Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound


An endless array of sound.

(2019) Documentary (Dogwoof/Cinetic/MatsonBen Burtt, Walter Murch, Barbra Streisand, Robert Redford, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Sofia Coppola, Ang Lee, Ryan Coogler, David Lynch, Gary Rydstrom, Christopher Nolan, Ai-Ling Lee, Pat Jackson, Alyson Dee Moore, Victoria Rose Sampson, Mike A. Mangini, Peter Weir, Gwendolyn Yates Whittle, Cecilia Hall. Directed by Midge Costin

 

Movies make memories and not all of them are visual. Who could forget the roar of the T-Rex in Jurassic Park, the shriek of the violins in Psycho, the explosions and gunfire in Saving Private Ryan? Even though film began as a strictly visual medium, today it is the marriage of two of our primary senses and both are at least as important to making a movie work.

Longtime sound editor and current professor at the University of Southern California Midge Costin has a passion for sound which shows through in her documentary. She loads up with clips that illustrate her point, one of which was that Thomas Edison invented the motion picture camera in essence to give people something to look at while they were listening to his phonograph, which he invented more than a decade earlier. Due to the logistics of sound and light not moving at the same speed, we were stuck with silent films until 1927.

In any case, we get to hear from some of the giants of sound design, such as Murray Spivak, Walter Murch and Ben Burtt – hardly household names but all responsible for developments in sound that have shaped how we experience movies (and television) today.

Many of the advances in sound design were fought for by directors like Barbra Streisand, who fought with studio heads to bring stereo sound to A Star is Born – in fact, she was willing to spend a million dollars of her own money to do so, but the studio so loved the results that they footed the bill themselves. We hear how Orson Welles used techniques brought over from his time on radio to enhance films like Citizen Kane and how Murch was influenced by experimental musician John Cage when constructing the legendary scene in The Godfather when Michael Corleone kills a rival mafioso and a corrupt cop in an Italian restaurant. You can almost hear, as Murch puts it, his neurons firing.

The professorial side of Costin comes in as she discusses the various components that go into the sound mix. You’ll discover what ADR stands for (Automated Dialogue Replacement; that refers to dialogue that is re-recorded in studio) or what Foley artists do (they create sound effects such as boots walking through snow, or glass breaking). Costin does bring some of the giants of the industry to talk about sound; visionaries like Lucas and Coppola whose drive to create better movie experiences led them to hire men like Murch and Burtt. We also hear from other directors who understand the nature of sound and its importance to film (like Peter Weir and Robert Redford) as well as from a parade of sound editors.

We also discover that despite the under-representation of women in general in Hollywood technical roles, sound design has always had women involved from Pat Jackson (who is interviewed extensively) on down to Ai-Ling Lee. She also utilizes graphic representations of sound waves to delineate various sections of the film, which is largely divided between chronological advances in sound before moving into the various elements of movie sound. These sections non-buffs might find a little bit dry.

The point is that sound and music often provide an emotional context that images alone cannot alone give us. The sound of a movie has often been underestimated, not only by the moviegoing audience but by studio executives and sometimes even those who make movies. That’s a shame and even though this can sometimes sink into dryness, it is nevertheless essential viewing for any cinema lover who wants to understand movies better and is certainly a must for any aspiring film student.

REASONS TO SEE: Absolutely essential for film buffs everywhere.
REASONS TO AVOID: Those with only a casual interest in film may find it dry.
FAMILY VALUES: Perfectly suitable for all audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although 1927’s The Jazz Singer was the first movie with sound, two years earlier Don Juan had a mechanically synchronized score
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/30/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 80/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Visions of Light
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Day 5 of Six Days of Darkness!

All the Light in the Sky


As any good surfer will tell you, the surf's up even when you're down.

As any good surfer will tell you, the surf’s up even when you’re down.

