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'Making Waves': Midge Costin Sheds Light on Sound

By Debra Kaufman

Walter Murch mixing 'Apocalypse Now.' From Midge Costin's 'Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound.'

Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound is a deftly drawn story about sound and its evolving role in filmmaking, told through the personal histories, experiences and expertise of many renowned sound pioneers and the directors they work with. It’s the brainchild of Midge Costin, MPSE (and MPEG), a Academy Award-nominated editor with 20 years of experience, who’s worked on films by John Waters, Kenneth Branagh, David Wolper, Tony Scott and Jerry Bruckheimer. She’s also the inaugural Kay Rose Professor in the Art of Dialogue & Sound Editing and Head of Sound at USC's School of Cinematic Arts.

Although sound is crucial to moviemaking, its role and impact is often downplayed or not understood. That is something that long frustrated Costin. "So many people don't think of sound in terms of storytelling," she says. "Education is important." She understood that first-hand. As a film student, sound seemed to be all about technology. "I started out being afraid of it," she admits, adding that she was taught sound from an engineering point of view. It wasn't until she grudgingly took a sound job to make money that the artistic possibilities became evident. "I was always interested in music; I played the guitar and sang," she reflects. "So the minute I started work on sound, it became more interesting. It became a search on how to reflect character and tone with sound."

The idea of making a documentary about sound had its genesis when Costin saw Visions of Light, a 1992 documentary about the art and craft of cinematography. She began to research her film, and USC colleagues Bobette Buster and Karen Johnson signed on to produce it (Buster is also credited as a writer). Buster approached longtime Skywalker Sound re-recording mixer Gary Rydstrom about participating—and he agreed once he learned Costin was at the helm; Rydstrom is credited as one of the film’s consultants, along with Mark Jonathan Harris and William Whittington. Thanks to the Fair Use provision of the 1976 US Copyright Act, Costin was able to minimize the time-consuming and costly process of clearing clips. Editor/sound designer/documentarian David J. Turner, who teaches sound re-recording mixing at USC School of Cinematic Arts, signed on as the project’s editor.

While Costin, Buster and Johnson researched and wrote treatments, Turner put together a proof of concept. During summer break in 2012, they took over a large USC classroom and posted sticky-notes in different colors to pull the timeline together. "It started off being a lot about sound designers, and then we expanded it to include everyone, and be about the story of sound," says Costin. "If you see how detailed sound alone is, people get a better idea of what it takes to put a movie together. Audiences realize it's an art and how much thought and work go into it."

With cinematographer Sandra Chandler and a Canon C300 camera, Costin, Buster and Johnson began interviewing in 2013, ending up with 90 interviews and 200 hours of footage. Costin was particularly happy to have Chandler on board, since the two had been close in film school and Chandler shot her thesis film. "Thirty-five years later, we’re back together," the director says. "Sandra had my back on the set, and she knew exactly how to set up the interviews."

Telling the story of sound from the earliest days of cinema was a challenge, since nothing about sound was archived during that time. Even so, the film’s history starts with Edison's 1877 invention of the phonograph. The team did find one very important interview: Murray Spivack, who was a sound effects artist and uncredited sound designer on the 1933 King Kong, as well as a few clips of Kay Rose, whose career went back to the 1960s. They also researched libraries and found a few clips. "But you don't see many sound editors from those early days," says Costin. "We do show Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock, but you don't see them with their sound editors or with headphones on. And sound editors didn’t get credit on a lot of those movies."

Instead, interviews with leading sound designers Walter Murch, Rydstrom and Ben Burtt are the core of the documentary, as they describe the history of sound, its evolution and their own distinguished careers. A long list of significant directors appears in the film, and Costin says she was turned down by a few. The most successful approach was, early on, via their sound people. "It was Gary who got us George Lucas and Steven Spielberg," she says. "They also gave me my endowed chair, so they're aware of me and very aware of sound." Of course, she says, once they got those two directors, it opened the door to others, including the Coen brothers, Martin Scorsese, Jane Campion, Katherine Bigelow, Barbra Streisand, Spike Lee, Ryan Coogler, Sofia Coppola, Christopher Nolan and Ang Lee, among others. Rydstrom also approached Robert Redford, and Costin’s USC School of Cinematic Arts colleague Mary Sweeney contacted David Lynch.

Although the documentary doesn’t focus on the use of sound in documentaries, Costin notes that everyone who worked on Making Waves has worked on documentaries. And, with regard to her experience, she maintains that she "does nothing different in documentaries than I do in big movies."

Tackling her first time directing, Costin believes her experience teaching at USC School of Cinematic Arts, where making films is team-taught, was the best preparation. "We all teach together in the morning and watch dailies, and I learned a lot that way," she explains. "I was learning along with my students, and didn't realize it until I put it to use." In preparing for Making Waves, says Costin, she devoured the research she found and was a stickler for being prepared. But, she emphasizes, "Nobody makes a film alone. This was such a collaboration. From being a sound editor, I get so frustrated when directors wouldn't allow you to express your expertise. I knew how to turn to people who are experts in their areas, and I'm not afraid to ask for help." Two other faculty members at USC School of Cinematic Arts also participated in the edit: Kate Amend, ACE, as a consulting editor and Amy Reynolds Reed as assistant editor. Supervising sound editors were Skywalker Sound’s Kimberly Patrick and Oianbaihui Yang, both former students of Costin. Tom Myers was the re-recording mixer.

Sound editor Anna Behlmer at mix console. From Midge Costin's 'Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound.'

Collaboration was especially true in the editing process with Turner, whom she praises for his keen ear for dialogue editing. "I had a really strong vision," Costin says. "I wanted to make a 90-minute film, not a five-hour or 25-hour film." Still, the two found that there were scenes that "hadn't quite pulled together." That's when she brought in USC School of Cinematic Arts Professor of the Practice of Cinematic Arts Tom G. Miller, ACE, as the film’s supervising editor. "Tom would keep reminding us to focus on what the scene is about and if we really need it, does it pay off to plant it there," she says. 

Making Waves was color-graded at Different by Design; the mix took place at Skywalker Sound and Mind Bomb Films and Whitney Digital accomplished the visual effects.

Looking back, Costin says her biggest challenge was getting the audience to "have a relationship with sound. Unless they feel the film, they don't get excited. When they see it, they absolutely love it, but it’s something you have to experience."

Her family, colleagues and friends buoyed the movie’s fortunes from the beginning. Costin gives a special shout-out to her sister, a financial professional who supported the film, as well as Turner’s parents, who are also listed as executive producers. A project of IDA's Fiscal Sponsorship Program, Costin and her team also managed a very successful Kickstarter campaign.

The documentary has had a rapturous reception on the festival circuit, starting with its world premiere at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival. It was also an official selection at the 2019 Festival de Cannes and an audience award winner at the Indie Bo Film Festival. The press in Israel dubbed her documentary "one of the top seven films to watch" when it played at the Jerusalem Film Festival, and it also played at film festivals in London; Busan, Korea; New Zealand; Melbourne, Australia; Munich; Mill Valley and many others. Distributed by Matson Films, Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound opens on October 25 in New York and Los Angeles, with screenings scheduled for numerous other US cities. The film also screens on November 20 as part of IDA's Documentary Screening Series.

The audience for Making Waves, says Costin, is anyone who likes movies. She recalls her own "conversion" from fearing sound to becoming its passionate advocate today. "I want to sing out to the world that sound matters and show it is an art form," she says. "What better way than making a movie about it?"


Debra Kaufman has covered the media and entertainment industry for over 30 years, often as it intersects with technology. She particularly enjoys writing about the creative work of cinematographers and editors.