Thursday, February 13, 2014

Sound Editing and Sound Mixing

Hah! I finished that last article about film editing at 723 words. Remind me never to say I don't know anything and won't have much to talk about again!

Since I don't know anything about sound editing or sound mixing, I'm going to lump them together. Even still, it shouldn't take too long. As you'll see, there's a lot of overlap.

Sound Editing:
  • All is Lost
  • Captain Phillips
  • Gravity
  • The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
  • Lone Survivor
Sound Mixing
  • Captain Phillips
  • Gravity
  • The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
  • Inside Llewyn Davis
  • Lone Survivor

This is the first time I've questioned the difference between these two categories with more than a passing "Huh? Meh." After a bit of looking and reading I came across the perfect analogy for me: one dealing with cooking! "The sound editor identifies and picks out (or creates from scratch) a film’s sonic ingredients while the sound mixer is the chef who uses those ingredients in cooking the dish." Now, that might sound easy if, say, you're dealing with a dish familiar to you. Most people can eat a macaroni and cheese and differentiate if it's awful because the noodles are undercooked or because the noodles are spaghetti noodles. The real difficulty comes in sorting out complex combinations of things you might not have a basis to judge against. When I worked in a restaurant we had a salad that went with our whitefish dish. It was an apple, celeriac salad dressed with horseradish, whole grain mustard, honey, and topped with pomegranate seeds. For most people that didn't deal with it frequently (i.e. everyone not myself or about two other people in the kitchen), they'd never know if the salad tasted poorly because what the heck are you doing mixing pomegranates and mustard anyway, or because the mix of ingredients was just off. Similarly, I'm struggling to differentiate between two categories that I simply am not familiar with. To make matters worse, there are four films in both categories, so I can't just make stuff up and pretend like I normally do.

When I watched All is Lost, the whole thing had a very calm, muted sound and feel to it. Was the sound mixer just mixing poorly? Were the sounds supposed to match a muted feeling movie? I don't know. I do know that nothing quite felt like as nerve-wracking as being stranded at sea should. Apparently that was an issue with the production sounds, and what we get is well-amped up from that. It's clear why All is Lost garnered a nomination, though: Redford may as well have zipped his lips shut for as much dialogue as there was. This is a story about a man lost at sea and at a loss for words. It was as close to a silent film as you'll find in modern cinema (save for The Artist obviously), and it was interesting and pleasurable to watch a film for which nearly the entire tone was set by the sound men. That said, from the analogy I'm working with, I have to give more credit to the sound mixer than the sound engineer. I just didn't feel like the mixer had all the tricks necessary to put the All is Lost over the top.

Inside Llewyn Davis is the only film in addition to All is Lost that doesn't have a nomination in both categories. Much of the music was performed live, but there was a lip synced song. The sound mixing here is incredibly spot on in recreating the folk feel, which is fortunate because the music is one of the central pillars of the film. Outside of the music, things are good, but not great. Inside Llewyn Davis has a lot going for it, but nothing shines as brightly as the sound mixing and in particular the music mixing. Skip Lievsay does a grand job along with Greg Orloff and Peter Kurland.

The other film featuring an old white guy trading in captaincy for life in a lifeboat, Captain Phillips, has a ton more in the way of acting, dialogue and score to define the film. The sounds it has available to it felt more authentic than in All is Lost, but maybe that's just this landlubber's biased opinion from watching more big ship movies than sail boat films. The mixing was done very well to capture the variety of atmospheres and add to the final product. Both the editors and mixers did a quite nice job, but, again, nothing to put Captain Phillips over the top.

The Hobbit is unsurprisingly up. It's an epic. The sounds are epic. Everything's epic. Epic's overplayed. I get why it's up; technically it's well done. The sounds are good, the mixing is strong. It's all overwrought, though. The whole film feels like it's simply trying too hard to convince you that it's worthy of being a standalone feature.

Another film that really aces it in both categories is Lone Survivor. There is a lot of chaos on screen, so there is a lot of noise to work with and through. Every bullet, explosion, and line of dialogue comes through crisply, though. Every sound is well picked. I'm perhaps most impressed with the clarity of dialogue for a film that wasn't allowed much in the way of retakes. There is no let down in the sound department here.

Then there's Gravity*. Oh, Gravity. Is there anything as magical as Gravity? No. Is there any surprise that two of Gravity's sound mixers are nominated for other films I thought well of**? No. Well, actually, yes, because where'd they find the time? There was originally talk of have zero sound that wasn't physically transmissible, but it was ultimately decided the film would be unengaging. A score was added on top, but even still, the sound is uniquely isolated. In the beginning scene, you can put the film on, close your eyes and imagine you're on the ground, listening in on comms traffic. The work to put you inside Bullock's body as Dr. Ryan Stone via distinct body noises like breathing and her heartbeat. Listening to the air escape her lips as she talks and amplify in her helmet is incredibly immersive. It's telling that the film lasts over nine minutes without any intervention of score. The constant tweaking of radio fuzz over the comms worked perfectly as did the disorienting panning of voices and sounds. Every sound was superbly picked and placed. Back to food analogies, sound editor Glenn Fremantle says, "It’s like making an a la carte meal. You need the best ingredients you can get, and then gradually, like you’d design a dish, the sound comes." Be still my beating heart; you're making it hard to hear Dr. Stones.

There was some truly great sound work this year; it's unfortunate for all the other contenders to have been nominated the year Gravity came out. There's no hesitation when I say it should and will take home both awards.

*It should be noted that that when I said Gravity was nominated for nine Academy Awards, I was wrong; it's tied with American Hustle for the most with ten. 
** Levisay for Inside Llewyn Davis and Chris Munro for Captain Phillips

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