The vast majority of filmgoers and movie fans around the world associate the term “motion picture” with just that, the picture. We tend to first and foremost focus on the visuals, the aesthetics, and the things that can be seen with our eyes. However, on a subconscious level, something even more spectacular is occurring as we view modern films. As George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola have been quoted as saying, “sound is 50% of the movie.” From director Midge Costin, a sound designer on Oscar-nominated films such as Crimson Tide and Armageddon, the documentary Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound explores the essence of audio’s significance on the theatrical experience.
Costin herself had no intentions of becoming a sound designer at the beginning of her career. Admittedly, she found the concept completely boring and drab. However, as a financially unstable film student at the University of Southern California, Costin decided that the only option remaining in order to have her final thesis documentary come to fruition was to take a “lowly” job as a sound editor on another project. As she continued along this path, her eyes were opened wider and wider to the incredible world of audible storytelling. The impact of her unconventional career trajectory is now being felt by viewers experiencing this documentary. A self-proclaimed “born-again” sound expert, Costin serves as the perfect narrative tool in reaching an audience which may or may not be as well-versed in the language of cinematic sound given her roots as a skeptic.
One of the most notable elements in viewing Making Waves is its remarkable, personal look at sound design on a very human level. By describing how the very first sense that comes to a human embryo in the mother’s womb is sound, the narrative gets each viewer to automatically recognize something relatable and identifiable. Before sight, smell, taste, or touch, an unborn child hears the world around them. Understanding this reality is crucial foundational knowledge when examining the importance of sound in film. Additionally, the documentary provides an intimate glimpse into the behind-the-scenes process of creating sound for cinema. It is not simply a matter of firing a gun on set or recording a bone-crunching punch or personally capturing the howling winds of a storm. Rather, there is an entire strenuous technical and practical procedure that requires countless hours of human effort and exploration. Depending on the film, there may be a reliance on practical sound effects, digital synthesizers, or a combination of both approaches. Either way, there is a tremendous level of skill and concentration required. Whether a sound department guru like Ben Burtt is recording the vocalizations of a bear to use for the roar of a Wookiee in Star Wars, or supervising sound editor Dane Davis is incorporating advanced technical sounds into the post-production of The Matrix, the passion and commitment displayed by these individuals should be appreciated every bit as much as the directors and lead actors.
Making Waves also makes use of inciteful graphics, animations, and diagrams in its illustration of the art of sound design. These visual aids break down innovations throughout the history of sound design such as the multi-track system revolutionized by Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) or the digital age of sound recording beginning with Pixar Studios in the mind-1990s. The recurring demonstration of a chart exhibiting the various subdivisions of a sound design crew is quite beneficial as well. It is fascinating to see the wide array of individual skillsets that go into each main sound production group, “voice,” “sound effects,” and “music.” The “voice” division is comprised of production recorders, dialogue editors, and Automated Dialogue Replacement (ADR) technicians. As for the “sound effects” branch, included are the digital audio artists, foley overseers, and ambience supervisors. Finally, the musical composers have an entire section of their own and are often charged with capturing the most distinct and palpable emotions in any given scene. Making Waves depicts and illustrates these processes so that the rich information of the narrative is conveyed in an understandable and coherent manner.
From a technical perspective, the aptitude of editor David J. Turner should be given its due attention. Multiple interviews from directors such as George Lucas, David Lynch, Ang Lee, Sofia Coppola, and Christopher Nolan, as well as from sound designers like Walter Murch, Ben Burtt, and Gary Rydstrom, hundreds of B-roll clips, stock footage from classic films, and still black-and-white images complement the commentaries of these filmmakers. Witnessing this masterful web being woven and constructed is astonishing. The phenomenal amount of time and energy dedicated to this project by Turner is commendable on many levels.
Even with a runtime of 94 minutes, this documentary is chock-full of substantial material which some might even find to be a slight detriment to the overall impact of the film. While the sheer amount of information communicated is done as effectively as possible, some viewers might be a bit overwhelmed by the volume of it all. Still, this is a very minor gripe that is easy to look past considering the brilliance found in all other areas of the film. Audience members prepared for an enlightening and stimulating peek into the domain of cinematic sound will be in for a rewarding adventure. There is far too much to appreciate in Making Waves to give it anything less than a strong and resounding recommendation.
In theaters beginning October 25th, 2019.
To find a screening near you, head to the Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound website.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.
*This review was originally published by Elements of Madness on October 23, 2019, at https://elementsofmadness.com/2019/10/23/making-waves-doc/.