Oscar Gold 2021 – Sound

A few years ago, in a futile attempt to be seen as more relevant to the demographics that never found it relevant in the first place, the Academy floated a lot of changes that were framed as addition by subtraction. The two most famous of those extremely ill-advised proposals was the introduction of a “Best Popular Film” category, which was just insulting, and the relegation of several categories to commercial breaks during the broadcast. It was a total fiasco. The whole point of honoring artistic achievement is that you don’t cheapen it by rewarding lesser films just because they make money. Quantity does not equal quality, and it’s not the fault of a good film that it doesn’t get seen, especially since the bulk of films featured during Awards Season are specifically marketed for prestige and not to make money. As for removing categories from the telecast, the idea that the actual awards and professionals involved would take a back seat to advertisers was disgusting. Needless to say, those rules were rescinded almost as quickly as they were announced.

Over the last year, however, Academy President David Rubin et al seemed to de-ass their heads and make changes that actually make sense, not because they pander to the hashtag crowd, but because they serve to make the process more inclusive and accessible. They also made a rule change that hopefully helps to streamline the process and make the ceremony more relatable to a mass audience – combining the two Sound categories back into one. It simplifies the entire affair, still recognizes the right people, and might even free up another minute of ad time in the broadcast if that somehow still matters.

The Academy’s gone back and forth on this over the years, and I sincerely hope this change is a permanent one. I don’t necessarily want fewer categories – there were only 24 before this year – but efficiency is important, and frankly, so is ease of presentation. Super fans like me know the difference between Sound Editing and Sound Mixing, and through this series I’ve explained it every year. But that doesn’t mean casual fans remember this fine distinction, and it certainly doesn’t mean that the Academy’s membership has ever really known. It also doesn’t help that more often than not, the Sound Branch itself didn’t illustrate much of a difference in the categories for the voters. Since the inception of Sound Mixing/Sound Editing in 2003, only once – 2010 – had the two categories had less than three common nominees, and most years they had four or all five nominees being the same movies. If you’re not going to educate the membership on how to tell the two apart, what’s the point of having two categories?

So now we’re back to just one simple Best Sound category, which we haven’t had since 1980, but unlike the two decades that followed, where Best Sound was just a different name for Sound Mixing, we truly have incorporated the entire sound profile into the category, so that effects editors and mixers win together. In my perfect fantasy world, this would allow for space in the Oscars ceremony for an eventual Stunts or Casting category, but let’s be honest, it’ll probably just mean another musical number we don’t need or a host sketch that has no end.

This year’s nominees for Best Sound are:

Greyhound – Beau Borders, Michael Minkler, Warren Shaw, and David Wyman

It’s kind of a shame that this is the only nomination for Greyhound, which is arguably the better of the two Tom Hanks adventures in this year’s ceremony. If nothing else I would have nominated it for the Cinematography, given how well they were able to stage and move around on the ship’s tiny bridge. Eh, what do I know?

Anyway, as to the sound profile, there are two major points in the film’s favor. The first is the internal communications. As the main ship and the convoy are attacked by Germans, it is incumbent on Tom Hanks as the commanding officer to relay orders throughout his own ship and the fleet. Some of this is done through radios, some through person-to-person exchanges, like a multi-deck game of “Telephone.” Even the enemy is able to interrupt the frequency, forcing quick changes.

The second is the actual sea battle, with shells, bullets, and torpedoes firing all around every ship, causing explosions and damaging the hull. The sound of metal buckling from both inside and out is eerie as hell, and only adds to the suspense of the ongoing conflict that takes up about 90% of the movie. It’s a total onslaught, and it just doesn’t stop. It’s enough to trigger anyone’s PTSD, but it’s done tastefully and in the name of realism. It’s truly spectacular.

Mank – Ren Klyce, Drew Kunin, Jeremy Molod, Nathan Nance, and David Parker

Mank leads this year’s Oscar class with 10 nominations, and the technical ones mostly relate to the film’s homage to Citizen Kane, not just as a story but as a piece of cinema. This is just as true here in the Sound category as any other, as the entire sound design is made to mimic the sound of Citizen Kane. Many of the scenes are stylistically modeled after scenes in the original film, and from an audio standpoint, you get a lot of similar sound effects and a mix of the live dialogue intentionally made to have that compressed feeling like you’d normally hear in 1940s cinema.

Among the sound effects that stuck out to me as being a direct reference to Orson Welles’ classic are the sounds of the typewriter in Mank’s cabin (much like the typewriters in Kane’s newsroom), the licking of flames in William Randolph Hearst’s fireplace (identical to Kane’s Xanadu fireplace), and just about any speech or use of microphone. Also, as a self-reflexive film, all the uses of sound equipment on film sets are in themselves incorporated into the overall design.

