Unreal Nature

January 15, 2015


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:42 am

… How does 1+1+1+1+1 = 2?

This is from The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film by Michael Ondaatje (2002):

[ … ]

Murch: … After many hours walking, the characters THX and SRT [in THX 1138] — Robert Duvall and Don Pedro Colley — get to the edge of the prison, this white space. The light falls off, and magically there’s a door. … They open it out of curiosity and are sucked into a corridor of people rushing like cascading water, hundreds of people, just rushing.


To create the sound I went out and recorded similar environments: people coming out of football matches, roller derbies, marathons, lots of people moving very fast. I recorded waterfalls, sewage pipes, rushing air — all those kinds of sounds. As I’d done in The Rain People, I piled them all on top of one another, thinking more and more and more equals more. I was going to conquer this once and for all! When we played everything together, however, a funny perceptual thing happened. The needle of the recorder went way off the meter. We couldn’t see the needle anymore, the sounds were so powerful. But our impression was that it wasn’t very loud. It was frustrating after all that work. How does 1+1+1+1+1 = 2?

There was something about the chemistry of those sounds: they were all rushing sounds but none of them had edges, so that the ear couldn’t seize them. Objectively, measured, there was lots of energy, but subjectively, because there were so few edges to the sound, it wasn’t particularly loud.

Then I remembered — these are the mysterious things: why did I think of this? — that a few months earlier I’d been at the Academy of Sciences at two in the morning, recording footsteps. For some reason I’d put the recorder at one end of the African Hall, and stood at the other end and just shouted incomprehensible, guttural speech. It echoed in a beautiful way: the recorder was 150 feet away, the sound bounced off the marble and glass surfaces, in the dark, at two in the morning.

I remembered that track and thought, I’ll add that one to the mix. The effect was instant, overwhelming loudness. I had to pull the faders almost all the way down, and it was still too loud. Even though the meter was just sitting there quivering slightly, in the middle.

[ … ]

There was a crisis in Apocalypse Now, back in ’78, when it turned out that we didn’t have the rights to Georg Solti’s recording of “The Ride of the Valkyries,” which is what we’d been using. Decca Europe refused to give it to us. We were very close to finishing the film and the fear was that we wouldn’t get the rights, and then what would we do? We triaged the situation: continuing to petition Decca for permission, making arrangements with the San Francisco Symphony to record the music again, and trying to find an old recording that was close enough to Solti’s that maybe we could get the rights to. That last task fell to me.

I went to Tower Records and bought all nineteen recordings of “The Ride of the Valkyries.” I sat with a stopwatch and a metronome, figuring out which recordings followed roughly what Solti had decided to do metronomically with the music. In the end, I eliminated all but one — Erich Leinsdorf conducting the L.A. Philharmonic. I thought, It’s not quite the same, but it’s close enough and maybe, if we’re lucky, I can make some adjustments to the picture. …

I transferred the Leinsdorf recording to film, put it up against the picture, ran them both together, and within ten seconds knew that it wasn’t going to work. Not because of any metric problem — in fact it was quite close to Solti’s rhythms — but because of the coloration Leinsdorf had chosen. At this point he had decided to highlight the strings … whereas Solti had chosen to highlight the brasses. … At that moment in the film you’re looking down out of a helicopter, past a soldier, onto the waters of the Philippine gulf. There was a peculiarly wonderful acidity to the blue of the ocean that synergized with the metallic brass of Solti’s recording. With Leinsdorf, the strings had none of that brassiness — they were soft and pillowy — and as a result the blue looked dead. It was no longer the same blue. So I abandoned the search. It was impossible.

Luckily Francis eventually got through to Solti himself. He explained the situation, and Solti said, Of course, dear boy, why didn’t you ask me in the first place?

My most recent previous post from Ondaatje’s book is here.




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