❉ Kara Dennison on a documentary that reveals the hidden power of sound in cinema.
“Making Waves is a community of creators speaking out about itself: its history, its process, its great names, and its love of film. There are moments that seem almost braggadocious, until you realize this is probably one of the few times (if not the only time) that many of these people have been approached about their contribution to a well-loved classic.”
Sound design is one of those fields that a typical moviegoer knows exists, but isn’t always terribly tuned into. It’s one of those less talked about award categories that we take our best shot at guessing on the night. We appreciate it more than we know we do, and it leaves an effect even if we never remember the names of the people who made it happen
Making Waves is a documentary that seeks to change that, even if only for a moment. It not only introduces us to the people behind the sounds of our favourite movies, it’s also directed by one of those people: Midge Costin, whose many sound editing and design credits include Hocus Pocus, Days of Thunder, and Con Air.
The film is divided into two sections: a history of sound design in film at the front, and a breakdown of the different roles in the field at the back. There’s no real “inside baseball” to any of it: you don’t have to come in with any foreknowledge of the field, save for an appreciation (or at least knowledge) of major films in the zeitgeist. That’s not even strictly necessary — it just makes the reveals to come a lot cooler.
The first half, the history, starts at the literal beginning: the era of silent films and on-site musicians. With an obvious (and welcome) nod to Singin’ in the Rain, it delves into the era of talkies. But this is a far more holistic look at the birth of the field than usual, explaining not only who made advances and how, but also why they were the innovators they were. Renaissance man Orson Welles was a major player in this new field, for instance; his detailed creation of sound atmosphere for radio format followed him into film and became a standard for others after him.
The meat of the “history” portion rests largely on widely-known films: Citizen Kane, Apocalypse Now, and Star Wars, to name a few. Each has its own story, slotting in either an advance made in film overall thanks to its making or something that makes it shine. Interviewees and history-maker detail their own stories. Barbra Streisand recounts offering $1 million of her own money to optimize 1976’s A Star Is Born for Dolby’s new surround sound capabilities — a feature now so commonplace we design our living rooms around the feature. We learn about Ben Burtt discusses George Lucas’s insistence on “close to home” sound effects sampling for Star Wars, revealing that the iconic sound effects we all know and love come from TV interference and one particular bear who really liked bread.
The second half, the explanation of the different roles in sound design, is held together by a tidy little half-circle graphic. We check in on each spoke of the graphic to meet a new “instrument” in the sound design “orchestra.” Here is where we dig down into the nuts and bolt: scouting props to create sound effects with, mixing unexpected elements to create emotionally affecting results. Even ADR gets its moment in the sun, demonstrating that it’s for far more than just flubbed lines and TV cuts of R-rated films.
Despite the growing popularity of Blu-ray features that dig deep into every aspect of a film, sound design still hasn’t climbed as high as more front-facing disciplines. The latest entertainment mag isn’t going to say you should be excited for Picard because Peter J. Devlin (who worked on Black Panther and also appears in the documentary) is back doing sound mixing, and boy does he make those levels work. Making Waves is a community of creators speaking out about itself: its history, its process, its great names, and its love of film. There are moments that seem almost braggadocious, until you realize this is probably one of the few times (if not the only time) that many of these people have been approached about their contribution to a well-loved classic.
Making Waves is a strangely fulfilling watch, showing you a whole other layer to films you love. There’s something enchanting about discovering that the jet engine noise that gave you a thrill in Top Gun got you the way it did because Cece Hall thought to mix in animal roars. It’s an aspect of film many of us take for granted, even as we fiddle with our sound settings or scoot our speakers around to get everything just right. You won’t walk away knowing everything, but you’ll be listening to the next film you see much differently.
❉ ‘Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound’ is playing at London Film Festival on 8/9 October and on general release in UK cinemas and on digital 1 November 2019 courtesy of Dogwoof. Run time 94 mins/USA/2019/HD.
❉ KKara Dennison is a writer, editor, and presenter from Virginia. She’s the co-founder of publisher Altrix Books alongside Paul Driscoll, and the co-creator of Owl’s Flower with artist Ginger Hoesly. Her next book, Vanishing Tales of the City, comes out soon from Obverse Books. Kara writes regularly for Crunchyroll, Fanbyte, and other sources across the web.