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kottke.org posts about American Graffiti

Worldizing - How Walter Murch Brought More Immersive Sound to Film

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 31, 2020

I love echo - any kind of reverberation or atmosphere around a voice or a sound effect that tells you something about the space you are in.

That’s a quote from legendary film editor and sound designer Walter Murch. In the 70s, he pioneered a technique called worldizing, for which he used a mix of pristine studio-recorded and rougher set-recorded sounds to make a more immersive soundscape for theater audiences. He used it in The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, and American Graffiti:

George [Lucas] and I took the master track of the two-hour radio show with Wolfman Jack as DJ and played it back on a Nagra in a real space — a suburban backyard. I was fifty-or-so-feet away with a microphone recording that sound onto another Nagra, keeping it in sync and moving the microphone kind of at random, back and forth, as George moved the speaker through 180 degrees. There were times when microphone and speaker were pointed right at each other, and there were other times when they were pointed in completely opposite directions. So that was a separate track. Then, we did that whole thing again.

When I was mixing the film, I had three tracks to draw from. One of them was what you might call the “dry studio track” of the radio show, where the music was very clear and sharp and everything was in audio focus. Then there were the other two tracks which were staggered a couple of frames to each other, and on which the axis of the microphone and the speakers was never the same because we couldn’t remember what we had done intentionally.