Oscar Gold 2019 – Sound Mixing

Even though the Academy tends to award both Sound categories together, I like tackling them with a good amount of space in between. It helps to prevent me conflating the two disciplines. That way I can properly process my thoughts on the subtle differences between the two, because I took a brake to parse everything as I go from one to the other.

So yeah, Sound Mixing, similar but distinctively different from Sound Editing. As previously mentioned, Editing deals with post-production sound effects, how they’re created, and how they integrate into the final product. Mixing, on the other hand, deals with stuff live on set. We’re talking dialogue, microphones, live effects, white noise, all that stuff.

As is often the case in recent years, there’s one outlier nominee in each category. Usually you can eliminate that one, but as I mentioned in Sound Editing, every once in a while the outlier is there for a reason. It made sense for A Quiet Place, because there’s very little on-set sound, with the bulk of the sound design dependent on editing in post. As such, it may be the best example of Sound Editing, but it didn’t really qualify for Mixing. The outlier in this category is a good example of the dichotomy between the two categories as well, and just like A Quiet Place, it’s arguably the best of the set.

This year’s nominees for Sound Mixing are:

Black Panther – Steve Boedekker, Brandon Proctor, and Peter J. Devlin
There’s a lot of technical expertise on display in Black Panther. With the exception of some cheesy looking CGI armored rhinos – which is why the movie wasn’t nominated for Visual Effects most likely – just about every technical element shines in this movie. It’s no wonder that audiences and critics alike loved it, making it the first comic book movie nominated for Best Picture.

When it comes to this category, the crux of the task at hand lies in the dialogue, specifically the accents. It probably sounds racist, but it’s actually quite essential. Part of the beauty of the film was its representative nature and diverse cast. However, in order to make things resonate, we have to be able to understand these people. For the average American, African accents (as well as British, Korean, and European) can be difficult to process if you haven’t been regularly exposed to them. With that in mind, the entire cast had to have a lot of practice with dialect coaches. But it’s also down to the sound mixers to balance out the volume and pitch of their dialogue to make sure no crucial lines get lost in the shuffle, especially when those accents are delivered by non-native speakers. And it’s not just T’Challa and the other Wakandans. Martin Freeman, an Englishman, had to be a convincing American. Andy Serkis, also English, played a South African. It takes a lot of skill to make all of this sound as natural as possible.

Bohemian Rhapsody – Paul Massey, Tim Cavagin, and John Casali
Like I mentioned in the Film Editing breakdown, a good chunk of the work with Bohemian Rhapsody revolves around performances and musical orchestration. Since Rami Malek is lip syncing the entire time over previous Queen recordings, one of the larger duties for the mixing artists is making sure the performances are believable, because they’re being mimed by the cast in real time.

In addition, this film presented an additional challenge in the form of Malek’s prosthetics. In order to mimic Freddie Mercury, Malek had to widen his mouth via prosthesis, as Freddie had extra teeth in his mouth. With that cumbersome prop, the mixers had to make sure his dialogue was still audible and intelligible. Also, there were a ton of crowd scenes at various parties and performances, and it’s up to the mixers to make sure the main actors can be heard over the din, but also that there’s still a din for them to talk over.

First Man – Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montaño, Ai-Ling Lee, and Mary H. Ellis
Of the major technical elements of First Man, I’d argue that this is the least essential. There’s a lot that has to happen with the overall sound design to make the Apollo experience as personal and visceral as possible, but a lot of that is down to post effects rather than live sound.

The best example I can think of is control-to-cockpit communications. Sometimes the radio sounds are added after the fact, and sometimes there’s a live mix, with the radio operators acting on a different area of the set, but still being balanced by the mixer so that we have a live conversation. In that vein, the mixer also has to compensate for the astronauts speaking through their equipment. Again, not only does the sound have to be intelligible, it has to be believable that they’re speaking through a helmet, or that their voices are slightly muffled by their suits. It’s not the most important element, but if not handled properly, it can be disastrous. The mixing team was up to the task.

Roma – Skip Lievsay, Craig Henighan, and José Antonio Garcia
This is once again a challenging film to adjudicate from a sound standpoint. Part of that is because I saw the film on Netflix as the main distributor, rather than in a modified theatre with the preferred speaker system. But a much larger part is the fact that, as previously mentioned, a lot of the sound in the film is superfluous.

The entire film focuses on Cleo and her reactions to the world around her. Much of the dialogue is low key and muted, with the only noticeable mixing touch being a slight rise or drop in the volume depending on how involved Cleo is in a conversation. Similarly, when she and the family are walking outside, there tends to be something going on in the streets, like a marching band or, later, a protest march. Again, the volume goes up and down depending on Cleo’s involvement and/or proximity to the event. But beyond that, I really can’t figure out anything that stands out.

A Star is Born – Tom Ozanich, Dean Zupancic, Jason Ruder, and Steve A. Morrow
Just like A Quiet Place was the best of its group despite being the single outlier nominee, so too can A Star is Born stake a claim to being the best example of mixing despite only being up in this category.

Similar to Bohemian Rhapsody, a big chunk of the mix depends on making the performances as believable as possible, and just like its competitor, there’s a heavy amount of lip syncing. But the main difference is that for this film, the music is largely original (give or take a killer rendition of “La Vie en Rose”). As such, Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga (as well as the backup band) have a much more intimate connection to the songs. They recorded them themselves, so they know exactly what mindset to have as they perform. This makes the on-set sync that much more essential. Further, there’s a wider variety of audiences and venues to balance. Whereas most of the Queen performances were for stadium crowds that were largely simulated, in A Star is Born, the numbers range from stadiums to smaller bars, to just two people at a piano or holding a guitar. Even when they’re not singing live on camera, it’s essential for the mixers to balance the appropriate sound for all those settings while they lip sync, and in doing so, provides a firm textbook example of how sound mixing works.

* * * * *

My Rankings:
1) A Star is Born
2) Black Panther
3) Bohemian Rhapsody
4) First Man
5) Roma

Next up: Keep your ears open, because we’ve got some dulcet ass tones to cram into them. It’s Original Score!

Join the conversation in the comments below! Which film gets your vote? Are the sound categories still confusing as hell? Would it be better to sing on set? Let me know!

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