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October 16, 2019

"Making Waves"

SCA Professor Midge Costin documents our visceral response to cinematic sound

By Oliver Jones


As a kid growing up outside of Boston, Midge Costin had fantasies about driving racecars. Today, when she zips around L.A. surface streets, she prides herself on being a really good driver. But neither of those facts explain why, when she got her first union gig as a sound effects editor on Tony Scott's NASCAR flick Days of Thunder (1990), she knew precisely what a “bad guy” engine should sound like. 

No, she knew how an engine whose pistons could eat Tom Cruise's soul for lunch would project into the world for two entirely different reasons. First, she has had a thing for sound that she can trace back to fifth grade, when her parents got her a tape recorder for Christmas. The second reason is that the Days of Thunder gig came soon after she had graduated from the USC School of Cinematic Arts (SCA). 

It wasn't that anyone at USC had told Costin that animal sounds slowed way down made a speeding engine sound terrifying or that a gunshot or explosion buried deep in the mix in the midst of a high stress clutch shift would ratchet up the intensity for our hero. And no one had given her the inside scoop on what microphones to use when recording high revving turbo. (Anyway, SCA's legendary sound guru, the late Ken Miura, was on sabbatical during her final semesters, working with SCA alum George Lucas to wire up Skywalker Sound.) 

The truth is, the program had taught her something far more important. 

"I knew storywise what the sound was supposed to do," says Costin, showing no signs of jet lag over lunch at the University Club despite having just arrived home from the Berlin Film Festival. "I knew how to break down the individual story points and translate what was happening into sound. Every choice I made was based on the story."

Sound as a principal (yet often unnoticed and almost always unheralded) instrument of storytelling is a philosophy Costin continues to embrace and instill as the Head of the sound track in the Production Division at SCA, where she is the Kay Rose Professor in the Art of Dialogue and Sound Editing. And now it's a message that she has been evangelizing in spots far afield from her 507 Production classroom: Cannes, Munich, London, Seoul. That's because of Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound, her new documentary about the art, practice, and history of movie sound design; a labor of love that Costin has been crafting on and off since 2002

Since making its world premiere at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival, Making Waves has played in a dozen film festivals, including the Cannes Film Festival this past May where it earned a coveted spot in the Classics section, which is dedicated to heritage cinema. Using countless clips and interviews with 90 different filmmakers, Making Waves dynamically illustrates the essential role sound plays in how we process stories and film-going experience overall. 

"Sound in film is what created sound as an art form," says Costin. "Otherwise, there had been no structure for it. For music it’s different, but sound itself is directly connected to sound film." 

Making Waves will be released theatrically in New York and Los Angeles on October 25 (with plans for a national theatrical release). It details innovations of artists like Murray Spivack, who made the massive beast in Merian C. Cooper's King Kong (1933) come alive thanks to lion and tiger growls that were slowed down and played backwards. And master sound designer Walter Murch, who conducted the varied sound elements of Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979) as if they were sections of the Vienna Philharmonic. But more than that, her film brings to fruition the surprisingly emotional and difficult to explain role that sound plays, not just in our cinematic imagination, but also in our everyday lives.      

"We don’t have the proper language to describe sound," explains Costin. "We 'hear' and we 'listen' but with vision you can do so much more— you look, you peer, you peek. Also, we all know color, framing, light, and shadow. But unless you study music, you don’t know the comparable things for sound. It’s rare that we’re ever conscious of it. For most of us, sound is still part of our lizard brain. It's like, 'Ooo, I heard a loud sound so I jumped or I ran!' That is how sound has worked since we were back in the caves. It hits you in the gut— literally."

 As explained in the film by Murch— the first person to receive the "Sound Designer" credit and the first of a list of game-changing sound magicians to emerge from SCA including Star Wars' Ben Burtt and Pixar's Gary Rydstrom— sound is how we first make sense of the world, while still in the womb. "That's why sound is where so much of the emotion lies in film," says Costin.

Despite this, sound for too long has been the oft-forgotten stepchild of the film production process. This has been true whether it's studios that undervalue and under-budget for sound, or on campus, where students have not always considered the significance of sound to their short films until just before they put them in the can.

This has been changing dramatically in recent years, Costin says. At USC at least.   

"For young filmmakers, the meaning of sound has shifted," explains Costin. "From the time that kids are little now, they’re taking videos on their phones. By the time they get here, they are well aware that the area that keeps their work amateurish is sound. So that has made them much more interested in it. They want to know, 'How do I do that?'”

The emotional and intrinsic role sound plays in the overall film-going experience is something filmmakers like Barbra Streisand, Robert Altman, Stanley Kubrick, and Lucas championed long before their studio bosses caught on.

"Sound adds instant production value to whatever you’re making," says Costin. "They’ve done these studies where they show a scene from a movie and it has just the editor’s soundtrack and then they show it with the finished soundtrack. Eighty percent of the people surveyed will say afterwards that the one with the finished soundtrack had a much better picture. They will tell you that the color timing was better, but they won’t even mention the sound."

Another aspect of sound design that Costin is passionate about is attracting more women to the profession. Women have made major contributions to the art of sound and sound design, from Kay Rose, the legendary editor honored by the endowed chair that Costin holds, to current innovators (featured in Making Waves), like Cece Hall (Top Gun), Anna Behlmer (Braveheart) and Bobbi Banks (Selma). But if you look at most sound departments, you will see men far outnumbering women.

This is especially true in the high horsepower and sword-clanking world of sound effects and sound effects editing. 

"When I became a sound effects editor, that was unusual because most women tended to cut dialogue or foley," says Costin. "I guess men didn’t think that women care about what cars sound like, or guns, or explosions. I guess they thought that was macho stuff. And it’s still happening today!” 

Part of the impetus for Making Waves was to try to actively combat these prejudices and misconceptions. "I hope that what people will see from this film is that there are great men that do it and there are great women that do it," she says. "The stereotypes don’t really apply here. It was important for me to show and for people to understand that many different types of people do this work and do it really well."

Adds Costin, "I hope as a result of my movie, less women sound editors will be asked, ‘So what do you really know about cars?’"