Having made my living largely with my ears as both clarinettist and conductor for more than two decades, the notion of shaping sounds that, for the most part, others had written has been one of the most exhilarating experiences anyone could have. Particularly with the classics from orchestra, opera and choral repertoires, there is no way of knowing if the present-day results were at one with, say, Mozart’s intentions. Nonetheless, on some occasions, the feeling generated in the room both with the performers and the audience made that shared experience unforgettable. Surely that must have been “it”.
In director Midge Costin’s first feature (most of her credits being in the sound departments), the development of sound in the cinema is lovingly presented with a host of filmmakers and copious amounts of examples that can’t help but make any viewer “hear” their next film differently. And three cheers to editor David Turner for magically binding together all of the disparate parts.
The featured sound designers, Walter Murch (e.g., Apocalypse Now), Ben Burtt (e.g., Star Wars), Gary Rydstrom (e.g., Jurassic Park), openly discuss their lives in sound from experiments with tape recorders, through the move to stereo, then on to multitracks and digital techniques where the overarching goal—we are told by virtually everyone—is to support and interpret the story.
Accordingly, under the microscope (and “earscope”) come the essential elements: Voice: Production Recording, Dialogue Editing, ADR (Automatic Dialogue Replacement); Sound Effects: SFK; Foley; Ambience; Music. It takes a small army of dedicated “soundsmiths” to perform such tasks as removing “pops” from dialogue; build libraries of natural (e.g., animals, water flows of all stripes) elements to reinforce “you are there”, add the likes of snow crunches and armour clashes when the original result sounded “false”; create new sounds in support of disparate characters from R2-D2 to gigantic dinosaurs; allow characters and background noises to move across the screen; evoke very strong emotions by adding music to special moments that are beyond words. (Composer Hans Zimmer nailed this idea when he says, “heart first and the intellect will follow.”)
The final stage is mixing all of the tracks together into one convincing, balanced whole. With so many cooks involved, some of the “discussions” in that process must be fascinating to hear. Unfortunately, this film is all smiles from stem to stern.
The sound designers often refer to bringing sound elements together as the same as bringing different sections of the orchestra (e.g., strings, woodwinds, brass, percussion) into cohesion. But there is one huge difference: the conductor of any live performance has no second chance to modify the result; the sound designers have as many chances as the budget/director will allow. JWR