Tuesday, February 3, 2015

One Category at a Time: Sound Mixing

The sound categories are one arena where the Academy and I haven't always seen eye to eye -- or heard ear to ear, if you will. Only two of this year's Oscar nominees for Best Sound Mixing are represented on my own personal ballot, which is at least two more than I can say about our complete lack of overlap in Best Sound Editing (which I'll dig into on Thursday).

Still, even if I don't agree that whatever they deem to be the best is actually the best, they've never voted for a movie whose sound mix is outright bad. But this year there's a very real possibility of that happening.
What's that, Matt? Speak up!
I can't hear you over this intentionally muddled sound mix!

Way back last March when early predictions were flying around, Christopher Nolan's Interstellar seemed like an automatic nominee in this race. Nolan's brand of cerebral blockbuster entertainment is just the sort of thing the Academy wouldn't mind recognizing across multiple craft categories. But then people actually got a listen at the movie. Turns out Nolan's old-school sensibilities extend beyond his devotion to celluloid film and practical effects, but to antiquated sound design as well, eschewing the immersive power of surround sound channels in favour of blasting all the aural elements through the front speakers. Such an ado was made about this miscalculated creative choice that it looked like a nomination wouldn't be happening, but here it is. Gary Rizzo (who won an Oscar for Nolan's Inception) and his fellow mixers may even win, because the Academy at large are much more ignorant to the subtleties of sound design than the people who write about this stuff, and often equate "loudest" with "best".

But will the mere volume of Interstellar's space-aged spectacle be enough to unseat an enormously successful Best Picture nominee whose sound is just as prominent but is more effectively incorporated? American Sniper has emerged as the surprise success of 2014 at the eleventh hour (it opened so late, it may be more appropriate to call it the surprise success of 2015), grossing over $200 million in its first two weeks of wide release! The intense debate over its alleged political agenda may breed scrutiny for Oscar voters in the major categories, but even detractors of this Iraq war film mostly agree that it's a crackerjack piece of filmmaking thanks to the contributions of its post-production craftspeople.
The re-recording team of Gregg Rudloff and John Reitz won fifteen years ago for The Matrix, and their enveloping sonic assemblage of American Sniper's many tense combat scenes puts them in serious contention to win again. For whatever reason, winners in this category have historically leaned more the way of prestige and Best Picture candidates than in Best Sound Editing, including the last six consecutive years, so that's one advantage Sniper has that Interstellar does not.
Of course, there are other Best Picture contenders popping up in this race too, and ones which I'd argue have even more of claim to the trophy. Birdman may be more memorable for its visual panache, but mixers Jon Taylor and Frank Montano had a lot of heavy lifting to do in order to match up the direction of the sound with the constantly moving camera angles. The point of the film's aesthetic is to put us inside Riggan Thompson's head, and they help with that by isolating certain subtle sound effects (love the ominous ticking of his dressing room clock), embellishing the taunting voice-over of his imagined doppelganger, and seamlessly integrating Antonio Sanchez's pulsating drum score. Having emerged as a Best Picture frontrunner, we would be wise not to count Birdman out. Remember when Hugo won both sound categories despite not really being a showcase for sound work?
It could happen here. Taylor has two career nominations -- both this year, as the team also mixed Unbroken -- while Montano is now on his seventh. Hopefully he'll win one of these days.

And we're not done yet with the Best Picture nominees. One of my pre-nomination longshot wishes was to see Craig Mann and Ben Wilkins recognized for the amazing job they did at putting right between the ears of an ambitious jazz drummer in Whiplash. When BAFTA chalked them up for Best Sound, I thought it a happy fluke, but when their names were repeated on Oscar morning it became one of my favourite nominations of the year. Could they be a dark horse to actually win? The film is a Best Picture nominee, after all, and one that sends audiences from the theatre with those scintillating rhythms still buzzing in their heads. Musicals have been very successful here in the past, but then again, this is not a true 'musical'. You'd have to go back to 1988's Bird to find a sound mixing winner that was all about instrumental music (Incidentally, that movie was about Charlie Parker, whose life and music are often referenced in Whiplash).
Rounding the category out are Taylor and Montano again, but this time for Angelina Jolie's Unbroken. The inspirational WWII story had all the makings of an Oscar sweeper on paper, but it failed to connect with the industry in any significant way -- likely due to a combination of early frontrunner status and the fact that the movie itself just wasn't that good. Still, the sound job on the film is credible, finding the right balance of music, dialogue and foley at all times. If the Academy had responded more to it as a whole, it would be a bigger threat to win (voters often think of sound when they think of WWII movies), but will obviously have a tough time against more well-liked films.

As it is almost every year, these categories are tricky. I could end up changing my prediction at any time, but for now...

Will win: American Sniper
Runner-up: Interstellar

Should win: Whiplash
Should have been nominated: Fury

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