Thursday, February 12, 2015

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Sound Mixing and Best Sound Editing

Chris Kyle, played by Bradley Cooper, calls home in American Sniper.

Each day as we make our way to the Academy Awards ceremony Feb. 22, Last Cinema Standing will take an in-depth look at each of the categories, sorting out the highs, the lows, and everything in between. Check back right here for analysis, predictions, and gripes as we inch toward the Dolby Theater and that world-famous red carpet.

The two most important questions to answer are: What is sound mixing, and what is sound editing? Here is the quick version. Sound mixing is easy to understand and pretty self-explanatory if you are at all familiar with how music or a radio broadcast or anything else is recorded. Sound mixers take all of the sounds that go into making a movie – the dialogue, the music, the sound effects, the ambient noise, etc. – and adjust the levels at which they play over each other.

Fairly simple, right? The hero is returning home, so let’s have the music get a little louder here. Suspense sequence? Well, let’s drop the noise out so all we hear is breathing and a heartbeat. Courtroom scene? Make sure the dialogue is crisp, clear, and loud, but remember to leave enough ambient noise in the background so it sounds like the real world and not some set on a soundstage. That is it. Bring it up, take it down, and try to match the intensity or the emotion being played on screen. Yet, as simple as it may seem, it takes a master to get it right.

What about sound editing? The award used to be called Best Sound Effects Editing, which I feel is more explicative, but here we are. Basically, this is the sound effects award. It goes to the person or team creating all the little noises that must be pieced together to create the sonic environment of a film. From the clicks, clacks, and clanks of a factory to the gunfire and explosions on a battlefield, sound editors are the ones who make it happen.

When it comes to the Oscars, conventional wisdom will tell you that the same film will likely win both categories. This makes a certain amount of sense if you assume voters do not know the difference between the two and check off a film they like for both awards, but history does not necessarily bear this out. Six times in the last 14 years, a film has won in both categories, so a little less than half the time. It helps to remember that voters are professionals in the film industry. They are savvy enough to know what sound editors and sound mixers do.

With that in mind, the Academy does have tendencies in each category. Musicals do exceedingly well in the Sound Mixing category, as evidenced by wins for Les Miserables, Dreamgirls, Ray, and Chicago since 2002. No musical has ever won Best Sound Editing in the current incarnation of the award. In Sound Editing, the winners tend to be war films, action films, and epics, really anything with a hell of a lot of noise going on. Luckily for voters, there is no shortage of noisy movies in the running.

Best Sound Mixing

The nominees are

Whiplash – Here is your sort-of musical in the category this year, and just to drive my point home from above, note that it is also the only one in this group not also nominated for Sound Editing. My best guess for why that is and why no musical has won Sound Editing is that in a musical – or pseudo-musicals such as this or Ray – the music is the star. The sound editors do not create anything there. But, just like on a pop record, the mixing is paramount.

Production sound mixer Thomas Curley and sound re-recording mixers Craig Mann and Ben Wilkins, all first-time nominees, do a phenomenal job making the jazzy soundtrack pop against the more hushed and ambient tones of the rest of the film. It is not an easy task as the music has a very staccato vibe even when allowed to play through, let alone with all the starts and stops of the practice sessions. Music drives this film, and the sound team seems to have an innate feel for when to push it and when to dial it back.

American Sniper – As well as musicals often do in this category, however, war films are right there in the thick of it always. For the most part, I think this has to do with the modulation of sound and the building of suspense. While Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) spends a good deal of American Sniper embroiled in fire fights, he spends as much time staking out his targets and patiently waiting in silence for the his moment to strike.

Sound department heads John T. Reitz and Gregg Rudloff are both six-time nominees who shared in the win for The Matrix, while Rudloff also earned this award for the Civil War drama Glory. Sound mixer Walt Martin, who died in July and earned this nomination posthumously, had been nominated once before and worked on every one of Clint Eastwood’s films since 1999. The team was tasked with balancing the extreme violence and noise of the war scenes with the quieter moments back home in the states, and they do so expertly.

Birdman – The least conventional of these nominees, Birdman is a talky showbiz satire that moves at a mile a minute. It reminds of the late director Robert Altman’s best work such as M*A*S*H or Nashville in its constantly overlapping dialogue, hyper-witty characters, and unceasing forward momentum. Sound re-recording mixers Jon Taylor and Frank A. Montaño are double nominees this year for this and Unbroken, while production sound mixer Thomas Varga is enjoying his first nomination.

In addition to the rapid-fire dialogue, the sound mixing team must also contend with a loopy, arrhythmic percussion score and voiceovers that drop in and out at will. Through the work of Taylor, Montaño, and Varga, all these disparate elements coalesce into an appropriately unsettling sonic environment for the film.

Unbroken – This is Taylor’s first pair of nominations, but Montaño has a total of seven nominations to his credit, and most of those came for films more similar to Unbroken than to Birdman such as Wanted, Under Siege, and The Fugitive. By the way, how great is it that Under Siege is an Oscar-nominated film? While Taylor and Montaño are looking for their first wins in this category, their Unbroken collaborator, David Lee, won previously for his work with Reitz and Rudloff on The Matrix.

Unbroken is a more traditional war picture than American Sniper, possibly because World War II was a more conventional war than the current conflict in the Middle East. There is some great aerial sound work amid a dog fight and plane crash, but often, the mixing team allows the score to intrude too much on the story in a blatant attempt to force emotion on the audience. The mix is classic war film work, but I can think of a few other more deserving nominees than this one. If you are looking for another action-war flick, there is Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, or if you want to step outside the box a bit, there is the great work done on Ruben Ӧstlund’s Force Majeure.

