Tribeca Review: Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound


Film is a visual medium, yet if you remove or tweak the sound elements, the film seems less cinematic. Think about 2001: A Space Odyssey without the classical music cues, or a different T-Rex roar in Jurassic Park, or if the ambient sound in your favorite moment of dialogue wasn’t the same—noisier, echo-y, too quiet, too muffled. Like cooking, you could probably sense a missing ingredient even if you can’t quite identify what it is.

That’s the underlying idea of Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound, a celebration of the sound artists who are rarely given their due. Director Midge Costin is an Academy Award nominated sound editor and the Head of Sound at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, a position she’s held since the year 2000. Her documentary is a heartfelt appreciation of work that too often goes unrecognized, and the people who’ve pioneered cinematic soundscapes over the years.

Amid its brief rundown of film history and innovation, Costin seems to subtly train the audience ear, like a kind of aural cinematic version of a wine tasting.

Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound
Director: Midge Costin
Rating: TBD
Release Date: TBD

Making Waves proves the importance of cinematic sound design in its prefatory montage. George Lucas, Barbara Streisand, Ang Lee, David Lynch, and other filmmakers speak of the importance of sound in film, which they’ll elaborate on later. Costin then shows the iconic opening Star Destroyer shot from Star Wars with the score and sound effects dialed down. Watching it on mute, one realizes that half of that game-changing blockbuster moment is in the sound.

Costin hinges much of the film on key American filmmakers of the 1970s, like Lucas, Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, and Steven Spielberg. There’s also focus on two key figures in sound design that emerged from USC’s film program and Lucas’ orbit: Walter Murch (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now) and Ben Burtt (Star Wars, Indiana Jones). From those figures, Costin traces the roots of cinematic sound back to Orson Welles’ radio plays, innovations made on King Kong, and even the French avant garde of musique concrète and the New Wave. There’s a note on how big Hollywood studios balked at the importance of sound for decades, relying on their proprietary sound libraries, and not considering the potential of stereo sound or other ways of hearing in a theater. 

Making Waves is such a solidly enjoyable watch, and engrossing if you ever wondered how a certain kind of movie magic is created. There are so many people behind the scenes working for hours unseen all for just a second of perfection. Their work is imperceptible until you think about its absence. Yet as Costin notes, even the tone of cinematic silence matters. Absence of a sound designer isn’t an absence of sound, but an absence of craft.

Making Waves made me think about the role of sound in many of my own childhood memories about film. My brother and I would try to mimic Godzilla’s roar, and ditto the hums and crackles of a lightsaber. I became semi-obsessed with the creativity of foley artists at age 9 after seeing behind-the-scenes attractions at Universal Studios Florida. Even my dad was taken by cinematic sound. He was always enthusiastic about the 1974 disaster film Earthquake, which was shown in theater-rumbling Sensurround. Well into the 1990s, he would still refer to surround sound set-ups at theaters as Sensurround.

Murch has written and spoken about the importance of age 10 in people’s lives. At that age, we learn from the documentary that he was playing with tape recorders to create sound collages. Murch says that if you can tap into some of the passions you had around age 10 in your adult life, you’ll probably be happy with what you’re doing because it speaks to who you are at your core. Making Waves is a reminder that much of our love for film has its root in those sounds that do not exist in nature. These are aural creations that exist because of movies and, at their genesis, because someone tapped into their sense of childlike wonder; artistic work is still a type of play.

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.