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Realising that a cut is like a blink


Fixing the dynamic range and learning my lesson
Walter Murch Film-maker
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The net result was that I went down to Los Angeles, and we took the soundtrack of [The] Godfather II and with Dick Portman, who had mixed the original Godfather, we compressed the dynamic range. We held back the loudest sounds, and we raised the level of the dialogue and pushed them together. Then we made a whole new series of prints of the film, so it was a very expensive mistake.

And I saw my career being blighted by this terrible mistake. It didn't happen, but for me, it was a very uncomfortable two weeks of learning about this problem, figuring out what to do with it and then doing it. The result of it though, like any trauma, is that I am now extremely sensitive to issues of dynamic range, and I'm always on alert in mixing. How big is this room? You know? And I've got my decibel metre, and I'm always checking to make sure we have enough energy in the dialogue to balance out how loud the loudest sound effects are.

Clearly Apocalypse Now has an even greater dynamic range than Godfather II, but it's spread out over six soundtracks. So it's a stereo film with split surrounds and low-frequency enhancement. And I was just very careful about making sure the dialogue was loud enough to stand up to the increased pressure from all of that extra sound.

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 II, Apocalypse Now

Duration: 1 minute, 52 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2016

Date story went live: 01 March 2017