Walter Murch estimates that about 98% of what you hear in a movie has been added by sound editors. Yet sound is one of the most underappreciated aspects of filmmaking — even USC professor and veteran sound editor Midge Costin dismissed it when she was in film school.
That is why educating the general public about the importance of cinematic sound, the effort that goes into it, and how deserving of recognition these artisans and below-the-line professionals are, is a passion for Midge. Since 2000, she has been teaching sound design and sound editing to USC film students (you can find out the difference between the two here), and she has recently released the documentary Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound.
We quizzed Midge about her film here, but she kindly stuck around to discuss her work in the realm of sound — and even gave some advice for those looking to enter the field.
Lunacy Productions: As you’re taking on a new project, how do you think about sound specifically as a storytelling tool?
Midge Costin: One thing that I always do when breaking down a film is look at the slug line. If you know the location, you can set the mood and tone for that. And I always say that the ambiences (or “backgrounds” as we call them) are like the music to each scene. They’re subtle, but you can make them obvious.
For example, room tones by themselves are interesting. They can tell you a lot about what’s going on. Are there sirens blaring and helicopters overhead, or are they hearing the sprinklers of a golf course? They can be reflective of somebody’s neighborhood and socio-economic status.
Everything you record on set is mono, but we want ambiences in stereo, because in real life, we hear things on both sides of our heads. When I put stereo backgrounds in ambiences, suddenly the picture has depth. It becomes three-dimensional.
I also think about how sound reflects character. What does that character hear? It could be something as simple as the music they listen to or what they watch on TV. But what do their neighbors sound like? What does their pet sound like? What kind of car do they drive? Is it some old jalopy with an engine that sounds like it’s going to give out any minute? Or is it the purr of a Porsche?
The cool part about sound is that we’re not aware of it. It informs us and gives us an emotional feel, but we might not stop and think about it. Sound won’t pull us out of the story unless we do something over the top.
LP: How did film school help you make connections?
MC: I did my graduate work at USC and it was there that I met Hudson Miller. I was editing a picture and he was editing sound, and it was probably two in the morning. We took a break together and talked, and that’s how we became friends. He got me on Days of Thunder, helped me get my hours for the union, and got me on my first union show.
Dan Hegeman, who I cut a project with, was the one who taught me how to cut effects while he cut the dialogue. Sandra Chandler, who shot Making Waves, shot my thesis film and had a whole career as a documentary DP. I still collaborate with those people, because I got to see how they work and saw the quality of their projects.
That’s one of the main reasons to go to film school, but don’t feel like you have to go. Start working with someone, and if you like their work ethic and what they do, you can always work together as a team. It’s a really nice feeling to have a group of people who have your back and whom you can trust.
Like Teri Dorman. When I had breast cancer, she had been through it before and she worked all the way through and she just told me exactly what I needed to do. You’re helping each other in different ways. You go to weddings and baby showers and funerals. You end up being a family and a team, and that is where you find the satisfaction.
LP: Can you shed some more light on what it’s like working as a woman in the industry and how it’s changed?
MC: I hope it’s changed. I’m not sure it’s changed as much as I would like to think that it has. Luckily in film school, guys treated me well. They knew I was gonna make my deadlines. I didn’t stand out as a woman.
But I had to hold my own because most women cut dialogue instead of effects — and I loved cutting both, because you use different parts of your brain. When George Watters hired me, he would ask me to cut dialogue. And then I’d say, “Well George, if I’m only going to cut one, I’d like to cut effects.” He remembered that I had made all the deadlines and did a good job, so he said OK.
Stand up for what you want to work in. I used to look at other industries and say “Oh, that’s so nefarious. These guys are just hiring guys,” but they’re just not thinking about it. If you gently, in a non-accusatory way, bring it up, most people are going to do the right thing. Not everybody’s the enemy.
However, the majority of effects are still cut by men. Women usually supervise what are considered women’s or kids’ shows. Kyrsten Mate is the brilliant sound designer of Captain Marvel, but when we went to interview her, she was doing Smurfs 2. And it’s like, what?
LP: For anyone interested in a career in sound: what advice do you have for them to keep at it?
MC: Get your hands dirty and keep working on whatever it is that you want to do. Get as close as you can to the position you want, and don’t give up. See if you can intern or apprentice, make friends with people who are already doing the job, and get their advice. A lot of people love talking about their job, and they also love helping people.
My first job was helping my friend cut FX, and I was hooked. I knew that’s what I wanted to do. After that job, I got a call from an editor asking me to take his place on another show, doing post-production sound. It was near the end of the show, I just had to put in opticals. At this point, I’d only worked on one-and-a-half shows as a sound editor, but I told him “I’ll take the job if I can be supervising sound editor.”
So I kind of jumped in, because I knew that I had friends I could ask how to do the job if I didn’t know it. That role was a little bit beyond me, but I knew that I had people to go to and ask for help. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. We all need it, and a lot of people are willing and wanting to help.
LP: Are there specific traits or skills that are vital to being a post-production sound person?
MC: Be aware of sound. Think about what your character is hearing. Think about your daily life, and how the sound affects you when you watch movies. As long as you’re willing to be creative and put in the time and effort, you can always do what you think is right.
You also have to be a collaborator. It all comes down to what the director wants. I always give the director what they ask for, and do other things as alternate ideas. But remember, it’s never sound for sound’s sake. It’s the sound with the picture. There’s some kind of alchemy that happens between sound and picture and you just have to let it happen.
Thank you Midge, for this informative and fun interview! Stay tuned to the Lunacy Productions Blog for more great filmmaking knowledge.