How Walter Murch Revolutionized the Sound of Modern Cinema: A New Video Essay Explores His Innovations in American Graffiti, The Godfather & More

Wal­ter Murch, per­haps the most famed film edi­tor alive, is acclaimed for the work he’s done for direc­tors like Fran­cis Ford Cop­po­la, George Lucas, and Antho­ny Minghel­la. As inno­v­a­tive and influ­en­tial as his ways for putting images togeth­er have been, Murch has done just as much for cin­e­ma as a sound design­er. In the video above Evan Puschak, bet­ter known as the Nerd­writer, exam­ines Murch’s sound­craft through what Murch calls “worldiz­ing,” which describes as “manip­u­lat­ing sound until it seemed to be some­thing that exist­ed in real space.” This involves “play­ing back exist­ing record­ings through a speak­er or speak­ers in real-world acoustic sit­u­a­tions,” record­ing it, and using that record­ing on the film’s sound­track.

In oth­er words, Murch pio­neered the tech­nique of not just insert­ing music into a movie in the edit­ing room, but re-record­ing that music in the actu­al spaces in which the char­ac­ters hear it. Mix­ing the orig­i­nal, “clean” record­ing of a song with that song as re-record­ed in the movie’s space — a dance hall, an out­door wed­ding, a dystopi­an under­ground war­ren — has giv­en Murch a greater degree of con­trol over the view­er’s lis­ten­ing expe­ri­ence. In some shots he could let the view­er hear more of the song itself by pri­or­i­tiz­ing the orig­i­nal song; in oth­ers he could pri­or­i­tize the re-record­ed song and let the view­er hear the song as the char­ac­ters do, with all the son­ic char­ac­ter­is­tics con­tributed by the space — or, if you like, the world — around them.

Puschak uses exam­ples of Murch’s worldiz­ing from Amer­i­can Graf­fi­ti and The God­fa­ther, and notes that he first used it in Lucas’ debut fea­ture THX 1138. But he also dis­cov­ered an ear­li­er attempt by Orson Welles to accom­plish the same effect in Touch of Evil, a film Murch re-edit­ed in 1998. What Welles had not done, says Murch in an inter­view with Film Quar­ter­ly, “was com­bine the orig­i­nal record­ing and the atmos­pher­ic record­ing. He sim­ply posi­tioned a micro­phone, sta­t­ic in an alley­way out­side Uni­ver­sal Sound Stu­dios, re-record­ing from a speak­er to the micro­phone through the alley­way. He did­n’t have con­trol over the bal­ance of dry sound ver­sus reflect­ed sound, and he did­n’t have the sense of motion that we got from mov­ing the speak­er and mov­ing the micro­phone rel­a­tive to one anoth­er.”

Doing this, Murch says, “cre­ates the son­ic equiv­a­lent of depth of field in pho­tog­ra­phy. We can still have the music in the back­ground, but because it’s so dif­fuse, you can’t find edges to focus on and, there­fore, focus on the dia­logue which is in the fore­ground.” In all ear­li­er films besides Welles’, “music was just fil­tered and played low, but it still had its edges,” mak­ing it hard to sep­a­rate from the dia­logue. These days, as Puschak points out, any­one with the right sound-edit­ing soft­ware can per­form these manip­u­la­tions with the click of a mouse. No such ease in the 1970s, when Murch had to not only exe­cute these thor­ough­ly ana­log, labor-inten­sive process­es, but also invent them in the first place. As any­one who’s looked and lis­tened close­ly to his work knows, that audio­vi­su­al strug­gle made Murch expe­ri­ence and work with cin­e­ma in a rich­ly phys­i­cal way — one that, as gen­er­a­tions of edi­tors and sound design­ers come up in whol­ly dig­i­tal envi­ron­ments, may not exist much longer.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Sounds of Blade Run­ner: How Music & Sound Effects Became Part of the DNA of Rid­ley Scott’s Futur­is­tic World

How the Sounds You Hear in Movies Are Real­ly Made: Dis­cov­er the Mag­ic of “Foley Artists”

Hear Dzi­ga Vertov’s Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Exper­i­ments in Sound: From His Radio Broad­casts to His First Sound Film

Why Mar­vel and Oth­er Hol­ly­wood Films Have Such Bland Music: Every Frame a Paint­ing Explains the Per­ils of the “Temp Score”

The Alche­my of Film Edit­ing, Explored in a New Video Essay That Breaks Down Han­nah and Her Sis­ters, The Empire Strikes Back & Oth­er Films

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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