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A documentary you watch with your ears

Sound editor Ai-Ling Lee, in "Making Waves"courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts

“The creation of the sound film made sound an art form,” Walter Murch says toward the end of “Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound.” It runs various dates at the Museum of Fine Arts, Nov. 1-20. If you recognize Murch’s name, you’ll very much want to see Midge Costin’s documentary, which was written by Northeastern University’s Bobette Buster. If you don’t, then maybe you should.

Costin is herself a sound editor, and it shows. “Making Waves” is very much a labor of love. The love is not just hers. The talking heads interviewed in her documentary include a Hollywood who’s who: George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Barbra Streisand, Robert Redford, Christopher Nolan, David Lynch, Sofia Coppola. You get the idea. They all understand how much what we see at the movies is enhanced, enriched, and enlarged by what we hear there, too.


The stars of “Making Waves” are the many sound editors heard from, chief among them Murch (whose credits include “The Godfather” and “The Conversation”), Ben Burtt (“Star Wars”), and Gary Rydstrom (“Titanic,” “Saving Private Ryan”). The blend of historical overview, film clips, tech info, and inside business on offer is pretty irresistible. Chewbacca’s roar? A bear who loved to eat bread. The fighter jets in “Top Gun”? Sweetened (if that’s the word) by tiger roars and monkey screeches.

Gene Hackman, playing a sound technician, but not a movie sound technician, in "The Conversation."

Some of the landmarks in the history of movie sound you’d expect: “The Jazz Singer” (1927); “Citizen Kane,” a landmark in movie everything (1941); “Star Wars” (1977). Others you might not: “Don Juan” (1926); “Nashville" (1975); “A Star Is Born” (1976), which Streisand insisted on being the first movie to use Dolby sound; “Eraserhead” (1977); “Apocalypse Now” (1979), presided over sonically by Murch, and which may be to movie sound what Wagner’s “Ring” cycle is to opera.


Note how many of those movies were released in the 1970s. Part of the reason that was such a great decade for movies was that it was a great, great decade for movie sound. It was also as much end as beginning. Soon enough, digital would arrive — sooner for the ear than the eye — and “Now pretty much in sound if you think it, you can do it,” Lynch says.

That doing takes several forms, and part of the pleasure “Making Waves” offers is learning about the layerings involved in movie sound: sound effects, of course, but also ADR (which stands for automated dialogue replacement), Foley artists (who physically create specific sounds, like footsteps, to go on a soundtrack), ambient sound, and music. “Layers,” Coppola says, “are really half the movie.” “Making Waves” lets you see what she means — and, of course, hear it, too.



Directed by Midge Costin. Written by Bobette Buster. At Museum of Fine Arts, Nov. 1-Nov. 20, various dates. 95 minutes. Unrated (as PG-13: the occasional casual obscenity).

Mark Feeney can be reached at