Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound.

November 29, 2018

 

We at Nerd Girls were so excited about our Girls Behind the Board episode, we wanted to find out more about how young women might get into this field. We interviewed an expert: Midge Costin, the Kay Rose Professor in the Art of Sound Editing at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts. She just directed the upcoming documentary Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound.


What are some of the most fun and interesting things you've done working in sound?
On my first big Hollywood picture I was responsible for creating the sound for the race car engine for whoever was racing against Tom Cruise in the movie Days of Thunder. I remember he walked in my editing room one day and I was on the phone and I knew he looked familiar, but I couldn’t quite place him. He’s not that imposing of a guy and I’m tall, so he didn’t strike me as the big movie star type. Then he smiled at me and I realized it: OMG it’s Tom Cruise!

 

I had a fun and an exciting challenge on a scene from the movie Armageddon when Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck and a crew of misfits land on the asteroid. Of course, there would be no sound in space, but that’s not how director Michael Bay wanted to play it. So I had to create the sounds that would establish that world and make the asteroid the antagonist.  For that I used strange slowed-down animal growls with earthquake like sounds.

 

I also really loved working on a feature documentary about John Lennon of the Beatles where we had access to the Lennon library with home movies and historical memoirs. It was fascinating to me to learn more about him as a person and his social and political activities.

 

One funny thing I remember was that after working on the movie The Rock we had to make a different version for airlines. There was a scene in the theatrical version where Nicolas Cage, who plays a mild-mannered chemist, finds out that he has to fight a rogue band of military men. Upon hearing this, Cage runs into the bathroom and pukes in the sink. For the airline version, I had to take out the puking sounds and put in coughing sounds because someone might be eating or feeling air sick. That cracked me up. The power of sound was just too strong there!

 

You have a specially endowed chair at USC named for Kay Rose. Who was Kay Rose and why is there a chair named after her?
Kay Rose was the first woman to win an Academy Award for Sound Editing. It was for The River in 1984, a film starring Mel Gibson and Sissy Spacek. Kay was born in 1922 and started sound editing in the 1950s. She was the only female supervising sound editor for many decades who held her own and was highly regarded by the predominantly white male Academy members. She supervised sound for top directors such as Robert Redford (Ordinary People, 1980) and Barbra Streisand (Prince of Tides, 1991).

 

She is recognized in the Hollywood sound community as the person who set the standard of how production sound, i.e. dialogue, is edited professionally. George Lucas named an Endowed Chair in Dialogue and Sound Editing in her honor so that the art of dialogue editing which she had perfected wouldn’t become a lost art. 

 

Are there many young women studying sound at your university?
I would say that the number of men and women studying or specializing in sound right now at USC is somewhat equal. There are many women working in the field of cinema sound, but there is a gender divide.

 

It could be that idea that it’s a technical job so maybe historically, some women would shy away. More men are effects editors and supervising editors and re-recording mixers. Women are more often in dialogue editing and ADR (automated dialogue replacement: when actors come in to re-record their lines to make them better). I think this is based on an old stereotype that women are more detail oriented and better with people and emotions. It is very detailed work, fixing someone’s dialogue and breath and taking out lip smacks.

 

Female dialogue editor friends of mine joke that it's like the tiny stitching women make in quilting or a sewing circle. That’s how they see men perceiving it. The truth is that dialogue editing is taking care of the actors’ performances to make sure they sound seamless. After all, the actors are usually the most expensive part of the movie budget, so it is incredibly important, but the general public don’t even know that dialogue needs to be edited.

 

What do you think is the most important contribution sound makes to movies?
Sound is very emotional and expressive and affects us in many ways, but we don’t have much awareness of it. This can work in our favor in creating sound for movies because we can use sound to affect the audience’s emotions and perceptions without them knowing it and feeling manipulated.

 

Filmmakers who use sound well see it as this whole other palette that can bring in information about story, character and place. The production can be on a sound stage on a studio lot and yet when we add the sounds of tides and ocean waves crashing, we can make the audience believe we are near the ocean. We can use sound to set the mood or tone in subtle ways: a gentle breeze blowing through trees vs. a whistling, damaging wind. Sound can tell us the time of day - birds vs. crickets - and also the time of year – wintery weather sounds vs. cicadas.

 

Sound can set the mood in a subtler way than music. It can also say a lot about a character. What kind of music does the person listen to? How does their cell phone ring? How does their environment sound? In movie theatres you have the picture, which is two-dimensional, but with surround sound it literally becomes three dimensions. I love the challenge of reading a script or seeing a movie I’m going to work on and trying to figure out how to use sound to help set the mood and create sound leitmotifs that can help tell the story in a more convincing and emotional way.   