News of the World – William Miller, John Pritchett, Mike Prestwood Smith, and Oliver Tarney

Given that Tom Hanks’ character is a professional orator, the ability for him to project his voice is of paramount importance. There are no microphones or amplifiers in 1865 Texas, so it has to be believable that he can read the news to a crowd, both inside and outdoors, and have the people be able to hear him. This doesn’t quite work in the Erath County scenes, as Mr. Farley yells from the back of the crowd at a different volume, and the whole thing eventually devolves into a giant brawl, but during the indoor speeches it’s just fine.

Apart from that and your standard Western sound effects, there was one scene that was a highlight for the sound team, and that was the showdown with the rapacious J.G. Almay. The manipulation of sound is crucial to Captain Kidd’s plan to trick Almay and get the drop on him, putting him out of commission for good. It’s a simple trick, but it works tremendously well.

Soul – Coya Elliot, Ren Klyce, and David Parker

Ren Klyce and David Parker make their second appearance on this year’s set, and this is the better of the two for this category. In addition to being animated, and therefore more reliant on sound effects than most live action films, Soul is a movie about incorporating music into aspects of everyday life, which is a monumental challenge.

A lot of the heavy lifting is done by the score, which is just goddamn enchanting, but the rest of the sound design plays a significant role. There’s a rhythm to just about everything that happens, especially in New York. The trains, traffic, construction sounds, it all serves the old poetic depiction of New York being a city that is truly “alive.” It’s not only well-executed, but it works for the movie’s themes, giving both Joe and 22 the inspiration to want to live and appreciate life itself.

It’s a delicate balance for the sound crew, because you want to create the rhythm, but also keep it somewhat subtle, not unlike jazz itself. It’s random, improvisational, but there’s a method to it. As the old adage goes, sometimes it’s about the notes you don’t play. The team does well, but you could argue they had an easier job than the other films, because being a cartoon, the movie can be edited to match the sounds, or vice versa. It’s the other side of the coin from animation’s necessity to lean more on the sound design than live action.

Sound of Metal – Jaime Baksht, Nicolas Becker, Philip Bladh, Carlos Cortés, and Michelle Couttolenc

In just about any other year, Soul would be the consensus front-runner in this category, but like A Quiet Place a few years ago, no film relied so heavily on the sound design for its success last year than Sound of Metal. As a story of a musician who loses his hearing, there couldn’t be a more obvious choice. The sound in this film helps make it a Best Picture contender, whereas if it had been subpar, the entire movie would have flopped.

From the opening scene, the importance of sound is paramount, as we see Ruben pounding away on his drum kit. When his sudden hearing loss comes up, it not only blindsides him but us in the audience, as the team goes to excruciating lengths to make sure we experience it as Ruben does, including the pain and confusion as words flit in and out, tinnitus screams at him, and volume fluctuates madly. The various sound effects are deliberate, but not overpowering. For example, when Ruben types emails out to Lou, we don’t have that irritating ASMR amplification of fingers hitting the keys, which to me is one of the most annoying sounds EVER!

But the biggest achievement this film makes is in conveying a type of sound we can only imagine, because we can’t be entirely certain of what it actually is. When Ruben decides that he needs to have some degree of hearing back, he gets cochlear implants, which bypass normal hearing function by stimulating the auditory nerve with electrical impulses. While there’s some idea of what implant patients hear, it’s not completely understood. The film makes an educated guess, though, by having Ruben hear an unfocused din of distorted sound and speech. He can’t differentiate between one source or another unless he’s looking directly at it, a sort of audio metaphor for the practice of reading lips. The best way I can describe the sound is like trying to tune a radio station on a manual dial, and being just slightly off. It’s an amazing experiment in portraying a still novel approach to medical science, and the way it’s framed in the context of Ruben’s journey is nothing short of amazing. There’s a lot of good sound work here, but this is the most innovative use of sound in any movie of 2020.

My Rankings:
1) Sound of Metal
2) Soul
3) Greyhound
4) Mank
5) News of the World

Who do you think should win? Cast your vote in the poll below!

Next up: It’s time to put pen to paper and fingers to keyboard. It’s Original Screenplay!

Join the conversation in the comments below! Which film had the best sound design to your ears? What’s your favorite sound effect? Do you know anyone who’s gotten cochlear implants? Let me know!

One thought on “Oscar Gold 2021 – Sound

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