People are naturally aware of the physical sounds of the world. But when it comes to cinema, primarily a visual medium, the aural realm is often taken for granted as, for lack of a better term, background noise. While the moving image does a lot of the heavy lifting for the viewer, sound design acts as a subtle manipulator of emotions, working behind the scenes as a key storyteller.
Sound designer Midge Costin’s directorial debut, Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound, lets all the noises, harmonies, vibrations and myriad other forms of sound found in motion pictures take center stage. Discussing not only how the craft of sound design was formed and improved over a century but how individual filmmakers discovered sound’s usage in amplifying the entertainment and adding layers of emotional resonance often thought only capable by the actors and the written word.
Making Waves performs two roles: highlighting the revolutionary craftsmen behind sound design, focusing primarily on six or seven godfathers of the trade, but also educating the audience on the application of sound, in all its many forms, with hundreds of examples from a century worth of film. Costin’s ability to blend biographical stories of key figures in sound’s evolution, people often working behind the scenes with little fanfare, and tracing a chronological history of sound design’s evolution from the late 19th century to today’s biggest blockbusters, is a fantastic approach and mostly succeeds.
The wealth of interviews is staggering as filmmakers of every genre and era appear. Amongst them all, the true hero of the film, and deservedly so, is Ben Burtt, the two-time Oscar winner who helped create some of cinema’s most iconic sounds in Star Wars (1977). Though Making Waves does go into Burtt’s impressive catalog of seminal sound work in some of the most popular films of all time (you get to see how Chewbacca’s iconic growls were captured as well as such signature sounds like lightsabers and blasters), it also focuses on the man himself, looking at the passion that drives him while keying in on how his intellect led to revolutions in the field.
Because Star Wars was such a big player in sound’s evolution, George Lucas and, by association, his fellow travelers at American Zoetrope, the company he founded with Francis Ford Coppola, play a big role in the story as well. Next to Burtt, Making Waves other stand-out subject is Walter Murch, whose sound credits (amongst other duties) are the stuff of legend. He was pretty much involved in every major film of the 1970s that we still talk about today.
But his contribution to Apocalypse Now is the most heavily investigated in the film, showing how Murch and director Coppola used specific sound manipulation and the utilization of what we now know of as surround sound to amplify a character’s emotional state or show the world through a lens of subconscious confusion. Apocalypse Now was always a visual feast but thanks to Making Waves, we now can see how extra trippy and engaging the material is when sound exists as its own character in the story.
The biggest surprise of the documentary was showing how Barbara Streisand helped change the concept of sound design in films. During the production of A Star Is Born (1976), Streisand felt re-recording her and co-star Kris Kristofferson’s voices in a studio would dull the emotional impact of any scene. She insisted on live and raw performances, ditching the “perfect” studio track and allowing for any discrepancies in real-time to inform the character’s emotional state. Add to that an insistence on realistic sonic portrayals of musical performance in different settings, such as when performed in outside festivals and indoor concert halls, added an extra sense of authenticity to the film.
The most engaging aspect of the documentary, and what takes up the final third of the runtime, is when we get to see how sound is created, recorded, manipulated, and inserted into a finished product. One particularly fun sequence is how the iconic Invasion of Normandy scene in Saving Private Ryan came to be, including the use of silence and/or reduced noise in specific sequences to help the audience connect with one particular character’s shell shock and confusion at what he sees.
Gary Rydstrom, who has a whopping 18 Academy Award nominations (winning seven of them!) goes through the technical process of Saving Private Ryan (two of his Oscar wins for that film, both for sound effects mixing and editing), showing when to add additional noises, when to reduce ambiance or background, and when to amplify sound to provide a dramatic punch. Seeing as he has provided sound work for most of Spielberg’s films, including Jurassic Park, as well as gigantic titles of cinema history like Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Titanic, seeing Rydstrom at work in the studio is a gift to the audience.
So if you are looking to learn something new or expand on the knowledge you already had when it comes to sound design, Making Waves is a must-see documentary. It manages to discuss the technical aspects of the craft without bogging it down in jargon and never, at any point, does it feel like the interviewees are looking for attention for their achievements. If anything, this is a showcase for the passion, expertise, and even the science of how sound plays a major role in creating movies.