 

Are there different types of sound work?
YES! Oh, so many! First, there is the sound recording on the set. This is known as production sound. You have the boom person who is holding the boom microphone and wiring people up with individual microphones.

 

Then there is a production sound mixer who is recording what the microphones are capturing on a recorder. When they are recording on set, they are mostly just trying to get the actors’ voices and performance. Then there is all the work that happens in post-production, which is done by different types of sound editors depending on the types of sounds they edit.

 

The people who edit the production tracks that are recorded on the set are called Dialogue Editors. They make the tracks seamless. Each take can come out sounding somewhat different and Dialogue Editors make it all sound like it was recorded at the same time. They also take out any random sounds the crew or director makes or sounds from the actor’s body like lip smacks or stomach growls.

 

Sound Effects Editors put in all the other sounds of the movie. Since the recording on the set is mainly trying to get actors’ voices, you have to add in all the other sounds of the scene. So, cars, doors, slaps, kicks, explosions - those are all sounds that were added by Sound Effects Editors.

 

Then there is something called a Foley stage, and this is where custom sound effects for each particular movie are created.  Sound people called Foley Artists do this work. They watch the movie and then they make the custom sounds needed and to match the picture. They make the characters’ footsteps and glass breaks and water splashes and even the sound of cloth movement. These are all sounds that you can’t find in a sound library necessarily and would take too long to sync up.

 

A Foley stage looks like a room full of junk because it has to hold all the odds and ends you need to make every day sounds.  You see car doors and shopping carts and trunks full of different types of shoes. And the floor of a Foley stage has different areas of wood and cement and linoleum, and pits with sand and others with rocks and old quarter inch tape that sounds like grass when you walk on it. It’s a fun place to visit and watch the Foley Artists create sounds in synch to the picture.

 

Then there are similar sound stages where actors go to watch the picture and re-record their lines if they weren’t loud enough or clear enough when recorded on the set. These are called ADR stages - Automated Dialogue Replacement. Sometimes the filming environment just wasn’t conducive to the actor being heard – maybe it was windy or rainy or airplanes went by overhead or maybe the director just wants a slightly different inflection, so you need to re-record the actors’ lines. The actors perform these lines in the ADR stage and ADR Editors work to put these in perfect sync.

 

When all these tracks are cut and ready to be put in a movie, they must be mixed on to a final track by Re-recording Mixers.  The Re-recording Mixers can take hundreds of tracks - all the dialogue, all the sound effects, all the Foley sounds, all the ADR plus the music and mix all these tracks down to one final mixed track. It’s a lot of work and takes many people to put a sound track together for our movies!

 

Did you have a role model?
There weren’t that many women who were cutting effects when I came up, so Kay Rose was a role model.  Teresa Eckton cut Chewbacca and all the motors for R2D2 and C3PO.  That’s really cool.  Many incredible talented women currently working like Kyrsten Mate and Ai-Ling Lee who are great sound designers.  Anna Behlmer and Lora Hirschberg who are top re-recording mixers are amazing. And Teri Dorman is an incredible dialogue supervising editor, who I had the good fortune to work with.

 

What is your advice to young women who might want a career in cinema sound?
It can be tough to break in to the business. I went to film school and got my foot in the door through other friends who were in the industry before me.

 

Whoever you happen to work with first might be the deciding factor whether you edit or record and whether you are in dialogue or Foley, etc. If you go to film school, there are internships that can get you started. You can work your way up by apprenticing or assisting. If you don’t go to film school or even if you do, you can look up production sound houses that sell or rent sound equipment and see if they need help - it’s a way to get to know the sound recordists.

 

When you get to know them, see if you can be a PA (production assistant) or apprentice or be utility person for them on the set. For post-production jobs you should learn ProTools which you can do in school or online. Find a post-production house that does non-union work and see if you can apprentice or intern or PA. In any case, it’s important to be persistent and look for opening in the field you would most like to be in.

 

Set your sights on what it is you want and don’t take no for an answer. Keep checking in with people and know that one day you might be calling or stopping by at just the right time when they need someone. And once you have your foot in the door be the best worker you can be, make yourself indispensable! The most important things I think I teach to my students are: show up on time (that means early), do what you say you are going to do, make your deadlines, always tell the truth, be a good collaborator, if you finish your work jump in and offer help to others.  That is my best advice I can give.

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