Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound

A documentary celebrating the history of sound in cinema

At the start of the year, the film industry was up in arms about the prospect of the Academy Awards not televising the less glamorous gongs handed out to the people working in costume design, art direction, editing and the like. The decision was quickly reversed, although for those outside of the headline categories any wider recognition received from the general public was scant. That has pretty much been the norm for quite some time, which is one of the reasons why sound editor-turned-director, Midge Costin, has put together Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound, in an attempt to pay homage to the audio artisans who enhance our aural senses at the flicks.

There aren’t many documentaries that take the time to focus on this topic and Costin’s functional approach attempts to cram in the history of sound in cinema and a sweep across the evolution of the roles that makeup the average Hollywood sound department. It’s a lot to cover in 90 minutes, and given the breadth of the subject it’s something only a Mark Cousin-esque full-length TV series could give real justice to. Still, there are some fascinating insights revealed thanks to Costin’s access to some of the most influential filmmakers and sound designers of the past 50 years.

The likes of Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Christopher Nolan and David Lynch (“People always talk about the look of a film, but not so much about the sound of a film”) are just some of the many talking heads who wax lyrical about the importance of everyone from dubbing mixers to Foley artists. Sound designers Ben Burttand, Gary Rydstrom and Walter Murch are given prominence due to their landmark work in films like Star Wars, Toy Story and Apocalypse Now respectively – each one responsible for pushing forward the art form and the industry along with it.

From the synchronised soundtrack on Don Juan in 1926 and Al Jolson’s famous first words a year later in The Jazz Singer, to Murray Spivack’s sound design in the original King Kong and the creation of the modern sound mixing template in Apocalypse Now, Costin moves through the years to the technology currently being used in film today. There’s good use of archival footage in the first hour, although it could perhaps do without the cheap audio graphics used to describe the switch from mono to stereo in the 70s.

How sound effects, music and voice work is unified as a whole on the mixing console takes up the last half hour, touching on subsections like ambience, ADR and others, with each department described as being part of a larger orchestra. Although brief, it helps you appreciate the detail behind each skill, acknowledging the tireless effort that goes into making the audio experience as immersive as it is today. At the very least it should encourage you to re-evaluate how you absorb and interact with sound at the cinema.

In Walter Murch’s celebrated book on cinematography, In the Blink of an Eye, he explains that the life of an editor is somewhat thankless, because the ultimate aim is for the viewer to barely notice their work at all. The same could be said about those working in audio, as we so often take our interaction with their craft for granted. The men and women who dedicate their careers to it will no doubt appreciate this documentary has been made, and hopefully it opens the ears of others who rarely take the time to give them a second thought.

Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound is released in select UK cinemas on November 1.

Steven Sheehan

Updated: Oct 29, 2019

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