directed by Midge Costin
by Alice Stoehr "Sound is half of the experience," says George Lucas over a muted excerpt from Star Wars' opening shot. The din of laser artillery and John Williams's score have fallen away, so the director's voice accompanies two vessels drifting in the silence of space. This sequence caps an introductory montage darting from Jurassic Park to The Elephant Man to Lawrence of Arabia in order to sensitize viewers (and listeners) to the intricacies of film audio. Midge Costin leans a lot on such montage in her documentary Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound. They're groupings of iconography à la Chuck Workman, part of her bid to demystify the craft. She structures two-thirds of the film as a rough history via sound-design heavyweights while leaving the rest for anecdotes from other luminaries in the field. Oscilloscopic sound waves are her primary graphic motif. It's instantly accessible, very Film 101. Costin, like the film's writer, Bobette Buster, is a professor at USC. (Lucas and Steven Spielberg endowed her position.) Their work together has all the clarity of a syllabus. The 1992 doc Visions of Light went deep into the art of cinematography; this, decades later, is its ear-oriented counterpart.
Burtt's work on Star Wars gets a 10-minute section square in the middle. Burtt recalls foraging all around Los Angeles to find Wookiee growls and the lightsaber's hum. Making Waves frames his undertaking as a cornerstone of sound design; in the words of an early Lucasfilm engineer, "It was that soundtrack that changed everything." The story these men collectively tell, cresting with the late-'70s birth of the blockbuster, is heavy on nuts and bolts. They're forthcoming about the laborious minutiae and technological shifts that shaped their careers. The remainder of the talking-head interviews, which zip through the digital revolution, are much shallower. They're intercut with glimpses of hands on mixing boards and technicians recording Foley or ADR. Behind-the-scenes footage highlights recent hits like Avatar, Wonder Woman, Black Panther, and Inception. "The great thing about music," declares composer Hans Zimmer, "is it's there that you as an audience can connect on a human level." Not exactly a mind-blowing insight.
Between its sleek pacing and the audience-flattering curation of its clips, Making Waves resembles nothing so much as an interstitial segment from the Academy Awards. The narrow history Costin and Buster construct is especially curious for the unmentioned irony of its arc, from stagnation to upheaval and back again. The vanguard Murch led half a century ago rightly self-identifies as radical, their embrace of multitrack sound and portable recording a departure from what '60s Hollywood allowed. But then the film positions the 2010s' sci-fi action filmmaking as heir to New Hollywood's sonic breakthroughs. Although its subtitle is "The Art of Cinematic Sound," Making Waves is really about sound in popular English-language cinema. As far as its interviews are concerned, sound design in avant-garde or global contexts might as well have ceased once the mavericks of the '70s internalized their influences. (The farthest it gets off the beaten trail is David Lynch gushing about his late collaborator Alan Splet.) The limitations of its historical narrative render the film dubious as anything but an introduction to the topic, though they do leave a secret story just legible in the margins: how the studios, over time, assimilated what was once innovation. How the vanguard of yesterday becomes the old guard of tomorrow, the legacies of these hotshot kids from USC parlayed into new "corporate creations." Costin's sheer access means she turns up a number of amusing tidbits, but just as many platitudes. So much of the art form goes unheard.