Long before Jay Roach gained fame and fortune for his films Austin Powers and Meet the Parents he taught film production at the University of Southern California. It was in his course on the power of sound in storytelling, during a screening of The Elephant Man, where Bobette Buster had her first auditory epiphany.
“The film just blew open my ears,” said Buster, who is now a professor of the practice of digital storytelling at Northeastern, and writer and producer of the soon-to-be-released documentary Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound. “I could hear the world differently, and I could see the power of sound emotionally. I began to observe how great films had been made.”
To say that the experience was transformative for Buster would be an understatement. While spending the better part of the last quarter century working as a screenwriter, film producer, and story consultant for powerhouse studios Pixar and Disney, she found herself becoming increasingly mesmerized by the role of sound in the cinematic experience.
For her, it all began with David Lynch’s 1980 historical drama, The Elephant Man. Through the film’s powerful sound design (which comprises effects, dialogue, and music), Buster observed as Lynch and sound designer Alan Splet led viewers inside the lonely world of a disfigured man.
“He becomes this extraordinary man of dignity at the end, and the sound design takes you through that,” said Buster.
She also cites Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan as an inspiration. Spielberg’s sound designer Gary Rydstrom gives viewers “an incredible immersive dimension of the war:” the resonant barrage of bullets on the battlefield juxtaposed with complete silence as the soldiers lose their hearing.
Buster marveled at how, in developing R2-D2 in Star Wars, George Lucas managed to create a character who despite communicating only through unintelligible squeaks, convinces us that he has a soul. We can thank Lucas’ sound designer Ben Burtt for that.
She delighted in learning that the roar of the Tyrannosaurus rex in Jurassic Park was actually created using the trumpet of a baby elephant, and the shrieking sound of the flying jets in Top Gun was the work of CeCe Hall, an Oscar-winning sound designer and sound editor who cleverly distorted a cacophony of screeching lions, tigers, cheetahs, and monkeys.
The accumulation of these experiences inspired Buster to write and produce Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound, a documentary that explores the power and significance of sound in cinema, and the artists, technicians, and designers responsible for creating it. The film tells the stories of three sound designers (Walter Murch, Burtt, and Rydstrom), as it interweaves an overview of the history of cinema, and interviews with prominent filmmakers.
At its core, Making Waves is a celebration of sound as a storytelling tool in cinema, and as an art form that provides viewers an experience that is auditorily stimulating, said Buster. She hopes that the film will inspire a deeper appreciation for how technology advances art, and vice versa.
“There are books about sound, and you can learn about it in the ivory tower of a university, but we wanted to open the story up to people of all walks of life to hear the world differently,” she said. “Once you understand the power of sound, it actually changes the way you live your life because you start hearing the world differently.”
Made in collaboration with director Midge Costin and produced with Karen Johnson, Making Waves was made possible as a result of the fair use doctrine, which permitted filmmakers to use archival film footage in documentaries, Buster said. This was a breakthrough akin to the creation of quotation marks and footnotes following the invention of the printing press, she said. As such, Making Waves is replete with clips from such iconic films as Singin’ in the Rain, King Kong, and Citizen Kane.
The film premiered at the prestigious Cannes and Tribeca film festivals earlier this year, and is slated for an Oct. 25 theatrical release as it continues to make its way through the festival circuit around the globe.
“It’s the season of a lot of travel and a lot of parties in different areas,” Buster said with a laugh by phone from Mill Valley, where she was attending the California premiere of her film at the Mill Valley Film Festival. “You feel like the traveling minstrel show. The circus rolls out, puts up the tent one more time in a new town and then you do it again.”
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