We’re three weeks from Oscar Night, and the ripple effect from the bullshit decision to essentially cancel eight categories continues. Screen Rant reported over the weekend something that I had pretty much already guessed, that the decision really came from the corporate overlords at ABC and Disney. What I didn’t know is just how callous and craven the decision was. Apparently there’s a clause in the Academy’s contract with Disney (which runs for six more years) that allows for the entire show to be cancelled under certain circumstances, and Disney threatened to invoke it if the Academy didn’t cut 12 categories out, more than HALF. It’s utterly disgusting, but not the least bit surprising. Basically, if Disney had fully gotten their way, we would have been subjected to a three-hour parade of advertising and self-fellatio, with every “Below the Line” category cut out.
All of this is, again, ostensibly in service of winning viewers back who’ve lost interest in the ceremony. But at what expense? Not only will the eight excised categories be awarded during the red carpet bullshit, but the Academy has even abandoned the pretense that the feel of the broadcast will be maintained, as the winners will be announced on social media before the telecast begins, with each reduced to a simple name readout of the nominees and winners over the course of about 10 seconds in the show itself.
I bring this up here because tonight’s category – Sound – is a perfect example of how the Academy and their Business Daddy could have gotten things right. And, you know, because it’s one of the casualties of Disney’s avarice. While it’s beyond shortsighted to force changes to the program for the sake of fickle viewers who don’t know or care about the ins and outs of film production, there was a valid concern when it came to the previously two sound categories in past years. Even die-hard fans would have a hard time distinguishing between Sound Editing and Sound Mixing, and I certainly felt like a broken record having to explain it every year (long story short, Editing is effects done in post, Mixing is largely done on set with adjustments after the fact). It also didn’t help that every year, anywhere from two to all five of the nominees in each field were identical, making it even harder to tell them apart and rendering the exercise largely redundant.
So when the two categories were finally merged last year, it was a good move. It made sense. It told the audience, regardless of their commitment to sparkle motion, that the affair was being simplified to a point where we could celebrate the entire audio profile of a film. More importantly, it still made sure that both the effects editors and mixers were honored in equal measure, making sure that no one was left out of the process. It was a safe, sane, and logical way to cut a couple of minutes out of the show while also making it more accessible to all parties. You save time while not shortchanging anyone.
I’m not saying we should be combining more categories in the future. There’s really no place to do it anyway, unless you were to truncate all the short film fields into one, but that would be a disservice to all of those filmmakers, and would be completely unacceptable. What I mean is that if you’re going to make systemic changes, you have to make them in a way that puts the hardworking professionals first, the audience at a reasonably distanced second while still addressing specific concerns rather than just nebulous whining, and the corporate interest so far away from the equation as to only allow a fringe benefit by happenstance. The fact that the Academy allows ABC and Disney to dictate content is the exact opposite of what’s needed.
People didn’t stop watching the Oscars because Production Design is a thing that gets acknowledgement. They stopped watching because Ellen Degeneres devoted 20 minutes to a group selfie. They stopped watching because people who swear they’re not “elites” have no problems doing commercials for Rolex while telling film fans to just go make movies if they have the desire. They stopped watching because films about whitewashed race relations and fish fucking won Best Picture, with the only other options being tired franchise fare and remakes. In short, they stopped watching because just about every gimmick that ABC, the Academy, and Hollywood writ large have rolled out in recent years has failed to resonate with movie lovers who feel continuously left out and treated as ATMs. And every time the public tells these people outright what they want, they flip us off and do the opposite. There is no contingent of viewers out there saying, “I won’t watch again until they replace Film Editing with more montages about LGBTQ representation and give Best Actress to Beyoncé.” There is however, and always has been, a huge bloc of fans saying, “Help me understand why this movie is so great instead of the latest Marvel turd” and “If this film is so spectacular, why can’t I see it until after it wins?”
Combining the sound categories was a step in the right direction because it addressed the real issues fans have, not the ones in the eyes and bank accounts of corporate suits. It simplified matters while at the same time bridging the gap between art, science, and the casual viewer, educating the masses without condescending to them and lifting up the people we’re here to honor in the first place. Until the powers that be realize this, ratings will continue to plummet, to the point that, as Bill Maher put it a couple of weeks ago, we might be seeing the Oscars themselves on the “In Memoriam” reel.
Okay, rant over. Let’s get to what really matters.
This year’s nominees for Sound are…
Belfast – Denise Yarde, Simon Chase, James Mather, and Niv Adiri
The beauty of Belfast as a whole is down to the ability of Buddy’s family to keep giving him as normal a life as possible while civil war creeps ever closer to their doorstep. It’s a heartbreaking testament to the power of personal relationships and the innocence of a child being destroyed as he’s violently thrust into the cruelest realities of the world. The sound design goes a long way to making this conceit work.
