‘Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound’

A soaring, ear-opening documentary about an underappreciated art form.
‘Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound’
A sound engineer does sound design for "Saving Private Ryan" in a scene in the documentary "Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound." (GoodMovies Entertainment
Michael Clark
11/11/2023
Updated:
1/5/2024
0:00
NR | 1h 35m | Documentary, Film History | 2019

The opening scene in “Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound” (“Making Waves”) is of animated clips of sound waves accompanied by a voice-over from Walter Murch: “Before you were born, there was darkness. Sound is the first sense that got plugged in.” This could explain why many expecting parents play classical music within earshot of their child while in the womb.

Recognized by most as the modern master of both film editing and sound design, Mr. Murch practiced these crafts on multiple landmark productions directed by Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Anthony Minghella, Jerry Zucker, and many others.

Recording ocean sounds in "Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound." (GoodMovies Entertainment)
Recording ocean sounds in "Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound." (GoodMovies Entertainment)
Mr. Murch’s opening salvo is followed by one of the film’s most telling graphics. In less time than a standard TV commercial, Mr. Murch includes six clips, with two each depicting a running horse, two boxers, and gunfire, one silent, the other with sound. The contrast between each is startling. It also points out how many movie watchers take sound for granted. This is not so much out of ungratefulness, but rather because sound design is a filmmaking discipline that, if in the right hands, doesn’t bring attention to itself.

To the Point

Possessing a gravely baritone and prominent mustache that suggests a Northeastern version of the California-born Sam Elliott, Mr. Murch exhibits the same no-frills, low-word-count explanation of things. He never uses a gallon of words to express a spoonful of thought. It’s easy to see why director Midge Costin (in her feature debut and, to date, only film) gave him the lion’s share of screen time.

The best example of this is when Mr. Murch points out that while voice (dialogue and signing), music, and sound effects all have “sound” in common, they are separate entities that only come together in a cohesive whole by sound design professionals in post-production.

At the start of the second act, Ms. Costin goes back to the embryonic stage of sound in film, also known as “talkies.” With laser precision, Ms. Costin zeros in on three specific historical productions: “Don Juan” (1926), “The Jazz Singer” (1927), and “King Kong” (1933).

Director Midge Costin, in "Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound." (GoodMovies Entertainment)
Director Midge Costin, in "Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound." (GoodMovies Entertainment)

Not a Fad

These were the “beta” test movies on the part of the studios to see if sound “would fly” with the public, even though the bulk of silent studio features at the time were usually accompanied by live backing music. The transition from “silent” to sound was inevitable; the fact that it took so long is the real head-scratcher here. The studios had to know sight and sound would be preferable to just sight, but that would cost more. It wasn’t the first instance of studio shortsightedness and certainly wouldn’t be the last.

Picking up the figurative baton from Mr. Murch 30 minutes in, Ben Burtt also has a staggeringly impressive resume. He was the sound designer on Episodes I–VI of the “Star Wars” franchise, all but the most recent “Indiana Jones” installments, two Pixar features, and Steven Spielberg’s “Munich” (2008) and “Lincoln” (2012). In addition to sound design, Mr. Burtt created original sound effects for these productions and provided voices for multiple “Star Wars” characters, including R2-D2.

Ben Burtt in "Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound." (GoodMovies Entertainment)
Ben Burtt in "Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound." (GoodMovies Entertainment)

Mr. Burtt believes the modern sound design template began in the early 1960s with Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” and “The Birds,” not so much for the sound but the often lack of it. The silent passages in these films, always preceding something visually jarring, add palpable, almost unbearable tension.

In 1983, Gary Rydstrom was taken under the wing of Mr. Burtt and would go on to win seven Academy Awards in multiple categories for his work on “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” (1992), “Jurassic Park” (1994), “Titanic” (1998), and “Saving Private Ryan” (1999).

Gary Rydstrom in the documentary "Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound." (GoodMovies Entertainment)
Gary Rydstrom in the documentary "Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound." (GoodMovies Entertainment)

Mr. Rydstrom features predominantly in the third act of “Making Waves,” where his commentary and opinions are interwoven with the same from Mr. Spielberg, Christopher Nolan, Ang Lee, Mr. Lucas, Robert Redford, Sofia Coppola, and a half-dozen more directors and composers.

Ms. Costin and screenwriter Bobette Buster deserve bonus points for their 11th-hour inclusion profile of sound effects pioneer Jack Foley. With a career that began with the start of talkies and ended with his work on “Spartacus” (1960), Foley spent the majority of his career recording ordinary sounds that were manipulated and added in post-production. So instrumental were Foley’s contributions to the movie industry that the people now doing what he did are referred to as “Foley Artists.”

If your home entertainment system includes a headphone listening option, by all means, do so for “Making Waves.” You’ll never listen to movies the same way again.

The movie is available on Vudu, Peacock, Amazon Prime, and Apple TV+.
‘Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound’ Documentary Director: Midge Costin Running Time: 1 hour, 34 minutes MPAA Rating: NR Release Date: Oct. 25, 2019 Rating: 4.5 out of 5
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Originally from Washington, D.C., Michael Clark has provided film content to over 30 print and online media outlets. He co-founded the Atlanta Film Critics Circle in 2017 and is a weekly contributor to the Shannon Burke Show on FloridaManRadio.com. Since 1995, Mr. Clark has written over 4,000 movie reviews and film-related articles. He favors dark comedy, thrillers, and documentaries.