Triple Oscar Winning Sound Designer & Editor Walter Murch Deconstructs Iconic Sequence from ‘Apocalypse Now’ for NFTS Students

NFTS students were treated to a masterclass of a lifetime when triple Oscar winning Sound Designer and Editor, Walter Murch deconstructed an iconic sequence from Apocalypse Now for which he won an Oscar for ‘Best Sound’ in 1979.

Walter Murch and NFTS Head of Editing, Richard Cox with NFTS second year students

Walter has won two further Oscars, one for ‘Best Sound’ and one for ‘Best Editing’ for The English Patient. He has also worked on a number of classic films including all three Godfather films and American Graffiti. 

Walter Murch and Richard Cox with NFTS first year students

The session was hosted by BAFTA winning NFTS Head of Editing, Richard Cox, who introduced Walter as an innovator, citing the fact that he introduced the credit of “Sound Designer” during his work on Apocalypse Now, which was the first film to be mixed on an automated mixing desk and the first feature film to be mixed in 5.1 surround sound. Walter’s editing Oscar for The English Patient was the first to be awarded for an electronically edited film (using the Avid system), and he is the only person ever to win Oscars and BAFTAS for both sound mixing and film editing on the same film.

Walter opened the session by reminding the students how young the medium of filmmaking is: “When I was your age in 1965, (American filmmaker) King Vidor gave a masterclass just like I’m giving to you. He made his first film in 1913 and passed the baton to me and I pass it to you. Bear in mind that the baton has only touched two human hands!”

Walter then went on to introduce the concept of how an audience can process only two and a half thematic elements at any moment. He discovered this when creating the sound of robot footsteps. He went to the Natural History Museum in San Francisco at 2am with metal shoes to record the sounds and then tried to sync them to the robot: “I made a discovery. If you have one or two robots, the sound has to be in sync but if you have three none of those footsteps need to be in exact sync.” When making the Godfather, he applied this concept to enable the audience to follow two and a half conversations at the same time.

To help explain the concept further and to set up his deconstruction of the Apocalypse Now sequence, Walter showed a diagram arc made up of ‘dialogue’, ‘sound effects’ and ‘music’. “You have to decode dialogue whereas music ‘just is’, it is embodied, not encoded. Music and dialogue are perceived and analysed by different parts of the brain. Sound effects provide the bridge between the two.”

Using the original black and white print that was projected in the dubbing theatre when he was mixing the sound of Apocalypse Now, Walter deconstructed the iconic sequence of helicopters flying over the breaking surf to the soundtrack of the Ride of the Valkyries, to demonstrate to the students how he mixed the complex layers of audio. He played, individually, all the premixes of background dialogue, the re-recorded principal dialogue, the sound of helicopters flying and landing, explosions, live ammunition from AK47s and M16s, footsteps and the music. Walter then explained what happened when he played these premixes together: “All premixes were cooked separately but my heart sank as the final mix at uniform level sounded like mud. Then the robot footsteps idea came back to me and I applied the law of 2.5 and blended things with the terror of a live performance so that only 2.5 things were active at one time. The impression at the end of the scene is that you’ve heard everything all the time, even though you haven't. That principle saved my bacon!”

Walter finished the session by giving every student a filmmaker fortune with quotes from people that have inspired him. Quotes included the following from Cinematographer, Robert Bresson: “The greater the success, the closer it verges on failure” and “Find without seeking.” As Richard Cox later tweeted, “I think these new students will always remember their first day at the NFTS!”