The Sound of “Apocalypse Now”

Posted: October 10, 2011 by tiagopaulosuts in 2011, sound










The Project

Loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s novella The Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now told the story of Captain Willard’s (Martin Sheen) journey into the heart of the Cambodian jungle to find the rogue Colonel Kurz (Marlon Brando).  It was one of the first projects developed by American Zoetrope, the production company Coppola founded in 1969 with the objective of making films outside of the Hollywood studio system. However, at the time the film was impossible to make without the studio’s support, and they weren’t willing to invest in it, so Coppola had to wait until 1975, after the success of the Godfather films, to finally be able to turn Apocalypse Now into a reality.


The Production War

Even though the film’s pre-production began in 1975, and shooting started in March 1976, the film was only released in 1979. The making of Apocalypse Now was a convoluted and uncertain journey that drove the crew and especially the director, who had put up all his personal assets as collateral for the financing of the movie, to near insanity. Like Francis Ford Copolla says in the beginning of Hearts of Darkness, Elleanor Copolla’s documentary about the making of Apocalypse Now, “We had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane”, and “My film is not about Vietnam, it is Vietnam”. Making the film was a war in itself.


This war began in production. The movie took an uncannily long time to shoot, 238 days of principal photography spread over more than a year. At the time, it became known for being a never-ending production, fraught with disaster. During the shoot, which took place at the Philippines, there was a communist revolution going on in the southern part of the country; a typhoon destroyed most of the sets; Martin Sheen, the lead actor, had a heart attack; and  Marlon Brando almost refused to take up his role as Colonel Kurtz and was overweight when he finally appeared on set. Production of Apocalypse Now  ended on May 21, 1977. For the actors and production crew, that was the end of a lengthy and painful process, but for Francis Ford Coppola and his post production crew, a long, difficult road lay ahead.

The Post Production War

If the filming took more than a year, the post production took two. With around 200 hours of footage and a scarcity of sound material with which re-create the Vietnam war ambience, due to the production sound crew’s lack of time and resources, the daunting task of putting the film together was given to Coppola’s collaborator on The Godfather and The Conversation, Walter Murch.

Murch edited half of Apocalypse Now, but did the sound for the entire picture. He had started off his film career in sound, heavily influenced by Pierre Schaefer’s Musique Concrète and by Orson Welles’ radio and film work. From the beginning, he had worked with George Lucas and Coppola, and he was already well-known for his sound work on THX 1138, American Graffiti, The Godfather: Part II and The Conversation, having received an Oscar nomination for Best Sound for his work in the latter. However, his most innovative and visionary work surfaced with  Apocalypse Now, in no small part because of the challenges he and his crew had to face when creating the sound for the film.











Mixing for Surround

One of the greater challenges was preparing the film for a release in the Dolby Stereo 70mm Six Track system. Murch’s previous work in films like American Graffiti and The Conversation had all been in mono and this was the first time he would be using stereo. At the time, Murch didn’t like stereo. He liked mono and the purity associated with it and it was only due to Coppola’s insistence that the film ended up being mixed in stereo. Coming from a generation of filmmakers (the New Hollywood generation ) that was much more aware of the vital role sound could play in augmenting the depth and impact of a film, the director knew that Apocalypse Now’s  sound would be crucial in giving the movie the epic scope he was aiming for. Murch later agreed: “At the time I looked at the way the film was shot and thought to myself, ‘Does he [Coppola] really need to do this?’ because there was so much else going on. But when I looked at it later, with the big Panavision visuals, I realized that the sound-track we did was the thing to do.”

What Copolla was looking for to complement the visuals was quadraphonic sound, with speakers in all four corners of the theatre. Knowing that wouldn’t be appropriate for large theatres, Murch contacted Dolby to develop a stereo surround system with enhanced super low frequencies. That meant having three front channels (left, centre, right), a subwoofer for the low frequencies and two surround channels (left and right). Star Wars was the first movie to make use of extra low frequencies, with three screen channels and a surround channel, to better replicate the war in space, Close Encounters of the Third Kind was the first to add a dedicated subwoofer for the low frequencies, and Superman was the first to split the surround array into left and right, therefore the first movie presented to the public in stereo surround. However, Apocalypse Now  was the first announced film to have a stereo surround format and it was initially expected to be completed before Superman. More importantly, it was the first film to make particularly good artistic use of stereo surround.

To use stereo surround to its full potential, Murch and his team carefully planned how and when to use each of the six channels. It was crucial to determine what kind of sounds to place in the surrounds so that the audience would immerse themselves even further in the movie. The wrong kinds of sounds, such as dialogue, could actually work against the film by reminding the audience that they were in a movie theatre watching a movie. Murch was “terrified of misusing the palette”. Therefore, he created a master chart with graphs of all the six channels, so as to know when the film was supposed to be mono, stereo, or make use of the full surround.

The result was a very dynamic sound experience, with skillful manipulation of the density of sound, a film that was sometimes monophonic, sometimes stereo and sometimes stereo surround. Murch and his team “ thought of the surrounds as something that could be pulled over the theatre like a blanket, and then they could melt away like snow.” They made use of this concept frequently, like in the playboy bunny scene, where the sound begins only in the front, but then opens up to the surrounds so we can feel the full impact of the audience; or the famous Do Lung sequence, where the rock music sound gradually shifts from all the speakers to just the front centre speaker, and then disappears along with all the other sounds when “Roach” turns off the transistor radio.