Interstellar – The most controversial nominee on the list, the sound mix of Interstellar was criticized heavily upon the film’s release. Some complained the score was too loud or that the dialogue was too muddy. The problem seems to have been the detail and micromanaging that director Christopher Nolan and team put into the sound mix, meaning that if the cinema conditions were not set up just right, the film could sound bad.

I viewed the film in an IMAX theater personally vetted by the film’s composer, Hans Zimmer, and I thought the mix was fantastic. For transitions back and forth between quiet moments of character reflection and epic, large-scale action sequences, little can match Interstellar. The music is loud, but it is immersive, an integral part of the landscape of the film.

Re-recording mixer Gregg Landaker is a giant in the field and has three Oscars to his name for Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back, and Speed. Re-recording mixer Gary Rizzo has four nominations and a win for Inception, and sound mixer Mark Weingarten is a three-time nominee. If you are going to give anyone the benefit of the doubt, I would say it should be this group of craftsmen.

The final analysis

American Sniper is a popular war picture with a solid mix that hits all the right beats and keeps the film humming along nicely. It would by no means be an undeserving winner. Whiplash will have its fans, but the scale of the film may be too small to compete. Previous musical winners, in addition to simply being musicals, also had a sense of scale and grandiosity that Whiplash lacks by design. Interstellar could be a threat for the win simply because of the attention drawn by the controversy. All publicity is good publicity. Still, American Sniper is probably in the driver’s seat for this one.

Will win: American Sniper
Should win: Birdman
Wish it had been here: Force Majeure

Best Sound Editing

The nominees are:

American Sniper
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

American Sniper – If American Sniper is a prohibitive favorite for Sound Mixing, it is the clear frontrunner for the Sound Editing award. Bullets, explosions, crashes, and bangs – these are the hallmarks of a war picture and of an Oscar winner in this category. Its candidacy is helped along by the fact that so much of the sound drops out around Kyle taking sniper shots. What that means is that the sound effects work that goes into each shot is crystal clear and instantly memorable.

Supervising sound editors Alan Robert Murray and Bub Asman have shared in five nominations together and won the Oscar the last time director Clint Eastwood brought a war picture to the big show, Letters from Iwo Jima. Murray also has two other nominations with previous partner Robert G. Henderson. A popular Best Picture nominee with a clearly defined sound design is like catnip to Oscar voters, and Murray and Asman should be well on their way to collecting their second awards.

Interstellar – If its mix is controversial, there should be no question about the quality of the sound effects editing on Interstellar. Credited to five-time nominee and three-time Academy Award winner Richard King, the environment of Interstellar is a perfect melding of visual effects, production design, and sound editing. While I found the former two elements lackluster, the sound effects work is impeccable.

The movie practically howls at the audience as the winds of distant worlds swirl around the characters. They explode through space, slosh through a water planet, and crunch their way across frozen tundra, endeavors that feel real because we can hear them and experience them along with our intrepid heroes. Just based on the number of different environments King is asked to recreate or invent, we are unlikely ever to hear another feat of sound editing quite like this.

Birdman – If you have never been backstage during a theater production, I urge you to seize the opportunity, should it arise. Nothing else can compare. While the actors play calm, cool, and collected in front of the audience, chaos reigns behind the scenes. During rehearsals, the chaos is multiplied 10-fold as cast and crew alike shuffle about, slam doors, shift sets, and generally run around like the sky is falling.

Sound designers Aaron Glascock and Martín Hernández capture the environment perfectly. Together, they create the rich tapestry of production sounds and city noise that make up the unforgettable experience of Birdman. It is a film that surrounds you, envelopes you, and immerses you in its world until you feel like you are part of the crew and your life depends on the success of the production.

Unbroken – It is definitely possible the craftspeople are seeing something in Unbroken that I simply cannot see. After all, they are the experts in their field, and I am a humble observer. To my eyes, Unbroken is a serviceable war drama that feels overly familiar in nearly every regard. If the crafts are solid, they are let down by a sappy, melodramatic storyline that is hard to look past.

Supervising sound editors Andrew DeCristofaro and Becky Sullivan are sharing in their first Academy Awards nomination for their work on the film. Sullivan notably is the only woman nominated in either sound category this year, a depressing reflection of the realities of the industry. The pair’s work here is fine, but it is overshadowed by a mediocre project.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies – “Battle of the Five Armies.” Doesn’t that just scream noisy? Sad to say, I have not seen the latest Hobbit film. Truth be told, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy really did nothing for me, and thus far, the Hobbit films have been a step down from that. Someone who has seen the film could probably give you a more thorough analysis, but allow me to posit a few guesses.

The film almost certainly delivers on the promise of its title and features a tremendous climactic battle, as well as several smaller battles before and during that, no doubt. Swords clank off one another, structures crumble to the ground, and many fantastical creatures make barely recognizable noises that resemble a combination of things we know from the real world. It honestly seems like a sound editor’s dream. It probably is, but as this is the film’s only nomination and the love for Jackson’s ventures to Middle Earth has dwindled considerably, sound editors Brent Burge and Jason Canovas will probably have to content themselves with the nomination.

The final analysis

I recognize that I spent the entire introduction to this piece differentiating between the two sound categories and making the case that the Academy can and will split these awards between two deserving movies. I stand by that, but this year feels a lot like last year, when Gravity was head and shoulders above rest of the field and rightly took home both awards. If American Sniper is not quite the tech juggernaut that Gravity was, it makes up for it by being the kind of down and dirty action picture that thrills and engages all kinds of viewers. Interstellar is a definite threat, but at the end of the day, American Sniper just makes sense for this award.

Will win: American Sniper
Should win: Interstellar
Wish it had been here: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

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