From the moment that the first shots of the Troubles are fired, as Buddy walks home from playing with toy swords – the truth of war pummeling his fantasy – a lot of the character moments flow from their proximity to the din. When Buddy first encounters it, it’s overwhelming and terrifying, with guns being fired, punches thrown, bottles breaking, and neighbors screaming. As things calm down a bit and order is partially restored, Buddy can feel some sense of normalcy, watching his films and TV shows, but he’s also aware of what lurks on the fringes. The stresses of the time affect everyone around him, and suddenly hushed arguments between his parents become much more pronounced, to the point where he can sit on the stairwell and listen intently while remaining perfectly silent and hidden himself.
While he doesn’t fully understand what’s happening, he recognizes and acknowledges his own fear of it, and because of the relative volumes of the sound effects, we in the audience can feel it with him. We know it’s only a matter of time before things come to a head and the last vestiges of Buddy’s playful youth will be shattered, and as the film wears on, you can tell he does too. Every time he’s accosted by neighborhood toughs trying to recruit his dad for acts of domestic terrorism, their guns feel bigger and louder, even when not being fired. The activity at the hospital becomes just a bit more tragically active, evidenced by a heart-to-heart with his Pop coming close to being drowned out.
And yet, in these dark moments, the film – through Buddy – finds the spots to amplify the rare places of joy. When the family goes to see Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, there’s a lot of focus on the loud, impressed reactions of the audience, particularly Judi Dench as Granny. When Buddy spends time with his crush, Catherine – even the bittersweet moment where he says goodbye to her – the sound of guns and bombs fades into the background, as if momentarily ceasing to exist to make room for young love. And of course, in one of the best scenes of the year, the entire sequence of Jamie Dornan singing “Everlasting Love” is a treasure trove of audial delight, a welcome respite and a sign that things might end up alright after all.
Dune – Mac Ruth, Mark Mangini, Theo Green, Doug Hemphill, and Ron Bartlett
Dune is the odds-on favorite to win most if not all of the technical categories, but Sound might be its weakest argument, and if there were still two categories, it would be the best film to parse between the Editing and the Mixing. In one aspect, the film shines, while in another, it falls almost woefully short.
The sound effects are spectacular. The space and aircraft all have distinctive engine sounds. The battles have foley designs ranging from blunt thuds to metallic and laser-like clangs. Even Oscar Isaac breaking his tooth to release killer gas has a realistic tone to it, where I could easily imagine that intentionally crunching your own tooth off might sound like that. Even the little things like the “sand walking,” where everyone varies their movements and step frequencies in the desert to avoid attracting the worms has an audible logic to it, with sand shifting and sprinkling just slightly differently with each successive footfall. It’s all really well done!
But on the mixing side of the equation, that’s where we run into trouble. For a film so focused on its larger-than-life scale, the dialogue between the characters is unusually quiet and subdued much of the time, to the point that in more than a couple of scenes, actors are whispering and their words get drowned out by background effects. For such a grand film, I shouldn’t have to put my TV volume up to max AND turn on closed captioning just to understand what people are saying, but I had to do that when I watched this movie.
Part of the problem, I think, was that Denis Villeneuve meant for this to be filmed and presented in large format theatres, and didn’t really consider having to adapt the mix for at-home viewing, at least not on initial release. He’s like a lot of creatives in the last year that didn’t take too kindly to Warner Bros. and Disney making most – if not all – of their 2021 output simultaneously release on streaming platforms. Once that decision was made, I wouldn’t be surprised if there simply wasn’t enough time to properly fix it for smaller screens. As such, if you saw the film in theatres, you might not have experienced this flaw. But watching at home, it was very noticeable.
No Time to Die – Simon Hayes, Oliver Tarney, James Harrison, Paul Massey, and Mark Taylor
This section allows me to correct an oversight I made in an earlier category breakdown. When I went over Visual Effects, I mentioned that almost nothing stood out to me from this movie, but reader response reminded me of one of the cooler elements that fit into my preferred system of practical effects: the donuts in Bond’s bulletproof car at the end of the opening chase sequence. That was rad as hell, and it highlights one of the better moments in the film’s sound design, namely the difference in pitch between the shots being fired from outside the vehicle and their impact on the tempered glass heard from inside.
That is fucking brilliant! It helps elevate the stakes because we in the audience can see the glass cracking and bulging with each ballistic impact, and their muffled sounds keep up the danger factor as the spent cartridges almost beg to fully penetrate the windows. Combine that with the tires squealing as Bond spins and spins in place, Madeleine Swann confused and scared out of her mind, and the ambient score, and you’ve got one of the few truly tense moments of the film.
There are other rare bits where the sound design aids in building some drama, from Madeleine’s opening flashback on the ice to the creative use of set pieces when Bond fights alongside Ana de Armas for one glorious scene. Apart from that, though, there’s nothing all that special, just standard James Bond/action movie sound effects, which don’t sound awful, but don’t really enhance the experience either.
