Between 1977 and 1981 four films were released that would forever change film sound, influencing everything that came after.  They were Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Apocalypse Now, and Eraserhead.  The term “sound design” suddenly leaped into public consciousness but the public, and more tragically the film industry itself, badly misinterpreted what was going on.  What Ben Burtt, Walter Murch, and Alan Splet accomplished in their work on those films was extraordinary.  In each of those movies it was clear that sound was not a bit player anymore but a star, fully equal to the visuals in terms of emotional impact.

But around the world, and most especially in “Hollywood,” the wrong conclusions were drawn about the reasons for the astonishing impact of the sound in those films.  It was assumed that the sound people themselves were the only source of that innovation.  The knee-jerk response among movie producers and directors was “If we want great sound we have to hire a sound genius who knows how to use cutting-edge tools.”

Well… each of those innovators, Walter Murch, Ben Burtt, and Alan Splet soon worked on movies that turned out not to be ground breaking in terms of sound; films whose sound, though top notch in every way in terms of craft, were not sonically memorable.  Like-wise, other sound geniuses were recruited to work on other projects in the following years, very few of which had anything like the creative impact of the four I’ve mentioned.

So what was the magic formula in Star Wars, Raiders, Apocalypse, and Eraserhead that proved so successful?  Of course there is no “magic formula” for any kind of art, but I think there were three necessary conditions responsible for the amazing sonic power in those films.  Talented sound people is certainly one of them, but contrary to what Hollywood had deduced, it isn’t the only one.

At least equally important to talent, and I would say even more important, is the degree to which the film’s script and overall design lends itself to sound being a full collaborator.  Simply providing lots of opportunities for sound to be loud won’t do it. There have been hundreds of screamingly loud movies over the last several decades, and nearly all of them are sonically unmemorable.  Sound needs to be intricately worked into the story in order to have maximum impact.  The four films I’ve mentioned did exactly that.

The third necessary condition is time, time to experiment.  Each of the four examples I have mentioned employed a sound designer over a long stretch of time, allowing risks to be taken, allowing failed experiments, allowing lots of interaction between sound designers and directors.

Tragically, the term “sound designer” came to mean merely “the nerd who makes the cool sounds.”  The original meaning as Walter Murch and Ben Burtt envisioned it… the person at the center of the three necessary conditions I’ve listed, has been mostly lost.  It is long past time that we find ways to revive that original meaning.

Randy Thom, May 4, 2020


3 thoughts

  1. Great blog.
    In 1974, I went to the Little Fox Theater in San Francisco, to see yet another stage rendition of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” In addition to excellent performances by M. C. Gainey (whom I had the pleasure of working with later on Alexander Payne’s first film, Citizen Ruth) and Johnny Weismuller III, prerecorded sound was a major contribution to the production. Having done sound effects for many staged performances at Antioch College, I appreciated the subtle use of effects in the show. What completely knocked my socks off, though, were the elements of the production where the audience was exposed to the inner thoughts of the Chief, which were a very important element in Kesey’s novel. Johnny Weismuller, as the Chief (a deaf mute), would walk downstage into a soft spotlight as the rest of the stage dimmed, and a prerecorded track of the Chief’s thoughts played back through the theater, and had a tremendous impact upon the audience. Oh my!
    It was not until almost a decade later did I discover that Dan Dugan, my Nagra recorder guru, was not only the Sound Designer on OFOtCN, but I believe the term itself was first used to describe his theatrical work.

    1. Great stuff, Jay!
      The origin of the term “sound design” is cloaked in mystery, but it was definitely used in theater before film. The credit appeared for plays in New York and San Francisco in the 1960’s.

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