Saturday, October 26, 2019

Making Waves with Walter Murch and the Sound Editors of the New Hollywood

Walter Murch and the Valkyries of Apocalypse Now
(Midge Costin, US, 2019, 94 minutes)

As 2019 Honorary Oscar recipient David Lynch, one of the key figures in debut director Midge Costin's illuminating documentary, observes, "People always talk about the look of a film; they don't talk so much about the sound of a film, but it's equally important--sometimes more important."

He's right, not least because he's such a strong visual stylist with specific ideas about music, and yet I can't recall the last time I heard someone mention the sound in his films. It's just too easy to take cinematic sound for granted, an oversight sound editor Costin (Crimson Tide) aims to correct.

In Making Waves, the sound designers, sound effects editors, foley artists, and re-recording mixers who took us from the dank jungles of Vietnam to the arid fields of Wakanda explain what they do. Filmmakers come along for the ride, too, like Sofia Coppola, Christopher Nolan, Ryan Coogler, Robert Redford, Barbra Streisand, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Peter Weir.

Walter Murch (The Godfather, The Conversation) and Ben Burtt (Star Wars, E.T.: The Extraterrestrial) start by talking about the phonograph and the camera. Originally, these were discrete inventions as consumers listened to records at home and experienced live musical accompaniment when they visited the cinema to see silent films, some of which also featured live sound effects and dubbing. Everything changed with the addition of synchronized music tracks, recorded dialogue, and post-production sound effects.

Ben Burtt and Richard Anderson record Pooh
Murch and Burtt credit Murray Spivack, who worked on 1933's King Kong, for inventing tricks still in use today, like sounds he recorded from nature and slowed down, sped up, or played backwards--whatever it took to achieve the effect he wanted. His peers, meanwhile, would incorporate generic sounds from an effects library, like gun shots and explosions, that would appear in movie after movie.

The two sound designers also credit Orson Welles who brought his radio expertise to film. He was "as aggressive spatially with sound," Murch notes, "as he was with his depth of focus on camera." Other speakers cite David Lean, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, and Robert Altman as filmmakers especially sensitive to sound. These sorts of idiosyncratic talents--he specifically cites Ingmar Bergman and Akira Kurosawa--inspired Murch to enter the field in the first place, because he longed to think creatively, rather than to re-use pre-existing sounds like a factory worker (he also took inspiration from John Cage and musique concrète composer Pierre Henry).

Murch met George Lucas while attending USC. Through Lucas, he met Francis Ford Coppola on the set of Finian's Rainbow. The three went on to form American Zoetrope to make films outside of the Hollywood system, like Coppola's Rain People and Lucas's THX 1138. Murch had found the freedom he sought. Fellow USC student Burtt found something similar when Lucas tapped him to design the vocalizations for a big, hairy creature in a film he was working on called Star Wars (he and Richard Anderson created the Wookie's signature yowl by recording a bear cub named Pooh).

Ai-Ling Lee at the console
Other films under discussion include Eraserhead and The Elephant Man (Alan Splet), Top Gun (Cece Hall), Braveheart (Anna Behlmer, Scott Millan, and Andy Nelson), Road to Perdition (Millan, Scott Hecker, and Bob Beemer), Mad Max: Fury Road and Blade Runner 2049 (Mark Mangini), The Dark Knight (Lora Hirschberg), Black Panther (Peter Devlin), Lost in Translation (Richard Beggs), The Matrix (Dave Davis), Monster (Peter Devlin), Brokeback Mountain (Eugene Gearty), Inception (John Roesch, Alyson Dee Moore, and Richard King), Selma (Greg Hedgepath and Bobbi Banks), Deadpool and Wild (Ai-Ling Lee), Roma (Skip Lievsay), and, of course, Apocalypse Now (Murch, Beggs, and Mark Berger) in all its permutations, like the 40th anniversary edition which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival this year.

Costin's speakers also discuss multi-track recording, Pro Tools, 6-track Dolby Stereo, Surround Sound, and the relationship between the composer--represented by Hans Zimmer and Ludwig Göransson--and the sound department. As Gary Rydstrom says about the way sound effects give way to John Williams' score in Saving Private Ryan's Omaha Beach sequence, "There's a rhythm, there's always a rhythm; even to chaos there's a rhythm." Though none of the sound designers mention whether they have a music background, it's clear that many of them think like musicians.

All told, over three dozen sound designers get to have their say, but in the end, Murch makes the most memorable impression. As one speaker notes, "In a way, Walter Murch is the father of us all in this modern era of sound." It’s largely due to his skill, but also to the author and speaker's ability to explain what he does so eloquently and in such a deep, mellifluous voice. Making Waves may not have been intended as a love letter to Murch, but it plays that way, and I can't imagine that any true movie lover will mind.

Making Waves is now playing in New York, Los Angeles, and 24 other cities in the US and Canada (some screenings are one-night only). It opens at Seattle's Grand Illusion Cinema on Nov 8. For more information, click here

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