Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound serves as a history lesson and welcome tribute to a crucial element of moviemaking routinely ignored. Critics love to zero in on the relationship between directors and their stars, or directors and cinematographers, but rarely (if ever) the sound editor or ADR supervisor.
How often do we sigh in boredom, when watching the Oscars, as two nerdy-looking types clamber onto the stage to receive their award for Best Sound Editing? It’s wrong and disrespectful. But, at the same time, understandable. They are the wizards behind the curtain, anonymous magicians making the movies what they are as much as any writer, director of photography or computer animation boffin. The tradition of star-worship and auteur theory has unnecessarily diminished the key roles of others. Thankfully, Making Waves gives these genius-level background figures their well-earned due.
“People always talk about the look of a film, but not so much about the sound of a film,” David Lynch points out on camera, in Midge Costin’s classy (if American-centric) trawl through sound’s underappreciated, but absolutely gigantic, contribution to the movies. The director of Eraserhead and co-creator of Twin Peaks is well-known as a maestro of kooky and darkly violent imagery, but his pioneering experiments in sound design tends to be less focused upon, even if his backwards-talking effect in Twin Peaks’ Red Room became a famous aspect of the show’s mythology.
In the 1970s and early 1980s Lynch and cohort, Alan Splet, used an array of weirdy beardy methods to craft soundscapes unlike anything heard before (or since). The documentary points out too, America in the 1970s was an especially productive time, with auteurs such as Francis Ford Coppola willing to spend top dollar on sound equipment and giving artists like Walter Murch free rein to develop and toy around with recording and mixing.
From mono to surround stereo to the latest in digital, the range of the documentary is extensive and informative, involving themed excursions into dialogue, music, mixing and effects. Starting with Thomas Alva Edison’s Phonograph, The Jazz Singer, the benchmark that is King Kong and moving into the blockbuster era and beyond, we learn how sounds are put together, manipulated, layered, re-recorded, how it all serves to guide the storytelling and can uniquely offer profound and subtle moments of psychological insight into characters on the screen. Countless clips highlight the amazing work and effort which goes into sound design. You’ll certainly come away appreciating just how painstaking and time-consuming this specific field of cinema is.
Directors such as Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Ang Lee, Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford line up to sing the praises of their sound departments, but the meat of the doc is given over to pioneers Murch, Ben Burtt and Gary Rystrom. These men (and plenty of women too) should not be overlooked and deserve a hallowed place in the pantheon of cinema’s greats. Film-tech nerds, rejoice! And clap next time these glorious brainiacs step up to the podium at the Oscars and collect their golden statue for Best Sound Mixing.
The 72nd Cannes Film Festival takes place from 14-25 May.
Martyn Conterio | @Cinemartyn