Oscar Circuit: Best Sound Mixing

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Last year's Oscar winners for Best Sound Mixing for "Inception" (L to R - Lora Hirschberg, Gary Rizzo and Ed Novick). Novick is a nominee again this year for "Moneyball".

The 2011 Nominees For Best Sound Mixing Are…

• THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO
• HUGO
• MONEYBALL
• TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON
• WAR HORSE

At my annual Oscar party, invariably some assemblage of attendees always ask questions such as “What is Cinematography?” “How do they judge Art Direction?” and a rather common one, at least in my circles… “What is the difference between Sound Editing and Sound Mixing? How are we supposed to know the difference?”

To the lay movie fan, below-the-line work is often taken for granted and/or rarely, if ever, thought about. If a movie looks great, it looks great, but few people ever remark that the Director of Photography or Cinematographer’s work was fantastic. Sure the movie may look fantastic and the settings quite glorious, but who amongst your friends and loved ones have ever proclaimed that the art direction and set decoration work of [insert name] was exceptional.

And make no mistake, all of that is fine in a general sense. At the end of the day, people go to the movies to escape, to live another life or decompress from their daily affairs. People paying to see Transformers: Dark Of The Moon or Jack And Jill, or even a conventional dramatic Oscar contending film will simply not be concerned with how a film was lensed, how the sets were constructed, or possibly even be aware that the pacing and rhythm and sequencing of shots they enjoy are meticulously planned out and performed by an editor. At the end of the day, people just want to be entertained and not analyze every moment of the story they just experienced.

So with each passing party and year, I am never bothered to explain that the cinematographer is the one actually running the camera and accentuating the images we see on screen, that the art direction rewards the more richly constructed sets, props, and location settings, or that the sound editors record, cut, and sync the foley work and natural sound, while sound mixers take the dialogue, recorded sound, musical score, and other effects and attempt to seamlessly integrate them together in the most natural and unobtrusive manner possible. In many ways, the Sound Editors and Sound Mixers are at or near the top of the list of the reasons we all love going to the movies.

I mean, without sound, our experience at the movies would consist of nothing more than a bunch of people speaking with no audible dialogue and filmmakers would be forced to use title cards to tell us what was being said, and actors would have to over-exaggerate and enunciate their actions in a grandiose way and flourishes of music would have to make us aware of what to feel.

The point is, the sound design crews are overlooked and left in the shadows and looking over the course of the history of cinema, the work of sound editors, recorders, and mixers, has been an invaluable and necessary element to why billions of dollars pour in to the box offices around the world.

The Academy has nominated five distinctive films this year for their Best Sound Mixing honor and for many of these mixologists, they are amongst the most revered and respected in their chosen craft.

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO

David Fincher’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo overcame its late-in-the-game screening schedule and landed four technical nominations to go along with Rooney Mara’s Best Actress nod. General consensus is that this film had to have just missed the necessary #1 votes to secure a Best Picture nomination as it scored nominations for virtually every Guild with a voting bloc within the Academy (except SAG). Nominees David Parker, Michael Semanick, Ren Klyce and Bo Persson had a grand task at hand, not only to amplify and tonally create the sweeping scope of Fincher’s vision, but to also create a distinctive and unique sound design that would not draw comparisons to the work found just one year previously in the original Swedish film. As technically accomplished as any film released in 2011, the work of Parker, Semanick, Klyce, and Persson was made a little bit easier by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ haunting and metallic score, which allowed the team a chance to build and create a layered landscape on top of a subdued and vivid series of compositions. Their work here is immersive and pulsing, helping drive Fincher’s story, while intensifying and restraining key moments of dialogue between Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara, or late in the film a pivotal and important exchange between Stellan Skarsgard and Craig.

Nomination history:
• This is the 7th nomination for David Parker, he has 2 Academy Awards for work on The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) and The English Patient (1996).
• Michael Semanick has scored his 9th nomination with Oscar wins for his work on King Kong (2005) and The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King (2003).
• Ren Klyce, also nominated for his Sound Editing work on the film, has his 4th and 5th Academy Award nominations with his work on the film. He has yet to win an Oscar.
• For Bo Persson, this is his first Academy Award nomination.

HUGO

It is quite difficult to count out nominees Tom Fleischman and John Midgley for their contribution to this year’s most nominated film, Hugo. A dazzling and mesmerizing film from a technical standpoint, Fleischman and Midgley magically transport viewers into various locations – a turn-of-the-century movie theater, an active and bustling train station, roaring crowds, vendors and natural dialogue permeating the backgrounds of many scenes, the internal machinations of giant clocks, and even the simple mechanical movements of small toys and a larger automaton. Hugo is technically transcendent and the work, chiefly with the sound mix, amplifies the power and effectiveness of the film’s 3-D visuals and Scorsese’s diligent attention to detail. Perhaps, Hugo is a frontrunner in this race simply by the sheer appreciation and respect the Academy has for Martin Scorsese’s film and achievement.

Nomination history:
• This is the 5th nomination for Tom Fleischman, who has received nominations for his work on Martin Scorsese’s Gangs Of New York (2002) and The Aviator (2004).
• John Midgley landed a third Oscar nomination and second consecutive nod in this category. Midgley’s work on The King’s Speech (2010) was nominated along with his work on Star Wars Episode I – The Phantom Menace in 1999.

