Oscar Blitz 2023 – Sound

Creating a compelling sound profile is a tricky task. No matter how many times we have to hear Nicole Kidman gush about the idea of “sound that I can feel,” ideally that’s not what you want to go for. You certainly want your audience to have an enjoyable experience, and sometimes the sensation that you’re in the movie can enhance that through clever audio techniques.

But really, the key is balance. This is part of the reason why this category spent several years split into “Editing” and “Mixing” fields. It’s not just about having good effects, but making sure they’re believable within the context of what we’re seeing, and ensuring that the viewer isn’t bombarded or overpowered by it to the point that they can’t hear dialogue, music, or anything else crucial.

For the most part, I’m glad that the two former disciplines were merged, mostly because it was difficult and tiresome to explain the difference, and the Sound Branch itself didn’t really care enough to make a distinction, as most years at least three or four films were nominated on both sides. But since that joining took place a good deal of the nominees have just been what’s loudest rather than what’s best. A film like Sound of Metal was a textbook example of how the artform is done properly, but other contenders like No Time to Die and the West Side Story remake show you exactly what not to do, assaulting the senses rather than catering to them. There are times when an aggressive approach can be warranted, but volume for its own sake is distracting rather than entertaining.

Of this group of hopefuls, I’d say three of them handled things properly, including one that appropriately opts for the attack on your eardrums. One other is inoffensive but unimpressive, and the final one basically had me wanting earmuffs by the time all was said and done. So yeah, it’s a modern Oscars technical competition.

This year’s nominees for Sound are…

All Quiet on the Western Front – Viktor Prášil, Frank Kruse, Markus Stemler, Lars Ginzel, and Stefan Korte

This is the one entry in the set where it makes perfect sense to absolutely destroy your eardrums with a cacophonous din. While the story often left me wanting, on a technical level, Germany’s version of All Quiet is very effective at getting the point of war’s hellscape across to the viewer, even those watching it on Netflix without any advanced audio equipment in their home setup.

The movie completely mishandles the dehumanizing effect of war and jingoism on the actual fighters in the trenches, but in the instances where we get to experience the battle, the effects team makes sure we truly feel surrounded on all sides by mechanical death. A hail of bullets, mortars dropping from above, tanks blasting people to smithereens, and the screams of the dying as they’re burned alive by blowtorches are omnipresent, hammering home the fact that there is no escape or respite from this.

Oddly enough, though, we as the audience do get breaks from all of this viscera, arguably too many. It is a jarring juxtaposition every time we leave Paul, Kat, and their brothers in arms to divert to the palace intrigue and negotiations that lead to the end of the war. Those scenes are almost eerily silent compared to the onslaught happening miles away from their comfortable walls. To a degree this makes sense, because it’s an excellent illustration of just how detached the powers that be are from the men doing the actual killing and dying out there, but we spend far too much time on it, to the point that it detracts from the story and the aural experience, as our ears are jolted out of their momentary calm at about the exact instant that our brains allow our sense of hearing to adjust to the new environment.

This leaves us with something of a lopsided profile. There is some much-needed countering to the audio crucible of combat, because you don’t want to traumatize your audience. But it’s handled in a way that is less than delicate from a technical standpoint. The narrative intent is fulfilled, but you still leave the viewer struggling to keep up. And just like in an actual war, the moment you pause, you’re dead.

Avatar: The Way of Water – Julian Howarth, Gwendolyn Yates Whittle, Dick Bernstein, Christopher Boyes, Gary Summers, and Michael Hedges

Damn that’s a lot of people, but at least in this case, it’s justified. When you have a movie like Avatar that is 100% digital, you need a massive team of dedicated technicians and artists to create the sound profile essentially from scratch. This is an alien world filled with alien life, and only the faintest hints of a recognizable human influence. As such, everything has to feel otherworldly without overwhelming the viewer.

