If any one name is synonymous with excellence in sound design, then it must be Walter Murch. A two-time Academy Award winner for Apocalypse Now and The English Patient, he has also received a host of awards for his work as a film editor. As long ago as 1975 he won the BAFTA Award for best sound on The Conversation. Murch began his career in the late 1960’s, becoming fast friends with Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, and was much involved in the American Zoetrope studios that Coppola launched in San Francisco. He co-wrote and “montaged” the sound for Lucas’s maiden feature, THX1138.

I began by asking him if he felt that sound represented fifty percent of the experience when watching a movie? “Yes,” he replied, “although I’d have to qualify that, because the human brain is wired to spend more of its computing power on vision than it does on sound. So what happens is that when we hear a sound we don’t hear it consciously, but it has an effect on us, and that effect we sort of re-process and render into an attribute of the visuals. So it’s very rare that an audience will hear sound for what it is. Usually what’s happening is that the sound is conditioning and colouring the way we’re perceiving the visual.”

Murch does not lay out a “sound storyboard” prior to shooting, but, he notes, “I read the script with sound in mind. I try to hear the sounds as I’m reading the words, to imagine what the acoustic landscape will be, and I make notes about that. So in that sense, yes, already at the script stage I’ll try to think about, if not fully develop a ‘soundscape’. Of course once the film has begun shooting, then I also gain a tremendous amount from the atmosphere of the visuals, which can either enhance my original idea, or they can force me into another track entirely. But at least I do have a starting point, an idea about the sound of the film, right from reading the script.

“In a film like The Conversation, sound is obviously tremendously important in the story itself . In Cold Mountain, the sound of things as a subject of the story is not nearly as significant. Sound does indeed play an important role in Cold Mountain but, as I’ve said, more as a conditioning element than a character in itself. It’s the equivalent in painting of where an artist would choose to make you aware of the paint itself or to use the paint as a way to convey the image. There are times when in film we want the sound to be heard as such, like the impasto moment in painting. But a lot of the time we just want the sound to convey a mood or an image, and not be heard for itself.”

Murch possesses an intuitive skill for bringing the sound element into play. “Something I have tried to do over the course of my work has been to find the appropriate moment (and I stress that word), for sound to come into the foreground and for people to pay attention to it. A few significant moments where the sound is front and center can make such a difference.”

He’s keenly aware of the need to obtain good sound during the shooting phase. “On Apocalypse Now, there was not only no wild track but there was no usable production sound. So everything had to be recreated back in San Francisco – all the dialogue, and all of the sound effects. We were much more fortunate in that regard on Cold Mountain. That film was being shot in an environment that was sonically very ‘clean’ – the mountains of Romania are extremely quiet. The desert, and the Italian countryside, in The English Patient was similarly very tranquil, very clean. In both cases, we did get not a huge amount of wild track material, but enough to give us a leg up in the sound editing. It also helps to set a tone, if you can get the real sounds at the time. Whether you actually use them or not, is up to the sound designer and the sound editors. But at least they have an idea of, say, what that particular door really sounded like, and they can choose to use it or augment it, or find an equivalent sound that for some reason might be better.

“I remember on The Rain People, which goes back to 1968, Francis [Coppola] had the actors, the sound recordist and everyone going across country in a caravan. After they’d done the day’s shooting, he had the actors repeat all of the motions that they had gone through during the day’s scenes, but without saying any dialogue. And he had the sound recordist, Nathan Boxer, follow the action around in getting all of those sounds as clearly as possible without having to worry about the camera. And without having to worry about the microphone being pointed at the actors. Nat produced a parallel soundtrack – very rich, very authentic – that could go along with the production dialogue recorded earlier in the day.”

On the vexed question of films being too loud in present-day theatres, Murch offers some thoughtful reflections. “It’s a complex question. What Dolby has done in all of these improvements such as A-type, SR, and now Dolby Digital, is to give the filmmakers a larger canvas to work on, and also one that’s capable of reproducing greater dynamic range. Whether filmmakers choose to use that freedom intelligently or not is up to them. Dolby can and has made suggestions about how to do this, but they’re not in that end of the business and don’t profess to be. But it does mean that some filmmakers will abuse the system – unknowingly, or on purpose.