(2012) Drama (Swanberry) Jane Adams, Sophia Takal, Kent Osborne, Larry Fessenden, David Siskind, Lawrence Michael Levine, Ti West, Susan Traylor, Lindsay Burge, Simon Barrett, Allison Baar. Directed by Joe Swanberg

 Florida Film Festival 2013

I’ve heard mumblecore defined as “a bunch of dialogue in search of a plot.” That’s not entirely accurate but it isn’t without some merit. The mumblecore movement, whose adherents include directors like the Duplass Brothers, Andrew Bujalsky and Lynn Shelton,  have had a champion in Joe Swanberg as well.

Swanberg, based in the Chicago area (he attended film school at Southern Illinois University) has been as prolific a director as anyone in the business. He’s not quantity over quality either – some of his films have included Hannah Takes the Stairs, Silver Bullets, Autoerotic and Kissing on the Mouth, all very fine films. Actress Jane Adams, who also starred in Autoerotic and made a name for herself in Todd Solondz’ film Happiness, co-wrote this new film with Swanberg which would seem to have at least some autobiographical elements.

Marie (Adams) is a respected film actress who at 45 is hitting the brick wall that actresses get as roles for middle aged women dry up. She lives in a beach house with a gorgeous view of the Pacific into which she paddleboards every morning. She lives a healthy lifestyle, making herself smoothies for nearly every occasion, and has no romantic entanglements.

Her niece Faye (Takal), who intends to follow in her footsteps as an actress but has been working mostly on the East Coast, comes for a visit. This delights Marie, who one suspects is a little bit lonely but also adores her niece to begin with. Marie shows her around town and gives her some advice on navigating the treacherous waters of Hollywood.

Marie knows those waters well. After losing a desirable role to Kristen Wiig, she accepts a part in a micro-budgeted indie as a solar scientist and does extensive research with one to prepare for the role. She also begins a relationship with Dan (Swanberg regular Osborne) who does a lot of pot and is handy around the house, but as Marie looks past the sex doesn’t really see a lot more there- and that may well be just fine by her.

Faye for her part has a boyfriend (Levine) at home with whom she Skypes almost nightly with. Some innocent flirtations trouble her; she seems tempted at times with some of the boys she hangs out with at parties and such but quickly learns that their interest in her mainly ends when her clothes stay on. That’s not uncommon in L.A. or anywhere else for that matter.

Marie’s friend Rusty (Fessenden) paddleboards with her every morning. He’s a bit of a player although he prefers partners who are younger. They have a fairly comfortable relationship but after having a few drinks with dinner, things get a bit awkward.

The story really revolves around Faye’s visit and a few days on each side of it. This isn’t a movie in which things happen, which some viewers might find infuriating. Rather, things get discussed – everything from women’s breasts to the need for solar energy to the advantages of marriage and the price for independence. Some of these conversations are interesting indeed.

For my part, I have this issue with movies that are essentially people talking about life – it’s a very passive endeavor. I need a little more interaction. When I see an interesting conversation onscreen, I want very much to be part of it and it can be quite frustrating to be a mute onlooker. Sure, you can carry on some of the conversations afterward (and Da Queen and I did) but it isn’t the same – you’re never as brilliant afterwards are you are in the moment and the value of your insights can get lost.

I like Swanberg as a filmmaker and Adams as an actress. They both respect their audiences and don’t talk down to them. Simply put, I just didn’t connect with this movie the way I would have liked to. Perhaps I wasn’t in the frame of mind to enjoy it properly and needed a bit more space on either side of the film than you can typically get in a busy film festival schedule. That said, do take my final rating with a grain of salt – it isn’t meant to judge the quality of the movie, which is significant, only my recommendation on seeing it. It’s a very acquired taste, but those willing to put some effort and focus into it should find ample rewards. Unfortunately, I honestly didn’t but the fault may well have been mine rather than the filmmakers.

REASONS TO GO: Smart and topical. The dialogue sounds like real people talking. Very slice of life, L.A.-style.

REASONS TO STAY: Very talky. Lacks action and a traditional story.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some rough language, adult situations and graphic nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Swanberg directed six films that were filmed in 2010 (and co-directed a seventh), one of the busiest years for a single director since the silent era.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/17/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Baghead

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: SOMM and further coverage of the films of the 2013 Florida Film Festival!