Review: Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound

Ben Burtt and Richard AndersonBen Burtt and Richard Anderson recording the voice of Chewbacca.

Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound
Director: Midge Costin
Writer: Bobette Buster

Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound is the perfect for someone (like me) who wants to learn more about the process of filmmaking. It’s also for anyone who has ever paused while filling out their Oscar ballot to wonder: what is the difference between “sound editing” and “sound mixing”? (In a nutshell: sound editing is the process of adding or subtracting sound, including voice, music, and effects into a movie after it has been filmed; sound mixing is about synthesizing everything into one soundtrack, sort of like the conductor of an orchestra.)

Producer/Director Midge Costin, a sound editor who is also a professor at USC’s film school, gives this documentary an academic bent. It often felt like a distillation of a semester’s worth of lectures, with special guest appearances from legendary sound editors like Walter Murch and Ben Burtt. Making Waves covers a lot of ground, including the history of film’s transition from the silent era to sound, the studio system approach to sound effects, the use of music in film, the process of making particular sound effects, and technological innovations in sound design such as stereo and surround sound. With behind-the-scenes interviews, photographs, and footage of sound designers at work, Costin makes visible a process that most filmgoers don’t give much thought to, but which must be executed with precision in order for a movie to cast its narrative spell. Even silence must be engineered by sound editors, who subtract ambient noises to create an artificial — but psychologically powerful — sense of quiet.

The argument at the heart of Making Waves is that sound is the most important element of storytelling, because the human voice, music, and sound from nature, like wind and water, carry enormous emotional resonance. A soundtrack sets the mood and tells viewers how to feel about particular situations. Sound is also what made movies a big business: audiences filled theaters when sound was incorporated into narrative film.

Pioneering directors such as Steven Spielburg, Francis Ford Coppola, and George Lucas opine about the importance of sound in their storytelling, breaking down particular scenes in their movies, beat by beat. They were so convincing that I occasionally wondered why Making Waves had to be a documentary and not, say, an episode of Radiolab. I can think of only a few instances when visual elements were particularly enhancing to the script, and there were times when it might have been more powerful to simply hear the sound effects from legendary films without their visual counterparts. (I, for one, would listen to a Making Waves spin-off podcast.)

Still, much of the footage in this documentary is fascinating, especially when we see what goes into creating iconic sound effects from movies like Star Wars, Top Gun, and Apocalypse Now. Animal vocalizations are incredibly versatile: King Kong’s roar was created by recording the roars of lion and tigers, then re-recording them backwards and at half-speed, layered over each other. The jet sounds from Top Gun incorporated monkey screeches, and Chewbacca’s voice was borrowed from a bear. Star Wars sound engineer Ben Burtt was given free reign by George Lucas to find and create sounds that would help to ground the Star Wars universe in a familiar reality. There’s lots of trivia for Star Wars fans, including the hilarious-in-retrospect fact that George Lucas was worried that people wouldn’t like R2D2’s voice.

As with everything in Hollywood, this is a film dominated by male voices, especially male directorial voices. We hear from only two female directors: Sofia Coppola and Barbra Streisand, who pioneered the use of stereo sound her remake of A Star Is Born. However, there are a number of interviews with female sound designers, including Anna Behlmer, Cece Hall, and Lora Hirschberg. Having come up in the business at a time when there were few women working in sound, these editors are well aware of bias in the industry. For a variety of reasons, sound design is considered a “male” job, and especially for war movies, there is a tendency to hire men — even though male sound designers whose life experience consists of college and film school aren’t any more likely than women to have special knowledge of what war sounds like.

In another example of institutional sexism, Barbra Streisand described putting down a million dollars of her own money to pay for stereo sound for A Star Is Born. At that time, stereo sound was a new technology, and Warner Brothers didn’t believe it was necessary. The studio paid Streisand back when they heard the results, and stereo sound soon became standard in film. It’s one of many stories in Making Waves that illustrates how the impeccable ear of a director leads to innovation in sound design.

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