Density and Psychadelic Sound and Music

This mastery of the density of sound was another of Murch’s great challenges in the film. It is a movie that really explores the contrast between sound and picture. Sometimes, complex visuals, where a lot is happening, have a very simple, minimalistic soundtrack, like the end of the Do Lung sequence or the very ending of the film, where all we hear is the radio and the rain. Other times, very simple visuals, like Willard’s boat wandering through the river mists, can have a very deep, complex soundtrack. On the other hand, in scenes like the one where Col. Kilgore (Robert Duvall) attacks the Vietcong village,  the soundtrack is as incredibly dense and vivid as the imagery.

Coppola was looking for a soundtrack that was faithful to the sounds of the Vietnam war. This meant that it had to be technically faithful to it, reproducing the weapons and equipment used in the period, but also faithful to the mood of the war, which Coppola saw as a drugs and rock n roll war, with a strong psychedelic dimension. The frequent use of helicopters throughout the film serves both purposes.

The helicopter sounds were recorded at a Coast Guard station in Washington. Sometimes, they are used in a realistic way, almost as they were recorded, like during the attack on the Vietcong village. Other times, they are given a more psychic dimension, like the synthesized helicopters in the beginning of the film, where they gradually meld with the sound of the fan in Willard’s room, and they are more a projection of Willard’s mind, a sound in his head, his point of view. The use of stereo surround was ideal for the helicopters, and made their sound even more unique and spectacular, because they hover around in circles, so their movement perfectly fit the placement of the speakers in the theatre.

The helicopter rotors are sometimes also pitched to the music. The melding of sound and music is another of the innovative and challenging aspects of the film. Many of the more realistic sounds were deconstructed on synthesizers and meshed with the music to give the film an even more hallucinatory dimension. In the temple sequence at the end, the winds turning into a chorus are a perfect example of this. Murch worked closely with the music department to achieve this perfect cohesion between music and sound.


The Legacy: Sound Design and 5.1

Murch’s sound work in Apocalypse Now earned him an Oscar for Best Sound, and perhaps even more importantly, it established the term Sound Designer. Murch coined the term when was trying to define exactly what he had done in terms of sound in the film. Because he had had to design the sound for Stereo Surround, he had thought of the sound in a different, three-dimensional perspective, and he had had to create a master chart with graphs to plan precisely where and when the sounds where coming from in the different scenes of the movie. This meticulous planning made him think of a decorator’s work: “…if an interior designer can go into an architectural space and decorate it interestingly, that’s sort of what I am doing in the theater. I’m taking the three-dimensional space of the theater and decorating it with sound.” The term Sound Designer is commonly used to this day to describe the person in charge of all aspects of a film’s audio track, from the dialogue and sound effects recording to the final mix.

Apocalypse Now’s Dolby Stereo 70mm Six Track system, the Stereo Surround, was also the precursor to today’s Dolby Digital 5.1. Ioan Allen, vice-president of Dolby, calls Apocalypse Now “the grandfather of 5.1”. The film was a perfect example of how filmmakers and sound designers could use the new system to elevate cinema sound to a whole new level.



COPPOLA, FF. 1979, Apocalypse Now, Zoetrope Studios, DVD, Paramount, 2001

COPPOLA, FF. 1979, Apocalypse Now Redux, Zoetrope Studios, DVD, Lusomundo, 2002

COPPOLA, E. 1991, Hearts of Darkness, Zoetrope Studios, DVD, Paramount, 2007

HOLMAN, T, 2008, Surround Sound: Up and Running, Focal Press

MURCH, W, 1998, “Touch of Silence”, in Soundscape: The School of Sound Lectures 1998-2001, Wallflower Press, pp. 83-102

MURCH, W, and JARRED, M, Sound Doctrine: An Interview with Walter Murch, Film Quarterly, Vol. 53, No. 3 (Spring, 2000), pp. 2-11

MURCH, W, and HILTON, K, The Sound film Man,, viewed 2 of October 2011

MURCH, W, and SRAGOW, M, 2000, The sound of Vietnam,, viewed 2 of October 2011

WALTER MURCH, Internet Movie Database, viewed 2 October 2011

APOCALYPSE NOW, Internet Movie Database, viewed 2 October 2011

FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA, Internet Movie Database, viewed 2 October 2011

HEARTS OF DARKNESS, Internet Movie Database, viewed 2 October 2011


  1. drazumovic says:

    Great insight into the birth of Surround Sound and the ‘Sound Designer’ role. I knew that it was a tough film to work on, but I did not know exactly how much until now! Coppola and Lucas were really pushing the envelope back then.

  2. […] he is equally important as a sound designer, virtually inventing 5.1 surround sound with Coppola on Apocalypse […]

  3. […] Paul now provides a history of surround sound, beginning in 1878 – a ‘streamed’ live stereo audio feed over a phone wire, and taking in various historical reference points, including 1979’s Apocalypse Now mix. […]

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