Director Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now is celebrating its 40th anniversary with a newly edited cut featuring enhanced audio and remastered picture restored from original film negative.
This new version, the three-hour Apocalypse Now Final Cut, premiered at the Beacon Theatre on April 28 as part of the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival. Under Coppola’s supervision, a team from his American Zoetrope production company remastered the film’s visuals in 4K Ultra HD with Dolby Vision from original negatives, and also transferred the soundtrack to high-resolution 96 kHz digital for remixing and remastering in Dolby Atmos.
Like a Kick in the Chest
Final Cut’s audio post process took advantage of new technologies including Meyer Sound’s Sensual Sound, which uses ultra-low frequency sounds to increase audio intensity in key moments of the film.
Sensual Sound, a technology trademarked by Meyer Sound, is produced by Meyer Sound’s VLFC “Sensual Sound” loudspeakers and loudspeaker technology, and brings to life the sound experienced in the film’s exhibition. Sensual Sound allows post-production of a film’s soundtrack to reach greater creative heights.
Meyer Sound’s recently developed VLFC subwoofers are able to deliver sounds down to 13 Hz, below the limit of human hearing but well in the range experienced as a physical sensation of rumbling or vibration. These very low frequency sounds are bolstered by a corporeal sensation of physical force.
Of the VLFC subsonic subwoofers installed temporarily in the Beacon Theatre for the film’s premiere, James Mockoski, film archivist at American Zoetrope, said, “You’re going to feel it like a kick in the chest.”
Mockoski spoke at a panel discussion following a press screening of Apocalypse Now Final Cut at the Dolby Auditorium at AMC Empire 25 in Times Square. He was joined by American Zoetrope sound mixer Pete Horner, who performed the Atmos mix on Final Cut, Meyer Sound CEO John Meyer, and Glenn Kiser, director of the Dolby Institute.
Sensual Sound was implemented in both the post-production of the soundtrack—which took place at Coppola’s private post facility in the Napa Valley and at Dolby Studios in San Francisco—and in the film’s exhibition.
The complete Meyer Sound loudspeaker system installed at the Beacon included front LCR screen systems of 10 each LEOPARD line array loudspeakers and surround systems with UPA-1P, UPJ-1P and M1D loudspeakers. This standard sound system was augmented with 12 VLFC elements, placed in an end-firing cardioid array, and six 1100-LFC elements.
The studios at Coppola’s Napa facility, where much of the initial work on sound editing and infrasonic enhancement was carried out, are fully equipped with Meyer Sound cinema systems. The mixing suite was further equipped with two VLFC elements for Final Cut.
The final Atmos mix, performed at Dolby Studios by Pete Horner, also took advantage of a pair of VLFC elements to extend low frequencies into the infrasonic realm.
Feel the Sound Before You Hear It
Enhancing the realism of cinema sound has been a lifelong passion for John Meyer, and his relationship with Coppola’s production company extends back to 1979, when Zoetrope’s Tom Scott invited Meyer to bring his experimental subwoofer to the facility for a tech shootout.
According to Meyer, Coppola had a similar interest in low frequencies to re-create the visceral power of sound. His goal in projects including Apocalypse Now was for recorded sound to more accurately represent real life, for a film’s soundtrack to convey emotional as well as literal meaning.
“Coppola always said he wants to feel the sound before you hear it,” Meyer related. “I don’t know if you’ve ever been around big explosions, but [sound] travels faster through the ground [than the air]. We’ve done a lot of measurements around big explosions, trying to figure out this thing. So you feel it first and then you hear it. It’s still low frequency, but the real low frequencies, 12, 14 cycles, travel faster through the ground. They don’t get attenuated, either, so you feel that. And then the sonic boom comes,” he noted.
“No subwoofers at that time went down below 60 Hz, even though people were claiming they did,” Meyer said of the status of audio technology in 1979. “We had a subwoofer that would take us down to 27 cycles, so we could show people what this dimension sounded like.”
Meyer took his experimental subwoofer over to the Northpoint Theatre in San Francisco for the shootout. “So we went over with our subwoofer—this was an 18-inch speaker and a big box that was tuned to 27 cycles with 3,000 watts of power,” Meyer said. “We demonstrated this and I think we were way beyond. Francis was saying, ‘I want to feel the sound in the bathroom,’ there were a few comments like that. We were over at Northpoint for more than a month listening to that one scene with the helicopters coming in,” Meyer said, referring to one of the film’s iconic sequences of air cavalry helicopters advancing on a Vietnamese village scored to Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.”
Walter Murch in Nautilus Magazine: "How I Tried to Transplant the Musical Heart of Apocalypse Now," Nov. 12, 2015
The scene concludes with a dramatic punch as B-52s drop napalm to take out Viet Cong mortars and neutralize the village in a fiery inferno with a concussive shockwave, inspiring the film’s Lt. Col. Kilgore’s famous line, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”
Throughout work on that one scene—“I know that scene really well. I saw it in black and white every day for a month.”—Meyer and the Apocalypse team learned a few things about low frequencies. He noted, “Ten minutes of rumbling of very low frequency creates, we were learning, this tremendous adrenaline burst. So that was really very important.”