“There’s a problem in search of an answer here, because many theatres are now automated – in fact almost all of them are automated – and will run trailers in advance of the film himself. Trailers are notoriously mixed very loud. All of the dialogue and sound effects are pushed to the maximum in order to increase their penetration. It’s like commercials on television that are almost played more loud than the programme itself. After all, it’s human nature to shout when you’re trying to sell something. The problem is that the tail wags the dog in the sense that the theatre-owners will then set the level of the reproducing amplifier such that those trailers will not blast audiences out of the theatre. Filmmakers then go to the theatre and find that their films are being played too low. So, in self-defence, when they go into the mix, they boost the film up to try to compete with the trailers. The result is that if the film is played at the so-called correct level, it will appear to be too loud because they’re trying to compensate for the fact that frequently it’s not played at the correct level!

“The other thing that happens frequently is that when you mix a film you’re often working on the same reel for an entire day or more, playing the same material over and over for twelve to fourteen hours. As a result you become de-sensitized to the sound yourself. You have to watch out for that as a mixer. So after eight hours, you’ll think, ‘Hmmm, that’s not loud enough. I’m going to make it louder.’ And you get into a spiral of making things too loud just because you’re experiencing them in this abnormal way.”

Murch’s only foray into film direction was the 1985 feature, Return to Oz. “We were given a Royal premiere in Leicester Square,” he recalls. “I went down to the theatre to check it out, and discovered that the speakers, left and right, were flipped, so that what was supposed to come out of the left channel was coming out of the right, and vice versa. The question is: how long had it been that way – a month at least!

“Obviously you get blown speakers, and then sometimes you find that employees have stolen some of the speakers, or some of the elements of the speakers, for their own home use – and nobody’s noticed. Every theatre you go into is tuned slightly differently – even if everything is technically perfect, it will sound slightly different, because rooms architecturally and acoustically are indeed slightly different. While I’m going round with a film, even though it seems technically perfect, I try to re-tune it slightly to compensate for (or take advantage of) the acoustics of a particular room or auditorium. Because I’ve just mixed the film, its sound is very crucial for me at that point.”

In the era of DVD and surround sound blasting through the living-room, how does Murch view the contrast between home cinema and the big theatre screening? “The home experience will never equal the theatrical experience because you can never get six hundred people sitting with you in your living-room. It’s just by the very nature of the beast – when you look at a film in a theatre it’s a communal experience, and there’s something both tangible and intangible about the presence of hundreds of other people with you watching the movie. You see different things in a picture under those circumstances than when you watch a film at home. It’s true that differences between the two situations are diminishing very rapidly, however, and arguably you can get sound in your home theatre that’s superior to sound in a theatre because you can tune it exactly to the shape of your room. But it’s the fact that you have left your home and paid money and you’re willingly sitting in the dark with six hundred other strangers to watch a film that makes you see different things in it even if, technically, everything is exactly the same.”

For Murch, this is by no means a recent phenomenon. “I think that one of the things that eventually caused the Dolby revolution in cinema,” he maintains, “is the fact that, starting in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, people had stereo music at home. The LP and then the stereo LP – the ‘high fidelity’ experience – was very common in the home throughout the sixties. Then people would go to the movies and would hear sound that was like an old 78 rpm record by comparison. There was then the feeling, ‘Why can’t we get in the theatres what we can get at home?’ Dolby, of course, came to the rescue, and provided exactly that.

If sound had remained as it was when I started out, during the late 1960’s, I think our feeling about ‘the total experience’ would have been diminished considerably, and probably would have resulted in declining attendances.”

As he looks back over a career spanning five decades, Walter Murch remembers the impact of two films from the 1960’s: “The soundtrack of 2001 A Space Odyssey really struck me, particularly the final sections of the film, when Keir Dullea was an old man alone in the room. There was just something about the quality of the sound there that opened up an idea of what sound could be. And also John Frankenheimer’s Seconds. There was a scene early on in that film, when you – the subjective camera – are walking down the stairs in Grand Central Station and I suddenly realised, watching that as a film student, what ‘room tone’ was all about, what the sound of a space meant as you put it up against an image.”