Sound editing and sound mixing are funny things. The Academy considers them award-worthy, as well they should. Yet at the same time, it’s safe to say that a significant portion of those watching at home don’t entirely know how to distinguish between the two categories. Moreover, some of the elements that make a particular film deserving of awards attention are designed to slip under the radar. Even if you do notice their grander work, like threatening storms and explosions, your mind is elsewhere.
There’s a truism that the Oscars will reward “Most” over “Best.” This usually comes up in discussions of costume or production design, for which lush period dramas and Tim Burton films tend to get recognized whether or not the actual quality merits it. Yet this isn’t an isolated phenomenon. There was not a single spoken line of dialog in the entire Best Animated Short category last year, as if somehow that meant that there was more animation being done in the nominated films. The sound categories can fall victim to this as well.
There are four films nominated in both Sound Editing and Sound Mixing: “Captain Phillips,” “Gravity,” “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” and “Lone Survivor.” The lone last nominee in Best Sound Editing is “All Is Lost,” while that slot in Best Sound Mixing is taken “Inside Llewyn Davis.” These final two are actually an excellent reminder of the difference between the two categories.
Sound Editing is, in effect, the creation and cultivation of individual sounds and sound elements. The team on “All Is Lost” built up the sounds of a vessel lost in the ocean, taking on water. The creaking of the boat, the rushing water around it and the eventual storm are a mix of sounds recorded on the actual boat and those helped along in the studio. Some are more exaggerated than others, helping to embed the audience in the POV of Robert Redford’s character, for whom the more intimidating sounds seem louder, harsher and more ominous.
Sound mixers then take all of the work done by the sound editors and build the final soundtrack of the film, including the musical score and other additional elements. This includes the music of “Inside Llewyn Davis,” much of which was recorded live on set. Last year this similar approach to making a musical, or at least the live singing, also defined Best Sound Mixing winner “Les Misérables.” It’s a bit different with “Inside Llewyn Davis” because there isn’t really an orchestra to worry about, but the principle is similar.
Neither of these lone nominees will win, of course. Like the prestige productions of the last few years, “Hugo” and “Inception” among them, Alfonso Cuarón’s science-fiction Best Picture hopeful will clean up the tech categories. That’s not a slight, either. The details of the sound editing and mixing behind “Gravity” are extraordinary, from the use of vibrations to capture the way sound would occur to the minds of astronauts, to the consciousness of surround sound that went into the musical score itself. The creation of an untethered soundscape in the nothingness of space that manages to keep the audience entranced without ever crossing into the ridiculous is perhaps the most significant technical accomplishment of the year in Hollywood.
The work in “Captain Phillips” is pretty good too, of course. Its musical score is very creatively integrated into the metallic soundscapes of the cargo ship’s interior and the unforgiving openness of the Indian Ocean. “Captain Phillips” has a great sense for sonic specificity, carefully constructing individual environments. Not everything on the open water sounds the same. There is quite a difference between, for example, the cavernous engine room in the belly of the freighter and the claustrophobic fright of a little lifeboat on the run.
If you’re not keeping track, that’s three out of five nominations in each category going to films that encapsulate exactly the kind of exciting work that these two awards are supposed to celebrate every year. “Best” over “most,” especially in the case of smaller films like “Inside Llewyn Davis” and “All Is Lost.” Unfortunately, it can be hard to escape the middle ground.
The sound in “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” is not bad. Some of the neat things that they were able to do, particularly with the ceiling potential of Atmos, are very impressive. Yet the warping of Smaug’s voice, from the potentially thrilling contributions of Benedict Cumberbatch to the incredibly bland and non-specific final product makes it seem as if this is an automatic nomination that could have been avoided with a bit more thought.
“Lone Survivor,” meanwhile, is endlessly frustrating. As this Indiewire interview explains, the sound team tried to use as many different effects as possible in order to create “confusion and chaos.” It actually just feels like an endless sequence of loud, constantly shifting sounds. The governing principle appears to have been “as many sounds as possible.” At one point one of the soldiers, trapped and about to meet his death in far-off Afghanistan, almost trips on a rattlesnake. Sure, we get a nice, amplified noise out of it, but is the resulting confusion worth it? There are no rattlesnakes in Afghanistan. It’s almost laughable.
And that brings me to my final point. “Lone Survivor” is practically an automatic nominee in these categories. It opened during the right time of year, it’s a war movie, it has a lot of noise. Yet there are plenty of smaller, less bombastic films that are more worthy of this recognition. The staggering work on “Berberian Sound Studio” comes to mind, for one. Just because the big military-inflected action films have more sounds in them doesn’t mean that they should find their way into the technical categories every year. Here’s to the success of “All Is Lost” and “Inside Llewyn Davis,” the mind-boggling work in “Gravity,” and the hope that the sound branches try to see more movies next year.