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Know Your Oscar Nominees: Sound Mixing & Editing

We've put together what we're calling our 'Technical Oscars installment.' Today, we turn to two of the most mystifying categories of the Academy Awards: sound mixing and sound editing. The two categories, both of which are shrouded in mystery for many annual viewers, almost always have extensive overlap and are often filled with popular Best Picture picks. This year is no different, with The Martian, The Revenant and Mad Max: Fury Road each healthily represented. But what exactly are these two categories awarding? Unlike directing or writing, sound editing and mixing are designed to be largely imperceptible: and if they’re done skillfully; it can be difficult to notice them at all. Sound mixing is the careful combination of dialogue, soundtrack and sound effects to create a complete sonic atmosphere, raising the music when needed and dropping it out again to allow room for sound effects or dialogue to stand at the forefront. This means that Furiosa’s strained commands are audible over the often imposing groan of the war rig during the race to the Citadel in Mad Max: Fury Road and that Mark Watney’s exhausted breathing can be heard amidst the clinking of his MacGyvered tech in The Martian, thanks to the work of sound mixers. “One way of thinking about it is kind of like an orchestra, where you’ll have the composer composing the symphony and then a conductor saying, ‘More flutes here,’ that’s very much what mixing is — it’s like conducting, sound editor Erik Aadahl explained to Deadline. When we spoke to Aadahl about Godzillawe got a much finer appreciation for the crucial, heroically subtle work that sound mixers do.

Watch this Mad Max: Fury Road clip and imagine how much tinkering the sound mixers had to do to orchestrate the many competing sounds in these scenes:

The sound editors, on the other hand, are in charge of constructing the raw materials, or sound elements, with which the mixers compose the film. That means that editors are in charge of creating the sounds of the war rig itself and the primal whirring of Watney’s vehicle, before handing the audio material to the mixers.

In terms of predicting a winner, the two categories tend to favor films with faster paces and louder action sequences, and in the last ten years, both categories chose the same winner on five different occasions. Up for the win on the sound mixing side is Bridge of Spies, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian, The Revenant and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. On the editing side, the nominations are strikingly similar, with Sicario, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian, The Revenant and Star Wars: The Force Awakens on the docket. Predictions? Well, on both sides, the technical achievements behind The Revenant and Star Wars: The Force Awakens make them the automatic favorites, but considering The Martian just picked up a big-time predictor of the sound mixing category, with an award in Excellence in Sound from the American Motion Picture Society, we’d say be prepared for an upset. Let’s get into the nominees.

Spielberg's Best Picture entry is certainly less flashy than some of the other nominees, but the snow-blanketed Bridge of Spies nonetheless offered sound mixers Drew Kunin and Andy Nelson plenty to do. “Steven wanted to create a few different languages of people passing by to sense that multicultural influence in New York,” Andy Nelson, also nominated for his work on Star Wars: The Force Awakens this year, told Indiewire. “It makes you move your head around. And, of course, in the midst of this crowd, the agents are losing their prey. It was about creating the normal distraction on a subway train and not many people speaking.” The physical imposition of the Berlin Wall represented both an obstacle and an opportunity for the editors, allowing them to play with distant sound and the crests of the soundtrack itself. "It gave the sound team the opportunity to convey a great spatial divide," Nelson continued. "When you heard a command from the other side, we were able to put a soft echo on everyone, so you really sensed the distance between the two sides. We did it by making the atmosphere so quiet around us and the music was thin and almost eerie at times."

Chances of winning: Notably small, but a win is only improbable considering the number of heavyweights that surround it on either side.

Mad Max: Fury Road has been a surprising Oscar favorite, earning 10 nominations including two in the sound categories, and despite the film’s significant hype, its' meticulous achievements continue to surprise. The sound mixers behind the film: Chris Jenkins, Gregg Rudloff and Ben Osmo, were each invaluable in creating the film’s complete sense of world, by helping to balance the sounds of the dusty Outback with Junkie XL’s pulsating score (read our interview with Junkie XL here). And rather than use just one line of audio to help build out the chase sequences, the mixers layered different sounds and pitched them up and down accordingly to the scene’s needs. “There were some real TNT explosions with rocks, which was huge… for the action unit, but a lot of the action scene explosions were mainly just pops,” Osmo told Ambient Recording. “It was really more about trying to get the dialogue while establishing and maintaining the communication.”

