When you’re watching a film, how often do you think about the sound design? Unless you’re intimately involved in film production, I’d be willing to wager it’s basically never. Have you ever really thought about how they made the dinosaur sounds in Jurassic Park? I mean, obviously, we all know they didn’t go out and just record dinosaur noises, but I’d never once thought about it. I just thought, “Yup, that’s what a T-Rex sounds like.” But of course, someone had to create that sound from scratch. What about R2D2’s “voice”? Have you ever once considered it could be anything other than what it is? I know I hadn’t. Sound is so integral to film, and yet if it does its job properly, it’s barely consciously noticed.
This is where Midge Costin comes in. Her directorial debut after working for over 20 years as, you guessed it, a sound editor, Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound is a love letter to the people responsible for the sounds of all the films you love. For the most part it’s an informative, entertaining, and well-made film, although it occasionally veers in to hero worship. But to be honest, considering the contributions made to film history by some of the people featured and their relative anonymity, maybe a bit of hero worship wouldn’t go amiss.
Essentially split in to two halves, the first gives audiences a tour through cinematic sound history. From the first moments sound entered cinema, through to stereo sound, to the full six-speaker set up we use today, we follow the technological advancements made and how they affected films and the audiences who watched them. In the second, we’re walked through all the various aspects of modern sound design. From on-set recording, to digital sound editing, foley artistry, and the creation of sound effects and musical scores. Interspersed throughout are interviews with some of Hollywood’s heaviest hitters, including Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Christopher Nolan, with smaller sections of the film devoted to three giants of the industry, collectively responsible for some of the most iconic movies of the past half century; Walter Murch, Ben Burtt, and Gary Rydstrom. Walter Murch was responsible for the sound design of Apocalypse Now, which was the very first film to use the six-speaker set up that is now the industry standard. Ben Burtt was the sound designer on all the Star Wars films, inventing the unmistakable light saber sound. And R2D2. And Wookies. He also worked on Indiana Jones, ET, and more. Gary Rydstrom was the sound designer for Terminator 2, Jurassic Park, and Saving Private Ryan, which Making Waves goes in to great detail as to how he and Steven Spielberg created the sound for the absolutely iconic opening battle scene.
The only real misstep in Making Waves are a few small segments toward the end of the film that are tonally off and out of place. One segment with female sound designers talking about sexist opinions they’ve faced comes out of and ultimately goes nowhere, and another about how much sound designers love their job, but often work too hard. There’s nothing wrong with either segment per se, they just felt out of place and unnecessary. Ultimately it’s a very small complaint, and neither sequence really distracts from the films strengths.
I like to think of myself as a well-educated film fan, and yet before watching Making Waves I’d only heard of one of the three legends mentioned earlier (Walter Murch, for those interested). And even if that was all I managed to glean from the film, it’d make a more than worthwhile watch. Luckily there was plenty more to enjoy. Making Waves shines a light on a very important aspect of film-making that seldom gets the love it so richly deserves.