'Making Waves' Doc Director Sheds Light on the Mysterious Art of Sound

Sound — be it explosions, music, dialogue or silence — remains one of the least understood aspects of filmmaking, but one sound editor turned filmmaker explains it all in her new movie.
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Ten-time Oscar nominee Anna Behlmer at a mix console.

If you're not sure about the differences between sound editing and mixing, or the meaning of ADR and Foley, a new documentary offers an informative and entertaining look at these fields that could help give you an edge in your Oscar pool.

Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound, out Oct. 25, dives into game-changing films from The Jazz Singer to Star Wars.

Documentary director Midge Costin, herself a sound editor (Armageddon, Crimson Tide), tells the story of sound through interviews with filmmakers such as George Lucas, Barbra Streisand, Steven Spielberg and Ryan Coogler, and sound trailblazers including Ben Burtt — who created the voice of R2D2 and the swoosh of a lightsaber in Star Wars — Gary Rydstrom (Toy Story), Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now) and Cece Hall (Top Gun). Accompanying the interviews are rare behind-the-scene images.

"It's really art," Costin says. She hopes her documentary will convey how much work goes into sound in movies "in terms of emotion, character and story."

Costin and producers Bobette Buster and Karen Johnson made the doc for $1.3 million ($135,000 was raised on Kickstarter) through the International Documentary Association.

Costin, who has faced gender disparity in the industry firsthand, puts a spotlight on such diverse talent as Anna Behlmer (Braveheart), Ai-Ling Lee (La La Land) and Bobbi Banks (Selma). "It was really important to me to put diversity in there," she says.

In the film, rerecording mixer Behlmer notes that men were often picked over women for war movies. "Why? Has he been in a war? This idea of one gender being better at it than another, I think, is kind of silly," Behlmer says. She proved her point with Braveheart, which earned her one of her 10 Oscar nominations.

Oscar-winning rerecording mixer Lora Hirschberg (Inception) quips that some in Hollywood seem to want "a big guy who looks like he's been in the Air Force" at the sound mixing consoles. "The job consists of pushing little buttons and turning little knobs — not a particularly macho endeavor."

Costin says it's been rewarding to see the emotional response to Making Waves, particularly from young women of color who want to get into the field. "I think it's because they see themselves … this is a field for everybody."

The director admits that she and her team struggled with a segment dedicated to the history of sound in animation, which includes an interview with disgraced former Pixar chief John Lasseter. The interview was shot before the allegations of misconduct surfaced in 2017, leading to Lasseter's Pixar exit last year.

"We agonized over that," Costin says. But Lasseter made it into the final cut. "I'm still not sure we did the right thing, but he had a big part in [sound] history," she explains. "We asked a lot of people, 'Should we use it?' — [including] women who were part of it, who were there." She adds that she wouldn't have interviewed Lasseter if the allegations were known before filming.

Making Waves' final mix was completed in 5.1 by Tom Myers at Skywalker Sound. Film clips were used in their original format.

Sound legend Burtt shares his struggle to find work-life balance after his early success. "You can't put that kind of pressure on yourself that each time you do something, it's going to shake the world," he says. But the doc concludes with subjects voicing their passion for sound. Says Behlmer, "I pinch myself every day."

This story first appeared in a November standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.