Here is a valuable and deeply felt documentary, celebrating the work of the sound designers, sound editors and Foley wizards in the cinema, and if it feels like a feelgood in-house promotional video for Hollywood technicians … well, they’ve got an awful lot to feel good about.
These are the people who create that world of sound, that palimpsest of exquisitely blended noise layers, which is perhaps the thing least consciously comprehended by the movie audience but which is indispensable for fabricating a total world in which a film can live and breathe. It requires an artistry and a delicacy, as well as resourcefulness and make-do-and-mend ingenuity that reaches back to the cinema’s beginnings.
This film speaks to the great maestros of movie sound, like as Walter Murch, Ben Burtt, Kysten Mate and Victoria Rose Sampson who, with great frankness and amazing modesty, talk about their extremely difficult work. The great thing about a documentary like this is that it challenges the assumption – easily held – that sound is basically about simply capturing or tape-recording what appears to be taking place in front of the camera. In fact, the sound is “written” just as much as the screenplay.
From this movie, I learn that the sound of fighter planes in Top Gun was not simply the sound of actual planes, but that noise mixed in with the modified sound of wild animals roaring. And this was not to make the noise of jets dreamlike or surreal or metaphorical, but simply to make it sound stronger on screen, more compelling, more real. Sound is part of cinema artifice.
The other thing that this documentary does is emphasise that sound design is an important part of a film’s music – it is the film’s music, or part of it. It is Hollywood’s musique concrète. My one tiny regret is that this doesn’t show anything from Albert Brooks’s 1981 comedy Modern Romance, in which Brooks plays a film editor who in one notable scene improvises the sound effects for a sci-fi movie.
• Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound is released in the US on 26 October and in the UK on 1 November.