Monday, February 14, 2011

OSCARS: Best Sound Mixing– Editing

Winner - 2008 The Dark Knight
Best Sound Editing - Richard King
If there is one thing the Academy has become proficient in over the years it is dissecting a film into all of the elements that make it up and then categorizing them. By isolating specific contributions from overlapping departments it allows for a greater understanding of film composition and makes sense of all the credits that patrons usually walk out on at the end of the film. Most people who watch a film only experience it on a superficial level of what they see and what they hear. While the visual elements (editing, cinematography, art direction, visual effects, etc.) of a film tend to stand out and be more obvious to a viewer it are the aural elements that lend the most credibility to a film. Suspension of disbelief is more geared towards the visual medium of filmmaking. One knows that they are going to see unreal things depending on the film, but if it doesn’t sound right then their mind will snap them out of the trance like a rude awakening.

The subtle art of sound mixing and design often gets overlooked during post-viewing discussions, except among true audiophiles. A well-crafted soundscape will add a whole other dimension to the visual plain in which the film exists. Blending diegetic (source) with non-diegetic (narrative) sound helps to create the atmosphere of the piece. Attaining a comparable balance keeps the viewer tuned into the story they are watching. A films overall sound mix does not just consist of dialogue and music, but also the foley, which makes up much of the ambient sound not captured during dialogue takes. These are the sound effects, such as doors closing, footsteps falling, guns clanking, etc. Two separate divisions of the sound department work together and are responsible for tying all the visual images with well balanced, synced up, and appropriate audio.

Winner - 1967 The Dirty Dozen
Best Sound Effects - John Poyner
The category for Best Sound was added to the Academy Awards card at the 3rd annual event in November of 1930. In 1931 and 1932 the award went to an entire studio sound department instead of just one picture in particular. From 1933 to 1966 the award was honored to a single technician at the studio that produced the film. Beginning in 1970 the award was presented to the production sound mixer(s) who worked on the winning film. In this case the overall presentation of sound is what is being considered. How well the mixer manages to balance the levels on all the audio elements is what determines whether or not they go home with the gold. These elements include all the recorded dialogue by the actors, both during filming and ADR (additional dialogue recording) to supplement unusable tracks, ambient sounds in the background to create atmosphere, any and all music, either in the scene or on the films score, and the sound effects, both from stock catalogs and ones specifically engineered for the film.

The award for Best Sound Editing is another category like visual effects and make-up that took a while to manifest and then stabilize in its current form. It began in the mid 1960s as an award honoring achievements in sound effects, but after 1967 it wasn’t given again until the mid 1970s. Even then it was a yearly decision whether or not to honor the achievement. All of the awards distributed during that time were in fact Special Achievement Awards. It wasn’t until 1982 that the category became competitive, with a single film being honored only twice through the remainder of the decade. The category is still representative of sound effects and design with a focus on their creation through editing and manipulation. Once these stand-alone sounds are created for their visual counterparts the sound mixer incorporates them into the film.

As the film industry evolved this category became another way to acknowledge summer blockbusters that may lack traditional dramatic elements, but possess superior technical elements involved in filmmaking. It is a rare thing to see a film nominated that has a poor sound mix. However, in terms of awards, yet another trend can be seen in the types of films that are nominated. More often than not films that are action oriented usually get nominated and wind up winning. To put a much finer point on it, when it comes to sound mixing, and as of late, sound editing, war films tend to take home the gold. Up through the 1960s there was more diversity in the nominees with a favoring towards musicals, which were more abundant at the time. Films like Patton (1970), The Deer Hunter (1978), and Apocalypse Now (1979) changed all that. They made the audience sit up and take notice as the world exploded around them. It began a trend that carried through the years by films like Platoon (1986), Glory (1989), Saving Private Ryan (1998), and The Hurt Locker (2008) to name a few.

Initially the Best Sound Editing award was geared towards science fiction films, a close relative to the action genre. This was in part to the pioneering achievements of Ben Burtt, who created the sound design for Star Wars (1977). He was subsequently nominated and won for his work on Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). His most recent nomination came in 2008 for his work on WALL-E (2008). It was his ingenuity that brought attention to sound effects as a presence in film and ultimately led to the establishing of the category.

This year Inception (2010) will more than likely take both sound awards. It possessed a balanced presentation as well as inventive editing in the ever-changing landscape of the film. But, as stated above, none of these films have “bad” sound elements. To award audio at this level of competition almost defaults to the visual aspects of the films themselves, unless the sound really stands out, as it does in Inception (2010).

This year's nominees for Best Sound Mixing:
Inception – Lora Hirschberg, Gary A. Rizzo, and Ed Novick
The King’s Speech – Paul Hamblin, Martin Jensen, and John Midgley
Salt – Jeffery J. Haboush, Greg P. Russell, Scott Millan, and William Sarokin
The Social Network – Ren Klyce, David Parker, Michael Semanick, and Mark Weingarten
True Grit – Skip Lievsay, Craig Berkey, Greg Orloff, and Peter F. Kurland

This year's nominees for Best Sound Editing:
Inception – Richard King
Toy Story 3 – Tom Myers & Michael Silvers
Tron: Legacy – Gwendolyn Yates Whittle & Addison Teague
True Grit – Skip Lievsay & Craig Berkey
Unstoppable – Mark P. Stoeckinger

-      Patton (1970). – Best Sound
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and Star Wars (1977) both receiving Special Achievement Awards in 1977. – Best Sound Editing

-       Slumdog Millionaire (2008) beating WALL-E (2008). – Best Sound
The Hurt Locker (2008) beating Star Trek (2009). – Best Sound Mixing

Driving a train down a crowded city street.
That sounds pretty cool.

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