Sounds Like Oscar

With the release of the nominees for the 80th Annual Academy Awards reverberating in our collective consciousness, it’s probably a good time to bring into sharp focus a few categories that are usually overlooked, and which remain my own critical bread-and-butter. I, of course, am talking about the technical awards that recognize the work of film composers and sound editors in the Score, Sound Editing, and Sound Mix categories.

Film music and sound design often shape the tone of a film, much like the cinematography and set design reflect its dramatic texture and feel. Sound is as much an architectural phenomenon as the visual mise-en-scene (or, what is put in front of the camera). We are often immersed in the world of a film because the sound design fills out the image. Music does not so much fill out the space as heighten our senses to the emotional and dramatic. This is an undoubtedly abstract phenomenon, since we can’t see sound or pause it for further examination like we do with still frames.

Simply mute the volume on a film soundtrack and it becomes clear that sound is not only half the cinematic experience, but also the essential aspect that immerses us in the fictional worlds of movies. I’m not just referring to the importance of dialogue–an element that is all but lost when sound is turned off. Sometimes ambiences (traffic noise), Foley (footsteps), hard effects (explosions), and music shape the meaning of a scene. The helicopters in Apocalypse Now, the voice of HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the lightsabers in Star Wars, the newsroom in All the President’s Men, and the harmonica-tinged vocals in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly are sonic signatures that identify these films by their unique soundscapes.

If sound matters, then why does it routinely fall on deaf ears? Well, we don’t necessarily see the set design and cinematography categories getting much more attention in the popular press, either. These categories are populated with individual craftspeople who are not, by and large, household names or even physically recognizable. I’m sure we’ve all had that experience of saying, “Oh that’s what James Horner looks like!” For those who don’t even know the name, he’s a composer, perhaps best known for his Oscar-winning score to Titanic.

Sound is so intangible that it is difficult to remember the “soundscape” of a film, whereas it’s easier to remember a particularly well-photographed sequence or visual style. Everyone seems to remember the noirish brilliance Conrad Hall brought to Sam Mendes’ Road to Perdition. But do you remember Scott Hecker’s sound mix or Thomas Newman’s score?

With this in mind, let’s turn our ear to this year’s nominees.

Achievement in Sound Editing and Achievement in Sound Mixing are two very different awards that, on the surface, appear to recognize the same thing. In fact, the nominees are virtually the same this year with one exception (more on that later). Aren’t mixing and editing the same thing? Well, no, not even close.

The Sound Editing category addresses the role of the sound editor or “sound designer” in creating a unique soundscape for a film. The sound effects, ambiences, and Foley work are central to this award. Again, Ben Burtt’s sound editing in the Star Wars saga represents highly original effects that give a sonic signature to the films. The Sound Mix category recognizes the work of sound editors and/or sound designers in fusing the aforementioned effects with voice and music in the final “sound mix.” To create a “perfect” mix, where voice is clearly audible, music fills the space like a mist, and effects punctuate the on-screen action, takes great skill.

In the past, films with Blockbuster soundtracks–that is, loud and exhausting–often vie for the Sound Editing statue, while musicals with complex changes in voice, music, and effects often vie for the Mixing statue.

Achievement in Sound Editing

The Bourne Ultimatum: Karen Baker Landers and Per Hallberg

No Country for Old Men: Skip Lievsay

Ratatouille: Randy Thom and Michael Silvers

There Will Be Blood: Christopher Scarabosio and Matthew Wood

Transformers: Ethan Van der Ryn and Mike Hopkins

Here, we have a legitimate mix of summer blockbusters and autumn prestige picks. The Bourne Ultimatum continues to be discussed for its image editing techniques, relying on fast cutting and close framings to disrupt and disorient. See David Bordwell’s informative discussion of the film’s use of “intensified continuity” here. However, no one has mentioned the extent to which its sound design has contributed to the hyperkinetic visual scheme. In an e-mail to David Bordwell, I outlined how the sound track often compensated for the unintelligible imagery by providing sonic emphases on key sounds that move the story along. Check out the bathroom fight mid-way through the film and pay attention to how the sound of knives and other weapons clue the viewer to Bourne’s fight for survival. It’s an ingenious technique.

No Country for Old Men is the critical darling in several other categories. If it’s the Coen bros.’ year, then I suspect this will walk away with the award. Is it undeserved? No, and let me explain why. Skip Lievsay’s sound design is notable enough to merit a full-length article in the New York Times here. The film’s sparse sound track is at issue here. The sound of silence; more specifically, the play of individual sounds that echo in an empty space: footsteps on a creaky floor, a lone truck engine purring on a desert road, the intricate sound of a single-barrel shotgun being cocked and fired. With little dialogue and even less score, No Country is dangerously quiet, which no doubt contributes to its overall drama.

Ratatouille and Transformers are two films that require sound effects to breathe life into CGI animation. The entire sound world of Ratatouille–gutters, Parisian streets, bustling dining rooms, and crowded kitchens–are created from scratch, much like the animated images. Randy Thom has won an Oscar for his work on Pixar’s The Incredibles, where his sound design provided weight and mass to the lumbering athleticism of Mr. Incredible. Transformers is a live-action action adventure with CGI characters, who must interact with the real world. And since by “interact” I mean “demolish,” the film’s sound design not only fills out the characterization of the Autobots and Decepticons, but also reflects the physical impact of the ‘bots on city streets. I actually expected more from the Transformers effects. To my surprise, the sound crew emphasized the voices of the ‘bots over the sound of their moving parts. Pay close attention during the Optimus expressway fight: very few metal-on-metal mechanical sounds are heard, whereas the digitized voices–full of grunts–are prominently featured.

Finally, There Will Be Blood offers an intricate, detailed sound design of America at the turn of the 20th century. The juxtaposition of machinery and nature is evident in the film’s soundscape. As in No Country for Old Men, sound-as-metaphor is an important function of sound design.

Who Will Win? No Country for Old Men. Who Should Win? The Bourne Ultimatum

Achievement in Sound Mixing

The Bourne Ultimatum

No Country for Old Men


3:10 to Yuma


As I mentioned earlier, there is one difference between the two sound categories this year. 3:10 to Yuma is nominated in the Mixing category, but not the Editing one. It’s not uncommon for a different crop of films to be nominated in each category, since the criteria remains different. While an animated film may win the Editing category, a musical bio-pic could very well walk away with the Mixing award. It’s happened. Check your Oscar history.

The sound mix to 3:10 to Yuma is covered, in part, by David Bordwell, here. Westerns have always had iconic (or is it “earconic”?) sound tracks. You can’t watch a western without hearing the sound of spurs, creaky wooden carriages, dusty wind, twisted leather, or gunfire. 3:10 to Yuma offers a detailed understanding of Western sound cues for the digital sound era. But the film is being nominated not for the effects, but the overall mix. It’s my pick in this category, since it deftly blends Marco Beltrami’s score with a busy vocal track and the detailed effects and Foley track. Although, No Country for Old Men could nab it for the same reason.


It is important to remember that the Academy votes on the nominations en masse, so it’s fair to assume that voters won’t necessarily be technical critics. By contrast, the nominations are derived from persons ONLY in the sound field.

Next time, I’ll tackle the Best Original Score category.

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