Sound is 50% of the cinematic experience. It’s the cheapest way to raise the production value in a film. And it’s easily one of the least understood and most underappreciated disciplines in Hollywood.
Veteran Hollywood sound editor and USC professor Midge Costin directed Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound in order to highlight the unsung heroes of cinematic history: sound designers, mixers and editors. Or, as Midge refers to them collectively, sound people. Making Waves premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2019.
Lunacy Productions: Give us a quick backstory on how you got your start in sound and how the film came to be.
Midge Costin: The film really started long ago. As I tell my students, I “lowered myself” and took a sound job for the money because I needed to finish my thesis film. Here I was, working on this show, and I was the only one cutting sound effects for it. And I was like, damn, I’ve got to set the mood and tone. That’s when I started to think about sound in terms of story.
The first union show that I worked on was Days of Thunder. I was doing sound effects for the guy who was racing against Tom Cruise. And for the first time, it was so fun. I turned into this enthusiastic, passionate sound person, sound editor, sound designer. After that, I worked on Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay films, but I eventually realized that I didn’t even like that genre.
It was fun to sound edit, but it was becoming clear that my first love was teaching. They asked me to go up for a tenure position at USC, and I was so excited to take it. When I was in film school, I felt like I didn’t get a good idea of how you use sound to tell a story. I was so passionate about getting the chance to teach filmmakers how to think about sound.
I started to work on this documentary between 2002 and 2004, but then I realized that there was no such thing as fair use. The best way to show how sound affects you is by showing clips from movies as examples. But without fair use, I couldn’t use copyrighted material. Featuring movie clips would’ve cost a lot of money.
That’s why we shelved the idea until 2010, when my producing partner, Bobbette Buster approached me. She had talked to sound designer Gary Rydstrom, who said, “If you get Midge Costin involved, I will consult.” By then, the fair use copyright law had passed, so we were able to use movie clips in the film.
LP: What were your goals with making this film?
MC: We have 90 interviews, 200 hours worth of material. I wanted to capture as much as we could, and have it in the archives for the future. But I also wanted to make sure that we made a movie that was 90 minutes, and was satisfying and accessible not only to sound people, but to movie people and the general public as well.
We didn’t want to make it too technical either. We get kind of pissed when people ask, “What microphone did you use,” or “What software,” as if it’s the technology that’s doing the work and not the people.
But I just can’t believe how well-received it is. It’s satisfying because we’re so in the shadows, so behind the scenes that nobody knows what we do. I just had a screening up north in Berkeley at Meyer Sound, and a lot of industry people came. They’re just like, “Thank you for doing this. I want my family to see it”. Even Ben Burtt’s daughters said, “I had no idea what my father did.”
LP: What did you learn about fair use during the process?
MC: Fair use is a beautiful thing because we get to use clips for educational, informational, or historical purposes. But we can’t play them as is, or for purely entertainment purposes. We have to “transform” each clip. One day we were on the mix stage and our lawyers called and said, “We just checked everything over again and that Murray Spivack clip, you use it the exact same way that the original video did.” The way that we transformed it was, we came up with a line that said, “And we’re still using these techniques today.” That sufficed.
LP: How did you choose the clips you were going to use?
MC: Producers Bobette Buster and Karen Johnson, and editor David Turner and I got together in a room with whiteboards, big sticky pads, and three by five cards, and we came up with the structure that we thought we could use. That took us about a week, and then we knew which films and what sections of those films we were going to use. That way, we could talk to directors and sound people very specifically. We were familiar with their whole body of work and knew which films and which scenes we wanted to use.
Bobette and I had both been teaching for a while, and that helped because we had a lot of clips in mind. But David pulled out some clips that I would never even have thought of. He was fantastic.
LP: In Making Waves, Ryan Coogler mentions that in cinema, sound is tied to imagination more than in any other creative form. How would you describe the relationship between imagination and sound?
MC: Sound is emotional. We know that through music. If we want to change or enhance our mood, we put on music. Sound is an extension of that. It’s more subtle. And sometimes silence is the most effective thing. I just think that sound taps into our emotions, and emotions into creativity. Because what we’re telling here are human stories, and tapping into emotions is what everybody’s trying to do.
LP: What makes sound such a vital facet of storytelling?
A lot of times it’s about plot points. They’re necessarily obvious and that’s when you can use off-screen effects. A lot of times the plot point is that somebody overhears something, or somebody sees something. But that might be at a distance, and it doesn’t have a sound.
In the Coen brothers movie No Country for Old Men, Josh Brolin’s character stumbles upon a drug deal gone wrong. He looks for the money. He finds a guy under a tree, with a briefcase. Is he asleep? Is he dead? He goes up to him, and as soon as he gets close, we hear flies. We know right away that he’s dead.
He takes the briefcase and man, that thing is heavy. You know it’s heavy because of the deep sound of him picking it up and putting it down. That’s Foley. Then he opens it up. That’s when I always ask my students if they heard any sound. Usually, nobody knows, and I have to show it again.
When he opens up the case and we see the money — big plot point — you can hear wind! There’s a light wind all the time throughout the scene, but when the case opens, there’s a gust of wind coming through the leaves. It’s a beautiful moment, and it shows how subtle you can be about off-screen sound that has weight. You feel it in your gut, but you don’t stop and say, “Oh, there must be an important point because they put a gust of wind.” Nobody even notices that. But I’m telling you, everybody felt it.
LP: What was your experience like touring with the film?
MC: I have to say that after going around the world with it and seeing this film with so many audiences, there’s so much enthusiasm for it. It feels inspirational because we talk about more than just sound. I think it makes people listen better, and that’s what I teach. I teach people to listen and appreciate their sense of sound and their sense of hearing, which is really important to me.
The other thing I’ll point out is that we talk about the human side of things. It’s all because I love these people. These people are my family. They’re my friends. I love them and I appreciate what they do and their artistry and their hard work. I think that it’s inspirational because even people who work, who are so tired of the low budgets, the pay, the hours, they come away from the screening feeling like, “Okay, this is why I got into sound.” I get that a lot. People feel inspired and I’m really happy about that.
After taking a semester off to travel around the world with her film, Midge is now back at USC teaching sound. You can learn more about the making of this film (featuring iconic directors like George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, David Lynch, Barbra Streisand, Ang Lee, Sofia Coppola and Ryan Coogler) from Midge’s interviews on Hollywood In Toto and the Hollywood Reporter.
Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound is playing in select theaters. Click here to find your nearest screening!