March 9, 2005
Walter Murch on Sound — 11 AM
If you’ve never thought about the relationship between sound and image while watching films, don’t blame Walter Murch. The films with which he is most associated, principally as editor, include Apocalypse Now and the Godfather trilogy, and nearly all were groundbreaking in their use of sound design to tell a story.
Knowing the truth behind illusion can sometimes lead to disappointment, and indeed the “magic of Hollywood” relies on a fundamental principal: the suspension of disbelief. To enjoy a movie at the moment of viewing, you normally forget that there was a camera, that there were lights, and that the White House you just saw explode was a scale model strategically demolished in a studio. If actors seem too much like they are acting, the result is usually disappointingly phony (unless we’re talking about Mark Hamil or Keanu Reeves, and then it’s enjoyably camp).
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In many ways, sound is the least apparent ingredient in this process, yet often the most important. Anyone who’s yawned through a silent film realizes that an exploding White House needs to sound like it’s exploding to have an effect on the viewer, who is really, after all, also a captive listener. As it turns out, movie sound engineers discovered early on that the most effective recording of an explosion for a film is not necessarily the most realistic, and so the sounds we hear during a film are normally processed in any number of ways before being let out into the wild of the theatre.
Walter Murch was a pioneer in the way he edited and processed sound, but also in his use of many different layers of sound to add meaning to film, often metaphorical rather than plainly realistic. In Apocalypse Now the sounds are by turns realistic, emotional, atmospheric, cacophonous, tranquil. Music comes from the external score as well as from sources within the world of the film.
The effects are stunning, and yet the process is anything but obvious. Really, sound has to be carefully edited for it not to call too much attention to itself so that it seems organic rather than totally artificial (which it is, in fact). In an essay at Transom.org, Murch explains all this as well as offering a fascinating explanation of the spectrum of sound in terms of “encoded” and “embodied” meaning. He presents a clip from Apocalypse Now with six isolated layers of sounds unmixed, and then explains how they combined to make the final mix. Watching and listening to the clip six times, each with a single layer, offers a revealing glimpse (or should I say an ‘ear-opening listen’) at how different types of sound work to impact the viewer/listener.
(Note how even I struggle against our shared vocabulary which is so biased towards the visual. We speak of ‘viewers’ who ‘watch’ ‘move-ies’. What is the aural equivalent of ‘to glimpse’ or ‘to visualize’?)
Actually, the level of detail in this clip is nearly unbelievable, since in the end mix it seems “just right”, if a hair on the loud side. You could remove a lot of the layers and still have a decent clip of film, but not one with the same resonance and power. Apocalypse Now is one of those films where the soundtrack is fundamental to the work’s ability to — pardon the cliché — blow your mind, man.
This is top notch stuff for anyone with an interest in sound or film. Murch apparently enjoys explaining his craft because after the very long essay he goes on to answer questions from readers (most recently yesterday, so it’s not too late to ask one yourself).
Incidentally, if you find Walter Murch’s enthusiasm and youthful curiosity as infectious as I do, you might want to get a hold of The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, a book by Michael Ondaatje which is a series of interviews with Murch. It’s more about the visual side of his work, but it’s no less riveting. And the film referenced by the title, The Conversation, is one of Francis Ford Coppola’s lesser known works (perhaps not one of his best overall) which also featured some very novel sound design by Murch.
Drawn and Linked — 9 AM
Drawn! is a lovely new blog devoted to illustration and cartooning, brought to you by that talented chap over at Robot Johnny who has some pretty fabulous illustrations himself.
I grew up going to a high school with a very large number of students who had recently immigrated from countries like China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Korea. There was, needless to say, a lot of “cute cartoon” merchandise floating about — think Hello Kitty and Kerokerokeroppi — and so it was with a little bit of fond nostalgia that I found via Drawn the site for Snowcat, a too-cute-for-words collection of drawings and cartoons starring, well, a little white cat. It’s all in Korean of course, so good luck understanding what the characters are saying, but I still challenge you not to say — and I quote — “Awwwwww!”, as you look at the Snowcat version of Star Wars.
March 5, 2005
Great Circles — 11 AM
The Great Circle Mapper is a tool for geography geeks and transportation geeks alike. Namely, it answers that age old question: why does an airplane flying from New York to London start by going north past Newfoundland?
But the truly bizarre routes show up when you start flying from one end of the globe to the other. The most direct line for an airplane from Paris to Auckland starts by flying north towards Scandinavia. It looks bizarre when you look at a “normal” map of the Earth, but it makes sense when you see an orthographic projection centred in the middle of the route, which is a much more realistic portrayal of our round globe.
Ain’t science neat?
February 28, 2005
Filter This — 8 AM
Yesterday I received by far the most creative attempt yet to dupe anti-spam filters. Oddly, the technology behind it is something I’ve rarely seen since the 1980s:
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I’d like to know how to add a rule to filter this.
February 23, 2005
Tell Me The Location of The Secret Rebel Base — 10 AM
“General geocide strategy: Destroying the Earth is not as easy as pressing a big red button. It takes decades of hard work.”
— From Sam Hughes’ “How to destroy the Earth,” a fabulously entertaining study in the science of planetary obliteration.
February 18, 2005
Pedantic Speller Alert — 3 PM
Note to everyone writing about the opposite of winning: loose is an adjective which means unfixed or unfastened. The correct spelling of the verb you actually mean is lose with one O.
We now return you to your regularly scheduled English language.
February 16, 2005
Visual Delights For Your Consideration — 11 PM
I don’t mind a kick in the pants (of sorts) when it’s in the form of an elegant solution to ye olde problem of how to easily maintain an online gallery. Whatever I was doing before sure didn’t work, judging by the crusty layer of Mesozoic sediment on the old photo gallery.
Presenting In Frame. The newest highlights will always appear on the homepage (with bonus points for you widescreen folks), and clicking any of the thumbnails will take you into the full gallery.