Guest post by Alyssa Brooks, Outreach and Programming Coordinator and Events and Operations Assistant at Indiana University Cinema.
On Saturday, January 18, 2020 at 7:00 p.m., IU Cinema will screen the documentary Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound, the first film in our Spring 2020 Science on Screen® series. Making Waves is directed by veteran sound editor Midge Costin and features many notable Hollywood filmmakers, sound engineers, and composers in discussion of the processes, technology, and ingenuity that go into the creation of a memorable cinematic soundscape.
I have a background in music and have always deeply appreciated a good film score, what it contributes to the story, and how it’s built into a film, so I was excited to watch this documentary and learn more about cinematic sound as a whole. After watching Making Waves, I feel like I can experience film sound from a more informed perspective, and I am eager to learn more. By using familiar examples and highlighting the difficulty of capturing and creating sounds moviegoers often take for granted, this film provides an excellent jumping-off point into its subject. In film, a jet plane may not just be a jet plane, and some of the most important sounds are meant to be ignored. A great sound effect, whether it’s meant to be realistic or otherworldly, requires a unique combination of technical know-how and emotionally intelligent creativity. How else could a R2D2 or the Pixar desk lamp—communicating in non-verbal sounds—be cute, confused, angry, understood?
On Saturday after the film, I will moderate an onstage discussion with musicologist and recording producer Jessica Davis Tagg, Foley artist Tony Brewer, and audio engineer Jamie Tagg. We will delve into their respective areas of expertise and the fascinating subject matter of Making Waves. As a preview, I spoke with Jessica, who is also IU Cinema’s Assistant Director of Events, Guest Services, and Facilities, about the documentary, what sound in film means to her, and why the sound at IU Cinema is so special.
What did you think of the movie, from a professional perspective?
Jessica Davis Tagg: I loved this film. My favorite thing about the movie is how it clarifies an important question I hear every single year. When it gets to be Oscars time, you hear a bunch of people say, “Well, I don’t know what the difference is between sound editing and sound mixing. So I just pick the one that sounds good.” This is really a movie that focuses on sound editing and design, specifically. It was great to get into why that work is so difficult and complicated.
Can you talk a little bit about your relationship to sound as a musician and audio expert?
JDT: My background is in violin performance and musicology, and I worked in the orchestra universe, but I’ve always been a movie aficionado. My husband says that I watch a movie the same way I listen to a Beethoven symphony: with a lot of analysis, a lot of looking at nitty-gritty details. I’m also a producer for Stagg Sound Services, so I’ve produced a number of recordings, and of course I work at IU Cinema, so it just all comes together. I’ve always had a fascination with movie sound, ever since I went to a museum in my pre-teen years and spent the day hearing about the Star Wars sound effects creation, which still boggles my mind to this day. Not to mention, it’s great that Making Waves could talk so much about Star Wars and not even scratch the surface of the amazing things they did to make those sounds.
In the movie, filmmaker David Lynch says that the first thing most people notice about a film is the look of it, not the sound. Given your expertise, is that true for you?
JDT: I would say for me, unless the sound is really extraordinary, I’m still noticing what I can see first. That being said, if you’ve ever seen a movie with a sound completely eliminated, you notice that really fast. The thing about sound is that excellent sound often does not draw attention to itself, by its very nature. It just sounds like it’s supposed to sound. But any sound engineer of any stripe can tell you there’s no such thing as just capturing what it sounds like and then marrying it to the picture and putting it on screen. It’s really, really complicated to make the experience in a movie theater sound not just what the action or thing sounded like in the moment, but what you think and feel it should sound like. Most people, including me, notice the way things look first, because inevitably you’re being placed into a different environment. The sound, if it’s done well, should just go with that. You have to adjust your eyes and brain to the space the filmmaker is creating, and the sound helps with that.
What films have impacted you through music and sound design?
JDT: Arrival (2016), with sound design as well as music. They do a great job integrating the two. House of Flying Daggers (2004) has excellent mixing, sound effects, and various sound design items. Star Wars, as I’ve mentioned before. Those are the ones I’m thinking about right now, anyways!
Are there any films that used music in a way that really stayed with you?
JDT: There’s so many. I’ve said a thousand times, good movie music is prescriptive. When something funny happens and you hear the bassoon, and it makes you laugh, right? It tells you how to feel. Brilliant movie music is manipulative. I mean, pick any action movie where there’s an obligatory love story that’s not what the movie is really about. It’s just shoehorned in there, but there’s some great music that makes you believe it, that manipulates you into believing this relationship even though the script hasn’t earned it. Or the death of a character who was given a few lines, but you always knew he or she was expendable… but darn if the death scene doesn’t bring a tear to your eye anyways, if the music is brilliant.
