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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