Review: Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound

By Caz Armstrong

In the silent era of 1912 – 1919 there were more women working in the film industry than at any other time since. They were directors, writers, producers, editors and any profession was open to women. In that period Universal Studios alone created 170 films by female directors.

But with the widespread introduction of sound came huge investment into studios, equipment and cinemas. This was fast becoming an expensive and highly profitable industry and women were no longer so welcome. They have been struggling to make a dent in employment statistics ever since.

“If you don’t see someone like yourself doing something it doesn’t seem like a place you could fit in” – Lora Hirschberg, Re-Recording Mixer, The Avengers

Director Midge Costin is one of just a handful of women to work in sound when the new 5.1 surround sound became the new standard sound format in Hollywood. She has worked on multiple films which received Academy Award nominations for their sound and has been nominated by the Motion Picture Sound Editors (MPSE) society multiple times.

Costin’s documentary “Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound” (2019) charts the history of cinematic sound and the key innovations which changed it. It also breaks down the different roles and special skills required in the creation of sound on film.

There are interviews with heavyweight directors like George Lucas, Stephen Spielberg, Sophia Coppola and Robert Redford. We also get to hear from sound editors including Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now), Ben Burtt (Star Wars), Cece Hall (Top Gun) and Bobbi Banks (Selma).

Ben Burtt & Old Recorders

We start by learning about the importance of sound to our full and deep experience of the cinema. It goes without saying that the D/deaf and hard of hearing will experience sound differently and this documentary is about the experiences of those without hearing impairments.

We’re taken through time with case studies and examples being used to illustrate major changes in technology and how they affect the cinematic sound.

When the form of stereo sound was invented the images on screen could become so much more realistic. When 5.1 surround sound came into its own the cinematic space became immersive. Then in the 1990s sound editing became digitised and editors could finesse one individual element among thousands.

Ai-Ling Lee at Console

We get to see the sound recording in progress, the techniques used and how they came about. In the earliest days of film, they realised that it’s almost impossible to get all the sound you need on set so much of it needs to be added afterwards, using techniques previously developed by radio.

As sound systems developed the recording techniques changed to match. If the camera is the audience’s eyes then its position is also our ears. Listening to a crowd scene from behind glass will sound different to hearing it from the midst of the fray and needs to be recorded separately.

As the orchestra of sound is mixed together we can see and hear the film come to life.

The ambient sounds of rain on a pavement ebbs and flows with re-recorded dialogue which has been expertly stitched to match the actors’ mouths. Music swells then quietens exactly where the audience needs their heartstrings pulled. The sounds of household junk or animal roars might be sewn in where you would never expect.

WSM mixing Apocalypse Now

The documentary uses a traditional talking-heads style with interviewees speaking direct to camera interspersed with graphics, archive footage and clips of people on the job. It’s a style that gives it an educational tone rather than trying to create a dramatic narrative. It would be very at home on BBC4.

The issue of gender is addressed directly in a small section which I found very encouraging, although the rest of the film had been dominated by male voices and case studies involving men.

“People say ‘it’s a big action war movie, a guy should do the sound’. Why? Has he been in a war? This idea of one gender being better at it than the other I think is kind of silly.” – Anna Belhmer, Sound Effects Editor, Braveheart

I would have personally preferred for women’s voices to be embedded throughout the film a bit more. I did find myself at one point wondering where the women were. But I do of course recognise that if you make a documentary about a male-dominated industry you’re going to have a lot more case studies about men.

Anna Behlmer at Mix Console

This documentary would be fascinating and educational for anyone but is particularly important for film lovers. While the delivery is fairly straight forward and there is a heavy (although somewhat understandable) focus on men, “Making Waves” offers an intriguing insight into the film industry and a wealth of information. I certainly learned a great deal from it.

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