Midge Costin's Tribeca doc 'Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound' is a masterclass in sound design.
If you've ever watched a film on mute, you can corroborate the first words of Midge Costin's Tribeca documentary: "Sound is 50% of the cinematic experience." This is the cornerstone of Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound, a 90-minute tribute to the history, craft, and icons sound design.
Costin herself is a veteran of the below-the-line art form—her career in Hollywood has spanned films such as Hocus Pocus and Armageddon. But she approaches the subject with an outsider's reverence, taking the tone she likely uses with her students at USC, where she is a tenured professor of sound design.
The early great sound designers tell the story best: Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now, The Godfather), Ben Burtt (Star Wars, E.T.) and Gary Rydstrom (Saving Private Ryan, Jurassic Park), among others, describe how King Kong kicked off sound design in 1933, followed by later breakthroughs from Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas's indie collective American Zoetrope (of which Murch was also a part).
Then comes the most exciting reveal of the film: Barbra Streisand's pivotal contribution to sound. During the production of the 1976 A Star Is Born, the actress implored Warner Bros. to ditch mono for stereo. When they wouldn't, she put up $1 million of her own money for the cause. The studio was so impressed with the technology that they reimbursed Streisand, and the industry never looked back. We also hear from littler-known sound designers, such as Cece Hall, who tells a story about swapping out jet noises in Top Gun with lion and tiger roars and monkey screams.
With the documentary, Costin paints a thorough picture of film's aural history and makes a strong case for a renewed appreciation of sound designers and the intricacies of their work. No Film School sat down with Costin at Tribeca 2019 to discuss the most important lessons she teaches her students, why sound design is underappreciated, and more.
"I didn't like sound. I was afraid of sound. Now, I'm like a born-again sound person!"
No Film School: You teach sound recording, mixing, and editing at USC. How do you feel about film school?
Midge Costin: I've been on the Admissions Committee for so long at USC. I try to convince [prospective students] not to go because I worry about the debt that they'll come out with. It's insane. But our Dean is really great about getting [financial aid]. For undergraduates, there is some money. For graduates, though, there isn't.
One of my top [prospective students] this year was a shepherd from Tunisia until he was a teenager. Then, he and his family moved into the city where the whole Arab Spring started, and they would get fruit from that fruit vendor--the guy that lit himself on fire, that started the whole [movement]. He had no money. And so, I got him one of the Lucas family grants. So he's coming to USC! And I got him an hourly job in the Sound Department. I said, "You don't have to do sound when you graduate. But here's a job for now."
NFS: Do you try to get film students interested in working in sound design?
Costin: Students used to be like, "Who wants to do sound?" People think it's technical, but it's like my mother said: "If you can read, you can cook, you can follow directions." You just do the same things over and over in sound editing. It's not so technical. Really, it's about story. Story, story, story.
NFS: And that was one of the best lines in your film: "Sound is 50% of the cinematic experience."
Costin: My whole thing is, I was in Hollywood for years working. Going out of school, I was going to be an editor. I had my thesis film left to do, and I needed money to finish that. And so I took a sound job when somebody asked me. And then I started working in sound and realized, "Oh my God, you can use it for story." I love story and character.
Then, years later, I'm working on these big action-adventure movies. I don't even really like that genre, but I was one of the few women in the world—there were maybe four or five of us—who cut effects. I just got caught up in that. And then I asked myself, "What am I doing working on these movies?"
And then the Dean offered me, "Would you go up for a tenured position at USC?" I said yes. I love teaching. Sound is what the students don't know. And it's the cheapest way to raise your production value. Do you know that even on those huge films that I worked on, like Armageddon, and The Rock, and crazy Jerry Bruckheimer films...for those films, sound is like, 1% or 2% of the budget. When you do visual effects, you're sweeping 40 to 60% of the budget.
You know, Ryan Coogler was my student. He took sound before he took directing. He knows sound is 50% of his movie And that's what's really fun—to give that to students and to make it an art form, not something technical that you slap on at the end.
NFS: If a student is unaware of the possibilities of sound narratively, where do you start?
Costin: I always start with ambiance. In Hollywood, we call them "backgrounds." First of all, get good production sound on the set. Because then you don't have to do ADR. It's costly and hard to do. So if you want to get good sound, get a good, quiet location so you can get all these incidental sounds. Then, after, put stereo ambiances.
In class, I'll show The Social Network. There are these scenes from these different lawsuits. And you should hear just the ambiances. The scene with the Winklevoss twins is in this room with carpeting and heavy drapes. It's got a lower room tone. And then it cuts to the woman who's got a window behind her, you can hear the traffic of New York. And then you go to the Harvard scene, and it's the overhead buzzing lights. You can hear the social strata. You can hear the economy that's happening. It's socioeconomics right in the room tone!
"There are so many stories you can tell with just the background sound itself."
