Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound (2019)

 Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound by Midge Costin is one of those fascinating documentaries that take you behind the scenes to explain how things happen that are so crucial but you had never previously noticed.

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by Alexa Dalby

Making Waves

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

A film’s sound is just as important as how it looks, David Lynch says here, yet sound directors are often the unsung heroes of filmmaking. We absorb their work subconsciously, but they convey emotions that influence how we experience a movie. A movie’s sound may seem as if it arose naturally and yet it’s actually the height of technical and creative artifice, consisting of multiple layers of different noises and voices, that can involve months of research, recording and editing.

Just as an orchestra is organised into groupings of strings, brass and percussion, a movie’s sound pattern is made up of dialogue, sound effects and music: these areas consist of many sub-sections. Each of them may need large teams of technicians and months of work at all stages of the film’s production as they are created and edited to synchronised with the visuals.

Making Waves focuses on the ground-breaking work of Walter Murch, Ben Burtt and Gary Rydstrom. They more or less invented, and then perfected, the art of cinema sound that we know today, as found in blockbusters such as Apocalypse Now, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Toy Story, to name but a tiny selection of their work. In doing so, Murch and Burtt prove the 10,000 hours theory: they were obsessed by sound recording from an early age and built up their mental sound inventory over decades before they discovered filmmaking and filmmaking grabbed them with both hands. And also it shows the importance of luck – as film school contemporaries they got to team up with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.

Whilst Murch, Burtt and Lystrom provide the professional input from sound designers, the film has many famous directors – including Spielberg, Lucas, Lynch, Robert Redford, Sofia Coppola, Christopher Nolan, Ryan Coogler, Ang Lee, even Barbra Streisand – talking about how they became aware of and used the importance of sound design to create a film’s world. And so many clips from major movies to illustrate what they mean – The Godfather, Nashville, Citizen Kane and…many more.

And the film covers a whole swathe of sound history from Edison’s first phonograph of 1877 to the advent of The Jazz Singer and the talkies in 1927, right through to the latest in digital animation and sound with Pixar. On the way we see the influence of radio and Orson Wells, The Beatles and George Martin, the progression from mono to stereo to SurroundSound, to the roles of ADR (redubbing), Foley artists and sound mixing.

The film is totally fascinating, glitzily made, not at all nerdy and well worth seeing for anyone who has ever seen a movie. There’s nothing so fascinating as hearing people talk who really know their stuff and can explain it in a way that makes it interesting for non-specialists. Yet being so full of important famous faces, juicy clips and trying to be so comprehensive and cover so much ground in a short time makes it seem a bit over-stuffed. Maybe a more pared-down approach could have been just as interesting.

Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound is released on 1 November 2019 in the UK.

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