The Avatar team accomplishes this goal from two crucial angles. On one side of the equation, just like the last film, there is an entire menagerie of Pandoran wildlife to give voice. Most of the animals are based on Earth creatures, and as such, the noises they make consist of blends of living animal calls you can find right here on our pale, blue dot. The addition of ocean life increases the workload at least, if not also the challenge, because they need to find that sweet spot between the air and land fauna that’s already been established and the fact that most sea life doesn’t vocalize. The introduction of this world’s version of whales and a seafaring variety of the dragons that Jake Sully and others ride in the jungle is that sweet spot.

The second variable is the water itself. Sound travels much differently through water as it does through air, and the team has to account for that, especially when introducing a new race of Nav’i who dwell and communicate within it. This requires not only a fluid (see what I did there?) transition in the mix as characters submerge and surface, but new variations in language and tone, as it has to be believable that these people can talk to each other through these environments in a way that feels immersive to the viewer.

I’d say they knocked it out of the park on this one. Or at least, I’d say that up until the wholly unnecessary final battle that’s just a mixture of Titanic and Aliens, with all the requisite foley art that entails. Hey, Cameron’s gotta Cameron, yo.

The Batman – Stuart Wilson, William Files, Douglas Murray, and Andy Nelson

There was “Something in the Way” this movie’s audio presentation worked, but I honestly couldn’t put my finger on it. All jokes aside, part of the reason I loved The Batman is because of all the things it didn’t do in comparison to other adventures with the Dark Knight, and if you’re going to make a case for its inclusion here, that’s the context you need.

This isn’t a run-of-the-mill comic book movie with a bunch of bells, whistles, and other effects. It’s surprisingly basic and grounded when it most needs to be. Robert Pattinson’s young Batman doesn’t have a ton of gadgets yet, so he walks to crime scenes or glides with a wingsuit rather than using polymer wings and a grappling gun. As such, you hear his footsteps or the wind as it rustles his fabric. His Batmobile is just a souped up car, and it sounds like exactly that. Pattinson masks his voice a bit here and there, but it’s nowhere near the level of Christian Bale’s Bat-gurgle. Simple gunshots are the weapon of choice in a lot of fight scenes. The Riddler himself opts for duct tape in critical moments. All of this is very conventional, but it’s definitely not what we’re used to from this franchise, which is what makes it noticeable and somewhat noteworthy

There’s also an emphasis on discomfiting intimacy, and the audio editing aids that immensely. Riddler is basically a QAnon-type conspiracy theorist, so you need to make his crazy sound like what you’d hear on social media. The rudimentary means by which Batman and Jim Gordon methodically solve the mystery creates subtle, eerie moments where you’re waiting for an earth-shattering kaboom that almost never comes, to the point that Batman’s computer feels oddly foreign in the otherwise almost luddite proceedings. When there’s hand-to-hand combat, the impacts on Batman’s suit sound like what would happen if you punched the material. It’s not cartoonish in any way, or even superfluous for the sake of the action. It just sounds like how you imagine it would really sound, which reminds you that there are human beings at the heart of this. That alone can make things feel just as dark as the literal Batcave.

That may not be the biggest achievement in sound for a movie, but it is significant for a Batman movie. Take that for whatever it’s worth.

Elvis – David Lee, Wayne Pashley, Andy Nelson, and Michael Keller

Congratulations to Andy Nelson for doubling his odds in this category, bringing him up to what is ostensibly a 40% chance to win, but let’s be honest. He doesn’t really have a prayer with either of these movies.

The sound in Elvis has exactly ONE thing going for it, and that’s the voice of “The King” himself. As Baz Luhrmann has demonstrated, whenever Elvis Presley sings in this movie, it really is Austin Butler performing for the younger scenes, and a clever yet subtle blend of Butler and the real Presley when he’s older. Truly, it is the one subtle thing in the entire movie. I’ll take what I can get. Butler’s work even enhances some of the more ancillary audio elements around him, like the scene of his first Vegas rehearsal, where he essentially conducts his backup orchestra with a manic energy.