On the editing side, Mark Mangini and David White made the decision to treat the film like a dynamic creature. “We wanted to give the sense that the war rig was living,” Mangingi told The Hollywood Reporter. “We used whale vocalizations as part of the kit of sound. When a harpoon hits the rig, you hear whale groans. For the death of the war rig, we used sounds of dying animals, including bears and whales, slowed to have a real-world emotional response." Beyond the moving sonic impact of that audio choice, the team also grounded their decisions in narrative. “I had this notion that the truck itself was an allegory for ‘Moby Dick,’” Mangini told The Frame. “If you think about this a little bit, we saw Immortan Joe — the leader of the war party — as Ahab. He’s hellbent on killing the great white whale — the War Rig.”

Chances of winning: Decent in both categories, but with The Revenant and Star Wars: The Force Awakens closing in on other technical wins, there’s a chance Miller’s Australian epic could get elbowed out.

As with any film that takes place outside of the constraints of the terrestrial, one of the most difficult elements of production is to formulate a believable atmosphere despite the lack of real world guides. Between the dusty sonic motif of the red planet and Harry Gregson-Williams’ impressive score, sound mixers Paul Massey, Mark Taylor and Mac Ruth had their work cut out for them with The Martian. In seeking to balance the fantastical score and alien landscapes, the team set out to prioritize character and narrative in order to create a compelling through line even in the film’s audio. “Story is always king, and for me, the biggest challenge was all the different treatments we had to do to the voices,” explained Massey to Below the Line News. “There were multiple futz and radio instances throughout the film…. Ridley was very clear, and correct in my mind, in his direction to highlight the breathing of Watney when he was isolated and alone,” noted Massey. “For Watney, being stuck in this dangerous environment in a very enclosed space, emphasizing his breathing gave his life a more claustrophobic feeling.”

In order to create authentic recordings of Matt Damon’s stranded Watney, sound editor Oliver Tarney ran the audio of his voice through a local radio station and then re-recorded it, capturing the organic depreciation of the material. For the sounds of Mars, Tarney ventured out into the desert, to the salt flats of Death Valley, before eventually being led to capturing audio of the Mars rover itself. “While recording the Rover,” Tarney recalled to Post Perspective, “what became immediately apparent was that although the engineering is absolutely state of the art, there is also this raw, buzzing, whirring and — surprisingly — unsophisticated element to it. The cost of sending anything into space is so extreme that these machines have to be purely functional… aesthetics and ergonomics are secondary to function.” Inspired by the surprisingly stripped down audio, Tarney focused on crafting the rest of the film with that same bareness in mind. “…Although there may be billions of dollars of technology up there, there’s also a certain fragility and therefore constant threat to life. The raw sounds of the technology also played along with the fact that Watney himself is an engineer and could access, repair and re-imagine uses for it, which he does throughout the film.”

Chances of winning: Though The Revenant and Star Wars: Force Awakens are the odds-on favorites, The AMPS Award The Martian took home earlier this month went to the two previous sound editing winners (Gravity, Whiplash), carving out a viable place in Best Sound Editing for Ridley Scott’s latest space epic.

Inarritu’s name was on the tip of everyone’s tongues on the set of The Revenant. Sound mixers Jon Taylor, Frank A Montano, Randy Thom and Chris Duesterdick were devoted to craft a sound mix that would satisfy the painstaking director, despite the notoriously difficult shoot. “He has a super sensitive ear, it has to be unique, authentic and real.” Jon Taylor told ProVideo “It can be the smallest thing, but we’ll do everything that it takes, he will leave no stone unturned, and it will get even better. Alejandro is so thorough, even when you know it’s perfect, he’ll go – ‘Let’s go try some other things.’ You end up trying a bunch of things and rarely will you ever go back. You’ll wind up with something just a little bit better. It only ever gets better.” Due to The Revenant’s massive scale, Randy Thom had to ensure the balance of the film’s sonic space in accordance with its sweeping soundtrack. “The amount of dynamics is not just sonic – but also spatial,” Thom explained. “A lot of times the music is just left and right, then sometimes it’s kind of center heavy, and then other times we use all seven tracks, then sometimes it’s just in the back. The film is about nature so music never just takes over, it always has spaces so that the nature can come through and co-exist… There are many places in the movie where you are not sure whether it’s music or sound design. I think that is a wonderful thing.”

