Movie sound explained in Making Waves

B+ Documentary
Directed by Midge Costin

George Lucas argues that “Sound is 50 percent of the movie experience.” In Midge Costin’s entertaining documentary, Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound, audio geniuses like Walter Murch, Ben Burtt, and Gary Rydstrom show us how that 50 percent is created. Directors like Steven Spielberg and David Lynch praise them for their work.

Much of Making Waves is largely a film history lesson, going from early Edison experiments in the 1880s to digital. Not surprisingly, it barely covers the silent era and heads quickly to The Jazz Singer and beyond. It rightfully praises King Kong and Citizen Kane as the first films that used sound creatively. But it entirely skips the magnetic stereo revolution in film sound in the 1950s. One could easily watch the documentary and believe that all film tracks were mono until Dolby saved everyone during the last half of the 1970s.

But Making Waves isn’t about ancient history. It’s about movie sound in the last 50 years. After all, you can’t interview dead people.

But Costin could interview the very much alive Walter Murch. An important collaborator with Francis Coppola, his audio work on The Godfather was revolutionary. Remember the scene where Michael murders two men in a restaurant. Murch added the sound of the elevated train, which matches the turmoil in Michael’s brain. Murch, interviewed for the film, discusses this scene and others.

But the real audio revolution came five years later with the original Star Wars – one of the first Dolby Stereo films. Equally important, it had Ben Burtt on his first professional gig doing sound effects. Avoiding the effects libraries that major studios depended on (the documentary contains a short montage of fist fight, and they all sound the same), Burtt went out to look for new sounds to match that galaxy far, far away. One example: He played with a domesticated bear, recording different emotional sounds for Chewbacca. As an interview subject, Burtt is always entertaining.

Gary Rydstrom discusses the soundscape of Saving Private Ryan‘s extremely intense opening scene. Director Steven Spielberg wanted limited sight and overwhelmingly frightful sound. Rydstrom worked months to get it.

Costin interviewed Spielberg for the film, along with Lucas, Sofia Coppola, and David Lynch. Barbra Streisand, who produced as well as starred in the 1976 version of A Star is Born, discusses how she insisted to take a long time mixing the music sequences.

Making Waves isn’t entirely chronological. After the history lesson, the documentary shows us the various parts of a movie soundtrack. These include sound recorded on the set, music, three different kinds of sound effects, and Automatic Dialog Replacement (ADR). That’s when the dialog is rerecorded in the studio (they used to call it looping). Costin shows us an ADR session where voice actors put dialog into the climax of D.W. Griffith’s 1920 melodrama Way Down East. I hope that session was done just for the documentary. I don’t want dialog pushed into silent films.

Yes, I suppose this is documentary is for nerds. The movie clips are fun to watch, and we can hear how the sound really makes the movie.

Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound opens a very short run at the Roxie starting Thursday.