A Passion For Sound

Roberto Gomez for USC

When we go to the movies to see Hollywood films such as Days of Thunder, When a Man Loves a Woman, Armageddon, or Crimson Tide, do we ever think of who creates the sounds effects or the film’s atmospheres we get immersed in? Probably not. This is the work of Sound Editor Migde Costin. After working in more than 20 films, she is now the Kay Rose Endowed Chair in the Art of Sound and Dialogue Editing at the USC School of  Cinematic Arts.

Costin discovered her passion for sound later in life. During at interview at her office she shares that when she came to USC to get her masters in the early eighties, she knew nothing about sound. “ I wanted to tell stories but writing felt like torture. I was never interested in sound because I am a technophobe,” reveals Costin.
“It seemed all technical and it was taught by engineers.” “I realized that picture editing was another way of writing and really got into it.”

Growing up in a Irish family with 6 siblings, Costin was the one reprimanded for asking too many questions. It was in her fishing town outside of Boston where her love for the ocean and nature began. “Infinity really blew my mind. I remember looking the sky and trying to figure that one out,” remembers Costin. “I always got in trouble for asking why and my mother would tell me – don’t ask so many questions.”

Her love for sound was unconsciously rooted in those childhood years. “Many people who are interested in sound have music backgrounds,” says Costin. “I didn’t study music but in the 70’s I used to do the folk masses and play my guitar. My sister had a great voice so people would ask us to play at weddings and funerals,” she responds in laughter.

This inquisitive mind and her confidence helped her get into the film world. “One day after school, I got a call from a friend working in a postproduction facility who needed help to cut dialog with 16mm film. I jumped into it,” Costin affirms. “In exchange my friend taught me to edit sound effects and I soon realized I could easily help tell stories with sound.”

For Costin sound is emotion.

“Why do we think that we get all the information from visual? Sound is keen when we are in the womb and it gives us more information than any other senses – taste, sight, feel sense of touch,” she explains passionately. “The minute we popped out into this world, we recognize our parents through their voice. From then on it is all about sight.”

In the film industry, sound represents 50% of the production value of a movie. It is known that a movie with poor sound in un-watchable.

Costin travels into the film set – “When I work on a film – I get just the voice on a set. I may get other movement sounds from the shoot but probably not. So the Sound Editor adds the ambience sound down to create the mood, the tone, and the atmosphere. We work with sound metaphorically.” Costin gives an example: “if this interview is the set and and the scene describes you as nervous I may have add a flickering sound to the lamp lighting the room to reflect your anxiety.”

“When you are working on a Hollywood film set, there are 50 to 100 people who are working just to control the picture, what’s in that frame while there is all that chaos around the set,” Costin describes. “When the sound team comes in- a person holding the boom, a mixer and a third person pulling cable if there is enough budget, they can’t control what is outside the frame,” she explains. “So if you are recording, you may hear the elevator but may not be aware of it.” “When we are in the movie theater, we think that everything is intentional, Costin says, “ If you hear a door closing or the sound of the elevator going up and down you are going to ask “what is that?”

For Costin, the best filmmakers work closely with the Sound Design and the Composer. “We spot the movie together and write notes about what each would do. For instance in a scene with a montage, music is better. Sometimes you may not want to hear someone’s voice,” Costin explains.

“Music is the most impactful part of the soundtrack because it hits a core. It may have something to do with being in the embryo. Sometimes it gets over used and it loses its power.”

Costin loves the collaborative nature of film work. As for the most challenging?

“Working in Hollywood went from being creative work to working so many hours that it became like factory work, she remembers. “The minute you do the impossible that becomes the norm,” adds Costin.

“In the 80’s we had “the 19 day rule”. If you work more than 19 days straight, they would pay you more. We went through that a bunch of times,” she acknowledges. “We were making four times your daily rate. We actually did that in film like Days of Thunder.” “When you work so many hours, it gets to a point that you just want to get out of the show and you don’t even care about the money. It is kind of inhumane and you are not doing your best work,” Costin says. “ It is even dangerous driving to work and back. People get killed in production because of the lack of hours.”

Another thought comes to her mind.

“I am no longer into films that are just pure entertainment. There I nothing wrong with it but if I want to be in a roller coaster ride I go to a roller coaster,” she says. “I want to understand somebody else’s culture, history, discoveries. I want to learn about human relations. I want to see a point of view. And unfortunately the movies that have the biggest budgets for sound are about “America saving the world.”

Costin touches the core of her frustration.

“I have worked in so many movies where white males have saved the world and they have something to do with the military. And there are no women in them. I went to Jordan to teach a class once. They asked me to show Crimson Tide and someone convinced me to show The Rock,” she recalls. “I didn’t remember the film very well so I said yes,” Costin pauses. “I was humiliated to show such violence to Palestinians and Egyptians and students form the Middle East. I came back into the editing room and told my colleagues –“You know? What I do for a living contributes to wasting two hours of a people’s time at best. But it also creates stereotypes and emphasizes them even more. So that is one of the biggest challenges.”

Costin now spends her time developing her new passions:

“I love bringing awareness to people about sound and their sense of hearing through teaching. It is wonderful when people discover the power of sound, “ reveals Costin. “I am also directing a documentary about sound design and how directors collaborate with their sound designers,” explains Costin. “I want viewers to get their “aha” moments, than after watching 90 minutes they walk away hearing and feeling their lives differently through sound and that their lives will be changed by it”.

– Gemma Cubero

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