Thursday, February 11, 2016

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Sound Mixing

Tom Hanks stars in Bridge of Spies, nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Sound Mixing.

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 Mixing

The nominees are:

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Today and tomorrow, we are going to cover the sound categories – Best Sound Mixing and Best Sound Editing. I gave a thorough explanation of each last year in a combined piece on both categories, which you can read here. Quickly, sound mixing refers to the levels of sound such as the score, dialogue, effects, etc., and sound editing refers to the creation of a film’s soundscape, essentially creating the sound effects.

When you talk about sound mixing, what you are really talking about is balance and mood as in finding the right levels for each element of a film’s sonic environment while also using disparities in those levels to help the story forward without intruding on its telling. Should the music be louder, should the dialogue be crisper, should the background noise come up, etc.? These are the types of questions the sound mixing team seeks to answer.

Loud films tend to do well with the Academy in this category since the contribution of the mixers is easier to discern, though the sound branch tends to nominate talky dramas nearly as often as action epics. The dramas rarely win, however. Most of the time, you are looking for a musical or a popular action film for the victory here. This year, we have no musicals nominated but four big action or adventure movies.

The Revenant – Director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s western saga is such a unique and stunning visual achievement that it is easy to get lost in its imagery, but the world the sound team creates makes the film as remarkable to hear as it is to see. The mixers have done an incredible job in this film of pulling together a thousand tiny elements into a cohesive whole that carries viewers through the narrative. The ominous, droning score, the nature sound effects, and the minimal dialogue blend together with the non-diegetic sounds that seem to come from inside the characters’ heads to turn The Revenant into a film that you experience viscerally, as well as intellectually and emotionally.

Supervising sound designer Randy Thom is a legend in the field with 15 nominations and two wins to his credit. Re-recording mixers Frank A. Montaño and Jon Taylor were both double nominees last year for Unbroken and Iñárritu’s Birdman. This is Taylor’s third nomination overall, while Montaño has eight total nominations and has never won. This is production sound mixer Chris Duesterdiek’s first nomination. The Revenant is a quieter film than tends to win in this category, but its overall popularity may carry this team to a well deserved Oscar win for its mammoth achievement.

Mad Max: Fury Road – For all the strangeness of seeing George Miller’s epic chase film nominated at the Oscars, the sound categories would seem like an obvious place for the film to show up even if it were not so popular. This is the kind of aggressive sound work the branch usually does cartwheels over. Just finding the levels for all the vehicles in this film would be an insane task, let alone the sandstorm sequence, the citadel scenes, and the quiet moments with nothing but the wind whipping across the desert.

Re-recording mixers Chris Jenkins and Gregg Rudloff each have a pair Oscar wins. Jenkins’ has five previous nominations, while Rudloff has seven, including last year for American Sniper. This is production sound mixer Ben Osmo’s first nomination. While the work is unimpeachable, for this team to come away with the win will likely require Mad Max: Fury Road to be a juggernaut across the crafts categories with Academy members checking off boxes for this film left and right.

The Martian – I will not have been the first person to point this out, but in terms of plot and technical achievement, Ridley Scott’s space castaway movie bears a striking resemblance to Apollo 13. They have even followed a somewhat similar path at the Oscars, each racking up a healthy haul of nominations (The Martian with 7; Apollo 13 with 9) but missing out in the Best Director category. Ultimately, Apollo 13 won just two awards in what turned out to be the year of Braveheart. One of those awards, however, was for Best Sound Mixing.

Space films tend to do well in this category when it comes to nominations because of the scale and variety of elements featured, from rocket ships and big explosions to extraterrestrial landscapes. The Martian has it all. Re-recording mixers Paul Massey and Mark Taylor are both multiple nominees who have never won, while this is production sound mixer Mac Ruth’s first nomination. As with every other place it is nominated alongside The Revenant and Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian is probably running third or further back in this category. It is a case of too many accomplished epics and too few awards.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens – The other thing likely drawing votes away from The Martian is the other space epic in the category, the $2 billion box-office smash Star Wars: The Force Awakens. For what seem like obvious reasons, Star Wars films have always done well in this category. A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back each won the award, while Return of the Jedi and even The Phantom Menace came away with nominations.

Re-recording mixer Andy Nelson is a double nominee this year, along with his work on Bridge of Spies, the 19th and 20th nominations in his career. Re-recording mixer Christopher Scarabosio is a two-time nominee, and production sound mixer Stuart Wilson has been nominated three times now. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a slick, rollicking space adventure, but it may not have the prestige to compete against the rest of the nominees in this category, especially given the other four are all Best Picture nominees as well.

Bridge of Spies – At first glance, this seems like a game of “one of these things is not like the other things,” with the talky legal drama Bridge of Spies pitted against four films painted on a much grander canvas. In reality though, such an assessment sells Steven Spielberg’s film short, and it would be just as accurate to think of it as a globetrotting spy thriller. For me, the most impressive aspects of this mix are the background elements – such as the far-off gunfire and sirens – that make James Donovan’s (Tom Hanks) experience so unsettling. There is nothing overt about the danger in Bridge of Spies, but the sound mix helps keep the sense of harm always lurking around the corner.

As I said, Nelson is now a 20-time nominee, and six of those nominations have come for Spielberg films. His two wins in the category have come for Saving Private Ryan and Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables. Re-recording mixer Gary Rydstrom has 18 nominations to his name and seven victories, four for Best Sound Mixing and three for Best Sound Editing. Sound mixer Drew Kunin has two nominations, notably fewer than either of his co-nominees but two more than most of us will ever have. It will be difficult for Bridge of Spies, however, to stand out among these nominees, so the nomination will most likely be the reward for this team.

The final analysis

Once again, it comes down to the two nominations leaders. The Revenant features the more subtle and some would say more artistic work this year, while Mad Max: Fury Road is the kind of bold statement that is just begging for recognition. Star Wars: The Force Awakens could be the spoiler here, but I am guessing The Revenant’s overall popularity will put it over the top.

Will win: The Revenant
Should win: The Revenant
Should have been here: Love and Mercy

Tomorrow: Best Sound Editing

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