Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Sound Editing

Deepwater Horizon is among the five nominees for Best Sound Editing at this year's Academy Awards.

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 leading up to the ceremony for analysis of each of the Academy’s 24 categories and more.

Best Sound Editing

The nominees are:

Deepwater Horizon
Hacksaw Ridge
La La Land

The two sound categories can be difficult for those unfamiliar with the nuts and bolts of filmmaking. I have covered the differences between sound editing and sound mixing in depth before. For that explanation, click here. Today, we are discussing Sound Editing, so briefly, when you here “sound editing,” think “sound effects.” This is the gunshots, the explosions, the footsteps, and the heartbeats. If you hear a noise other than an actor speaking dialogue, there is a good chance someone on the sound editing team was involved.

Since the category expanded to five nominees 10 years ago, there have been 11 winners, including a tie in 2012, and only one of those films could be classified as anything other than an action movie. On top of that, four of the winners have been war films. The Academy likes its sound effects big and booming, the more, the better. The last seven years, the award has gone to a Best Picture nominee, although in 2012, Best Picture-nominated Zero Dark Thirty tied with Skyfall.

So, this is easy then, right? We are looking for a critically acclaimed, Best Picture-nominated action-war film, and wouldn’t you know it, Hacksaw Ridge fits those criteria to a T. But wait, there is a monkey wrench in the works this year. We have discussed at length the overall popularity of La La Land within the Academy, but try this on for size: Before La La Land, no musical had ever been nominated – nominated! – in the Sound Editing category. This new wrinkle could create some suspense in a category that rarely features any.

Hacksaw Ridge – All those things mentioned above that make war films so attractive to the Academy in this category are true of director Mel Gibson’s bloody, brutal anti-war epic. But it is not just the gunfire and explosions, of which this film features many. It is the subtle change in the way the battlefield sounds underfoot before and after the bloodshed. It is odd to be too enthused about the reproduction of carnage, but the blood spatter and bullet wounds come alive through the sound process, which in turn makes Gibson’s anti-war message all the clearer.

Robert Mackenzie and Andy Wright pulled double duty on this film as supervising sound editors and re-recording mixers, and both are nominated in both sound categories this year. It is an uncommon feat but not unheard of, and the double nominations represent both men’s first recognition by the Academy. Not being as well versed in Australian cinema as I perhaps should be, much of their career work has escaped me, but Hacksaw Ridge is a virtuosic achievement of sound editing.

La La Land – What to make of this nomination, then? It would be unfair to supervising sound editors Ai-Ling Lee and Mildred Iatrou to dismiss this recognition as merely the love for the film carrying it places it otherwise would not be. After all, nominations are determined by peers within the branch, people who know what they are looking for (or listening to) and presumably are not easily impressed. I admit to being a little baffled by the nomination – though I did predict it – because sound editing did not immediately jump out to me as I watched the film. But then, my ear is not trained to listen for it.

Iatrou is a first-time nominee, while Lee, who also served as a re-recording mixer, is a first-timer joining Mackenzie and Wright as a double nominee in both sound categories. I have no standing or basis for suggesting their work on this film is anything less than awards worthy, but for a film that is essentially wall-to-wall music, I just don’t know how anyone can tell one way or the other. In any event, good on Lee and Iatrou for breaking through that musical barrier.

Arrival – Returning to a more traditional nominee in this category, Arrival is a big, science-fiction adventure movie that remembers to tell a human story in its quieter moments. Those are not the moments for which it is being recognized, most likely. It features a ton of army goings-on with the trucks and machinery scattered about, but its best moments are in the alien space ship, a completely new environment that must be constructed on the fly. The ship has the feel more of a living entity itself than of a cold transport vessel, and the sound is integral to that impression.

Supervising sound editor Sylvain Bellemare, a first-time nominee, is absolutely prolific. A quick glance at his IMDB page reveals more than 100 credits and more than 20 over just the past two years alone. I do not know Mr. Bellemare, but he does not seem to like having free time on his hands. In any event, his work on Arrival is admirable, but it is probably the least likely to win of the three Best Picture nominees cited here.

Deepwater Horizon – Director Pete Berg’s retelling of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster is by no means a complete film, but it is a good film, and its crafts are beyond reproach. From the recreation of the rig itself – an immense feat of production design and special effects – to the destruction of that rig, Deepwater Horizon is a masterclass in creating an environment for the screen. The sound design is, of course, part and parcel of that effort and one of the film’s many standout elements.

Supervising sound editor Wylie Stateman has been around forever. His first credit goes back to 1980, and he has picked up eight Oscar nominations along the way, his most recent coming for another Berg picture, Lone Survivor. Stateman has also been Quentin Tarantino’s sound editor of choice since the Kill Bill saga and picked up nominations for Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. This is co-nominee Renee Tondelli’s first recognition from the Academy, though she was the supervising dialogue and ADR editor on both Lone Survivor and Django Unchained.

Sully – Given Clint Eastwood’s track record with the Academy, it is surprising this film did not catch on more with voters. It is a classic meat-and-potatoes movie based on the true story of Sully Sullenberger and the “Miracle on the Hudson.” Sully is inspiring and well told and features a wonderful central performance from star Tom Hanks. It made a fair amount of money and is the kind of movie the Academy usually flocks to, but it got lost amid the end-of-year glut of awards prospects.

The crafts are solid all around, and the sound editing is right at the head of the class, particularly during the film’s imagining of the infamous plane crash in the Hudson River. Supervising sound editors Alan Robert Murray and Bub Asman have 15 nominations and four Oscars between them. They shared Academy Award wins for their work on two previous Eastwood projects, Letters from Iwo Jima and American Sniper. The nomination will probably have to be the win here, but at least someone is carrying the flag for Sully at the ceremony.

The final analysis

The clear, abiding popularity of La La Land notwithstanding, I won’t bet against the war film here. Even eventual Best Picture winner Birdman lost this category to American Sniper. The big Hollywood musical will take home many awards on Oscar night, including probably the Sound Mixing award, but it will not get this one. First, even in the years since the expansion of the top category, few Best Picture nominees have gone home empty-handed, and this is the most logical and likely place to reward Hacksaw Ridge. Second, historic as its Oscar presence is, I just do not see La La Land ending 50-plus years of musical futility here.

Will win: Hacksaw Ridge
Should win: Hacksaw Ridge
Should have been here: Moana

Tomorrow: Best Sound Mixing

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