Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound Image

Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound is a mesmerizing, thoroughly engrossing documentary about the art of sound in movies. Director Midge Costin addresses the topic with two approaches: she walks through the history of sound in film, and then she also explains the layers that make up sound design as well as the artistic skills of an army of people that create the soundscape. The modern process of sound design is extremely sophisticated. Costin reveals how the sound is built from foundational elements of ambient noise in a scene, then ADR, Foley, all the way up to the musical score.

It would seem logical to assume that sight is the primary sense engaged when taking in a film, but often sound can be even more important and impactful. Consider all the ways you see images in movies. Directors and cinematographers make statements by showing or obscuring elements through light levels, types of film grain (student films are famous for using lower quality media, to cut costs and as an artistic statement), color or black and white, camera movement, and many other techniques that create the window through which the movie is seen. It can be varied in tone, quality, and clarity. When the image is distorted, the sound can still inform the viewer about the action or can elaborate an event that isn’t even on screen. The score sets the mood, telegraphing a plot twist, or enhancing the emotion in what you’re seeing. Now think of any film you’ve seen with poor sound: it’s jarring and pulls you out of the moment far quicker than a blurry image. It’s not going too far to say bad sound can ruin the experience in a way that poor image quality may not. In a time when viewers are watching films on planes, tablets, phones, and other small screens, the sound becomes increasingly important to communicate the intent. 

The technical history of sound in film is a fascinating evolution. From early experiments in moving pictures in 1895 through the late 1920s, films were silent. The challenge of syncing sound to image was a daunting barrier until the advent of a continuous encoded image at the edge of the film that could be played back as audio.

Early Sound Designers like Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now), Gary Rydstrom (Star Wars), and Ben Burtt (Star Wars) worked without the vast digital palette of capability available now, creatively repurposing sounds from the real world in various ways to achieve the sonics their movies required. Iconic sounds in Star Wars were made by banging on a guy wire with a mallet as the sound of a blaster. A bear cub enjoying snacks is the voice of Chewbacca.

“…Costin worked as Sound Editor for 20 years, and is now teaching The Art of Dialogue & Sound Editing at USC…”

Visionary directors known for understanding sound and collaborating with Sound Designers, like George Lucas, Robert Redford, Peter Weir, Christopher Nolan, Sofia Coppola, David Lynch, and Ang Lee (among others) talk about their approach to sound and score, and when the impact is enhanced by silence, or by removing the music score. Famously, the opening scene of the Normandy invasion in Saving Private Ryan contains no musical score. The first 20 minutes of sound is that of bullets whizzing by and clanking off the metal of the Czech Hedgehog defenses on the beach, machine guns, human voices, and explosions. The cacophony of war is shockingly presented to terrifying effect.

It’s tempting to talk about Making Waves as being educational, but it is not dryly academic, though it does introduce the subject in some detail. This is a fun film to watch, with the interviews and graphics illustrating how the sound comes together, the doc is an exciting behind-the-scenes look at the effort and skill required to create movie sound artfully.

Costin’s credentials are impeccable. She worked as Sound Editor on films for 20 years and is now teaching The Art of Dialogue & Sound Editing at USC. Her documentary is a 90-minute masterclass on movie sound, an absolute must-see for anyone interested in film.

Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound (2019) Directed by Midge Costin. Written by Bobette Buster. Starring Christopher Nolan, Ang Lee, Steven Spielberg. Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound screened at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival.

9 out of 10

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