Midge Costin on 'Making Waves' and the Art and the Future of Film Sound

The veteran sound designer and prominent film school professor just made her directorial debut with a documentary focused on her craft.

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Matson Films

Midge Costin knows a thing or two about film sound. The veteran sound editor worked in Hollywood during the ’80s and ’90s on titles including Armageddon, Crimson Tide, and Days of Thunder. After a prolific career in the industry, she began teaching at her alma mater, the University of Southern California, where she is currently the Kay Rose Professor in the Art of Dialogue & Sound Editing, a chair endowed by directors George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.

This year, Costin dons a new cap, making her directorial debut with the documentary Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound. With an impressive roster of interviewees — among them Spielberg, Barbra Streisand, and David Lynch — Costin shines a spotlight on the history and heroes of her craft. The result is a love letter to a crucial but oft-ignored component of the filmmaking process. We chatted with Costin about how Making Waves came together, the sound renaissance of the ’70s, and the future of the medium.

Nonfics: With this film, you can really feel the love that you have for your craft. What inspired you to make it?

Midge Costin: I was at film school in the ’80s, and the last thing I thought I’d do was sound in film. I would just have panic attacks when I would do sound. It seemed technical. I wasn’t thinking about story when I was doing sound. I always thought it was something you’d do at the end of the movie. When I came out [of school], I wanted to be an editor. I still had my thesis film to do, so I did an apprentice editing job, an assistant job, and then a friend called me up from film school. He had become a sound editor. He said, “Midge, none of the union guys will touch 16mm. I’ll show you how to cut effects.” One job led to another…

Even in the ’90s when I was doing the big action-adventure movies, I loved teaching. I just thought, “I’d love to pass on what I know about sound.” I don’t care for the action-adventure genre, so I was hoping that I would pass it on to students who’d be directors, writers, and producers, who would use it for movies that were even better. I just became a born-again sound person and really loved it and thought, “I was missing this in film school.”

I went to do [Making Waves] in 2002, and a friend of mine was directing and producing [a documentary] about editing called The Cutting Edge. But she said it took her two years to get the rights; it wasn’t fair use. So I had to wait until 2010, when Bobette Buster, my producing partner, approached me and said she had talked to [Saving Private Ryan sound editor] Gary Rydstrom and he said that he would be involved if she involved me. We started the whole process in 2010. It was just my passion for sound and my awareness that no one knows very much about it. No one thinks about sound. That’s how it all started. I thought it would be of interest to people. I also love all the people that I work with. I love the art of sound in movies, and I just thought, “I would love for people to understand that better.”

Nonfics: In the doc, there’s an emphasis on the New American cinema of the ’70s. Steven Spielberg attributes that to newfound sound consciousness among directors. Was this because the quality of filmmaking demanded great sound? Or was there a new connection between directors and sound editors?

Costin: In the ’70s, Francis Ford Coppola got connected with George Lucas, introduced [Apocalypse Now sound editor] Walter Murch, and they really wanted to do things their own way. Walter Murch got into sound when he was at film school. When George was doing THX’s sound — THX 1138, the movie. He would edit during the day and Walter Murch would do the sound at night. They liked doing sound along with the movie and they thought it was just as important as anything else, whereas in Hollywood, they kept using those old [studio sound effect] libraries, and they weren’t getting fresh sounds. Francis Ford Coppola, when they were doing Apocalypse Now, heard that quad sound from [composer Isao] Tomita, and we heard that he said, “I want my movie to sound like this.”

What was really mind-blowing to me was that Walter Murch had never done anything but mono. He had never done a stereo movie, and here they were, creating what we have now, which is 5.1 surround. They actually created that — Walter Murch, Richard Beggs, and Mark Berger — and none of them had even worked on stereos. The directors were looking to use sound in a creative way, in helping to tell the story. It was driven by the filmmakers; not just sound for sound’s sake, but sound for story. As Steven Spielberg said, his whole generation was more sound conscious.

Ben Burtt records lightsaber sound effects for ‘The Empire Strikes Back’

Nonfics: While talking about Star Wars, Ben Burtt says that the production had a preference for authentic, pre-existing sounds as opposed to sound made by electronic technology. What are the merits of both approaches?

Costin: I think it’s because we react to things from our gut. In doing big action-adventure movies — you know, my first big one was a studio picture, Days of Thunder. Whoever was racing against Tom Cruise, I had that other car. And when the car would go by, [we] would use this, like, low…you could use animal growls slowed down. I think it’s because that hits us in our gut. We’re still processing sound as if we’re animals. It’s like you’re a cave person. You’re running from the tigers and the bears. We’re still processing things from our gut. It resonates with us more than something that’s very synthesized.

