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Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound

by Greg Carlson | .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) | Cinema | March 29th, 2020

Veteran sound editor and USC professor Midge Costin educates and entertains as the director of “Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound.” An engaging, entry-level crash course on the role of audio in motion picture storytelling, the film is a sibling to “Visions of Light,” “Side by Side,” and other behind-the-scenes documentaries that examine various aspects of the dream factory. Movies like “Making Waves” follow a common formula: talking head interviews with well-known filmmakers alternate with dazzling images from spectacular Hollywood successes. The addition of just enough explanation of technique and process, delivered in layperson-friendly terms with helpful graphics, rounds out the presentation.

“Making Waves” pays tribute to key historical flashpoints before vaulting into the era defined by the work of Walter Murch and Ben Burtt. After a quick segment bridging the silent era to the immediately popular phenomenon of synchronous dialogue, Costin acknowledges the pioneering, game-changing contributions of Murray Spivack, the legendary sound engineer and musician who effectively created an entire motion picture audioscape for the 1933 “King Kong.” Spivack’s innovations, which included recording a set of animal voices and manipulating their speeds to suggest creatures previously unheard, stood in contrast to the less expensive method that reused and recycled stock ricochets, punches, explosions, and other effects.

Along with Spivack, radio veteran Orson Welles is cited for the enormity of respect he held for crafting unique sonic signatures for each location in “Citizen Kane.” Due admiration is also given to sound-savvy filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock, David Lean, and Stanley Kubrick. Costin shifts into higher gear with the section devoted to Murch, who may deserve the largest share of individual credit for treating sound as a critical artistic element in filmmaking. Murch’s philosophy is illustrated through some beautiful examples, and one of the most effective -- Michael Corleone’s restaurant murder of Sollozzo and McCluskey in “The Godfather” -- is an eye-opening lesson in Murch’s affinity for musique concrete and the role of sound in conveying meaning and emotion in film.

So many popular media documents that communicate the historical evolution of the Hollywood story overlook, diminish, or erase the contributions of women and people of color. “Making Waves” marks a refreshing corrective to that trend, and Costin shares a terrific section on the indefatigable Barbra Streisand and her commitment to next-generation sound on “A Star Is Born.” Costin also makes certain to place the observations of Pat Jackson, Ryan Coogler, Victoria Rose Sampson (who talks about working with her mom Kay Rose), Teresa Eckton, Karen Baker Landers, Jessica Gallavan, Bobbi Banks, Greg Hedgepath, Cece Hall, Ai-Ling Lee, Alyson Dee Moore, Anna Behlmer, and others alongside those offered by household names like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. Lora Hirschberg’s thoughts on the layering of sound in the airport scene in “Nashville” are as inspiring as her later comments on dismantling gender barriers in the industry.

No matter how many times we have listened, awestruck, to the emergence of Burtt as the preternaturally gifted, galaxy-building sound wizard of “Star Wars,” it is still an expected stop on the journey. The most dedicated cinephiles might quibble with the distribution of wealth (more David Lynch and Alan Splet for me, please), but Costin parcels out each of her major segments with built-in arguments and a sense of mission. The chapter on Foley will take film students of a certain vintage back to Terry Burke’s 1979 “Track Stars,” and “Making Waves” often turns its ears to previously unheard nooks and crannies that will light a fire in the next generation of world-class film artists.

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