Pretty much everything else is just awful. Crowd noises drown out dialogue. Featured performances from modern artists playing classic musicians leave almost no impression because there’s no balance in the mix. A bad Doja Cat song is blasted through the speakers over one of the film’s many superfluous montages. And of course there’s Tom Hanks and his horrid Foghorn von Leghorn voice. Technically that goes down to the performance rather than the sound profile, but Luhrmann had the power to encourage that voice or stop it, including during post-production ADR voice sessions, and he never once put an end to it, so I’m counting it.

The sound of Elvis is a microcosm of the entire film. Austin Butler is spectacular, and Luhrmann genuinely seems to want to emphasize just how good he is, putting in maximum effort to make his turn as Presley feel as larger than life as the real man definitely was. Everything else is just noise, and there’s WAY too much of it, which is a huge disservice to the King of Rock and Roll.

Top Gun: Maverick – Mark Weingarten, James H. Mather, Al Nelson, Chris Burdon, and Mark Taylor

Among all the nominated technical achievements of Top Gun: Maverick, the sound might be the most important (overall I’d say it was the cinematography, which was inexplicably not given a nod). At minimum, it’s the most germane to the story, both from the standpoint of the actual plot and the minutiae of the mission.

The film begins with Maverick testing a new supersonic plane, one capable of passing Mach 10, meaning he’s travelling at 10 times the Speed of Sound. That means he’s breaking the sound barrier something fierce, and we in the audience need to understand that in a way that doesn’t damage our own senses because we don’t have protective equipment. The same holds true during the other flight sequences, and the team handles that responsibility beautifully. There are degrees to the loudness, but rather than shattering our eardrums, the frequency and pitch of each sound effect is adjusted to correspond to the air maneuvers we see on the screen.

When the pilots are running their simulations and the climactic mission, this theory gets put to the best practical use. Because we’ve spent so much time with them, we’ve grown accustomed to which sounds mean which actions. As such, we can intuit when Rooster and the others are dipping below radar detection altitude or buzzing the canyon walls before pulling up at an insane angle. Even when Rooster and Maverick are forced to eject, we’ve been conditioned to anticipate the outcome thanks to the stellar mix that makes us feel like we’re in the cockpit with them. A movie like this requires a ton of sound effects for things like explosions, engine noise, afterburners, wind, and all other manner of military and environmental elements. Any regular movie-goer is used to that by now. But it’s the more novel and situationally specific cues that help us to understand the precision necessary for the Gunners to accomplish their goal, and therefore we can better engage with what they’re doing.

Additionally, given the insane amount of time that the cast spent in these planes during production, essentially learning how to film themselves from the inside, there was a huge learning curve when it came to how dialogue is recorded and edited. While they obviously didn’t experience as much gravitational force as real fighter pilots would, they still had to adapt on the fly (see what I did there again?), and that shows through in how they deliver their lines, adjusting equipment and accounting for background interference during their takes. This is then filtered and distorted in the edit by the sound team in a way that makes us feel like we’re experiencing real-time aerial combat, and it’s just fantastic.

My Rankings:
1) Top Gun: Maverick
2) Avatar: The Way of Water
3) All Quiet on the Western Front
4) The Batman
5) Elvis

Who do you think should win? Vote now in the poll below!

Up Next, it could literally be Wakanda Forever, as Ruth Carter goes for her second win outfitting this franchise, or Jenny Beavan could mark two consecutive wins for dressing unconventional fashionistas. It’s Costume Design!

Join the conversation in the comments below! Do you prefer Sound as one category or two? Do you enjoy it when the sound makes the room vibrate? Are you clearly like every other person in this world and immediately think “Doja Cat” whenever anyone brings up Elvis Presley, thus necessitating her inclusion in the movie? Let me know!

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