Meyer continued, “What happens with low frequency is it releases adrenaline. You have to get below 20 cycles for this to happen, and the body releases adrenaline trying to get you to wake up to deal with the problem,” Meyer says, describing the body’s “fight or flight” reaction to perilous situations and loud noises.
“We were trying to get the sound of napalm, but we wanted to go further,” he said.
Related: The Low-End, Sensual Sound of Apocalypse Now Final Cut, by Tom Kenny, Mix Magazine, May 7, 2019
The result of this first collaboration with Coppola was the 650 subwoofer, one of Meyer Sound’s first products. It was deployed in a few Bay Area and New York theaters for screenings of Apocalypse Now.
Meyer and Coppola would be able to go further with low-frequency sound reproduction, but the technical evolution would not come for nearly 40 years. The breakthrough would depend on the development of Dolby Atmos and Meyer VLFC technology.
Sensurr ... How Much?
James Mockoski detailed how Coppola’s vision for Apocalypse was hindered by the limits of technology (and budget) in 1979. “What Francis wanted to do back in ’79 was a technique called Sensurround, which Universal had pioneered at that time for Earthquake,” a 1974 film, and 1977’s Rollercoaster. Sensurround likewise presented low-frequency sound to enhance onscreen visuals.
Coppola approached Universal studio head Lew Wasserman and asked to use Sensurround in Apocalypse Now, Mockoski said, but revised his plan when he learned its cost: about $1 million. According to Mockoski, Coppola’s enthusiasm was dulled. “’I have too many problems with this film already, I just can’t. I’m over budget as it is.’ So he put that on the shelf. But 40 years later he came back to this idea” of enhancing his storytelling with low-frequency sound.
Revisiting Apocalypse with New Technologies
Generally speaking, Final Cut is the third version of the film, after the 1979 original and 2001 Redux extended cut. (At 202 minutes, Redux is 49 minutes longer than the original.)
Introducing Apocalypse Now Final Cut at its Tribeca premiere, director Francis Ford Coppola described the genesis of the different versions.
“When the film came out in 1979, we learned very quickly that the film was unusual—and that of course provided great anxiety on behalf of our distributors, who wished it could be a little more normal,” Coppola said. “Plus, whenever you make a new film, unanimous opinion is, it’s too long.”
Coppola added, “So we kept cutting it shorter and trying to make it less weird, because it was pretty surreal.”
Redux was inspired in part by the compromises that had been made to release the original. “Forty years ago, we did not know [the film] would survive and so we made it as short and normal as we could. And then years later we realized, well maybe we could put everything back and let it be as weird as it really was. And that was done in a film called Apocalypse Now: Redux, which was very long.”
Related: Apocalypse Now: Redux, by Larry Blake, Mix magazine, Aug. 1, 2001
Coppola considered which version of the film to screen for its 40th anniversary celebrations. “I didn’t want to show the 1979 version because it had some real shortening that was not what I would do today, and Apocalypse Now: Redux, which had everything in it, was, I always felt, interesting for those who want to stay another 40 minutes or whatever, but it was a touch too long. And so I decided to come up with the way I would like to show it and see it. And we named it Final Cut because it’s nothing more than my personal preference. It’s not as long as Redux and not as short [as the 1979 original]. It’s like the three bears, it’s just right.”
He noted, “I wanted to do a version that was the way I thought would be best for this and all audiences. Thanks to Lionsgate and the team who did this incredible restoration. A lot of the technical capability that we have in 2019 wasn’t available before,” Coppola said, noting the work of sound partners Dolby and Meyer Sound and describing Final Cut as “a beautiful technical rendition” of Apocalypse Now.
James Mockoski summarized, “The ’79 cut lives as the ’79 cut. Redux lives as Redux. But for Francis ... it evolves for him. He has something more to say. He can change and he can craft his story in the moment that he’s in. And when he thought, I want to change a little bit, tweak it, take 20 minutes out and make it a little better, tell it the story in a different way, that’s when he gets excited.”
Shortly after the Apocalypse Now remastering project was launched, Meyer Sound was again brought on board, and John Meyer started rethinking the possibilities in light of new technologies.
“I had been watching the film with the original soundtrack, which only went down to 30 Hz, and I really felt it needed to go deeper,” he recalled. “If you are ever around guns, even at a shooting range with only handguns, the sound hits your body with a powerful feeling. We weren’t getting that. Francis agreed to come over to our theater in Berkeley to hear our new technology, and we demonstrated how this effect would add a new dimension to his film. He agreed this was the path to take, and that’s how we got started on the partnership for this re-release.”
A Master Class in Sound Design
Pete Horner describes Walter Murch’s original sound design for the film as a master class in surround sound. And the film’s sound template has only been enhanced by the development of technologies like 5.1 surround sound and Dolby Atmos.
“What makes this track so special, it’s still a reference for how to do surround sound, to this day,” Horner reiterated.
Compared to the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach often used in the soundtracks to today’s blockbusters, Murch’s design was thoughtful, subtle when appropriate but intense as required by the story.