I really appreciated the moment when sound mixer Lora Hirschberg gave the example of the sounds at the airport in Nashville (1975); the combination of airplanes, voices, the marching band, and so on that take extraordinary talent to capture and mix. I never realized how painstaking and challenging something like that could be. Can you recommend something that a non-sound-expert moviegoer can listen for the next time they’re at the movies, to experience the sound in a more educated way?
JDT: Two things. One is room noise. You don’t typically think about it or hear it, but there is a great example of an element that feels incredibly weird when it is forgotten, but you will never ever notice it unless you are listening for it. It’s part of the ambiance that they discuss in the film. When you’re sitting in a quiet room, there is still sound. The air is moving. Maybe you’re hearing an HVAC system really low. It sounds like you’re in a quiet room, but unless you’re in an anabolic chamber, you’re not. There’s a movie called Birdemic: Shock and Terror (2010) that has a scene where the sound engineer didn’t really record room noise. And all you get are the people talking into a microphone with different room noises behind them. And it’s super weird. Ambiance is very odd if you don’t have it, and it’s very, very hard to get correct, because how much room noise do you need for it to sound normal and not be distracting?
The second thing I would suggest is that hardly any sound effect ever is what it actually is. Very often the recording doesn’t translate and won’t sound the way the filmmaker wants, and you’re going to have to make sense of it. If you put a microphone down on somebody’s boots walking through snow, it’s not gonna sound right. Making Waves talked about Spartacus (1960) and how their armor sounded like tin pots. And that’s really what it would’ve sounded like, but it just doesn’t feel right in the audience. They recorded jet engines for Top Gun (1986), but it didn’t sound right until they added the roars of wild animals to it. There’s actually much, much more of that in movie-making than you think. Any time anybody in a movie picks up sand in a desert, it goes, “sssss.” That’s not what it sounds like! But it demonstrates what it feels like, drawing attention to the texture of the sand, and it feels right to the audience. It brings you into the universe.
Can you talk about how the sound at IU Cinema helps bring us into the universe?
JDT: Oh, the sound at IU Cinema is so, so good. Part of what makes it great is the size of this space and that there is really no bad seat in the house. The best sound experience I had in the Cinema, which I would not have expected, was The Exorcist (1973). I did not recognize how great the sounds are, and not just the scary, otherworldly sounds. There’s a moment where the priest is talking to someone on a college campus, and you hear somebody in the background yell at their friend. Everybody in the audience turned around and got really irritated at these college students talking loudly in the back corner of the Cinema, but it was the movie! And that’s what it’s like to be on the quad at a university; somebody really loudly talking to their friend, but it’s not so loud that you can’t hear the person across from you. We’re 7.1 in here, seven being the number of channels of sound [playing through the speakers hidden around the perimeter of the Cinema] and 1 being the subwoofer channel [at the front of the Cinema]. So, when something like The Exorcist has good mixing, the sound in the Cinema can be localized. Also, the volume level here can go up pretty high without stretching the system, which is very important. Our speakers have been designed and calibrated specifically for this space and for the size of the room. They can handle almost anything we throw at them. Your hearing will cross the threshold of pain before the sound will be distorted. That is special. That’s usually not what you get in consumer-level products, but also, we sometimes find problems in commercial movie theaters if they turn the volume way up. Not only does it hurt your ears, but also you’re getting that distortion, that “ssshhhhh” sound. When you hear that sound, it means the speakers can’t handle what they’re trying to do. That’s something I’ve never heard in the Cinema. And I’ve watched a lot of movies here.
Join us on Saturday, January 18 at 7:00 p.m. for Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound and a deep dive into its compelling subject matter. And be sure to check out the rest of this semester’s Science on Screen® series:
- The Secret of NIMH on February 1
- Stuffed with artist Allie Markham on February 24
- The Martian with Volcanologist Mariek Schmidt on March 24
- Ailo: A Reindeer’s Journey on April 4
- Dawn of the Dead on April 17
Science on Screen® is an initiative of the COOLIDGE CORNER THEATRE, with major support from the ALFRED P. SLOAN FOUNDATION.
Alyssa Brooks is IU Cinema’s Outreach and Programming Coordinator and Events and Operations Assistant. She completed her bachelor’s degree in voice performance at the University of Evansville, and is working toward her master’s in arts administration here at Indiana University. Her favorite film experience at IU Cinema so far was Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019).