At this point, the phrase “silent movie” is something of an oxymoron, isn’t it?
I mean, can you imagine “Star Wars” without Chewbacca’s roar, “North by Northwest” without the sound of the plane flying over Cary Grant’s head, “Jaws” without that nervewracking John Williams score?
“Our ears lead our eyes to where the story lives,” Steven Spielberg says early in Midge Costin’s lovely documentary “Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound,” and he’s right.
If sound is an essential part of filmmaking, it is also difficult to understand from a technical standpoint. You may have heard the terms ADR or foley artist, but do you know what those folks actually do? If not, “Making Waves” is here to tell you.
“Making Waves” director Midge Costin is herself a longtime sound editor – she worked on such projects as “Armageddon” and “Con Air” – and she proves to be a worthy tour guide into this often misunderstood aspect of filmmaking.
Costin has made a film that is extremely technical, but also incredibly accessible and even entertaining. Through dozens of expertly-picked film clips and interviews with a murderer’s row of talking heads including directors like Spielberg, George Lucas and Christopher Nolan, Costin summarizes both the history and elements of film sound in brisk and entertaining fashion.
It’s as enlightening as it is entertaining – a film that will almost certainly be used to educate the next generation of filmmakers, while also giving more casual film buffs the opportunity to re-evaluate their favorite films with new eyes and ears.
In a brisk hour-and-a-half, Costin hits all of the highlights of a century of film sound, both expected and unexpected. And while this movie buff certainly expected some time to be spent on “The Jazz Singer” (the first talking film) and “Apocalypse Now” (the first film recorded in surround sound), I had no idea that so much time would be spent on the accomplishments of one Barbra Streisand.
It turns out Babs not only refused to lip sync to a prerecorded soundtrack in “Funny Girl” but also insisted that “A Star is Born” be the first film recorded in stereophonic sound… and invested a million dollars of her own money to do it. Who knew?
The great Orson Welles is given his due, particularly for the innovations he made in sound design during his radio years. “King Kong” sound editor Murray Spivack shows up via archival footage to talk about how he made Kong’s voice by playing a backwards recording of a tiger roaring over a forwards recording of a lion roaring. Jack Foley is given his due for giving Spartacus’ armor its clanking sound by simply shaking his car keys over a microphone.
The three living legends of sound effects – Walter Murch of “Apocalypse Now” and “The Godfather”; Ben Burtt of “Star Wars” and “Wall*E”; and Gary Rydstrom of “Jurassic Park” and “Toy Story” – are each given their due and ample screen time to share their life experiences.
When Costin breaks down the seven elements of film sound, she does so with expertly chosen, and at times unexpected, movie clips. For example, ADR- or Automatic Dialogue Replacement- is given its due with the famous “No crying in baseball” scene from “A League of Their Own”, which had to be re-recorded in studio so that Tom Hanks’ monologue could be at the same volume as Bitty Schram’s crying. Dialogue editing- or removing background noise from filming to bring out the dialogue- is represented by a scene from “Ordinary People.”
The content is interesting enough that Costin can be forgiven for jumping around a bit- from a history of film to brief pseudo-profiles on Murch, Burtt and Rydstrom to a breakdown of the elements of sound. Not all of these bits work – for example, a brief section on female sound editors comes out of nowhere while Costin’s supposed to be focusing on sound effects design- but overall the film is cohesive enough to excuse some occasionally ineffective editing.
Non-film buffs will find it enlightening and educational – filled with the sorts of fun trivia you can bust out at the water cooler- but film fans will find it essential. By giving voice to the people buried deep in a film’s credits, “Making Waves” (not rated, but fairly PG despite a couple of R-rated movie clips) reminds us that filmmaking is just as much science as art. And for every film scene you love, hundreds of faceless professionals gave days and weeks and months to get it just right.
That’s a feat worth recognizing and, for the most part, “Making Waves” does these unsung heroes justice.
About the author
Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.