Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound charts the evolution of movie audio

posted on Friday, 1st November 2019 by Steve May

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Providing an in-depth look at the evolution of cinema sound, Midge Costin’s documentary feature Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound is released theatrically today, and is available on digital download.

Winning plaudits on the festival circuit, the movie features insights and commentary from some of the most influential movie makers, including George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, David Lynch, Barbra Streisand, Ang Lee and Christopher Nolan.

For those particularly interested in the art of sound editing and sound design, and the epochal shift from mono to multichannel sound, it’s an essential watch.

For director Costin, responsible for the groundbreaking audio heard in popular popcorn cinema, from Top Gun and Days of Thunder, to Con Air and The Rock, the documentary has been a nine year project.

Having worked on a string of blockbuster movies, she transitioned into teaching at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. Black Panther director Ryan Coogler was a former student.

Costin says she never set out to be a sound editor.

However an apprentice editor’s position opened up, and there was an opportunity to work on the sound editing of a 16mm film project. “Then one job led to another and suddenly I'm a sound editor and was supervising, even early on. My first union show was Days of Thunder, and I had whoever was racing against Tom Cruise, I had that car and I had that engine, as well as the group NASCAR shots, and it was just so fun. It was the early days of a 5.1 surround sound.”

But as Costin told Inside CI, the challenge of clearing a multiplicity of rights to use clips for Making Waves was daunting. It was only when production partner Bobette Buster had a motivational meet with Gary Rydstrom at Pixar, that the doors opened, and Fair Use rules could be applied.

“We learned what Fair Use was, and I got my editor, make sure that he knew what it was. Then we knew how to set up the clips. When I went on interviews, I had to know what films we were going to use and what scenes we were going to use. So the director or the sound person could talk about them.”

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Walter Mixing Apocalypse Now (1)

Just unearthing facts from the early days of cinema audio proved difficult, she adds.

“There was a lot of research and that's another reason why it took so long. There was hardly anything for that first generation of cinema sound. Luckily we had a Murray Spivack interview (arguably the first sound editor in movie history), there was nothing before. I could barely find stuff on Orson Welles or Hitchcock, there's not a lot of documents about them even talking about sound. It's not really there.”

But what Costin did unearth is fascinating. From silent movie clips and tricks, to the groundbreaking audio designed by Walter Murch for Apocalypse Now (pictured above), the movie delights in its revelations.

How did Costin get those Nascar scenes to thrill in Days of Thunder? She mixed big cat sounds into the engine roar, that’s how! "I've done that a lot on cars and Humvees and stuff!"  

“David Lynch says anything that you can now think you can do in sound. And it's true!” says Costin.

Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound is in cinemas today and is available as a digital download.

Steve May

Inside CI Editor Steve May is a freelance technology journalist, who also writes for T3, TechRadar, Home Cinema Choice and ERT (amongst others).

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