Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound directed by Midge Costin, which had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, takes a fascinating, in-depth look at the key figures in the field of sound design and the process they’ve mastered.

When the trailers for The Force Awakens first dropped, what gave me the biggest thrill was hearing the Millennium Falcon take flight again, the sound of those TIE fighters hurtling behind it, the zip of the stormtrooper’s laser guns, John Williams’ iconic score, and of course Chewbacca growling in response to Han’s line, ‘Chewie, we’re home’. All elements of that much-loved sci-fi saga’s now familiar sound design that first transported us to a galaxy far, far away back in 1977, created by Oscar-winning sound designer Ben Burtt. Coincidentally, I saw Making Waves on the same day that Peter Mayhew’s family shared the sad news that he had passed away. So it was poignant to hear Burtt detail how he’d tempted a bear with bread to get many of those distinctive Chewie moans and growls, which along with Mayhew’s physicality created such a memorable and cherished character.

Sticking with Star Wars, Making Waves shows us part of the opening of Episode IV without sound; still a visually stunning sequence as an Imperial Star Destroyer dominates the screen, but it just does not deliver the same impact without Burtt’s terrific sound design. As we hear the film’s director George Lucas suggest in this documentary, the visuals are only half of the cinematic experience.

Sound hasn’t always been considered to be such a vital element of the filmmaking process however and initially wasn’t even possible. Making Waves takes us back to the silent era and through the trend of creating live sound effects in cinemas during the early 1920s. We’re taken back to 1926 when the first synchronised picture to music track was exhibited in cinemas with Don Juan, a system where the music track was mechanically connected to a projector. The Jazz Singer the following year gave the world its first “talkie”, but the business continued to place more importance on dialogue than the other sound elements until King Kong came along in 1933 and illustrated the potential of what more elaborate sound could add to the effectiveness of a film.

As the use of sound effects became the norm, each studio had their own library and for decades stock sound effects were generally used time and again for all of that studio’s movies. Radio drama was influential, as sound design gradually evolved, with pioneers such as Orson Welles taking his own sound design techniques from radio to film.

Martin Sheen as Captain Benjamin L. Willard. Credit: Francis Ford Coppola and Vittorio Storaro.
Martin Sheen as Captain Benjamin L. Willard in Apocalypse Now. Credit: Francis Ford Coppola and Vittorio Storaro.

The progression of sound design to the craft we know today was largely propelled by certain filmmakers who pushed studios to make it a priority in terms of the budget and post-production schedule. Francis Ford Coppola is sited as a key example, collaborating with Walter Murch on the ground-breaking sound design for Apocalypse Now, when Murch coined the term “sound designer”. Although not directing 1976’s A Star Is Born herself, Barbra Streisand was a driving force behind the film and insisted on four months being spent on the sound with a then unheard of budget of $1 million to be spent on the movie’s sound.

We also hear from filmmakers such as David Lynch who considers sound to be sometimes more important than the image on screen, while Ang Lee contemplates the use of wind sound effects in Brokeback Mountain, with the element almost another character in the film. Alfonso Cuarón breaks down the sound design of some memorable sequences in last year’s Roma.

Some surprising anecdotes are revealed in the documentary, such as Cecelia Hall, Oscar nominated for her sound effects work on Top Gun, recalling that the real sound of jet engines alone was just “too wimpy”, so she decided to incorporate animal roars into the jet sound effects for the movie.

Making Waves goes on to examine the innovations in sound design demanded by the first computer generated animations of the nineties, such as Toy Story created by Oscar-winner Gary Rydstrom, who also analyses his work on the extended opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan. Spielberg considers what the sound design added to that Omaha beach landing and why he decided that the use of silence at one point would powerfully convey Ryan’s traumatic experience.

The documentary’s director Midge Costin, an established sound editor herself on films such as The Rock and Con Air, makes a compelling argument that sound design is a vital part of any film’s success. You’ll likely never hear a film in the same way again after watching this thrilling celebration of the craft.

Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound had its World Premiere at the 18th Tribeca Film Festival and will screen at 72nd Cannes Film Festival this month.