Midge Costin at the BFI London Film Festival

Director Midge Costin talks to Frankly My Dear UK about MAKING WAVES: THE ART OF CINEMATIC SOUND and why sound is so important in film

From the buzz of the lightsabers in STAR WARS to the deafening silence in A QUIET PLACE, the importance of sound in cinema is undeniable. Yet, it is also an art form that is often forgotten about. Would you be able to name the sound editor for these films? More importantly, why aren’t more filmmakers taking sound seriously? Midge Costin’s documentary MAKING WAVES: THE ART OF CINEMATIC SOUND aims to answer these questions by shining a light on this underappreciated, yet hugely important art.

Mixing clips from iconic movies like KING KONG (1933), STAR WARS (1977), TOP GUN (1986) and JURASSIC PARK (1993) with talking-head interviews from legendary Directors such as Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Sofia Coppola and Ang Lee, MAKING WAVES: THE ART OF CINEMATIC SOUND explores the history, artistry and emotional power of cinema sound and the masters behind it.

In many ways, you could say that Costin is a sound master herself. Honing the sound for blockbusters such as ARMAGEDDON, CRIMSON TIDE, THE ROCK and CON AIR, Costin has worked on more than 20 feature films during her career, despite sound not being an area she ever wanted to work in.

“I went to film school in the 80s and when I came out, the very last thing I thought I would be doing is sound” explains Costin in an exclusive interview with Donna Kelly of Frankly My Dear UK.

“When I was in school, it totally panicked me. I thought it was technical and that it was done at the end, almost as a necessary evil. After school, I needed money and a friend of mine called me up and asked me to cut the effects for a 16mm showreel for an important producer. As I tell my students, I lowered myself to the sound job for the money, and that’s how it all started.”

Started it did, that first job leading onto a 20+ year career in sound for Costin, landing her first major Sound Editor job at Paramount Studios in 1990.

“My first union picture was at Paramount doing the Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman movie where they fell in love – DAYS OF THUNDER. Whoever was racing against Tom Cruise, I was the person doing the bad guy’s car. It was early days of surround sound and it was so fun. Through the 90s, one show led to another and I began working with Jerry Bruckheimer on big sound films.”

Costin’s work on DAYS OF THUNDER led to further collaborations with filmmakers such as John Waters (CRYBABY), David Wolper (IMAGINE: JOHN LENNON), Kenneth Branagh (DEAD AGAIN), Tony Scott (CRIMSON TIDE) and Jerry Bruckheimer (THE ROCK) to name but a few. Two of the films, CRIMSON TIDE and ARMAGEDDON, for which she edited effects and dialogue, received Academy Award nominations for Sound Editing. During this period, Costin met and worked with lots of influential people in the film industry, many of whom appear in the documentary, including David Lynch.

“When I was in film school, I heard David Lynch’s ERASERHEAD and I loved it. That made me aware of sound because the ambience and the range are over the top, just like the movie, I thought it was really interesting. I also remember APOCALYPSE NOW, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and, of course, STAR WARS and the fun they had with lightsabers. That stood out. I also like the quieter films, it’s one of the reasons ORDINARY PEOPLE is in the documentary. My editor didn’t even know that film – he’s too young – but I remember the silence in it.”

Whether you have an interest in sound or not, MAKING WAVES certainly makes for a fascinating watch. As the documentary points out, the 1970s was an especially productive time for sound with auteurs such as Francis Ford Coppola willing to spend top dollar on sound equipment and giving artists like Walter Murch free rein to develop and toy around with recording and mixing.

“The quantum leap was the 70s because Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas moved out of Hollywood so they could do what Walter Murch was doing which was sound design, sound editing and mixing. Those were always seen as different categories. Also, in Hollywood, it was like a factory line and you did it at the end, whereas they started on sound in the script stage.”

Yet despite filmmakers like Ford Coppola and Lucas pushing the production of sound forward, Costin believes sound still has a long way to go before it is taken seriously in modern film.

“It all depends on the director and whether they care about sound, whether they involve sound people as collaborators” explains Costin.

“We have these big directors saying sound is 50% of the movie but even on the big budget films, the most for post-production is 3%. Mostly its 1% of the budget.”

“Everyone says they have an awareness that sound is important. There is more consciousness but I don’t know if it’s that much better. It’s still happening, even now, particularly with the move from analogue to digital. With digital, you can do things faster so it results in shorter schedules and less people.”

If sound really does only account for 1% of budget on a big film, it’s fair to say that Costin had a battle on her hands to get MAKING WAVES off the ground.

“It was really difficult. The only way I got this film done was because it was all independently financed and we were non-profit. If I didn’t have a sister who was very generous in finance – thank God, she didn’t study the arts – it wouldn’t be done. We got the interest of BBC and PBS and we talked about series but we took so long to make the film because I was working full-time as a professor and also, just to get the breath of interviews that we needed. Also, the Directors are so busy. We almost didn’t get Spielberg at all, he knew we were doing it and he kept saying yes but then he did a back-to-back project.”

Thankfully, the documentary finally came together, fulfilling a very personal project for Costin.

“The truth is it is very personal. The people that you work with, sometimes 12 to 18 hours a day, you’re all growing up together. People are getting married, are having babies, parents are getting sick and grandparents are dying, divorces are happening – we’re all there together. These are my family, I love these people. At the end of the movie you can hear people get choked up and emotional about the job.”

MAKING WAVES: THE ART OF CINEMATIC SOUND is released in the US on 25 October and in the UK on 1 November 2019.