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Could we go back to early technology?

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Movies sound better in colour
Walter Murch Film-maker
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When we were mixing The Godfather, we were mixing in Los Angeles to a black and white print. So it wasn't video, but it was still black and white, and it was still a dupe, meaning a generational loss. Like a bad Xerox version of the film. And this was fine for doing the mixing, but a version of that same problem was present in any of this technology of the time. And the question comes, when do we show it to the producers? Meaning, the head of the studio, Bob Evans, when do we show this? 'We're not going to show it to him', said Howard Beals, who was the head of the sound effects department at Paramount at the time. 'We're not going to show it to them until we have a colour answer print.' Why? 'Because it will sound better when it's in colour.' Why? And he came up with a fantastically accurate emotional answer to it, he said, 'It sounds better for the same reason your car drives better when it's clean.' So if you'd have the experience, which we all probably have had, of putting your car through a car wash and cleaning it and polishing it, and then you get in. It's exactly the same car, the motor and everything, but you drive off and somehow, it seems to be driving better.

It's... When the picture is low in quality, again, more of your mind is able to pay conscious attention to the sound and you are aware of, inevitably, the technical problems that still remain that you haven't found a solution to. When it's in colour, there's this blooming of the brain. It now has more to deal with in colour, and less brain to deal with the problems, the fact that the equalisation wasn't exactly right there, or we still hear the click of the cut from one scene to another. Whatever they might be, these minor imperfections suddenly seem to go away. They haven't gone away, they are still there technically, on the soundtrack, but your brain does not have the ability to pay conscious attention to them. And so they are pushed to one side as if they didn't exist in the first place. These are problems that have disappeared from our world, because we now... When we're doing postproduction, we are always looking at a very sharp colour image of whatever it is that we're working on. And the distinction between what we're looking at and what will finally be seen in the theatre is negligible.

Born in 1943 in New York City, Murch graduated from the University of Southern California's School of Cinema-Television. His career stretches back to 1969 and includes work on Apocalypse Now, The Godfather I, II, and III, American Graffiti, The Conversation, and The English Patient. He has been referred to as 'the most respected film editor and sound designer in modern cinema.' In a career that spans over 40 years, Murch is perhaps best known for his collaborations with Francis Ford Coppola, beginning in 1969 with The Rain People. After working with George Lucas on THX 1138 (1971), which he co-wrote, and American Graffiti (1973), Murch returned to Coppola in 1974 for The Conversation, resulting in his first Academy Award nomination. Murch's pioneering achievements were acknowledged by Coppola in his follow-up film, the 1979 Palme d'Or winner Apocalypse Now, for which Murch was granted, in what is seen as a film-history first, the screen credit 'Sound Designer.' Murch has been nominated for nine Academy Awards and has won three, for best sound on Apocalypse Now (for which he and his collaborators devised the now-standard 5.1 sound format), and achieving an unprecedented double when he won both Best Film Editing and Best Sound for his work on The English Patient. Murch’s contributions to film reconstruction include 2001's Apocalypse Now: Redux and the 1998 re-edit of Orson Welles's Touch of Evil. He is also the director and co-writer of Return to Oz (1985). In 1995, Murch published a book on film editing, In the Blink of an Eye: A Perspective on Film Editing, in which he urges editors to prioritise emotion.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: The Godfather, Howard Beals

Duration: 3 minutes, 1 second

Date story recorded: April 2016

Date story went live: 01 March 2017