Director Midge Costin has woven a comprehensive frolic through the history of cinematic sound. Starting with the age of “talkies”-the first movies using vocal sound-through the digital age, she explores how sound has flourished and made it possible for film to connect further with its audiences.
She highlights sound’s importance in film and walks us through the art of appealing to one of our greatest senses, featuring some of the incredible artists behind sound that, more times than not, aren’t given the attention they deserve.
Sound Changes Everything
Thomas Edison launched the phonograph in 1877 and the first silent narrative film in 1903. These inventions, arguably, gave birth to cinema. The problem was, filmmakers didn’t have the technology to record sound or voices and synchronize it with the film. The first film with sound, synchronized musical score and sound effects was Don Juan in 1926, followed shortly after by the first “talkie” The Jazz Singer in 1927. Audiences were amazed.
In 1933, King Kong became the first film to feature enough artistic sound techniques to define the niche as “Sound Design”, and, as such, Murray Spivak became known as the first sound designer. As films continued their sound engineering growth and new techniques were developed, stereo sound revolutionized film in the 1970’s, as all sound on prior films had been in mono. A few noted “change makers” of this time were legends, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas and Walter Murch-who is deemed the “Father of Modern Sound”.
Before mobile technology, filmmakers were all but forced to use the sound libraries that the studios had and were at the studio’s mercy for everything. Coppola, Lucas and Murch created their own production company in the late 60’s, daring to split from the studio system and make their own films. Though they had some failures, that move ultimately set up their careers to be the juggernauts we know today.
Another notable change maker of the 70’s was Barbara Streisand. She revolutionized sound technology spending a then unheard of one million dollars on sound alone for her 1976 hit A Star is Born. Her persistence in greater sound excellence tipped the scales for films to follow.
From manual to digital
Star Wars emerged in 1977, loaded with it’s 6 track Dolby stereo sound. Exceeding every executives expectations in the box office, it became the new norm for sound in film that followed. Ben Burtt became Hollywood’s “go to” for original sound effects after winning the 1978 Academy Award.
1986 heralded the Digital Era of film and the start of Pixar as it’s own spin-off company funded primarily by Apple’s Steve Jobs. Gary Rydstrom revolutionized sound collaboration on Pixar’s short Luxo Jr. In it was born Pixar’s well known desk lamp mascot and Gary was recognized as a pioneer for coming up with a digital form of “talking” using only sounds.
By the mid 90’s, sound became fully computerized and as technology advanced, turned into the sound we have today.
Costin streamlines modern sound for the audience into sections she calls the “Circle of Talent”. This breaks down sound production into three realms: Voice, Sound Effects and Music. Each of these realms are then divided down further to the corresponding technical teams that create production recording; dialogue editing; automated dialog replacement, or ADR; SFX; Foley; Ambiance and the film’s musical score.
These teams collaborate, creating mood, emotional tone and vocal clarity through multifaceted ingenuity, grossly overlooked by an industry and a society that is singularly obsessed with the “pretty faces” in front of the camera, instead of the vast wealth of artistry behind the scenes that is key to making those “pretty faces” look so damn good.
Let’s hear for the girls
If Edison, Lucas, Coppola and Merch were female I doubt we would have heard of them at all because most of history has been written and dominated by white males. Just imagine the plethora of talent that was historically and wholly looked over in favor of sexism and racism.
Many spouses of these “great men” have been ignored and their contributions to their husband’s inventions and careers left behind without a trace. But who would Thomas Edison be without the help of his wives Mary and Mina? Would he have been able to spend all of those hours inventing away from his children and family without their hard work?
Only recently have Marcia Lucas’s contributions to Star Wars: A New Hope, Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi and Raiders of the Lost Ark been brought to light. A talented editor in her own right, she and George met in film school and she went on to become a most sought after editor by the likes of Scorsese and Coppola.
So too have sisters in sound suffered behind their male counterparts. Plenty of women in sound have been denied work due to sexist thinking. Anna Behlmar, who’s incredible sound resume includes massive hits such as Braveheart, the Mission Impossible franchise and Thor, states it best in the film when she says “people who say, ‘well you know. it’s a big, action, war movie, a guy should do the sound.’ It’s like why? Has he been in a war? This idea of one gender being better than another, I think, is kind of silly.”
That’s putting it mildly. It’s flat out ridiculous, but toxic masculine thinking like this still pervades the industry.
Cecilia Hall, during her time as supervising sound editor of Top Gun, created a painstakingly meticulous library of exotic animal screeches and roars to enhance the sound of the jets. According to Hall it was “the single most labor intensive editing process I’ve ever experienced”. It was taking them so long to complete that a studio executive, who came to fire her. scolded her saying that the film “wasn’t about the sound”.
Fast forward a few months later and Cece and partner, George Watters, were nominated for an Academy Award, prompting this exec to send her flowers with a card that stated “I guess it was about the sound”. Hall later went on to win the Academy Award in Sound Effects Editing for The Hunt for Red October.
In all honesty…
Costin does a monumental job packing a lot of information into an audience friendly, 90-minute journey through the origins of sound. Costin herself has an impressive resume of sound experience ranging from The Rock to Armegeddon.
For obvious reasons, over half of the film highlights the work of men involved in sound technology, but Costin spends as much time as she can highlighting and adding in many notable female artists. It is frustrating to see and know so little about women’s contributions to this technology even though I know it exists, and I wish a bit more information on that would’ve been added.
Also, it seemed a bit insensitive and rather uncomfortable, given the strong, recent movement of #MeToo and Time’s Up, to see the inclusion of interviews with John Lasseter in the Pixar section of the documentary. As a woman included in the movement it felt a bit like a breach of trust, especially coming from a female filmmaker. Though Lasseter was pivotal in the creation of Pixar, the background information alone would have sufficed.
Multiple allegations have been made by Pixar employees regarding Lasseter’s inappropriate behaviors, and though the allegations were enough for him to “retire” from Pixar, he was still quickly nabbed up by Skydance studios after, to widespread criticism.
Those allegations would have been enough to exclude him from any project I was doing, and I believe it is in every artist’s interest to apply responsibility and care to sensitive matters such as these. However, there are more things admirable about Making Waves to let one bad apple spoil the whole.
Overall this is a solid, well-made documentary, useful for those not just in the industry, but for audiences who want to come to a better understanding of what these artists go through to create the marvelous works of art we see today.
It illustrates, in easy to understand language, the extent of the level of collaboration required to create the all-encompassing world of sound in a film. It touches upon and visualizes the historical highlights of the evolution of sound in film without dragging or ever being boring, and, for those of us old enough to remember, piques nostalgia from the legendary films of an age when “Original Screenplay” actually meant “created, undertaken, or presented for the first time”.
Making Waves is more than a film school primer, standing in its own right as a comprehensive homage to the art that is Sound in Film and an impressive first time documentary from an accomplished sound artist.
Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound opened October 25, 2019 and has been nominated at both Cannes Film Festival and Critics Choice Awards.