of leading man #2 (Martin Sheen), typhoons, helicopters requisitioned to fight a civil war, an overweight and unprepared villain (Marlon Brando), to name but a few. (For the whole fascinating story, check out the 1991 documentary, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse.)

Yet somehow the film managed to defy the odds, receiving raves when it finally was released and, even today, continuing to ascend the ladder of appreciation in terms of the greatest movies ever.

No less an accomplishment was it’s sound mix, Murch’s magnum opus, an artful, complicated and indelible use of the medium.

Let’s take a quick look at a couple highlights:

The Opening

The movie opens on the jungle; sonically, we hear the strange, highly stylized whoop-whoop of what soon reveals itself to be a helicopter. (The sound, created on a synthesizer, was dubbed the “ghost copter” by Murch’s team.) The opening chords of The Door’s “The End” begin to chime as other helicopters zoom past. Suddenly, the jungle erupts in a (silent) napalm explosion. The image dissolves back and forth between the burning jungle and Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) laying on a bed in a hotel room, eventually holding on the subject of the Willard’s gaze, a ceiling fan. Murch fades out the music until all that remains in the mix is the whoop-whoop of the “ghost copter,” now synced to the spinning blades of the fan. Eventually, this surreal helicopter gives way the familiar sound of the real thing as it land somewhere beyond the hotel window. His reverie broken by this dose of aural reality, Willard, in voice over, laments the fact that while he’s stuck in Saigon awaiting a new mission, his enemy, the View Cong, gets stronger in the jungle. And as Willard speaks, Murch does something brilliant–he gradually morphs all the ambient sounds in the hotel into those of the jungle. A policeman’s whistle becomes a cricket. Car horns become various tropical birds. A fly transforms into a mosquito. Whether or not the audience is fully conscious of these transitions doesn’t matter. Because subconsciously the noises are making their point: this guy wants to get back to the bush. “The sound is there mainly to keep us in the mind of Captain Willard,” explains Murch. “With his voiceover we know his thoughts and emotion. The sounds of environment are there to accompany where he is or where he wants to be. The score is also there at times to add on to his mental state.”

The Do Lung Bridge

Apocalypse Now is structured in a way that, the closer Willard gets to his quarry, Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), the atmosphere becomes more surreal. This is on full display when the PBR (Patrol Boat – River) carrying Willard reaches the Do Lung bridge, the last U.S. Army outpost on the river before it flows into neutral Cambodia. Willard de-boats in hopes of securing fuel, mail and more information on his mission. Walking through the outpost’s filthy trenches in search of the commanding officer, he encounters a soldier firing indiscriminately towards the bridge. Asked what he’s shooting at, the soldier explains, “There gooks out there by the wire.” A soldier they call “Roach” is summoned to handle the problem. Although completely zonked on drugs and battle fatigue, “Roach”  is something of an artist with his grenade launcher. Up until “Roach”‘s first appearance, Murch has filled the sound mix with the crack of small arms fire; the hiss of flares; the thump of artillery; explosions both large and small, far and near; screaming; hysterical cackles; and, finally, a Jimmy Hendricks’ guitar solo blaring from a tape deck. As “Roach” prepares to fire his weapon, however, Murch strips away the sounds until all that’s left is the “Hey G.I.! Fuck you, G.I.!” being yelled across the river by a Viet Cong soldier. So why the silence? Murch explains his thought process:

“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…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 [Roach]. This is 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. We’re going into the aural consciousness of [the character]. He doesn’t hear anything except Charlie. The goal was to get audiences into the place where they hear only what Roach hears.”

I find it endlessly interesting that a guy who makes his living creating sounds has no problem taking them out. All it takes is knowing when and where to do it. Any dummy can create an ear-shattering 5.1 mix, but only someone as clever as Murch, someone as knowledgable about the psychological effects of sound, can make it a piece of art.

Bonus content!

Yeah, yeah, yeah…I know I promised to wrap it up after Murch, but I can’t help myself. Because no legitimate discussion of sound design would be complete without addressing Saving Private Ryan, specifically the opening D-Day scene on Omaha Beach, The Conflicted Film Snob’s pick for the coolest surround mix ever. So let’s let the man behind it, six-time Oscar winner Gary Rydstrom, take us through the thought process behind the design, this from Tomlinson Holman’s book, Surround Sound: Up and Running:

th“In Saving Private Ryan, the battle scenes are shot from the shaky, glancing and claustrophobic point of view of the soldier on the ground. There are no sweeping vistas, only the chaos of fighting as experienced. The sound for this movie, therefore, had to set the full stage of battle, while putting us squarely in the middle of it. I can honestly say that this film could not have been made in the same way if it were not for the possibilities of theatrical surround sound. If sound could not of express the scale, orientation, and emotion of the soldier’s experience, the camera would have had to show more. Yet it is a point of the movie to show how disorienting the visual experience was. Sound becomes a key storyteller.

“Our task was to build the isolated recordings of guns, bullets, artillery, boats, tanks, explosions, and debris into a full-out war. Within the chaos of a war movie, I believe that articulating the sound effects is vital–too often loudness and intensity in a track obscure any concept of what is going on. [Therefore] we paid attention to the relative frequency of effects, and their rhythmic, sequential placement, but also planned how to use the six channels of our mix to spatially separate and further articulate our sounds.

“It is often amazing…how sounds can be altered by context. As frequencies compete when sounds are added together, the character of the sounds change, sometimes disappearing into each other. [ed. note: this problem is called “masking.”] Multiple channels can be used to separate sound effects that would mask each other if sharing a channel. [For] example, if I have a low-frequency explosion in the front channels, I would, at the same time, make sure the background artillery or the rumble of a ship engine is in the rear channels. If there was sand debris from an explosion in the left channel, I would choose to have bullet pass-bys in the right or rear channels. Speaker separation helps overcome the muddy results of masking effects.

“When we land in Omaha Beach, the action is staged such that the German defenses tend to be on our right and behind us, while the incoming American troops tend to the front and left. Sound helps us orient to this by placing outgoing artillery in the back and right channels, the resulting explosions in the front, the American guns to the left, and the German guns behind us. In this way the soundtrack gives us some bearing while the camera shakes along the ground.

“The movement of the sounds gives us the impression of being in the action, having the closest possible proximity to the horrors, and of being as unsafe as the men onscreen. In this way, sound can take us through the classical proscenium and put us in the story.”

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