Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound (4 stars)

Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound

A major but often ignored dimension of film is discussed by a peerless parade of experts

Cinema tends to be discussed as a primarily visual medium, so a masterclass in film sound is most welcome. And who better to instruct us than former Hollywood sound editor turned educator Midge Costin? Now professor in the art of sound and dialogue editing at the University of Southern California, Costin brings behind the scenes expertise and populates her directorial debut with peerless authorities: from Steven Spielberg and Barbra Streisand to perhaps the most revered sound designer there is, Apocalypse Now's Walter Murch.

Costin and writer Bobette Buster structure their documentary a little like a lecture, but don't let that put you off. It asks us to think of a film's sound like an orchestra, divided into voice, effects and music – elements which are drawn together during the final mix. And we're taken through landmarks in cinematic audio, with illustrative clips: from Don Juan and The Jazz Singer to King Kong, Citizen Kane, Star Wars and A Star Is Born.

Talking heads also include directors Ryan Coogler, George Lucas and David Lynch and innovators in sound Ben Burtt (Star Wars) and Gary Rydstrom (Jurassic Park). Their contributions are frequently eye-opening and eloquent, particularly those from the aforementioned Murch, as they instruct us in the way sound orientates us and directs our attention in a scene, carries and enhances emotion, adds rhythm and form to chaos and takes us inside characters' heads when films adopt specific points-of-views. 'Our ears lead our eyes to where the story lives,' as Spielberg puts it.

Despite its educational remit, Making Waves never feels dry, capturing as it does the quirkiness and passion of the profession – the bear who unwittingly lent his voice to Chewbacca, the jangling keys which brought vigour to Spartacus's marching army. There is much discussion, too, of personal inspirations and early experimentations, while creating, recording and manipulating sound seems, quite simply, like an awful lot of fun. The flipside of the business is touched on: female sound specialists discuss the sexism they sometimes encounter, alongside their pride in their work, and there's an acknowledgement that such an immersive profession can come with its costs, as Burtt details his nervous breakdown.

Although there is cursory mention of cinema outside the US, this is emphatically an American journey, so it can feel a touch blinkered. And, at a mere 94-minutes, you could argue that it's merely scratching the surface of a potentially vast subject – music, for instance, is a little short-changed, with the focus on less celebrated aspects of film sound – but it makes for an exceptional introduction to a too-often-taken-for-granted artform. Accessible, illuminating and entertaining, it's a documentary of huge value, something that will enhance not just your understanding but your future experience of film.

Selected release from Fri 1 Nov.

Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound

  • 4 stars
  • 2019
  • US
  • 1h 34min
  • Directed by: Midge Costin
  • UK release: 1 November 2019

An exploration of the role of sound in film by sound-editor-turned-educator Costin. It never feels dry, with contributions from notable directors and sound designers, and although it’s almost entirely about American movies it’s still an exceptional introduction to a neglected art form. Accessible, illuminating and…