The Fabric of Sound

A four-time Oscar winner, legendary sound engineer Marc Berger, whose work includes The Godfather II and Apocalypse Now, was here at the 33rd Festival to give a conference and talk about the transformations in sound made possible by technological innovations. 




In your long career you have worked with such a film legend as Walter Murch. What memories do you have of your work with him in films like The Godfather II and Apocalypse Now?

I was showing a film that I had done the soundtrack for; it was a documentary about California taken from a helicopter, and it had a very impressionistic soundtrack. We were showing it at Francis Coppola’s studio, and Walter Murch was watching it. And when it was over, he came up to me and said, “Did you do the soundtrack for that?” I said, “Yes.” “Well, I’ve got a film that I’m working on for which I need some help; maybe you’d like to help me work on it.” I said, “Yes. What’s the film?” and he said, “The Conversation, by Francis Ford Coppola.” But it kept getting delayed, and in the meantime I went to Cuba for six weeks to do an interview with Fidel Castro, and when I got back, Walter was working on The Godfather II. And he said, “Oh, you’ve just come back from Cuba. I want you to do all the sound for the Cuba sequence and mix it.” So that was the first feature film I worked for, and then Walter and I mixed the film together. He was my introduction to feature filmmaking. Not bad, right? (Laughs). Walter was very quiet. He’s a very metaphorical thinker. We didn’t really talk very much; we just did this and that… But it was certainly very instructive. After that film I went on my own and did One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and after that, Walter and I again and whole bunch of other people did Apocalypse Now, and then I did Amadeus, The Right Stuff, Blue Velvet… So I think mostly it was a combination of being at the right place at the right time with the right stuff and a lot of luck, because there was this particular period of time, from 1970 to 2000, when Northern California -San Francisco and Berkeley, where I live- was a center of creative sound work for films. So people like Francis Coppola, George Lucas and Phil Kaufman and other people would come up to the Bay Area to do sound work to get out of Los Angeles and away from the producers. And we were able to develop a particular method of work that was very collaborative, and a lot of directors were able to appreciate that.


How do you think the way of working and thinking sound on film has changed between the time you started working and today?

When we started, everything was monophonic. Things were made on magnetic tape, there were no computers; everything had to be done physically. And then stereo came in, and then Dolby Stereo, with all the surrounds, all these added dimensions which required a new way of thinking of the use of sound. It became more centered on creating space, both at the sides of the film, behind the screen, moving things around… And all of that was done in order to give people a sense of space. And we learned that, for example, you can move dialogue around the screen, but it’s very distracting. And it turns out that the eye is a very good ear, which is to say, if someone is on the right side of the screen talking, the sound doesn’t have to come from that side of the screen; the eye will make it appear to you as though it were coming from that side. If you actually move the sound over there, then because of the way our nervous systems are set up, you almost have to look there, because we are hardwired to look at the source of the sound, particularly a voice. So that could be very distracting, because you may want to look at another part of the screen or the whole screen at once. So at least in Northern California, we used this new expansion of dimensions to create space. And then later on computers came, and this happened: in the old days, when we were actually working on tape, there was a lot of labor involved in making a cut. You had to take a piece of film, put it in the splicer and splice it and then use scotch tape… So you thought about the cuts before you made them, because if you wanted to undo something it was a lot of work. That is why a lot of choices were made ahead of time, so when you got to the final process, hundreds of thousands of choices had been made; it represented your own ideas about the film in question. With the advent of computers, it became so easy to make a cut or undo a cut that people started postponing choices. So one of the biggest changes that came with the introduction of digital technology in filmmaking was that: to postpone decisions. When stereo first came in, we had a lot of ping-pong recordings, where we would say, “Oh, look what I can do! I can hear the ball go back and forth.” I think we are in that phase now with new technologies where you hear people walking around and voices coming from the back and on top, and music all over the place… People are trying to figure out how to use this new technology. Whether or not it improves the film-going experience is yet to be determined.



Masterclass Mark Berger: How to Listen to Movies 




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