So what I always say is, what does the neighborhood sound like? Are there police helicopters overhead? Do you hear sprinklers? What kinds of cars are going by? That also reflects character, the kind of neighborhood someone lives in. What does their car sound like? What do they listen to for music, or on television? Are the neighbors fighting? Is the baby crying? There are so many stories you can tell with just the background sound itself. Doing a stereo ambiance, even if it's room tone, you suddenly give 3-D to it. So that's what I always say to my students: start with that.
And then you think, plot point. What's this scene about? Just like anyone else would do—the actors, the director—you break down the scene. What's happening here? A lot of times, what's happening in the scene is in somebody's head. Point of view is one of the strongest ways to get across how a character is feeling. One way sound designers do this is if a character is focused on something or upset about something or whatever, they drop out the most important sounds. But you can't just have everything drop out, because it just sounds empty. So you have to think about emotionally, what kind of sound do you want? You want to put in something like what you hear when you're underwater. You need some kind of sound that's kind of muffled.
Costin: A lot of times you want to change the sound to cue an important plot point. I show this scene from No Country for Old Men. The Coen Brothers are brilliant. They put sound in their script. But I could not get an interview from them, dammit! Anyway, there's a scene in No Country for Old Men where Josh Brolin's character opens the bag that has the money. So, huge plot point, right? There's no music. Normally, what people do is they do music cues, but music cues can be so on the nose. It's cheesy, and the audience feels manipulated by the director. So Brolin is under these trees when he sees the guy dead. He takes the bag. Big thump down in the ground, it's so heavy.
When we break down this scene, I say to my students, "Did you hear anything when the money gets revealed?" And everyone's like, "Can't think of anything." Then I show it again. It's this gust of wind! For sure, people have felt that. This is a big moment, but it doesn't pull you out of the movie, like a music cue or a big dun-dun. Instead, it's just this wind that adds to the story and the plot point. It's subtle.
NFS: Do you ever show students examples of your own work?
Costin: I show something that I did from Crimson Tide. When Gene Hackman is addressing the troops and they're all going to go down into the submarine. He talks about the machine and "just how serious it is." It's raining. To emphasize what he's saying, I put cracks of thunder. Of course, you never want to put these off-screen sounds on top of somebody's dialogue, because then you're just fighting the dialogue. So, I show that scene, and then I say, "Okay, I'm going to tell you something. I put the thunder in when he says the serious sentences." Then, they watch it again.
Now, if I told them before they had seen the scene, they would think I was the biggest hack that ever lived. It seems so on the nose. But they didn't notice!
"I was one of the few women in the world who cut effects."
NFS: Is there any general wisdom you learned from your experience in Hollywood that you think is important to impart upon your students?
Costin: One thing is that it's important to work with the director early. You're not doing sound for sound's sake, and you're not doing sound for yourself. You have to sit down and go over the project with the director, and then give the director what she wants. Sometimes you do all these great things and then they don't want any of it. But sometimes you can also convince them to sit down with you so it's more of a collaborative thing.
But you have to remember that really, it's not your movie, and it's not sound for sound's sake. So, you never change anything. You don't change takes, even if a plane goes by or whatever. You try to fix that.
NFS: On that note, were there things that you worked on in the past that you felt like you were able to be very creative and innovative with, and kind of take your conception of sound design to a new level?
Costin: On Armageddon, I had the reel where Bruce Willis is coming out of the shuttle for the first time. They're on this asteroid. The asteroid is really the antagonist, so I wanted it to sound like that. I was doing all these sounds of rocks crunching and creaking as if the asteroid is going to devour them. It almost sounded like it's chomping on things.
And then there was this stalactite, or rock feature, that I wanted to give some kind of voice. And so, I took a cat call—"Reeeoorrr"—and slowed it down as the camera panned across it.
NFS: When did you decide to make your documentary, Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound?
Costin: Well, I decided years before this version [that you saw at Tribeca] started. I started around 2002. I loved Visions of Light, a doc about cinematography. And then a friend was doing the Cutting Edge, which was the editing doc. I just thought I'm the perfect person to make this documentary because I didn't like sound. I was afraid of sound. And then now I'm like a born-again sound person. Plus, I've worked in the industry for so long.
People still think that film and television are visual media. It's hard to have sound be taken seriously. It was hard to raise money. It was really hard. I think people go, "Yeah, yeah, it matters." But then, no one was willing to step up.
"People still think that film and television is visual media. It's hard to have sound be taken seriously."
NFS: Is that because sound is underappreciated in general?
Costin: Yeah. It's truly an art form. That's true for all the below-the-line crafts.
I remember being with a friend, Cathy, who's a costume designer for Broadway, and she feels the same way—they just don't get their due. Last year, she won a Tony, and they did it during the commercial break. I just [wish] people could understand the detail that goes into sound...everybody is thinking story and character, not technical [elements].
