Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Sound Mixing

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is among the five Academy Award nominees for 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 leading up to the ceremony for analysis of each of the Academy’s 24 categories and more.

Best Sound Mixing

The nominees are:

13 Hours
Hacksaw Ridge
La La Land
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Yesterday, we covered Sound Editing, and today, we move on to the other side of the coin, Sound Mixing. This award goes to the skilled craftspeople who ensure everything we hear is not just some jumbled mess. They take all the elements of a film’s sound design – the score, the effects, the music cues, the dialogue, the incidental background noise, etc. – and find how they fit together in the perfect combination to unlock a film’s sonic environment.

As opposed to Sound Editing, where La La Land makes history as the first musical nominee, musicals have done well in Sound Mixing over the years. You can imagine why. In the past 15 years, five musicals have won this award, including Best Picture winner Chicago in 2002 and writer-director Damien Chazelle’s previous effort, Whiplash, in 2014. So, while a win in Sound Editing would be without precedent, La La Land is nearly assured victory here.

La La Land – Of course, that should not suggest the win would be without merit. In many ways, Chazelle’s film is a beautiful, escapist fantasy about a world we wish we could inhabit. Thus, enjoyment of the film is predicated upon never breaking that fantasy, and La La Land’s expert crafts create a protective bubble for the viewer, keeping the illusion alive, if only for a couple hours. If you cannot imagine how integral the sound mix is to that illusion, try watching any scene from a movie with the sound mix even slightly off. We intuit as viewers, whether consciously or not, how something should fit together sonically, and when it does not match, we are left frustrated and distracted.

As mentioned yesterday, re-recording mixer Ai-Ling Lee is a double nominee for La La Land here and in Sound Editing, joined by first-time nominee sound mixer Steven Morrow, and legend of the craft re-recording mixer Andy Nelson. Nelson has 21 nominations and was a double nominee just last year for Bridge of Spies and Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens. He has two previous wins in this category for Saving Private Ryan and Les Misérables and should be adding a third trophy to his shelf soon.

Hacksaw Ridge – Speaking of legends of the craft, re-recording mixer Kevin O’Connell holds the distinction of earning the most nominations without a win in Academy history. For his work on 21 different films, O’Connell has been cited, and never once has his name been called up onto that stage. Over a span of 13 ceremonies, from 1996-2008, he was nominated 13 times. This is his first nomination since 2008, and he runs into the awards buzz saw that is La La Land, which will likely leave him in his seat once again.

He is joined in this nomination by Academy first-timer sound recordist Peter Grace, and double nominees here and in Sound Editing re-recording mixers Robert Mackenzie and Andy Wright. The team’s work on Hacksaw Ridge is gorgeous as they craft a sonic world that is as harrowing and ominous as the events of the film. When they bravely let all the sound drop out, save for a breath or a heartbeat, it is in those moments when we feel the weight of all this violence and terror. Then, when the sound comes back in full force, it all comes crashing down on us once again.

ArrivalArrival is a film built on words. Yes, it features an explosion or two and some big trucks and army goings-on, and a wonderfully evocative score, but its heart is in its dialogue, in its conversations between people and between species. Nearly every year, there is at least one nominee that exemplifies the other side of this craft. Rather than going big, nominees like Arrival, as well as Bridge of Spies, Birdman, Lincoln, and Moneyball before it, show how much of a film exists in the places between the noise, in the small moments of connection.

Sound mixer Bernard Gariépy Strobl and re-recording mixer Claude La Haye, both first-time nominees, use the quiet spaces in the film’s busy world to make magic. Arrival is not about its big action setpieces, of which there are refreshingly few, but about the moments when characters sit and think or sit and talk and simply exist outside the narrative. It is about dreams and memory and the way the past and future overlap on each other, and the sound mix allows the audience to feel its way through the film right along with the characters.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – With a franchise as long and varied – at least in terms of quality and reception – as the Star Wars series, it is informative to look at its Oscars history. Across eight films, this is the sixth nomination for the Star Wars franchise, which missed only with Episodes II and III. However, only the first two films, chronologically anyway, Episodes IV and V, earned the win, which means the series has not been rewarded for its sound since 1980. In fact, since none of the prequel films nor Episode VII – The Force Awakens won an Oscar, despite 10 nominations among them, the franchise has not taken home an Academy Award in more than 30 years. I suppose the absurd box-office success has had to serve as its reward.

Re-recording mixers David Parker and Christopher Scarabosio are both multiple nominees, while production sound mixer Stuart Wilson also has four nominations to his credit. Scarabosio and Wilson were nominated together last year for The Force Awakens. Parker is a two-time winner from eight nominations, taking home the award for The English Patient and The Bourne Ultimatum.

13 Hours – If it feels like Michael Bay’s footprint is bigger than the 12 mostly execrable movies he has directed, that is because he has stomped all over the culture like one of his beloved alien robots. They are ubiquitous and inescapable, and perhaps the only justice is that this disgusting, unwatchable slog is his lowest-grossing film yet. Bay’s worst film by miles – that includes the cacophonous Transformers series – 13 Hours espouses a racist, lunkheaded, offensive philosophy, and it manages to be incomprehensible at the same time. The action makes no sense. The dialogue is idiotic. The politics are indefensible.

Is the sound mixing good? Sure. Of course it is. Re-recording mixer Greg P. Russell has 17 nominations to his name without a win, second-most all time. Re-recording mixer Gary Summers has four Oscar wins from 11 nominations. Re-recording mixer Jeffrey J. Haboush has four nominations, all for work with Russell. Meanwhile, production sound mixer Mac Ruth is on his second nomination and second in a row after being cited last year for The Martian. Their work here is professional and unimpeachable. If only that effort had been spent on a project worthier of their talents.

The final analysis

As mentioned in the introduction, there is little suspense here. The Academy likes to reward musicals in this category when it can, and La La Land is an awards juggernaut besides and will have no trouble scooping this one up as well.

Will win: La La Land
Should win: La La Land
Should have been here: The Witch

Tomorrow: Best Original Score

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