Walter Murch was the sound designer and sound editor for the known film Apocalypse Now, a classic film with fantastic sound editing and magical sound design. There is an interview at Salon.com with Walter Murch, who talks about the sound of Apocalypse Now and the techniques he used.
When did you and Francis know that you would key so much of the movie off the sound of the helicopters?
It was something that came up long before the film ever got made — back when George [Lucas] was going to direct it. There was a lot of discussion between George and me, and between us and John Milius, who was writing the script, that what made Vietnam different and unique was that it was the helicopter war. Helicopters occupied the same place in this war that the cavalry used to. The last time the cavalry was used was in World War I, which demonstrated that it didn’t work anymore. In World War II there was no cavalry. Then we got the cavalry back, with helicopters, to a certain extent in the Korean War, and really got it back in the Vietnam War. The helicopters were the horses of the sky — the whole “Valkyrie” idea came out of that discussion. And, of course, we thought of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. The cavalry-horsemen-Apocalypse thing was bred in the bones of the project.
The beginning of the film was a trigger for the psychic dimension of the helicopters. Later on, when you get into the attack on the village [when Robert Duvall’s ramrod Col. Kilgore tries to clear a VC-held coastal town], it’s dramatic and it’s fantastic, but it is fairly much “what you see is what you hear.” Whereas at the beginning of the film it’s some drunken reverie of this displaced person, Willard, who is trying to bring himself back into focus. There are fragmentary images of helicopters, then he comes more and more back into his abysmal reality — this stinky hotel room in Saigon — and we get the fan. […]
Even the most realistic sounds in the film are sometimes hard to identify; they come at you as part of an integrated scheme.
That’s partly because we took those realistic sounds and deconstructed them on synthesizers. One more wonderful thing about the way a helicopter sounds is that it has a different articulation as it passes by. You’ll hear five or six different things going on when you get into different spatial relationships to it — sometimes you’ll hear just the rotor, then you’ll hear just the turbine, then you’ll hear just the tail rotor, then you’ll hear some clanking piece of machinery, then you’ll hear low thuds. The helicopter provides you with the sound equivalent of shining a white light through a prism — you get the hidden colors of the rainbow. So we would hear a real helicopter at any point and say — listen to that! Let’s see if we can synthesize just that! And using a synthesizer we created artificial sounds to mimic the real sound.
We formed what became known as “the ghost helicopter” out of this, which was sort of an aural Lego kit. You could put the helicopters all together and they’d sound very realistic. But then you could take them apart and play any one of them individually, a single helicopter on multiple tracks, and that’s what the film begins with. That sound — that whoop-whoop-whoop-whoop-whoop sound — is the synthesized blade sound. And in isolation it had this dream-like quality.
We used lots of isolated sounds in various places, wherever we felt we needed to color the realistic sound and make it hyper-real. Throughout the movie, the helicopter is positioned between realism and hyper-realism and surrealism. It can slide anywhere on the spectrum. In musical terms, we thought of the helicopters as our string section.
Small arms fire would be the woodwinds, I guess. The “Valkyrie” scene has the Wagner music in it. It has choppers in it. And it also has the small-arms fire, which occupies a different region. Then there are the artillery sounds — the mortar fire — and a vocal part of the sandwich, from the sounds the people are making. Another layer is the clinkity-clink sounds of people moving around. Then there’s a layer of winds and fire and leaves blowing.
There were a lot of instruments in the film. The soldiers we talked to said that anywhere you went in Vietnam you could hear some low artillery going on. Thunk-a-thunk-thunk-thunk. That has a kind of timpani quality to it. But it also sounds like a heartbeat. We positioned it “way over in the next valley,” so to speak. We put it in when Willard and Chef [Frederic Forrest] were coming in on the tiger. Before you know that there’s a tiger in the jungle, you hear naturalistic sounds of the jungle. But underneath it is this thunk-a-thunk-thunk, thunk-thunk-thunk. […]
Even the original music by Carmine and Francis Coppola recalls musique concrete — music made of sound.
I was greatly influenced by musique concrete when I was, like, 10. I was completely mesmerized by the idea that you could make music out of sounds. So that’s been a constant influence on all my work. But the films I’d done before “Apocalypse Now” had all been mono films [“American Graffiti,” “The Conversation”]. Here was not just a stereo film but a whole new format. It was like jumping from a Stone Age tribe into, say, Wall Street. I was terrified of misusing the palette; I thought the worst thing to do would be to overuse it. I thought, instead, what you had to do was shrink the film down to mono at times, and let it be there quite a while. People without knowing it would think, “This is mono.” And then, at that moment, you could make it a stereo film, and that would be impressive because now it was different.
