OSCAR COUNTDOWN 2015: Sound Editing and Sound Mixing

With the Academy Awards less than a month away now, we’ll have to go at quite a rapid pace to handicap every category in time, but now feels like the right time to start. Passions and angers have mellowed, though not entirely dissipated, and it’s a prime time for some clear eyed analysis on the prospects of this year’s nominees. It’s also a fine opportunity, personally speaking, to reveal my alternate ballot for each category. Today, we start things off with the often boisterous, occasionally incoherent sound categories, which usually show the tendency to overlap nonsensically and uncreatively. Hopefully we can diverge the skillful content from the perfunctory ones.

American SniperSound Editing

First, a kind reminder of the distinction: despite the possibly misleading titles, sound editing is the creation and fine-tuning of specific sound effects. Mind you, not every Academy member recognizes the difference, which can often lead to uniformity in both categories. Also a compulsory inclination for them, to pick the most gritty or prestige bravura work in the category. Such was the case for the inarguably deserving Gravity, and this year the nominee that has both the strength of Best Picture prescience and sensory bravado is Alan Robert Murray and Bub Asman’s work on American Sniper. A fairly gripping war odyssey, its sound array is divvied up between bullet fire, sand storm chaos, and one physically and politically tough to stomach scene with a drill. It works, if not particularly heightening its sensory effects.

The most low-key design work in this category, meanwhile, is Aaron Glascock and Martin Hernández’s on Birdman, whose world is also the most interior, and therefore has more of an advantage in Sound Mixing (we’ll get there). That doesn’t make the way it builds the jumbled, constantly-moving elements of its experience any less inspired or absorbing. If Birdman continues its ascent throughout this season, it could prove a craft juggernaut in the process of dominating the upper-tier categories.

InterstellarOn the flip side of that, Richard King’s work on Interstellar is working off an often grandiose and bombastic sound landscape, but utilized in a more fascinatingly minimalist, or at least naturalist, manner. Crisp desolation is what marks this film’s mystifying soundscape, from the barren dust, water and ice of the planets they traverse to the crunching silence of space. Once again, Nolan’s work is astonishing exercise of craft, regardless of its narrative shortcomings.

Of course its narrative promise still vastly outdazzles  The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, which can be swiftly summed up here. It is chaos, battles, and multiple, difficult to distinguish armies that mark the conclusion of Peter Jackson’s wearisome trilogy, and while this has the most sound effects of anything here, they’re also the more brash and disorienting. If Brent Burge and Jason Canovas create a wide variety of sounds, they’re stacked together so claustrophobically as to inundate each other, and the audience by extension. Consider this the Academy’s farewell wave to middle earth, which is much more exhausted than their previous farewell in 2004.

To contrast that, the work by Becky Sullivan and Andrew DiCristofaro on Unbroken is almost problematically basic, failing to leverage the expansive life experience of its subject to explore a more unique soundscape. It’s certainly capable, but feels limited by the experiences it depicts, rather than expanded by it.

Will Win: American Sniper
Should Win: Interstellar

Sound EditingDream Oscar Ballot

  • Edge of Tomorrow
  • Godzilla
  • The LEGO Movie
  • The Rover
  • Under the Skin

Runner-Ups: The Boxtrolls, Dawn of the Planet of the ApesForce Majeure, Interstellar, We Are the Best!

Even relying totally on mainstream features, this category could’ve been a significantly more dazzling and impressive collection of sonic spectacles. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Edge of Tomorrow, both flirt with chaos, but there’s a balletic grace and enthusiastic whimsy to the latter that aids the action sequences breezy excitement. Even more narratively whimsical is the work on The LEGO Movie, whose punchy, energetic brick-a-brack gives each scene both sensory tactility and unbound liveliness. There’s more gravitational weight to the work on Godzilla, where the monsters’ shrieks aren’t shrieky, but organic, as though reverberating through their organs. On the indie beat, meanwhile, two films utilized sound to surreal sonic effect, The Rover through its harsh gritty mix of landscape and psychology, Under the Skin in how landscape and psychology are practically the same. It builds equally haunting isolation in the fierce forces of nature as it does in the garble, nonsensical voices of society.

BirdmanSound Mixing

Re-clarifying what this race is, Sound Mixing is how the sound effects are arranged into a complete soundscape. It’s less about the creation of sounds than about how they’re arranged. In analysis, it’ll feel very much like going over the same scabs, but with subtle differences in the reactions they elicit. John Reitz, Gregg Rudloff and Walt Maltin’s mix of American Sniper does significantly more to create and oppressive environment, both on tour and in Kyle’s home life, than chaotic sounds of gunfire. If it weren’t for this category’s emphasis on usually psychological or lyrical works, I’d put favor in its corner.

But I suspect a divide will exist between this and the sound editing category, and I increasingly feel like it’ll be between two Best Picture nominees. Given its trajectory, Birdman seems the most likely upset, not that its win would be in any way upsetting. It’s arguably Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montano and Thomas Varga’s absorbing and focused work on the sound that better achieves the streamlined experience that the cinematography most overtly sought out. From the bustling stage to the equally, but not more frenetic outer world of New York, it’s all somehow filtered through a sense of the subconscious.

WhiplashBut if the Academy is feeling especially musical for this category, and they have often veered that way, it’ll be Craig Mann, Ben Wilkins and Thomas Curley’s work on Whiplash to beat away at this. It is at times a bit too much pop and fizz to really suck us into this battle between two dueling psychologies, but the ways it captures and subverts the combative instrumental elements is undeniably dazzling.

There’s also a place for the win in Gary A. Rizzo, Gregg Landaker and Mark Weingarten’s mix for Interstellar, which even more than the effects editing manages a balance between its grandiose and humble elements, not to mention a balance between the silence of space and the more echoing work inside the helmet of the astronauts. It may be hindered, however, by Nolan’s tendency to deny surround sound, an odd decision given his devotion to idealist big screen entertainment on physical film.

It’s far likelier to win than Unbroken, also featuring Birdman‘s sound mixers Jon Taylor and Frank A. Montano, along with David Lee. It’s a shame they didn’t get the kind of sensory opportunity on this that they got for Innaritu’s film, as things are kept frustratingly out of psychology and in the all too order physical world. Again, it’s quite capable, but hardly spellbinding.

Will Win: Birdman
Should Win: Birdman

Sound MixingDream Oscar Ballot

  • The Babadook
  • Force Majeure
  • Godzilla
  • A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness
  • Under the Skin

Runner-Ups: Birdman, Edge of Tomorrow, Night Moves, The Rover, Wild

We recede from the blockbuster landscape almost altogether for sound editing, which saw some incredible accomplishments with the independent and international crowd. There still managed to be a spot for Godzilla, an almost herculean effort sonic environments, where even the most chaotic actions between military machines, giant monsters and crumbling buildings are comprehensible and alive, even as they’re shattering. A similarly smashing monster movie, The Babadook takes a more psychologically oriented approach to its design, as we feel the walls of Amelia’s mind crush inwards as the halls of her own become a cracking extension of her psyche. If that’s an overtly supernatural example, Force Majeure shows the world being blown wantonly to rubble in strictly metaphorical terms, the by-turns billowing and bellowing forces of nature and technology representing the family dissolution at the film’s center. Meanwhile, on the experimental side of things, we saw societal trepidation and subsequent searching propel both Under the Skin and documentary A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, the latter of which relies beautifully on the trickling silence of the wilderness and propulsive discord of its death metal finale.

What are your predictions and alternate choices for the Sound Editing and Sound Mixing categories?

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