Ears are so important in our lives, but there is something about how our brain perceives things that makes sound less obvious. If you say to someone, "Would you rather lose your hearing or your eyesight?" Most people say hearing. But honestly, when people lose their hearing, they're more isolated than if they lose their eyesight. With their hearing, they can communicate with people. One of the sound editors in the film, Karen Landers, said that about her father: She watched her father first lose his hearing, and then he started to lose his eyesight. He said that it was worse to lose his hearing.
NFS: Were you surprised by anything your interviewees said?
Costin: Well, the biggest surprise had was when we went to Ioan Allen, the Senior Vice President of Dolby, and he told the story about Barbra Streisand being one of the reasons why Dolby was in theaters. Before A Star is Born, Dolby was just in music and noise reduction. But Ioan Allen went to Ray Dolby and said, "Ray, what about if we get into the movies?" Ioan Allen went around to all these studios, and they were like, "Yeah, yeah, we don't really need that." Because they knew it would be expensive. They'd have to change their whole systems and everything, so they didn't want it.
"The first leap in sound was King Kong."
As he says in the movie, it took directors with clout to change things. It was Stanley Kubrick on Clockwork Orange, Barbra Streisand in A Star is Born, and George Lucas, a year later, with Star Wars. Barbra Streisand, in particular, was really key in getting Dolby into theaters, and it becoming the standard system. Before that, everything was mono.
NFS: So you would consider that the pivotal turning point in the history of sound?
Costin: The first leap in sound was King Kong. The sound designer was a percussionist for silent movies! Then, with Dolby coming in, it was noise reduction, so you could layer more. And also, stereo. And then, Apocalypse Now, with the 5.1 surround.
But the quantum leap happened when Coppola, Lucas, and Walter Murch left Hollywood, so they didn't have to do the standard thing that Hollywood was doing. Instead, they did what they were doing in film school. You think about sound during the making of the film, even during the script stage. And also, there wasn't that a big separation between editing and mixing. Walter edited and mixed. That's how we teach at school. You do everything—you do production sound, you do editing, and you do mixing of the sound.
So, I think the biggest reason why sound changed was because those three were outside the system and they could do it their own way. They could do something innovative, creative. Walter actually cuts without the sound on, which is crazy!
NFS: You clearly asked your interviewees to talk about how being a sound artist affects their personal lives. Were any of those conversations surprising?
Costin: I asked everyone what it was like balancing family life. And then, what was it like being a woman? Because there's the whole gender thing, which we also address. From the outside, sound looks like these straight white guys. There are great women in the industry, but sometimes you don't hear about them because of family, or they just didn't get the opportunity very early on to be supervisors. Now, we've got Ai-Ling Lee, etc.
After the premiere at Tribeca, a lot of people said, "I didn't know there were so many women in sound."
NFS: Why aren't women in sound visible?
Costin: You know what happens with women? What they do is they give them The Smurfs instead of giving them the big opportunities. Women get the children's movies, and they get pushed aside a little bit.
"The most important thing that I teach my students is that it's not the specifics of the craft. It's this: Show up on time, do what you say you're going to do, tell the truth, and be a good collaborator."
Lora Hirschberg is the first woman to win the Academy Award for sound. She was a mixer on Inception, also on Dark Knight. And she's the one who says, in the movie, "It just looks technical because there are so many buttons. It looks scary, but gender has nothing to do with it."
NFS: Do you have any advice for young filmmakers who are interested in pursuing a career below the line?
Costin: There is one thing I always say. The most important thing that I teach my students is that it's not the specifics of the craft. It's this: Show up on time, do what you say you're going to do, tell the truth, and be a good collaborator. Finish your work. Volunteer to help someone else. Because in the end, who do you want to work with? The genius, or the person who's going to be there and be a nice person? Because you're working 18 hours a day together. I can't tell you how important this is.
The other thing I would say is to get your foot in the door, think about doing student films. Go to universities and look at boards. Honestly, film students might not want to do sound, so somebody could train you, and they would be using the school's equipment. Just be there, and be dependable. If you keep showing up and you're dependable, that's the biggest thing.
It's also all about the connections. That's the biggest thing in film school—I really think it's about the connections. If people see that if you work hard when you're in the trenches together, then it's not so much what job you're doing, but how you do your job.
NFS: I like that point of view because it kind of de-emphasizes this elusive idea of creative genius.
Costin: Yes. And I think there are creative geniuses. I think David Lynch is brilliant. But a lot of it is hard work, and being consistent. And then I think people can explore creativity.
Even Barbra Streisand—she's a really hard worker. She wants to get things right, so she puts in the extra hours. Before I went to her house, her agent said, "Send your questions." When I got to her house, she had 27 pages that she had written in response to the questions. That's someone who does their homework.