Nonfics: On that note, about the emotion that sound can elicit, when you’re designing sound are you trying to strike for an emotional reaction or a physical reaction? How would you go about eliciting each of those?

Costin: A lot of times we’re trying to think about what the different frequencies do. In Armageddon, for example, I had the reel where Bruce Willis and Steve Buscemi come out of the shuttle for the first time. They’re on the meteor, and the meteor was kind of the antagonist, right? So I’m thinking, what low-end sound is going to [be similar to] an earthquake sound? Rocks cracking to make it sound threatening, like rocks are gonna chew them up and spit them out. What’s a high-end sound that’s gonna unnerve you? The one that I liked the best was wind through a wire. It just makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up. So you’re always kind of looking for, how does this affect me, emotionally. You just go with your gut. But there is something — low-end sounds, it’s got to be something big. You know when a big truck goes by, you can just feel the whole place shake? It just kind of hits you. And I think it feels ominous.

Nonfics: You have some really impressive names attached to the film, and a few of them are actors who eventually made their directorial debuts. How much more do you think we get out of a character when the performer has a deep understanding of sound?

Costin: The performance is really about the voice. Actors study voice, so they understand. And also, they understand that a lot of times, breathing can tell you more about a character than dialogue. Actors really get it. Robert Redford, he actually used a lot of silence in his movie Ordinary People. That was interesting; the silence between his characters, he talks about that [in Making Waves].

[For Funny GirlBarbra Streisand knew that it was important to do [her performances live] instead of just a recording of her voice and the singing. You feel it more, you know? And I love that we got that part of her singing and you see the tears come down and she said it always happened at a different moment. She just didn’t know when she was gonna cry, and you can’t fake that. It was her really singing that made a difference. I think it’s just because actors study voice. They realize the importance of sound in that way.

Nonfics: You mention Ordinary People; the documentary covers every kind of film, from that kind of drama to Apocalypse Now. How does the process differ between designing louder films and quieter films?

Costin: Well, in a way you always approach it first from the script, always the story. What is the story need? I love quiet films as much as loud ones. Sometimes, [with] louder films, you’re cutting and editing a lot more stuff in, but it can be the quiet ones where sound is really effective. The movie A Quiet Place — the quiet sounds, I mean, everything in that movie — I love that. You love quiet moments because the loud moments don’t mean anything if the movie’s loud, so you’ve got to have your quiet moments. It’s just a matter of how much, but it’s one of the reasons I started to teach more than keep working on the action-adventure movies; I don’t care for that genre that much, it’s just too bombastic.

Unfortunately, we get a bad reputation as sound people, as if we wanted it that loud, but a lot of times it’s the producers or director is asking for it to be louder. But I love quiet films, or the more contemplative films. And it’s never really silent — when things are silent it means it’s so quiet you can hear the single crickets, the floor creaking or the door opening. So it’s really fun to think about those quiet moments too. They’re really important.

Nonfics: Do you have a recent favorite, in terms of sound?

Costin: Yes! The reason I put Alfonso Cuarón and Roma — [Roma’s sound editor] Skip Lievsay talks about it — I really felt like that was something different. Alfonso sat down with Skip and they took the dialogue first, the production sound, and they put that in the surround speakers and did something that I think was really different, much more aggressive so that you feel immersed. I love [the scene] in the car where we’re driving to the beach and when the camera’s in the front seat you actually can feel the kids in the backseat. I think you just feel more a part of it. And also when they go out to the city and go out to the cinema, you just feel the city. And [Cuarón] was much more aggressive than most people are in terms of using surround. I really wanted to put that in. I thought it was really, really great.

Ai-Ling Lee in ‘Making Waves’

Nonfics: As the film progresses into the more recent history of the medium, we see an increasing number of women experts being interviewed. Is that a reflection of how the field has evolved since the ’70s?

Costin: Yes. In the ’70s, Cece Hall, who talks about Top Gun, she was the only one. She and Kay Rose, who was the first woman to win an Academy Award, and [Kay’s daughter] Vickie Sampson. Vickie and Kay did Ordinary People; they did a lot of great things. But Cece remembers it was just like Kay, and Vickie, and herself. More and more women got involved. More women cut and edited dialogue, supervised dialogue, ADR (automated dialogue replacement), and foley. But they weren’t doing effects. I was one of the few women cutting effects and it was because that friend called me and showed me how to do it. But you know, there was a stereotype of women editing dialogue! People don’t even know that dialogue editors exist. And then effects editors ended up being the supervisors. That’s why Walter [Murch], Gary [Rydstrom] and Ben Burtt ended up being the supervisors and then sound designers.

