Herewith we begin our coverage of the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival, courtesy of our intrepid reporter Claire Baiz, who will be filing dispatches on some of the more worthy entries this year. Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound is having its world premiere at Tribeca.
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“Our ears lead our eyes to where the story is.” – Steven Speilberg
Smoke … not smoke. Desert dunes? Is it a mandala, morphing into an atom? The opening credits of Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound, white pixels on black background, are all those things and none of them. They are a digital representation of what we are about to experience. They are … sound.
A mother’s heartbeat. Conversations, music, the general din of life. Even in utero, sound offers a sense of place. Perhaps it’s because it’s primal, most of us take it for granted. Unless your world is silent.
Helen Keller, who spent nearly all of her life both deaf and blind, once said, “Blindness cuts us off from things, but deafness cuts us off from people.”
Religious mystics and particle physicists go further: everything vibrates. Everything IS sound.
How empty motion pictures must have been in those early days. The only sound was in the projection booth, where film whirred through gears like trapped celluloid moths. A millisecond in the spotlight. Gone.
In the first three decades of filmmaking, there were many attempts at adding sound. Some theaters employed a single musician, others featured entire orchestras. Special “movie theater organs” featured an added horseshoe-shaped keyboard that offered sound effects like galloping horses, chirping birds, and sirens. Sound was an added layer.
Big changes began in 1927, with the release of the world’s first full-length-feature “talkie,” vaudevillian Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer.
Today’s moviegoers might not realize it, but we’ve come to expect great sound. Motion pictures rely on sound to give weight – or wings.
Sound is a collaborative, intense effort. Directors often team up with sound designers, superhero-and-sidekick style. Sound mixer, boom operator, editor, Foley artist, Group ADR.… It can take many people many months to hammer voices, sound effects, and music into a solid sound design.
Ben Burtt, George Lukas’s sound designer, spent an entire year finding voices for 1977’s Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope. Who can forget R2D2’s beeps and clicks, Chewbacca’s emotive howl, Darth Vader’s raspy baritone (and Princess Leah’s uneven accent)?
Great sound can be an investment that an audience remembers with fondness … or fear.
Some sounds sear their way into our psyche. Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound talks with director Steven Spielberg’s longtime sound designer Gary Rydstrom about the Omaha Beach scene from Saving Private Ryan: a soldier’s eyes couldn’t possibly have taken in D-Day’s deadly battle. War, seen from one man’s traumatized tunnel vision, is heard by the same soldier in 360-degree audio. Big noises – artillery, screams, explosions; small noises – bullets piercing metal and water, soldiers retching. A blast, a muffled hum.
Tom Hanks makes sound points in two separate Spielberg films: there’s no crying in baseball, and there’s no music in war.
Making Waves acknowledges there are many effective and evocative places for music in the movies, but its constant presence is risky: a musical soundtrack can pull moviegoers out of the story. Constant instrumentation or vocalization can be ineffective, even tiresome.
Sometimes truly great sound work goes unnoticed, but not unfelt, by the audience. Sound specialists, from Foley artists who step on styrofoam to simulate plodding over dry snow to ADR (Automated Dialog Replacement) that tightens silent tension or brings a crowd to riot.
The best sound work often bypasses the brain and goes straight to the heart.
In a bit of a role reversal, Making Waves’ director Midge Costin (sound editor for Days of Thunder, Crimson Tide, and Armageddon) and writer Bobette Buster (Do Story) use sight in the service of sound: they employ a simple pie chart that compares motion picture sound design to an orchestra. The image is very effective in helping convey the “circle of talent” that contributes to motion picture sound.
Along with insights and inspiration, Making Waves offers some sound history.
In the early days of “talkies,” every motion picture studio developed their own library of sound effects – if that ricochet sounds the same in Tarzan and The Thin Man, it’s because it’s pulled from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s prerecorded stash.
Sound pioneers like Murray Spivack rebelled from “stock sounds.” For his 1933 film King Kong, Spivack sought an innovative source for the growl of the huge hairy ape. King Kong’s growl is an old tiger sound track played backward, lowered by an octave.
Orson Welles, with deep roots in radio – his 1938 broadcast of War of the Worlds was famously mistaken by some listeners for a genuine invasion of aliens – set a high standard for sound as an emotive tool in his films, notably 1941’s Citizen Kane.
Many film fans don’t realize the impact Barbra Streisand had on the art. At a time when big-screen vocals were dubbed, Streisand recorded an onstage vocal for Funny Girl with a boom mike, inches above her head.
Streisand loves sound. She blew through what she thought was a million bucks of her own money (and spent months on postproduction) on the sound design for A Star is Born. The studio, at first frustrated, was so impressed by Streisand’s soundtrack (and the resulting sales) that they didn’t make Streisand pony up the million bucks after all.
Still, in 1976, when A Star is Born was released, most motion pictures had only one soundtrack.
Frances Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, released in 1979, helped set the standard for Ray Dolby’s six-track sound system. Coppola’s sound designer Walter Murch blew moviegoers out of the water: he moved objects around the theater – with sound.
Around the same time, women began to form a tidal wave of creativity in the sound business: Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound is driven by women within the industry. Making Waves is the brainchild of Bobette Buster, a professor of the Practice of Digital Storytelling at Northeastern University who also wrote much of the 94-minute documentary. Directed and produced by sound editor Costin, Making Waves is co-produced and written and produced by multiplatform producer Karen Johnson (Kusama – Infinity).
Trailblazing sound designers Mildred Iatrou Morgan and Ai-Ling Lee, among others, share their passion to add to the diverse chorus of sound workers in the motion picture industry.
There’s an interesting backstory to the making of this film. Nine years ago, Buster approached Costin with her idea for this documentary. Making Waves rippled around Hollywood, generating both enthusiasm and doubt. The project gained steam when a Kickstarter project generated over a thousand donors and easily surpassed its funding goal of $100,000.
Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound also received a grant from the International Documentary Association, and (obviously) earned the loving support of some big names in Hollywood (insert moving and shaking sound effects here).
Some documentaries wind up like raunchy porn magazines: in their zeal to give us the inside story, documentarians can strip the viewer of the joy of discovery. Making Waves doesn’t make that mistake. It’s revelatory, but it’s also a celebration. The women who wrote, directed, and patiently produced this film deserve our gratitude.
Making Waves is sound entertainment.