Oscar Gold 2018 – Sound Editing

First things first, a lesson in category distinctions. Today we’re focusing on Sound Editing, which previously had the more clear name of Sound Effects (Editing). What this means is that this category awards the artificial sounds, particularly the sound effects done in post-production, recorded by a foley artist. This is different from the other sound category, Sound Mixing, which is more about the balance of naturally recorded sounds on set and their weight in the overall production – basically, how does the sound relate to the actual viewing experience. Sound Editing is about how awesome the “PEW PEW PEW” of a laser can be, or how realistic a punch to the face might sound. Sound Mixing is about making sure dialogue isn’t drowned out by some birds chirping in the background, or how well music can blend in, that sort of thing.

Now, there are shades of grey in both categories, and it’s easy to get confused, as the two sound categories are usually presented together on Oscar Night, and more often than not the two categories have three or more common nominees. This year we have the rarity of both categories being identical. Usually there’s at least one outlier in each round to differentiate the two. It’s also fairly rare for the categories to have separate winners, though it did happen last year, with Arrival winning for Editing and Hacksaw Ridge winning for Mixing.

The fun part of the sound categories is that the nominees here, as in Visual Effects, are apt to be blockbuster films that wide audiences were able to see. It might seem like that means Academy elites are relegating movies with mass appeal, but that also means that the average viewer is much more likely to have an informed opinion on these categories, and thus can hopefully engage more with the process.

This year’s nominees are:

Julian Slater – Baby Driver
This, to me, was one of the most fun movies of the year, and by necessity it comes down to the sound, as Ansel Elgort’s titular wheel man suffers from severe tinnitus and relies on his personal soundtrack to survive his life of crime. Normally the music choices would be more the focus of the Sound Mixing category, but there is a high degree of editing involved here.

Aside from the standard action movie sound effects (gun shots, car sounds, etc.), which are exemplary, the absolute beauty of the film lies in the incorporation of Baby’s music. Entire action set pieces, including the opening heist, are synced up and edited to the beats and rhythms of the music. It’s one thing to have a catalog soundtrack. It’s another thing to make it an almost sentient character in the film. Further, we get live, visual examples of how sound can be edited, as Baby takes the conversations he records and mixes them into scratch tracks in his room. It actually becomes a plot point (and a somewhat funny reveal to undercut dramatic tension) to wonder why Baby records people and what he does with them, only to find out that he’s pulling a Calvin Harris for his own entertainment.

Mark Mangini and Theo Green – Blade Runner 2049
Sound effects can make or break any science fiction movie, and thankfully, the long-awaited sequel to the 1982 classic delivered in spades. First and foremost, watching the two films back-to-back, you can immediately notice the improvement in the sfx as it relates to guns. For whatever reason, from the 1960s to the mid-80s, gunshot sounds were raised to an insane degree. When Harrison Ford takes out Zhora in the original, his slightly-bigger-than-normal pistol sounds like a goddamned cannon. Nowadays foley artists have gone for more believable sounds, and the shootouts throughout 2049 seem a lot more natural than before.

The other noteworthy bit of sound is one of the moments where it’s eschewed. As K/Joe (Ryan Gosling) closes in on Deckard (Ford), he takes extra care to be as quiet as possible as he sneaks around the Las Vegas hideout. The scene is almost completely silent until Gosling taps a single key on the piano, and once alerted to the intruder’s presence, Ford himself is silent until he announces his presence with gun drawn. It’s a subtle moment, but a prime example of minimalist sound editing done right.

Richard King and Alex Gibson – Dunkirk
By their very nature, war movies demand a lot from the sound department. In Christopher Nolan’s time-warped siege film, Dunkirk, there are three different sound profiles to go along with three plot lines. On the ground, soldiers run around sandy beaches, flee Nazi rifle shots, escape sinking/exploding ships, and duck for cover from mortar and planes firing from every angle. At sea, military ships and civilian boats navigate the English Channel, necessitating effects of water, internal operations of multiple types of boat, and of course, the actions of the soldiers and citizens interacting with one another. In Tom Hardy’s dogfight in the air, you’ve got bullets, explosions, and the mechanical workings of the plane to go with radio communications from the cockpit.

But on top of all that, there’s one all-encompassing bit of sound editing that keeps the tension up throughout the film. That is the ever-present sound of a ticking clock, like the 60 Minutes stopwatch. It’s always there. Sometimes it’s the loudest thing on the screen. Sometimes it’s drowned out by the action around the players. But it’s always there, and it’s a good example of the difference between the Sound Editing and Sound Mixing categories. The choice to even have the ticking clock falls under Editing. It’s effectiveness in the overall sound balance is a question for the Mixing category. For our purposes here, its inclusion was a brilliant creative choice, and given the sheer scope of what the sound department had to do here, the nomination is well-earned.

Nathan Robitaille and Nelson Ferreira – The Shape of Water
The superlative sound for Guillermo del Toro’s ode to classic horror and romance lies mostly in the Mixing category, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few great effects here and there. The best example is that of the creature. Both when he’s in his tank and affecting sounds whilst underwater, and when he’s on solid ground just making his various grunts and growls, it’s a great bit of effects creation and editing to make an otherwise non-communicative character (audibly speaking obviously; the romance with Sally Hawkins begins with her teaching him sign language) come alive.

Matthew Wood and Ren Klyce – Star Wars: The Last Jedi
I think it’s somewhere in the Academy bylaws that every Star Wars film has to be nominated for something. It’s right next to the rule that Meryl Streep has to be up for something every year even if she doesn’t actually put out a movie. Thankfully, this was a really good Star Wars movie, so it doesn’t feel like a token.

So what were the great sound effects that set this film apart from the others? Hard to say. The most unique sounds I remember were actually from two aspects I actually didn’t like. One is, of course, the multitude of new CGI animals. Between the E.T. monks, the blue milk space dinosaurs, and of course, the goddamned Porgs, a lot of the unique sounds were kind of annoying. And then there’s the fakeout of (SPOILER ALERT… I guess) not killing Leia by sucking her out into space. Now the idea was lame, but the sound effects used to destroy the bridge of her ship and literally suck her into a vacuum were pretty awesome.

Apart from those, you have the standard space battle sounds, which are cool, if not always original. There’s also the super kick-ass lightsaber team-up with Rey and Kylo Ren (should the film win just because one of the sound nominees is also named Ren? I wouldn’t necessarily argue against it). And of course there’s the amplification and distortion needed to perfect the voices of Captain Phasma and Supreme Leader Snoke. What I’m saying is, the nomination might sound like a default, but there was a lot going on here regardless.

My Rankings:
1) Baby Driver
2) Dunkirk
3) Blade Runner 2049
4) Star Wars: The Last Jedi
5) The Shape of Water

Next up: In a year where women took center stage, we take a look at the biggest showcase for the ladies in this year’s ceremony, the award for Best Actress!

Join the conversation in the comments section! Sound off, as it were. As always, please note that all photos are taken from Google, and I profit in no way from their use. Leave the lawyers at home.

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