The first of many insights and observations presented in the documentary Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound, is not only one of the most profound and important, it is also significant that it is the starting point, as Walter Murch, the sound designer of THX 1138 and The Godfather who later won an Oscar for Apocalypse Now, points out that even before birth we are exposed to sound, the first sensation any sentient being experiences of the outside world they will spend the rest of their lives trying to understand.
So intrinsic is sound to the experience of cinema that its vital contribution is often overlooked by those overwhelmed by the visual component, faces, colours, motion, locations, sets, costumes, the plethora of visual and special effects developed over the last century; so fundamental is the aural is that it is only apparent when it is wrong, an oversight comprehensively addressed by director Midge Costin, whose own sound credits runs from John Waters’ Cry-Baby to Michael Bay’s Armageddon.
The contributors are many, accompanied by clips from their defining creations, often ground breaking classics of modern cinema: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars, Saving Private Ryan, right up to Black Panther, but charting the progress of sound from its introduction there is a chronology acknowledging the importance of Citizen Kane, as radio star Orson Welles brought his experience of that medium to the silver screen, through King Kong, The Ten Commandments, The Seventh Seal and The Birds.
An evolving process, beyond the purely technical issues the documentary illustrates the introduction of sound totally changed the mechanics of film production, directors no longer able to holler instructions on megaphones, soundstages constructed to eliminate extraneous noise, actors confined in their movement so they would not stray beyond the range of the microphones, each new development reinstating a degree of freedom.
Portable recording equipment taking film on the move with the “road movie,” individual radio microphones were the favoured approach of Robert Altman, allowing overlapping sounds and voices to be recorded and mixed to create a complex “live” experience, but while many of those interviewed such as Ben Burtt are as famous as the directors they work alongside, perhaps the most surprising inclusion, though entirely justified, is Barbra Streisand.
Studios preferring to maximise return without risky investment and resistant to innovation which might not pay off, it was Streisand who pushed for her 1976 vehicle A Star is Born to be released in stereophonic sound, catching up with what had been standard within the music industry for almost a decade and forcing cinema chains to upgrade their equipment, not realising she was only paving the way for a major release from a galaxy far, far away in Dolby six channel stereo the following year.
Providing a sufficiently broad overview to be accessible, informative and entertaining to a general audience, Making Waves also has enough detail to engage those with a deeper interest in cinema and expert insight for those who work in the medium, and affirmation of their often unrecognised skills, from David Lynch, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Sophia Coppola, Christopher Nolan and others.
The sources and applications of sound often unexpected, the genuine jet engines of Top Gun were enhanced with animal roars while Toy Story director John Lasseter says it was the sound which gave weight to his animated but otherwise lifeless characters, while The Matrix entered a world of fully digitally sound design, each of them Making Waves in this celebration of the unbroken continuum of creativity which remains.
Making Waves has made its festival debut prior to wider release