There are a lot of women who are in sound in film, like Ai-Ling Lee — she’s in the movie. She did Wild, and she also was a sound editor on Deadpool and La La Land. She’s brilliant. But what happens with women sometimes is that they put them on women’s films. Kyrsten Mate, for Captain Marvel, she was the sound designer. But when we interviewed her, she was doing The Smurfs 2. And that’s kind of what happens!

I don’t think that people get it, but the way that I got to add women was that I used women in verite stock. So we see Anna Belmer mixing and we see Terry Eckton and Gwen Whittle and Ai-Ling Lee editing, and then Alyson Moore and John Roesch doing foley. We used a lot of women to do verite if they weren’t historic figures. And you know, Pat Jackson was there, working on Apocalypse Now, which there weren’t many women on. They just didn’t have the supervising role. And I didn’t want to make it the straight white male history of sound, so I tried to do something that was more representative. But as somebody said, [the documentary] probably shows more women, percentage-wise, than there actually are, unfortunately.

Nonfics: I understand that you’re a professor at your alma mater. One of your students could be the next Walter Murch. Has teaching given you a new perspective on the craft? What have you learned from your students, if anything?

Costin: Oh, so much! That’s why I’ve been teaching since the ’90s — since I was working. I think that’s why the movie is hitting people, because when you teach it you have to look at it a different way and have more perspective on it. So I think that’s really helpful. One of my students was Ryan Coogler. That’s why I got him in the movie. He’s probably the most sought-after director right now in Hollywood, or person in the world. This [film] took nine years to do. So Ryan was redoing Fruitvale Station, after Sundance, he was redoing the mix. So I got him doing that.

But then, he’s [been so] successful since Creed, so he came in and did an interview with me for Creed and then we had to update again for Black Panther. And the cool part was that he knew that, as a director, he didn’t know enough about sound. So he spent a semester doing sound in a production class where he did all the sound — he recorded the sound on the set, he sound designed, and he mixed the film. He did a great job. [He was doing sound] with his partner Aaron Covington and that’s when they wrote Creed. That semester they wrote Creed together. So it was great.

Bernie Krause Recording at Point Reyes

Nonfics: The title of the film is fantastic, as is the opening sequence in which the audio is matched by visual sound waves. How was the title chosen? Did you have any other options?

Costin: We did. Our company is Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet, and we were going to do that, and then we thought that wasn’t really a term that people knew these days. It wasn’t testing well with younger people. We still weren’t sure we had the right title. We went through a lot of titles because we were trying to make it understandable, what we were doing, what the film is about. But “making waves” stands for two things. One is making sound waves, but also making waves like the ’70s, when people doing sound got out of Hollywood and did it their own way up at Zoetrope [Studios]. They were “making waves” in the sense of the type of films they were making and also how they were doing it. They cared more about sound, so that’s what we thought was a good representation.

Nonfics: What are some common misconceptions about sound design, both by filmmakers and audiences?

Costin: Well, I think audiences think you turn on the camera and you get sound. I really do! I don’t think they have any idea about foley, and they don’t have any idea that the only thing you get on the set is the actor’s voice, and we try to keep everything else clear so that everything gets added. So when you hear cars, or planes, or you know, doors, even. Those are all put in after the fact, and it’s so we can control them and it’s really so that you can just get the voice and nothing stands in the way of the voice and that the voice is the one thing that we get on the set. I think that’s it. People just don’t know the work that’s involved.

It’s the same thing that happens with directors. Young directors — not people who are established, because they’d get fired if this happened — they’ll [choose] locations just for visuals. But it’s not always good for sound recording. And they say we’ll ADR it, we’ll fix it in the mix, we’ll fix it in post-production. Anyone who says that, it’s like they’re not an experienced director because it’s expensive and you’ve lost that performance that happened on the set when the characters were working together. So that’s kind of a naive way to look at it, or an inexperienced way. Really good directors know that they want to protect their actors’ performances.

Nonfics: The film touches on a number of milestones that led to a development in the medium. What is the next milestone? What is the future of film sound?

Costin: There are a couple things that are happening. [Fewer] people are going to theaters, right? More people are hearing films with stereo, on computers or small devices, and sound is more important when the image is small because you’re going to get all your emotion from the sound. The other thing is that [we now have] VR, virtual reality games and all that stuff. People wearing headphones and using earbuds. I think that technology is getting better so it has a 360-degree feel to it.

And then I think more things are being mixed in [Dolby] Atmos, so it’s just gonna be more immersive. Right now, with visual effects, you can create something from nothing. You can create a lion and a tiger and all that stuff. But we can’t do that yet with sound — you have to start with something to make it really good. So I think we’re gonna be able to synthesize more sounds to get them to sound like the real thing.

Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound is now in theaters.