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Apocalypse Now: Martin Sheen's 'lookable-atable' eyes


Apocalypse Now: The biggest explosion ever staged for a film
Walter Murch Film-maker
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Then I sat down with Francis [Ford Coppola] to talk about the beginning. And the script at the beginning of the film had long ago been tossed away because Francis wanted the film to have essentially a prologue to set up the parameters and the themes in a kind of symbolic way of things that you would encounter later on and to establish the character and dilemma of this Captain Willard, played by Martin Sheen. The two pillars on which the opening of the film was now going to be built were two shots that were never intended to be in the film in the first place. One of which was a slow motion shot of a napalm explosion that was shot by a sixth camera. When an explosion went off, you had as many cameras shooting it as possible, because at that time it was the biggest explosion ever staged for a film. In fact, it probably still is the biggest, because now you would do that explosion digitally. You wouldn't have an actual gigantic explosion such as that. So, photograph it with as many cameras as possible because it's only going to happen once and you want to make sure you get the correct coverage.

A.D. Flowers, the man who was responsible for the physical special effects during the shooting, of course, knew how big this explosion was going to be, and he wanted a record of it for his own purposes. So the sixth camera was set at super slow motion, I think probably 240 frames a second, certainly well over 100, maybe 160. And this shot, of course because it was slow motion, there was never a place for it in the actual story of the film, so it was set aside. Oh, that was A.D. Flowers' shot.

At one point in the Philippines, Francis was in the editing room, and his restless mind went and looked at that; what's this? He picked it up. 'Oh, that's this slow motion shot', in which Francis has never seen. 'Well, let me see it.' And so he looked at it, and the lightbulb went off and he thought, this is how I want to begin the film. This telephoto shot of the jungle. Just these flat trees shot from very far away but with a very telescopic lens and then poof, suddenly it bursting into flames with these strange slow motion helicopters sort of floating in at various tilted angles going through the frame.

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: Apocalypse Now, A.D. Flowers

Duration: 3 minutes, 1 second

Date story recorded: April 2016

Date story went live: 01 March 2017