And when people got used to that, you could make it quintaphonic or six-track — at the right, the necessary moment. I wrote down a master chart of the scenes in the film with two timelines running alongside it. The results were like four-dimensional Einstein drawings. Sometimes there were single lines, and sometimes triple lines, and sometimes sextuple lines. When we were mixing the sound it showed us when the sound effects were mono and the music was in stereo, or when we should open the sound effects to stereo and close the music down to mono.
It kept us from losing perspective. It was the equivalent of what mural-makers do by breaking a huge mural up into a grid pattern. You only work on one part of the grid at a time. But because you have visualized the whole thing in advance and broken it down into pieces, you know what to do when you’re working on any one piece. When I think about it, my unique contribution to the film was this concept of “sound design.” It was the working-out of the mural grid that underlay the structure of the film, which was being developed with a dimensionality that hadn’t been attempted before.
Databaseo? Library? Check this video of Walter Murch talking about the use of Filemaker Pro to organize his database:
Let’s see another interesting article at Mix Online with more info about the making of Apocalypse Now Redux, including video sync, sound editorial, ADR, mix, and more:
Sound Editorial on Apocalypse Now Redux
The first order of business for sound effects editing was to load the dbx-encoded premixes and effects combines, plus the 1997 SR-encoded 5.1 master, into master Pro Tools sessions. Assistant sound editor Erich Stratmann found to his surprise that there were some digital overs, in spite of the fact that the 0VU reference level on the mags matched -20 dBfs on the Pro Tools. Although small overs are often unnoticeable, Stratmann says that there would often be many of them in succession, rendering the added distortion quite audible.
The offending sections were re-transferred at a lower level sometimes as much as 6 dB below the -20 standard and using the “Find Peaks” function in Pro Tools (which only worked for peaks longer than 10 samples; the others he found by hand), Stratmann would do precise volume automation to bring only the offending peak down, raising the rest of the material back to the reference level. He would then do a bounce of the section in Pro Tools incorporating the fix.
Stratmann created a master session comprising all extant material from the 1979 mix, with the 1997 5.1 printmaster and the original 6-track M&E, the only elements that were available for the whole film. Effects combines and premixes were available for most reels, although they could find nothing from reel 8 (the Hau Phat scene with the Playboy Bunnies). As “blind luck” would have it, according to Kirchberger, they were always able to find a way to make the joins work.
The crew used a “donut and holes” metaphor to guide themselves in communicating what they were doing. The area outside the donut was the original printmaster alone, while the donut rings were the transition points where effects premixes and combines and new material would be added to the printmaster in order to get to the “hole,” which was the completely new material. The intention was to make the donuts seamless, which usually translated to as short as possible, as in a hard scene change. But fighting against this goal, to some extent, was the brilliant way in which effects and music in Apocalypse effortlessly weave in and out of each other across scenes. Kirchberger remembers that one of the cooler transitions was during the Kilgore landing scene when the decay of the mortar covers the transition point. “Masking was our favorite friend,” Stratmann notes. “In many cases, the predubs were used as source material for the new scenes, but also to help us feather back into the printmaster when the combines didn’t provide enough separation.”
There were three other Pro Tools sessions in addition to Stratmann’s master: Foley, which was cut by Jeremy Molod, dialog, which Kirchberger cut himself, and sound effects, which were cut by Kyrsten Mate Comoglio and Pete Horner, including both old and new material.
Kirchberger says that “this show couldn’t have been done without Kyrsten; she’s an unbelievably talented effects editor. She did a cut of the ‘Conex’ scene [when Kurtz reads to Willard in the storage container], where she presented Walter with two scenarios, and he heard the first one and didn’t even listen to the second.”
Comoglio says that the second version contained “highly EQ’d sounds made to disorient the viewer, plus air movement sweeps and odd jungle calls that I volume-graphed in Pro Tools to then evolve into a more typical, grounded jungle BG after Brando opens the doors and we know where we are.
“In general, I tried to volume-graph premix all my sessions to cut down on tracks and on mix time up in Napa,” she continues. “This worked especially well for the Monsoon Medevac scene, where Walter wanted a different rain sound for each of the different materials oil drum, mud, helmet, tent, helicopter, PBR, etc. all coming and going as Willard walks through the camp. It was lots of fun.”
The effects for the French plantation were cut by Horner, whom Aubry says worked “in the original Zoetrope spirit on many different capacities on ANR. In addition to cutting effects and recording ADR, he worked side-by-side with Walter at the mix as the second engineer.”