Friday, February 7, 2014

One Category at a Time: Sound Mixing

This is another one of those categories that seems fairly transparent from afar. I suspect one film to be unanimously predicted by pundits, and then to win, naturally. But even though it looks to be an open and shut case, the other nominees sport excellent sound work, and very much deserve the recognition that their nominations imply.
The sound branch nominated four of the same titles that were cited by the Cinema Audio Society, with only Iron Man 3 failing to translate that CAS nod into an Oscar nod. That is all very usual. Also very usual is the high degree of overlap between this category and Best Sound Editing. Only one of the Sound Mixing nominees did not receive an accompanying nomination in its brother category, and that's the one we'll start with...

Ever since its celebrated debut at Cannes, many prognosticators were anticipating a Best Sound Mixing nomination for Inside Llewyn Davis. It may owe as much to the quality of T-Bone Burnett's music as anything else, but that's not to undermine the challenge that Skip Lievsay, Gregg Orloff, and Peter F. Kurland had in capturing live performance and integrating it seamlessly into the soundtrack. Live music recording certainly helped secure a win here last year for Les Miserables, but that was due to an extensive publicity campaign that promoted its technique, while Inside Llewyn Davis has not worn its method on its sleeve. I'm of the opinion that these long-time Coen collaborators should have won six years ago for their work on No Country for Old Men, but they're likely sitting it out yet again...
... although not all of them. Skip Lievsay happens to be a double nominee this year, and his other nomination is the one that will bring him his first Oscar. Gravity is far and away the one to beat in this category. Its aural elements are brilliantly realized and integrated into the film. More importantly, they stand out in a way that the average Academy member can clearly appreciate, and being the strongest Best Picture nominee contending in this particular race only helps it. It'll make first-time Oscar winners out of Lievsay's fellow re-recroding mixers Niv Adiri and Christopher Benstead. For production mixer Chris Munro, it'll be his second Academy Award.

Speaking of Munro, he is, like Lievsay, also a double nominee this year. His other nomination comes for the terrific sound job on Captain Phillips (shared with Chris Burdon, Mark Taylor, and Mike Prestwood Smith), and if there's a distant challenger to Gravity here, it may be this one. It's the sort of unflashy, meat-and-potatoes sound mix that was very difficult to accomplish but comes together so smoothly that you barely notice it, and mixers really respect that. In fact, I could even conceive of an upset at the CAS Awards later this month if the mixers are sick of seeing Gravity win everything (they're one of the last industry guilds to announce winners, just a week before the Oscars), but by then it'll too late for that hypothetical upset to shift this Oscar contest anyway. Although it may indicate a chink in Gravity's Best Picture armour. Hmm...

Lone Survivor timed its roll out just right, reaping two sound nominations before going into wide release. The work in the film is extensive to say the least, stunningly showcased in the film's intense firefight sequence that places the viewer right in the middle of the gunshots and the blood splatter. This is the first nomination for all of its mixing team: Beau Borders, Andy Koyama, and David Brownlow. Given their first-time status, they shouldn't be too disappointed when they lose. They'll have plenty of future chances, I'm sure.
Rounding out the five is one that not many people were anticipating, perhaps foolishly. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is more action-heavy (and louder) than its predecessor, but ironically, it was An Unexpected Journey that reaped a CAS nomination but an Oscar one, while this one failed to make the CAS' cut but popped up on the Academy's ballot. Go figure. If AMPAS wasn't sick of Middle Earth after The Return of the King swept back in 2004, then they must surely be sick of it by now. Last year's Hobbit installment went 0/3, and I expect no more of this one. But I won't be weeping too much for re-recording mixers Christopher Boyes, Michael Semanick, and Michael Hedges; they all have multiple Oscars already. As for thrice nominated production sound mixer Tony Johnson, hopefully his day will come.

Will win: Gravity
Runner-up: Captain Phillips

Should win: Gravity
Should've been nominated: All Is Lost

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