Making the work of a largely unsung group of technical artists accessible to the general moviegoer, Midge Costin’s very enjoyable Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound presents a century-plus history of the evolution of sound in film while occasionally, quietly suggesting that what a movie offers to the ears is more important than what’s onscreen. However seriously we take that claim, the documentary — a polished directing debut for veteran sound editor Costin — will leave many geekier audience members wishing it were three times as long.
The doc’s final third will offer a breakdown of the various components making up the “orchestra” of a modern film’s soundtrack; its bulk spins the story of how we got here, subordinating technical detail to the personalities who innovated and the storytelling needs they served. In Costin’s telling, this is mostly the story of three pioneers: Walter Murch, Ben Burtt and Gary Rydstrom.
A delight for film nerds that’s accessible enough for a broader audience.
Costin reminds us that the movies were rarely really silent: Live orchestras, offstage voice actors and traveling bands of sound-effects men accompanied films on special occasions. She also suggests that what most excited viewers about 1927’s The Jazz Singer was not so much Al Jolson’s singing but the chance to hear his normal speaking voice in dramatic scenes. Well-chosen clips from Singin’ in the Rain illustrate Costin’s discussion of the challenges sound recording presented once it was invented, shackling filmmakers who would otherwise have been moving their cameras and actors around freely.
King Kong (1933) pointed where things would go. Instead of just recording dialogue and rudimentary effects, Murray Spivak needed to invent new sounds — imagining what kind of roars would strike fear into those who upset Kong. He recorded zoo animals, then combined and manipulated the tape to obtain something better than real. (Decades later, on 1986’s Top Gun, Cece Hall would use similar animal noises, weaving them in with field recordings to wring thrills from the “kind of wimpy” sounds real fighter jets make.) In Citizen Kane (1941), radio wunderkind Orson Welles applied his understanding of that sound-only medium to the movies, creating new sonic atmospheres for different physical locations.
Good as it was for some things, Hollywood’s studio system was, as Costin tells it, lousy for sonic innovation. It fell to independent-minded auteurs like Alfred Hitchcock, David Lean and Stanley Kubrick to show how sound (and the lack of it) could enhance drama. Meanwhile, a kid named Walter Murch was playing obsessively with his family’s tape recorder.
Murch, always an engaging interviewee, is really the film’s heart, setting off a chain of influence. Burtt gets his history-making gig on Star Wars because Murch has other obligations; later, Rydstrom will owe most of his early gigs to the unavailability of Burtt. The 1970s saw, for instance, George Martin’s avant-garde studio work with The Beatles influencing New Hollywood mavericks; rock’s example showed filmmakers the power of stereophonic sound, and in films like 1979’s Apocalypse Now!, they pushed daringly beyond that two-channel paradigm. In between more familiar landmarks, Costin presents Barbra Streisand as a pioneer in movie sound: She convinced William Wyler of the potential of on-set music recording in Funny Girl (1968), then pushed hard for stereo and an in-depth sound edit on A Star Is Born (1976).
Innovations of the ’70s-’90s supply so many enjoyable anecdotes and observations (offered by a who’s who of talking heads — from George Lucas and Steven Spielberg to Ang Lee, Sofia Coppola and Ryan Coogler) that we may wish to linger. But Costin’s film is only 95 minutes, and she wants to show the template that eventually gelled from all this innovation.
In a straightforward way, the film’s last half-hour shows how a contemporary soundtrack is made up of three main departments — voice, sound effects and music — with each of those containing important subdivisions. (And after this work is done, all will be subjected to a mix.) If its history is dominated by white men, Costin makes a point of talking to many women (and the occasional person of color) in this section, using before/after footage to illustrate, for instance, the unexpectedly crucial role a dialogue editor plays in removing distractions from a scene.
As engaging as this final material is, some will wish it were the starting point for a small miniseries that would get even more technical, with more nitty-gritty about each technician’s role and more examples of how it impacts the finished product. Given the time constraints of this feature, Costin’s two or three short detours into her subjects’ personal lives feel out of place. Still, Making Waves will likely inspire viewers to seek out their favorite films and experience them with fresh ears.
Director: Midge Costin
Screenwriter: Bobette Buster
Producers: Bobette Buster, Karen Johnson, Midge Costin
Executive producers: RoAnn Costin, David Green Ahmanson, Jot Turner, Marietta Turner, Carla Brewington
Director of photography: Sandra Chandler
Editor: David J. Turner
Composer: Allyson Newman
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Movies Plus)
Sales: Jason Ishikawa, Cinetic