On the editing side, Martin Hernandez and Lon Bender were also heavily guided by Inarritu’s specific approach. “The challenge for Alejandro was that he found that some approaches to sound editing can be very illustrative,” Martin Hernandez told ProVideo. “ Like, you see the tree moving, and you put the tree sound in. He was trying to get away from that. It’s not just including the right sounds that you see, but it’s adding the sounds that you do not see… He has a wonderful word – cacayanga – a kind of noise or complexity, the source of which is not readily apparent. He would often ask for noise, that isn’t related necessarily with anything that is showing on the screen.” To tackle the much-talked about bear attack, Hernandez took a directly personal tact, combining the sounds of many animals: Camels, elephants, horses and his own voice to create the emotional pitch he was looking for. But even with all that manipulation, he was careful to make the sound landscape as natural as possible. “The task is making it all flow and be believable that it is all one creature, even though it just takes an awful lot of trial and error and a bit of sound manipulation.”

Chances of Winning: The Revenant holds strong stakes in both categories, with clear mastery in both mixing and editing all aided by the film’s significant representation at the Oscars and Inarritu’s clear vision.

Preceded by a reputation as massive as The Force Awakens’ box office receipts, the Star Wars franchise is one of the most difficult to step into, a franchise with such iconic themes and sound elements that they’ve warranted their own album. But mixers Andy Nelson, Christopher Scarabosio and Stuart Wilson found a way to make their work both authentic and fresh in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. "In the final mix, J.J. wanted the audience to feel something," Scarabosio told the LA Times. "With a note like that, we wanted to make sure we didn't fatigue the audience over long periods of time. It was really a matter of being judicious with the sound and when to focus on the music, dialogue or effects." The mixers often let their sound decisions be dictated by character, listening to each character’s own sonic profile to inform their mixing choices. "When we first see Finn we don't know it's him, just a Stormtrooper who's realizing he doesn't want to kill for the First Order… We wanted the audience to focus solely on Finn so we took the soundtrack down to just his breathing with music … so the audience realizes there's something special about this Stormtrooper even before he takes off his helmet.”

On the edit side, Matthew Wood and David Acord, both Star Wars vets, were closely devoted to making sure the sounds of the film (specifically Kylo Ren, the series’ new big bad) were distinct enough to recognize even when offscreen. “We set J.J. up with a tactical interface so he could be more hands on in the creative process and have points to touch on a synthesizer, controlling timbre and pitch,’ Matthew Wood told the LA Times. “We then brought actors in to guide an emotional beat and refined BB-8 until we found its final audio palette," Wood says. "Kylo is very raw with his power and not a very refined person," Acord says. "He's a little hot-tempered and we wanted to reflect that aurally. At the very root level of Ren's Force we used the purr of a cat … slowed way down to a low rumble."

Of course, working on the series wasn’t all about crafting new audio, the series also had an obligation to fit into the sonic profiles of the previous films. “The goal, when you’re talking sound design with Episode VII, is to make it sit acoustically, with IV, V, and VI,” Acord told the Daily Dot. “We wanted to honor the legacy sound effects that Ben Burtt created for the original movies but give them an updated 21st-century patina. That’s the challenge and the goal: to not only use Ben’s sound effects but give them an updated feel.” Lots of the voices for different intergalactic characters needed to be pitched, up, down and generally changed, making room for Wood and Acord to play around with the actual voice recordings they used as a starting place. “There’s some great voice stuff,” Wood continued. “I think Matt Wood just posted a thing called ‘the vocal map’,” a collection of all the voices used to fill out the audio of the film.

Chances of Winning: Incredibly strong. Star Wars’ comeback was strong both critically and for the public, and the franchise has a history of wins in both categories.

Though the often stripped-down Sicario isn’t the most heavily sound designed film of the bunch, Alan Robert Murray’s subtle editing work on the Villeneuve’s intense thriller worked carefully to layer nearly imperceptible audio elements, resulting in maximum tension. “The way the sound played out on Sicario was we started with a very quiet, unthreatening atmosphere and then slowly moved through scenes feeding different textures via subliminal low-end bass or sound design tones to make the viewer feel that something isn’t right,” Murray told Below the Line News. “Then as the anxiety builds, it suddenly stops to give the audience a second to recover. Then it all hits you over the head with the crescendo of the scene.” The visionary French director offered plenty of guidance to create the most impactful audio experience. “With Denis, there’s a purpose for everything. You’re not just making a muddy track and I find that exceptional. It’s exciting to see a director come into a project so well thought out and have every element in the film mean something and the end result be so seamless.”

Chances of winning: Unfortunately, Sicario’s sound editing is so subtle, it may not be flashy enough to take home any statues. But, like Ex Machina’s visual effects nomination in the face of other giants, it’s impressive that Sicario even be considered amongst these other prestigious titles.

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