Friday, February 12, 2016

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Sound Editing

The Martian is a great example of solid, nuts-and-bolts filmmaking, including its Oscar-nominated sound editing.

Welcome to Last Cinema Standing’s Countdown to the Oscars, our daily look at this year’s Academy Awards race. Be sure to check back every day this month for analysis of each of the Academy’s 24 categories.

Best Sound Editing

The nominees are:

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Just to revisit this quickly, yesterday, we covered sound mixing, which refers to the balancing of all the different sonic elements of a film. Today, we will talk about sound editing, which refers mostly to the creation of sound effects and the general sonic landscape of a movie. If you hear a rippling stream or leaves rustling or a distant coyote howling, those noises were created in the sound editing process. If you have ever seen Albert Brooks’ 1981 comedy Modern Romance – which you really should anyway – then you have a better understanding of this process than most.

As opposed to Best Sound Mixing, in which there is a fairly even split between rewarding musicals and action movies, Best Sound Editing is almost exclusively the domain of action movies when it comes to winners. War films in particular have done well throughout the years. Since 1990, this award has gone to an action-adventure movie or a war film every year but two – Hugo in 2011 and Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1992. This year will not add a third title to that list as every nominee could be categorized somewhat broadly as either action or adventure or both.

The sound categories are tied pretty closely together – which adds to the confusion of what each means individually – and often share many of the same nominees. The differences highlight the biases in each. For instance, over the last three years, Best Sound Mixing and Best Sound Editing have shared four nominees. In 2013, Inside Llewyn Davis (musical) was nominated for Sound Mixing, while All Is Lost (adventure drama) took its place in Sound Editing.

In 2014, Whiplash (musical) was nominated and won for Sound Mixing, while The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (action-adventure) was cited instead in Sound Editing. This year, Bridge of Spies (legal drama) hit in Sound Mixing, while Sicario (action thriller) made it into the five for Sound Editing. When searching for a winner in this category then, it pays to look for the most critically acclaimed action film. So, that is where we will start.

Mad Max: Fury Road – This is the eighth and final crafts category we will cover in which Mad Max: Fury Road and The Revenant are pitted against each other. I said in my first Countdown to the Oscars piece this year that the most likely scenario would be for one or the other to run the table, winning a majority of the crafts awards and leaving the other relatively unrewarded. I have not exactly predicted things that way. By the end of this piece, I will have predicted The Revenant to take four crafts awards, Mad Max: Fury Road to win three, and neither to win Best Costume Design. It is just that close of a year.

The funny thing about it is these two films could not be more different or, some would say, incomparable. George Miller has created a loud, in-you-face action extravaganza with Mad Max: Fury Road, while Alejandro González Iñárritu has crafted a quiet, meditative western saga with The Revenant. When it comes to these crafts categories, it will be a matter of whether voters prefer the work to be more overt or subtler. It would be hard for them to go wrong in either direction.

Supervising sound editor Mark A. Mangini is a four-time nominee who has never won, and his last nomination came in 1997 for The Fifth Element. Sound designer David White has received his first nomination for his first narrative feature film credit, though he has worked on a number of documentaries, as well as the television series Farscape. Mangini and White have tapped into the same gonzo energy that informs the rest of Mad Max: Fury Road and produced a soundscape that incorporates elements of a post-apocalyptic future and an ancient-seeming desert that was here long before we first drove our war rigs through its sands.

The Revenant – The architects of The Revenant’s magnificent soundscape are supervising sound editor Martín Hernández and sound designer Lon Bender. Their task was to take viewers back to a time before anything we know now existed, a natural world that had yet to be destroyed by human contact. The work is a triumph, bringing together the chirps and cries of the animal kingdom, the crunch of the snow and the crackle of a fire, and the ever-present wind howling across a pristine landscape. With your eyes closed, you could get lost in the sonic environment Hernández and Bender cultivate.

Hernández earned his first nomination last year for the backstage cacophony he helped create on Iñárritu’s Birdman, while Bender is a four-time nominee who won his only Oscar in 1995 for Braveheart. Their work on The Revenant speaks for itself in its complexity and beauty, and whether it wins will likely come down to how willing Academy members are to listen to the artistry on display. If they really listen and hear it, I do not see how they could choose anything else.

The Martian – I touched on this briefly yesterday, but The Martian really is an interesting case this year. When compared against The Revenant and Mad Max: Fury Road, it has neither the artistry nor the ambition of either. Against the other popular sci-fi film in the lineup, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, it does not have the same sense of scope or operatic grandeur. The Martian is a fine movie, solid, nuts-and-bolts filmmaking that the Academy obviously warmed to, but it just cannot stand out in this crowd.

Sound designer and supervising sound editor Oliver Tarney earned his only previous nomination two years ago for Captain Phillips, another piece of solid, nuts-and-bolts filmmaking. His work on The Martian is terrific as he brings to life a world we could scarcely imagine, turning the Martian landscape into a tangible reality for both Mark Watney (Matt Damon) and the audience. In any other year, this would be winning work, but in this field, it simply cannot compete.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens – For otherworldly sound design, voters might be more likely to look to Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It is the showier of the two sci-fi films in this group and probably constitutes the showiest film of the five. The sound design feat of any Star Wars film is to create an immersive sonic experience out of essentially never-before-heard sounds. The droids and alien creatures, as well as the space crafts and weaponry, of course do not exist. The sound team must invent it all, and the remarkable thing about a Star Wars movie, particularly from the original trilogy and The Force Awakens, is that the audience gets so caught up in spectacle that we never once question the reality.

Supervising sound editor Matthew Wood served in the same position on all three prequel films in the Star Wars series and has previously been nominated for There Will Be Blood and the outstanding sound design of Wall-E, still among the best sonic achievements in recent cinema history. This is the first nomination for David Accord, also a supervising sound editor on the film. Star Wars: The Force Awakens would certainly be a deserving winner, and to a certain kind of voter, it might make the most sense here. It will be a matter of whether the prestige of the rest of the field trumps the spectacle of this nominee.

Sicario – Director Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario is a taut thriller with a number of outstanding elements, though the whole is more conventional than I think its staunchest supporters will admit. One thing it has going for it is an incredibly virtuosic climax, featuring a nighttime raid through a system of drug-smuggling tunnels. We covered Roger Deakins’ stellar night-vision cinematography already, but the sound design has just as much to do with making this scene work as every heavy step, crumbling rock, or clicking gun could spell doom for our heroes.

Supervising sound editor Alan Robert Murray has received eight nominations in this category, second only to the legendary Richard Hymns. Murray has won twice, including just last year for his work on Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper. His other win came for Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima in 2006. Both of those were more traditional winners than Sicario would make. Sicario feels smaller and more intimate, which is perfect thematically but not exactly helpful in terms of awards.

The final analysis

The way the crafts categories go will be a big indicator in terms of what kind of night it is going to be. If The Revenant starts picking up award after award, we could be headed for a history-making sweep for Iñárritu and his film. If Mad Max: Fury Road takes a few, it will leave the top categories more open-ended. I think if the Academy really wants to reward the best achievements in filmmaking, though, and not just the flashiest, The Revenant will end up with the majority of these awards.

Will win: The Revenant
Should win: The Revenant
Should have been here: Anomalisa

Tomorrow: Best Adapted Screenplay

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