Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound, 2019.
Directed by Midge Costin.
Starring Walter Murch, Ben Burtt, Steven Spielberg, David Lynch, Sofia Coppola, and Ryan Coogler.
An exploration of the history, artistry, and emotional power of cinema sound, as revealed by legendary sound designers and visionary directors, via interviews, clips from movies, and a look at their actual process of creation and discovery.
Hollywood sound editor-turned-documentarian Midge Costin (The Rock, Con Air, Armageddon) makes a convincing rallying cry for the under-appreciated art of cinematic sound design with this deeply informative and agreeably nostalgic talking heads doc.
An opening primer from legendary picture-and-sound editor Walter Murch (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now) provides an authoritative reminder of the importance of sound, and how it so so often proves an easily ignored ingredient of a film’s success.
Of all the below-the-line filmmaking crafts, it’s surely the least talked-about; outside of an actual musical score, how often does the general public even consider sound? And even when the Oscars roll around, much of the sound-related discussion de-evolves to deciphering the difference between sound editing and sound mixing (the former being the creation of sounds, the latter layering them appropriately).
Costin’s deeply passionate film concisely outlays the tripartite branches of any movie’s soundscape – sound effects, music, and voice – while eventually going deeper to consider the studious disciplines within each, such as ADR, foley, ambiance creation, dialogue editing and so on. And that’s without even considering the eventual mixing process itself.
But before delving into these aspects in much detail, Costin revisits the history of movie sound, from the early days of cinema where music couldn’t be physically attached to images, to the game-changing inclusion of accompanying sound, and how it helped thread together the modern film industry as we know it. After all, sound necessitated the creation of both post-production audio suites and soundstages.
The morsels of mind-boggling creativity on offer – such as 1933’s King Kong playing a lion’s roar backwards in order to achieve the giant ape’s signature growl – are met only by their meticulous necessity, to fend off a Hollywood content to indulge in a soulless library of stock sounds. Even studio executives often believed sound to be a less-important facet of a movie’s construction, but that largely changed in the 1970s with the confluence of stereo sound and the onset of the blockbuster film – the popularity of the latter ensuring the widespread adoption of the former.
This is traced by Costin all the way to the digital age and the CGI animation revolution – kickstarted by Pixar’s Toy Story, of course – as well as the left-field potential for non-tentpole movies, like Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, to deliver a uniquely artful sonic experience.
Between a mixture of archive footage and new talking heads interviews, Costin presents access to a wide variety of industry figures, such as George Lucas, Christopher Nolan, Sofia Coppola, and Ryan Coogler, all of whom extol the virtues of movie sound with an infectious enthusiasm. And likely a result of her own under-representation in the industry, the director also ensures the magicians themselves get ample screen time, especially those female sound editors and mixers who have fought so hard to reach their stations.
But the film really hits its stride when it digs a little deeper into specific movies, such as an intricate analysis of Spielberg’s Normandy landing sequence from Saving Private Ryan, as well as the Earth-shattering work on Star Wars that changed everything, and the gargantuan task of creating Apocalypse Now‘s ludicrously layered sound mix.
In the very least, Making Waves will probably prompt you to think about movies a little differently and pay closer attention to the subtle emotion sound can bring to any project, if not find a newfound respect for the meticulous craftsfolk who toil away on details, often mundane, for our unconscious benefit.
In a rather unexpected final note, there’s also a reminder about the dangers of professional obsessiveness, presenting a reminder to step away from your passion – be it a mixing deck or not – and find a pleasurable work-life balance. It might feel like a slightly jarring message to place so abruptly at the end of a doc about movie sound, but it’s a tidy reminder all the same.
While relatively dry format-wise, this is a loving tribute to an unsung pillar of filmmaking craft, and a must-see for enthusiasts interested in the guts of their movies.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.