The Power of the Dog – Richard Flynn, Robert Mackenzie, and Tara Webb
The whistle. Is there really anything more that I need to say? That goddam, haunting, brutal whistle from Benedict Cumberbatch as he constantly needles Kirsten Dunst and reminds her at every turn that he has control. That alone makes this film’s sound design worthy of consideration. It’s subtle, yet devastating, and it carries so much dramatic weight. Nearly the entire story can be told from that single, damning melody, and the bits that can’t are also just as masterfully encapsulated in a few well-chosen bits of audio.
There’s the delicate flip of Peter’s paper flowers that first brings him to Phil Burbank’s attention, setting up the key emotional conflict between Phil’s closeted self-loathing and toxic masculinity. You have the soft footsteps on tender grass as Rose teaches George how to dance. There’s the unintended duel of piano and banjo that begins Phil’s audible torment of Rose, called back to numerous times through that devilish whistle. The taut, unrelenting leather in the fatal rope Phil makes to figuratively hang himself grips you with every braided turn and forced pull. Jane Campion’s team uses a fairly minimalist approach to the sound effects, only highlighting what absolutely needs it, and for outstanding thematic purpose when they do.
West Side Story – Tod A. Maitland, Gary Rydstrom, Brian Chumney, Andy Nelson, and Shawn Murphy
I’m not gonna lie, I think this nomination is a fraud. I feel like nominating this film is a sort of obligatory nod because this is the one musical that’s up for Best Picture, and given that, the Sound Branch felt the need to find some way to acknowledge sound quality, otherwise they might think the movie overall isn’t legitimate or something. There’s no original score or songs to nominate, so the Music Branch can’t get involved. So it comes off looking like if they don’t highlight the sound design, then Steve Spielberg’s remake is somehow exposed for its complete lack of credibility. Rather than let that stand, as the production bought ad time during the broadcast last year as a means to pre-bias the jury, they nominated it here as something of a token.
Because honestly, apart from the music, what is there, sound-wise, in this movie? The answer, not much, and what is there is pretty shitty. Take for example, “America.” I used a clip from this in the video breakdown of Supporting Actress, as it was the only video I could find that prominently featured Ariana DeBose because she has almost no presence in the film outside the musical numbers. Watch that clip and you’ll see – and hear – the issue. As soon as the group starts dancing around, they immediately stomp down repeatedly on the ground, proving that they’re on a stage instead of an actual street, because you can clearly hear hollow wood beneath their feet rather than concrete. And while they do it, all the women fluff their dresses up, accompanied by a very loud (comparatively speaking) foley effect that sounds like a parachute deploying. It even drowns out the actual music, it’s so loud. Then, after the gratuitous shot of DeBose’s ass, they do it again. You can play it in your head. Da-da-da-Da-da-da-Da-Da-CLOMP-CLOMP-CLOMP-CLOMP! WHOOSH-WHOOSH-WHOOSH! Imperial Goddam Walkers are quieter! It doesn’t fit the mood of the song, the environment of the scene, and it’s distracting as all hell. It’s fine choreography, but shit sound design. Nobody is sitting in the theatre or at home going, “Well, I just can’t get into this. I can’t hear the dresses whooshing!” Tone it down, guys.
But what of the music itself? The songs are the same as they’ve always been, but there’s a glaring difference between the instrumentation quality and the singing. While DeBose and Mike Faist do quite well, and Rita Moreno singing “Somewhere” is mournfully beautiful, the rest of the singing is just “meh,” or worse. Rachel Zegler sounds like she’s on Auto-Tune for half her numbers, and Ansel Elgort has absolutely no vocal range. These are your leads. We’re supposed to be enchanted by them. And yet I could pull two random kids from a high school drama club RIGHT NOW and I’d wager dollars to donuts they’d be exponentially better.
And honestly, this shouldn’t be unexpected. Whatever his motivations might have been (anywhere from genuine homage to outright vanity), Spielberg is a visual artist, not an audio one. He cares about spectacle, a feast for the eyes, and more often than not, he excels. And even though this film is middling for me, there are moments even in this ill-advised exercise in directorial hubris where he succeeds, as I mentioned with regards to the Production Design. But when it comes to sound, it’s just not normally a priority, unless it’s a T-Rex roar or a John Williams score. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, he can follow his creative vision wherever it leads him. It just means it has no business being nominated here.
2) The Power of the Dog
4) No Time to Die
5) West Side Story
Who do you think should win? Vote now in the poll below!
Up Next, the Shorts program continues with a look at five incredibly heartfelt tales told in a matter of minutes. It’s Live Action Short!
Join the conversation in the comments below! Do you like having Sound as one category? What depths will the Academy sink to next with Disney’s gun pointed at their head? What was the most memorable bit of sound design you heard last year? Let me know!