When considering a movie, how often do you consider how it sounds? Not just the score, which many increasingly recognise as a crucial and celebrated component of a cinematic experience, but the aural aspect of how a film is put together. If your answer is “not much”, then Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound is an eye-opener.
Directed by Midge Costin, a former sound editor who worked on films throughout the 80’s and 90’s (heavily on Jerry Bruckheimer productions such as Days of Thunder and Armageddon), Making Waves shines a light on sound design, a process which has been key to the history and evolution of cinema since the pioneering work of Eadward Muybridge all the way back in the 1870’s captured the possibility of an image on screen. Costin’s documentary roughly chronologically tells the story of sound in film, as Muybridge gave way to Melies and the silent film era of the early 20th century, all of which struggled to sync manufactured sound to film. Theatres would use orchestras or even employees banging equipment to mimic sound alongside image. None of it came from the actual picture at first, movies often shot in locations filled with sound because only image was required.
Then along came Don Juan, with John Barrymore, adding sound to image and finally the first talkie, The Jazz Singer, more infamous now for a blacked up Al Jolson, but which for the first time had audiences hearing someone not just sing but talk on a motion picture screen. Making Waves takes that history and runs with it across the subsequent century.
It is easy to forget just how many components go into the sound design of a movie, from ADR to Foley artistry to re-record mixing and beyond – it is an intricate process made up of many parts, and Making Waves shines a light on all of them.
Costin employs a handy visual aide, a representation of a mixing desk on which we see all of these varied aspects across multiple areas of sound design – dialogue, ambient sound, music etc… and while moving across the decades through the history of 20th and 21st century cinema to date, the film focuses in on all of these different processes while telling the story of specific examples along the way. Making Waves blends these histories with that of the real world, whether it’s the arrival of television contributing to the decay of the Hollywood studio system where sound had been traditionally employed for decades, and the subsequent rise of the American New Wave as a result of the counter cultural events of the 1960’s (Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement etc…) leading to a revolution not just in cinema but sound design itself.
This period arguably forms a key chunk of the Making Waves story, which has three particular central heroes: Walter Murch, one of the founders of American Zoetrope with Francis Ford Coppola and mentor to George Lucas; Ben Burtt, whose revolutionary and innovative approach to sound design helped transform Star Wars into the epoch-defining legend it became; and later Gary Rydstrom, who beginning with early Pixar make incredible strides in the animated field and with Steven Spielberg on pictures such as Jurassic Park.
If Making Waves issues a potted history of sound in film, this triumvirate are arguably its titans, the men who elevated and transformed the medium during fascinating and tumultuous periods of cinematic history on films such as Apocalypse Now or Saving Private Ryan, helping to recognise sound as a key piece of the alchemy of cinema. At times these sounds are completely stripped from iconic images and the difference is striking – particularly the opening shot of Star Wars: A New Hope with the Star Destroyer chasing the Imperial Cruiser. Divested of not just music but sound, it loses all of its breathtaking visual effect.
Making Waves therefore feels a welcome addition to the world of documentary cinema about film. Has there been a piece of work devoted solely to the process and development of sound design before? If so they are few and far between and Making Waves certainly manages to engage some of the biggest and boldest names from cinema as part of the discussion – the aforementioned Spielberg & Lucas, but also Christopher Nolan, Barbra Streisand and Ryan Coogler to name just a few. It was a thrill to see the process on the score side of Ludwig Goransson developing his Oscar-winning (and genuinely magnificent) score for Black Panther. Making Waves manages to cover an array of different areas, in the shadow of these great filmmakers and artists, and delivers a comprehensive, enlightening and relaxed journey through the history of sound and film.
Watch this and you’ll never quite see Star Wars, at least, in the same way again.
Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound will be in UK cinemas from Friday November 1st.