Capturing the Supersonic is Persol Magnificent Obsessions Exhibit #3 of 4

The Craft: Walter Murch
Film+TV | 8 August 2013

Apocalypse Now (1979), directed by Francis Ford Coppola

Magnificent Obsessions at New York’s Museum of the Moving Image champions craftsmanship in film, an obsessive attention to detail across significant sound design, wardrobe and props. In partnership with Persol, the sunglasses synonymous with screen personalities such as Steve McQueen and Francis Ford Coppola, the exhibition runs until November. Over the next few days, we’re focusing on highlights from the show…


Sound is an experience which can radically shape an audience’s cinema experience. Each shot in a typical two-hour film may one be a few seconds long, but every noise must be recorded individually then layered as a sonic collage. Needless to say, it ain’t easy.

It’s usually the job of the film editor to assemble the picture track whilst the sound editor is responsible for the audio. Not Walter Murch, whose unique talent is combining both specialised roles, allowing him to heighten meaning through juxtaposition of image and sound. Murch brings out broader symbolism by playing sounds off each other instead of merely layering them.

His obsession with noise began as a child. “The father of a friend of mine bought [a tape recorder], so I wound up going to his house endlessly to play with it. And that passion, which was a kind of delirious drunkenness with what the tape recorder could do, completely possessed me… I would hold the microphone out the window, recording sounds of New York.”

Murch worked on films with mono tracks until Apocalypse Now came along and changed everything. “[Director] Francis [Ford Coppola]… heard some music by Isao Tomita in quadraphonic – this is in 1976 – and he said, ‘That’s how I want the film to sound. I want the sound to be able to go all around the theatre to surround the audience, but I also want them to feel the thump of explosions rather than just hear them. I want that to resonate in their body cavity, so that they feel it in their lungs and gut.”

Quadraphonic sound used four speakers, each playing a slightly different audio track to create an illusion of three-dimensionality. What Coppola wanted to achieve was so complex Murch added two more, creating six. What they designed is now known at the 5.1 system.

Sounds were placed at the front of the cinema, whilst others would bellow from the rear – audio could then move through the space as helicopters flew by, for instance. Murch could pay attention to low-frequencies that’d rattle the body cavity. As a result, the creative began to think of not just editing or mixing sound, but designing it, a term now commonly used in the film industry and beyond.

Tricky combat noises were specially recorded. Working with a munitions expert, the team captured the sounds of real AK-47s with real ammunition in them and a multitude of explosions (except, er, napalm) at a remote gun club in a hidden valley behind Berkeley, California. Another reason why it sounds so spectacular.

Images courtesy of American Zoetrope/Miramax/Walter Murch

Click here for our interview with Magnificent Obsessions curator Michael Connor and exhibition highlights: Creative Forgery, Poetry and Motion and Costume Without Limits



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