“A lot of surround mixes today, we do everything because we can. We put sound in every speaker all the time.” But on Apocalypse, Horner said, “When you go to the helicopters, for instance, the ‘Ride of the Valkyries,’ a lot of that’s happening right up on the screen. It still feels intense because it sounds amazing, but it’s mostly happening up on the screen. Then, when [the sound designers] choose their moment, when they fly a helicopter around the room, it’s exciting, it’s incredible, because those speakers have been sitting there quiet, waiting for this moment when we can engage you.”
Horner said it was exciting to turn the helicopter sound into an Atmos object, taking the movement and enhancing it, adding additional detail. “One of the discoveries I made is, in ’79, they had panned it from the back left around to the front. In ’96 [for the 2001 version Apocalypse Now: Redux], Walter said, ‘We can go a step further now because we have really discrete surround. So we can go from the back right all the way around.’ And so here I am in 2019 saying, okay, we’ve got all these speakers. And I can start it on the side wall and I can move it behind us all the way around, and it’ll move through every speaker in the room. That’s what they were trying to back then, and now we can really do it.”
Horner added, “Luckily, because the design of the film was so thoughtful and so well done from the beginning, it gave me the opportunity to take the baton and say, okay, I get what you were trying to do, let’s just go one step further and let’s really feel that movement.”
Art and Aesthetic
Glenn Kiser, director of the Dolby Institute, said, “Apocalypse is integral to the history of Dolby. It’s really the first commercial 5.1 mix that was designed and released.”
The original soundtrack is revolutionary and groundbreaking because of the technology employed, but Kiser counters that the aesthetic is at least as important.
“There’s the technology of it, but there’s also just the art and aesthetic of it. It’s astonishing to me that now, 40 years later, it’s still an extraordinary feat of creativity. One of the things that Walter [Murch] talks about in his writings and in his lectures is that he calls sound ‘the back door through which information comes to the viewer,’ and that audiences are able to accept a great deal of abstraction in the soundtrack as long as it’s rooted in the visuals. And it’s a great gift for the filmmaker.”
A New Dimension in Sound
“The low frequency is really a new dimension” in film sound, Meyer said, recounting his experience of watching the remastered Apocalypse Now Final Cut prior to its Tribeca premiere. “I was sitting there waiting, they were going to show me some stuff up at Coppola’s studio, and the sound hits me. It was instant. If you don’t know what’s coming, it just stuns you. It’s a dimension that’s really exciting.”
Meyer continued, “One of the things that was really interesting for me to watch in the last year of them putting this film together is, they’re creating textures with the low frequencies—not just pink noise like they were doing in Sensurround, some kind of rumble. There’s dimension down there. This is an amazing new tool.”
Volume Versus Impact
Meyer technology is used widely in live sound applications, especially concerts, with systems installed at music and entertainment venues, houses of worship, universities, corporate offices and museums.
Meyer explained what the company has learned from working with touring acts like the Grateful Dead and Metallica: “One of the things that we do know from work with acts like Metallica is that you don’t have to run the show too loud. We’ve discovered that high frequencies [and high volume] also release adrenaline, but it’s hard on the hearing system. With low frequencies, the hearing community isn’t concerned with anything below 100 cycles, so we can do anything we want. Which means we have a whole dimension to explore, to create feeling, and not have it so loud” that hearing is damaged.
Sensual Sound is used to great effect to convey a sense of disorientation and confusion in Apocalypse’s explosive, fast-paced battle scenes, but perhaps a more significant benefit of VLF is demonstrated in the way it amps up the anxiety in the film’s quieter, more abstract moments.
Near the end of the film, when Willard (Martin Sheen) has reached Kurtz’ compound in Cambodia, for example, his boat passes through a line of small boats, silently, save for the soundtrack’s slow, resonant drum beat.
The audio team was able to build infrasonic sound into the story, using it creatively to convey specific emotion.
“It really is a physiological response,” Horner said. “We would work on the sequences over and over, as you do, trying to craft it into a shape that has a response. But one of the things we came to realize is you could only do that for about 20 minutes [until] you would start to feel it and would need to take a break. It really is generating a physiological response. It’s a power that you’ve given us,” he laughed, “and we need to use it responsibly.”
Related: Francis Ford Coppola's American Zoetrope Adds Three Meyer Sound EXP Systems, March 19, 2012
Apocalypse Now Final Cut will be available as a 4K Ultra HD Combo Pack (4K disc, plus three Blu-ray discs and digital copy) and on Digital 4K Ultra HD on Aug. 27 from Lionsgate. A theatrical release from NAGRA myCinema will be available in select theaters nationwide starting Aug. 15.
The four-disc Apocalypse Now Final Cut anniversary set includes the film's theatrical cut and extended cut (Redux), as well as the Hearts of Darkness documentary about production on the original version. The set also includes in-depth special features, newly discovered behind-the-scenes footage, and the Tribeca Film Festival Q&A in which Francis Ford Coppola was interviewed by Steven Soderbergh.
Meyer Sound • meyersound.com
Dolby • www.dolby.com
American Zoetrope • www.zoetrope.com