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Ann Hornaday discusses sound innovations in 1970s films

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 24, 2010; E06

Many innovations in sound that filmgoers take for granted today were pioneered in the 1970s, when such directors as Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas pushed the limits of what sound could contribute to the cinematic experience. Ann Hornaday selects three great moments:

"Nashville" (1975)

Altman's experimentation with naturalistic technique reached critical mass in this crowded ensemble drama set in the country-western capital. Altman collaborated with multitrack recording expert Jim Webb to equip the actors with radio microphones, then gave each voice its own channel, to be accentuated or diminished in postproduction.

With "Nashville," Altman and Webb made the audacious decision to record up to seven actors at a time, creating a complex sonic tapestry of voices and aural points of view, which Altman later knitted into a vivid, naturalistic swirl. Webb also invented a system for recording an on-screen telephone conversation in real time -- later used in "All the President's Men" (1976), for which he won an Oscar.

"Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope" (1977)

This was the first blockbuster shown in Dolby Stereo! (ask your parents). But even more important, "Star Wars" ushered in a new era in sound effects, by way of legendary sound designer Ben Burtt. Using surprisingly quaint techniques, Burtt created effects that would become a cherished part of a generation's soundtrack.

He invented the sound of Luke Skywalker's light saber by combining the hum of an idling film projector and the buzz a microphone picks up when placed next to a television set. He constructed Chewbacca's voice from the grunts and growls of bears at a zoo.

He recorded much of R2D2's voice himself, augmented by actual babies' burbles, and he created Darth Vader's labored breathing by recording himself breathing through a scuba regulator.

"Star Wars" also demonstrates how sound effects and music can work together to orient filmgoers to a film's mood and atmosphere. Composer John Williams created a lush orchestral score that, like the effects themselves, felt like a throwback to the serials and B-movie matinees that director George Lucas paid loving homage to with his old-school space opera.

"Apocalypse Now" (1979)

Sound designer Walter Murch recalls that director Coppola asked for three things for the soundtrack of the Vietnam drama: He wanted it to reflect the hallucinatory experience of soldiers in an often drug-fueled war; he wanted the weapons to be accurate; and he wanted the film "to envelop the audience in all dimensions."

For the film's extraordinary opening scene, Murch and his team synthesized the sound of a Huey helicopter, then separated its aural components. They used the slightly surreal "woop woop" of the 'copter's blades in an overture that combined sound effects, the Doors song "The End" and a narration by Capt. Willard (Martin Sheen) to introduce viewers to Willard's delusional, fever-dream world and the film as a whole.

Murch and Coppola also originated what is now known as 5.1-channel split-surround sound with "Apocalypse Now," with one channel in each corner of the theater, one centered behind the screen and one used for extreme low-frequency effects, like the rumble of exploding bombs.

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