Imagine a light saber without its ominous hum, R2D2 without his squeals and beeps, or a Wookie without his bleat.
That’s the impoverished reality we might face without the inspired work of Ben Burtt, sonic Jedi Knight behind the original Star Wars. He’s one of the creative pioneers discussed in the documentary Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound, a film by Midge Costin that celebrates the unsung contributions of Hollywood’s great sound designers.
How Burtt obtained the throaty vocalizations for Chewbacca, for example, involved a visit to a young bear in a pen.
“The way they got it to make sound was to show it bread. It loved bread,” Richard Anderson, one of Burtt’s sound colleagues on Star Wars, recalls in the documentary. The bear’s pining for yeasty treats became the Wookie’s plaintive wails, with Chewie’s more contented sounds coming from the bear with a full belly.
“And then you give him the bread,” Anderson continues in Making Waves, “and he’d be like, ‘mmmm mmmm.’”
The documentary has opened the eyes, and ears, of moviegoers.
“Mostly people love films and they love to see the behind the scenes…People come up and they’re just so enthusiastic,” Costin tells Deadline. “I want viewers to understand what goes on…what these [sound designers] do and how artistic it is. It’s not technical. I think Making Waves brings an understanding to people about how emotional sound is and how much it’s bringing to their lives.”
Among the multiple Oscar-winning sound designers who appear in the documentary along with Burtt are Gary Rydstrom (Jurassic Park, Titanic, Saving Private Ryan) and Walter Murch (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, The English Patient). Murch, who began experimenting with sound equipment at age 10, brings a conceptual depth to his work, tracing the subconscious power of sound on the human mind to a baby’s development in utero.
“We start hearing four and a half months after conception,” Murch noted at a recent Q&A for Making Waves in Los Angeles. “The womb is a very noisy place. A constant 75 decibels of heartbeat and breathing and intestines gurgling and the human voice…The developing child is reacting to the mother’s voice and other sounds.”
In the early 1970s Murch and his young collaborators George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola were among the first to understand the potential of sound to powerfully impact the moviegoing experience. He and Coppola expanded their innovations for 1979’s Apocalypse Now, creating the first surround soundscape for a movie.
“I wrote out a script for the sound treatment of the film to guide the mix,” Murch explains in Making Waves. “The film did run [in theaters] in this six-track surround format and as things have evolved over the next 30, 40 years, that format is now the ground standard of how you mix a film.”
The documentary, written and produced by Bobette Buster and produced by Karen Johnson, also explores the impact of many women in sound innovation, including Barbra Streisand, who realized 1968’s Funny Girl would be enhanced if her singing was recorded live on set instead of dubbed in later. And as the star and executive producer of A Star Is Born in 1976, Streisand insisted on stereo sound, instead of mono that had long been the standard in cinemas. Streisand agreed to appear in Making Waves to share her observations.
“That was fantastic,” Costin enthuses. “Barbra Streisand, I think, was surprised—she didn’t realize that she was part of history and she was happy to be recognized for that.”
Oscar-winning sound designer Cece Hall recalls her experience on Top Gun, the 1986 mega-hit starring Tom Cruise as a hotshot fighter pilot.
“I spent a week in San Diego recording jets…but the jets themselves are not that interesting,” Hall recounts in Making Waves. “They sounded kind of wimpy.”
So she created a library of “exotic animal roars, lions and tiger roars and monkey screeches” to substitute for the actual sound, giving the high-flying action scenes a crucial sonic jolt.
Costin herself is a veteran sound designer with credits that include Con Air, The Rock and Armageddon. She holds the Kay Rose Endowed Chair in the Art of Sound and Dialogue Editing at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. Costin says when she first entered the business she too didn’t fully recognize the art of sound.
“When I finished graduate school I was coming out [to Hollywood] to be a picture editor, and I wasn’t appreciating how much sound plays in storytelling,” she recalls. “I didn’t have that awareness and I think that what makes me so passionate about telling this story.”
Making Waves has qualified for Oscar consideration this year following a theatrical release in October. It premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April and was nominated for the Golden Eye award for best documentary at the Cannes Film Festival. Costin anticipates the film will be released on digital platforms and Blu-ray early in the new year.
Making Waves delves into the history of sound in cinema, from the silent era to today. But audiences have responded to the surprisingly emotional quality of the film, Costin says, and the sheer fun of hearing fascinating stories about some of Hollywood’s greatest motion pictures.
“[Viewers] think sound is going to be technical and then when they see it—that’s why I have so much confidence in the film because people love it when they see it.”
Costin adds, “The sound community is so appreciative. It just frustrated us that people don’t quite understand [what we do]. And a lot of the sound community says, ‘Oh my god. I’ve got to bring my wife. I have to bring my kids.’ I mean, Ben Burtt’s daughters said, ‘I never knew what my father did.’”