MONEYBALL

Generally, one nominee in this category seems to cock one’s head and at first look, Moneyball would be that selection this year. A movie about baseball and statistics and office management is a Sound Mixing nominee? Perhaps what nominees Deb Adair, Ron Bochar, Dave Giammarco and Ed Novick achieved here was something of an understated success, because Moneyball is quite accomplished with its sound design. The contemporary baseball scenes are masterfully created – the crack of the bat, the fastball tagging the catcher’s mitt – the echoed and hanging tones found in Brad Pitt’s flashbacks all lay the foundation for an experience that is heightened by the Oscar nominated adapted screenplay of Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin and Stan Chervin. Films such as Moneyball seem odd in this category because as it is so often perceived, and intensified year after year, that the best sound is the loudest and boldest, the more concussive the better. Moneyball is not trying to blast you out of the back of the theater but Adair, Bochar, Giammarco, and Novick attain their success by making the realities of the scenes and settings found in the film seem, you know, real…tangible…relatable. Obviously their understated work never distracts, but supports, the drama and suspense transpiring on our screens.

Nomination history:
• This is the 1st nomination for Deb Adair.
• This is the 1st nomination for Ron Bochar.
• David Giammarco was a previous nominee for 3:10 To Yuma (2007).
• Ed Novick’s nomination represents his 4th Oscar nomination. He is this category’s returning champion, scoring a win last year for his work on Inception.

TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON

Transformers: Dark Of The Moon never had its Sound nominations in doubt amongst those in the know, as the previous entries in this franchise all secured nods in the Sound categories in past years. And say what you will about how middling, bad, and lowest common denominator these films happen to be, but there are technically impressive and even a person who cannot stand these films (ahem…me…) has to tip his/her hat at the end of the day. Much was improved below-the-line on …Dark Of The Moon, and the visual effects and sonic landscapes are at the top of the list of the most impressive elements of Michael Bay’s latest film.

Bay amasses impressive teams to make his films fly off the screen and perhaps the most noteworthy example of this film’s proficiency in the Sound areas comes in the film’s unwieldy hour-long destruction of Chicago, which absolutely personifies everything that people believe this category should be, in terms of winning an Oscar. The visual mastery and sheer experience of watching Shockwave ransack and destroy an entire city of millions, while Shia LeBeouf and Rosie Huntingotn-Whiteley precariously survive attack after attack, is staggering. The grinding of metal, the shattering of glass, the screams, the music, the thunderous raw power exhibited by these robots is undeniably successful and for moviegoers and Academy voters who seek the absolute antithesis to the Sound Mixing found in Moneyball, here is an Antichrist of sorts to that fellow contender.

Nomination history:
• This is notably the 15th nomination for Greg P. Russell, third consecutive nod in this category and 7th in the past 8 years. Russell has yet to win an Oscar.
• Gary Summers landed his 10th nomination and has also failed to take home an Oscar.
• Jeffrey Haboush is now a 3-time nominee and was nominated with Russell last year for his work on Angelina Jolie’s action film Salt.
• For Peter J. Devlin, this is his 4th nomination.

WAR HORSE

Say what you will about War Horse, but it is a film which relies on its sound design work more than perhaps any other film in this category. Nominees Gary Rydstrom, Andy Nelson, Tom Johnson and Stuart Wilson matched Steven Spielberg’s grand and epic vision in bringing War Horse to the big screen and the work the team pulled together is traditionally rendered but also as important to the film’s success as any other.

War Horse feels like a film from decades prior, a film which may have swept the Oscars had it been made in the 1940s or 1950s. The impressive sound work in War Horse is both obvious and subtle and while I personally have some distinctive and distancing problems with the film as a whole, I never once felt disengaged from the experience of watching the film. For those attempting to decipher a difference between Sound Editing and Sound Mixing, War Horse presents a blurry conundrum of sorts because the two achievements are so intertwined that the sound mix and aural effects simply wash over you in key and crucial moments of the film.

If the natural sound at the auction seems nondescript, rewatch the scene where Joey and Albert attempt to outrun a speeding car down a long dirt road, or revisit the competitive race between soldiers where Joey proves his worth to Captain Nicholls. Still not convinced? The entire sequence involving Joey racing through fence after fence may rely too heavily on John Williams’ basic and obvious score for my personal tastes, but each step, each break of twig and snap underneath Joey’s thundering hooves resonates and allows us to absorb into the moment. War Horse may feel like a film whose time has long since passed it by, but with Spielberg at the helm, War Horse may cash in on what is ultimately its most noteworthy achievement – it’s sound design.

Nomination history:
• Along with his nomination in the Sound Editing category, this is Rydstrom’s 16th Oscar nomination. Rydstrom wakes up each morning with SEVEN Oscars on his mantle, winning for the Sound Editing and Sound Mixing of Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), both categories for Jurassic Park, Best Sound for James Cameron’s Titanic (1997) and again, both Sound Editing and Mixing for Saving Private Ryan.
• Andy Nelson also lands his 16th nomination in this category, and shared in a win in this category with Gary Rydstrom for Saving Private Ryan.
• Tom Johnson scored his 8th nomination and has shared in two Oscars with Gary Rydstrom for his work on the films Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Titanic.
• This nomination serves as the first for Stuart Wilson.

GUN TO MY HEAD PREDICTIONS?

My pick today: War Horse
My Alternate: Hugo
Snubs or Worthy of Consideration: Super 8, Hanna, The Adventures Of Tintin