Midge Costin is teaching people to listen in ‘Making Waves’

Walter Murch re-recording mixing Apocalypse Now 1979.
Walter Murch re-recording mixing Apocalypse Now 1979. Photographer W.S. Murch.

First-time feature filmmaker Midge Costin spoke with FF2 Media about her upcoming film, Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound.

The film opens in select NY/LA theaters on October 25 before expanding into other markets.

When did you decide to make this documentary?

Midge Costin: I first attempted in early 2000. I had switched from my main way of working from a sound editor to a professor at USC. I thought I’ve got to tell people how great sound is and that it’s not thought up enough in the filmmaking process. I was a born-again sound person because when I was at film school, doing sound used to give me a panic attacks. I just thought of it as technical. I didn’t get the significance of using it for story. Then when I came out of film school, I still had my thesis film to work on and I wanted to be an editor—picture editor—so I did apprentice picture editing, assistant picture editing, and then a friend of mine called me up to become a sound editor and said “You can come in and I’ll show you how to cut effects.” So that’s how I started and on that first, I go, “Oh, crap, I’m the only sound effects editor. What am I doing for mood and tone? How am I telling plot points, and how am I reflecting character?

So anyway, I started right away and kind of realized the importance of it. One show led to another and then the next thing I know my first union show was Days of Thunder. And I’m working on these big action-adventure movies all the way through the ’90s. Then I’m totally into it because we were doing 5.1 and they were really exciting shows and sound really mattered on these big action-adventure movies. I was one of the few women also that was cutting effects so that kind of kept me really into it, too. In the 2000s, I found myself teaching at USC.  Actually, I love to teach. It’s probably my first love and I would do it when I could in the ’90s. I thought, Oh, if I can give these guys a leg up for sound and tell them how important sound is. So then when I started teaching full time, I wanted to do it so I didn’t just have to tell class by class but there was no such thing as fair use—the copyright thing.  It wasn’t until 2010 so I dropped it because it took a friend of mine two years to do a clip show. We need clips because you need to hear the sound. That was back in 2002. In 2010, my producing partner met Gary Rydstrom, a seven-time Academy Award winner, and said, “Why hasn’t the film been done?” Then she asked him if she made the film, would he be a consultant? He said he would if you got Midge Costin involved. So that’s how we started and we started in 2010. Most of the shooting we did was 2013-16. It just took a long time but in 2010 we got serious about it.

I remember watching Score two years ago.  I feel like Making Waves does for sound designers what that film did for film composers.

Midge Costin: Yeah, yeah. We were actually starting probably before they did. We kept going and it took us longer to do it. But yeah, that was that was a good show. Definitely. Same idea.

You ended up working in sound editing out of film school. If this opportunity didn’t come about, would you have ever made this film?

Midge Costin: Probably not. Because I wouldn’t have known how important sound is. I think I always would have found my way to sound editing because I actually had a background in music. I bet I would have found my way but probably not. I think it’s really important to have a background in sound to understand it and to be able to tell it in a way that is kind of interesting and succinct enough. Also, I think what was important is that I also teach it so.  I did it for many years and then I’ve been teaching it for many years.  I think having that combination was a perfect way to figure out how to tell the story.

Midge Costin
Midge Costin

When you were starting out, you were one of a handful of women working in editing FX for studio films. Has this changed over the years?

Midge Costin: Not enough. I think there’s an awareness now but I don’t think the numbers have necessarily changed that much. Women have always been in sound, but they usually are cutting dialogue and Foley so they’re dialogue and Foley editors. Luckily now, co-supervisors will be dialogue editors. The supervising sound editors usually were the effects editors and sound designers were usually the effects editors. So there are more men who are FX editors. It’s this thing where I guess they don’t think that you care about or would know how to cut sound on a car or a gun or an explosion or something like that.  It’s kind of prejudice, which is crazy.

How have things changed over the years with the frequent changes in technology?

Midge Costin: The technology has made it so much easier to do because we went from analog to digital. So you can do so many more things yourself so it’s faster. Also, you can be more creative—you can do it faster. But it’s always been led by the creativity.  Even back in 1933 when they were doing optical sound, King Kong was the first kind of sound design movie and they still had good ideas about what to do. The same thing with The Godfather, great sounding film, but it was only mono when Walter Murch first did it. It’s just that it sounds better and faster and easier to process and do things.

I just want to make clear that it’s not the technology meeting. I think the technology follows what people want and kind of push for doing something differently and then it helps but it’s not like the technology is built and then they do it. I think that it’s been it’s always about the creative process.

With regards to the film, how did you decide on which sound designers to focus on?

Midge Costin: Well, I chose directors that care about sound and then I used all the directors who I interviewed. There were directors that I didn’t get.  I got more California kind of oriented directors and therefore, I used those sound people.  I wanted Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, Kathryn Bigelow, the Coen brothers, and those are people that I didn’t get. Even though I had their sound people, I wouldn’t necessarily use them if I didn’t get the director to be able to talk about sound with them, too.

I especially loved that Saving Private Ryan is one of the films featured because the film has one of the best cinematic openings in history.

Midge Costin: That was so cool because that was a long scene and Richard Hymns, who got pulled out when (inaudible) was in it but they just talked about how emotional it was working on that and Richard Hymns’ father was a bombardier in the planes and he never talked about his experience. Richard just gets really emotional because the movie gave him an idea of what it was like to be in war. It was really a beautiful, long scene.

I didn’t even notice until after watching Making Waves that the score doesn’t come in until the life raft.

Midge Costin: Right. I know. That’s so cool. I love how he describes that.

I also love that you included Steven Spielberg’s 2010 MPSE speech.

Midge Costin: Yeah, yeah. And that’s all we had because he said yes from the very beginning that he would be part of the film and then he did four back-to-back films starting with War Horse. I think when we started, he was on War Horse and we just couldn’t get him, and then we were going to go and he goes, “No, no, I promise I want to do it. I love Gary.” He did it.  He said that we can use that from MPSE. I love that speech.

What do want audiences to take away from viewing the film?

Midge Costin: I think what I want audiences to realize is how emotional sound is and how much it adds to a movie, but also not just a movie but also in their life. How much your sense of hearing is affecting you? And so how much sound is really affecting you? I feel like I’m teaching people to listen. And the other thing is, I think it’s important that people realize—now that I’ve been going on the circuit to with this film, I feel like they give way too much credit to the directors is if the director makes the film on their own. And it’s all the other collaborators. I hope people realize the sound people are important but that all those names at the end of the movie contributed in some way.

(C) Danielle Solzman (10/20/19) FF2 Media

Featured image: Walter Murch re-recording mixing Apocalypse Now 1979.
Photographer W.S. Murch.

Tags: Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound, Midge Costin

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Danielle Solzman is a Chicago-based film critic and an aspiring filmmaker if she can ever put enough time aside to work on her feature-length trans-led political comedy script. When not in Chicago, she attends various film festivals such as Sundance, SXSW, Tribeca, and Toronto. She graduated from Northern Kentucky University with a BA in Public Relations while earning a Masters in Media Communications from Webster University after writing a thesis paper on comic books against the backdrop of the American political culture.
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