In 1965, an uncle of mine, a serious audiophile, gave us a wedding gift of a high fidelity sound system with stereo speakers. After listening to music on monotone speakers for much of my life, the surround sound effect of this new technology was amazing. I could hear sounds not just in front of me but emanating from the sides of the room as well. It truly was an enveloping experience. Which is why I was fascinated by the documentary Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound.
The film is an engaging history of the power of sound in movies. Telling the story are the sound engineers who create the film’s soundtrack and the famous directors with whom they collaborate to bring the audience the best of immersive film experiences. The narrative begins with archival footage of silent movies and takes a nostalgic look at early cinema before moving gradually into the era of sound. Through film clips and interviews with legendary directors and sound designers, the creative process behind this often overlooked part of moviemaking is revealed.
Directors interviewed include, among others, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Barbra Streisand, Robert Redford, David Lynch, and Ang Lee. All of them discuss their collaboration with their sound designers and how it made their movies better. Steven Spielberg tries to frame their contribution with the following observation: “Our ears lead our eyes to where the story lives.”
Particularly engaging is Barbra Streisand’s request to record her voice live for A Star is Born to create a more heartfelt rendition of a song rather than dubbing the voice after the scene is shot. Steven Spielberg’s discussion of the opening of Saving Private Ryan is instructive. He details the cacophony of the sounds of battle as heard from the perspective of the soldiers at the Normandy beach landing. The percussive noise of bullets and bombs gives the viewer a sense of being in the middle of a life and death conflict. Spielberg’s analysis of the integration of sight and sound gives one a sense of how valuable is the work of the sound mixer and editor.
The movie considers sound from three perspectives: music, sound effects, and voice. These three elements are then subdivided into smaller units creating what the film’s narrator calls a “circle of talent” that will give the viewer an immersive cinematic experience. The ability of sound to create a total visceral experience for the listener is embedded in the Jewish tradition of sounding the shofar on Rosh HaShanah.
In Exodus (20:15), it says: “And all the people saw the sounds and the flames, the sound of the Shofar and the mountain smoking, and the people saw and shuddered and stood at a distance.” Rabbi Avigdor Bonchek cites Rashi, the pre-eminent Torah commentator, who writes: “They saw that which is ordinarily heard, that which is impossible to see otherwise.” Rabbi Bonchek explains: “Rashi is telling us to take the word see (in Hebrew ‘ro’im’) literally. They literally could see the sound waves of the voice of God as He spoke. In modern psychology, this is called synesthesia, when the sense experience crosses over to another psychological space. Seeing the sounds becomes a miraculous event.”
The Lubavitcher Rebbe amplifies this idea. He observes that seeing enables us to gain a clear perception of the physical world. However, hearing has an advantage over seeing in the sense that it enables us to relate to ideas, abstract concepts and spiritual feelings. These cannot be understood by sight but rather by hearing.
Rabbi Doniel Baron relates this to the sound of the shofar: “The sound of the shofar begins with a simple breath, and ends with a note, broken or straight, depending on the required sound. In describing those sounds, the Talmud uses metaphors of crying — a protracted sighing cry and uncontrollable broken weeping. That primal cry of the shofar reveals its secret. Mystical sources explain that the shofar spiritually expresses places in a person that words cannot reach. It penetrates the core of a Jew’s existence, and taps into the essence of the Jew. It is the primal cry of the soul, an existential scream.”
Making Waves reminds us that sounds convey a message that goes beyond mere words. It allows us to experience the world on multiple levels, and we emerge from the film appreciating the technicians who enable the movies to touch our hearts as well as our heads.