Monday, February 8, 2016

Sound Editing and Sound Mixing

Remember when I said that this year's film slate "feels far more palatable than last years breakneck pace." Yeah, that'd be accurate if I didn't have way more obligations this year than last year. As such, I'm already incredibly behind and am going to attempt to publish no less than four categories today. Yeah, I know. We'll see about that*. I blame it on The Revenant which took me a ridiculous amount of time to actually get around to watching and which is seemingly up for every award including a few from last year just for funsies**.

Today, I delve into Sound Editing and Sound Mixing, two categories which are so closely tied, pretty much no one knows the difference between them. Seemingly every year, they offer a nearly identical list of nominees, and this year is no different as four films are nominated for both categories. What is the difference, though? It's the difference between a chef and a cook working under them. I trot this analogy out every year, because it's so perfect, but it ultimately boils down to the idea that the chef chooses the ingredients while the cook is the one who actually prepares them for you to consume. Here the sound editor is the chef who goes out and procures all the little bits of sound you're going to listen to and provides them to the sound mixer / cook who then works their craft upon those sounds and presents to you a finished experience. With that in mind, what's on the menu?

A lot of weapon noises. That's what's on the menu. Do you like the noises of destruction? Guns? Lasers? Bombs? Blades? Then this year's Oscar nominees have you covered.

Sound Editing:
  • Mark Mangini and David White for Max: Fury Road
  • Oliver Tarney for The Martian
  • Martin Hernandez and Lon Bender for The Revenant
  • Alan Robert Murray for Sicario
  • Matthew Wood and David Acord for Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Sound Mixing:
  • Andy Nelson, Gary Rydstrom and Drew Kunin for Bridge of Spies
  • Chris Jenkins, Gregg Rudloff and Ben Osmo for Mad Max: Fury Road
  • Paul Massey, Mark Taylor and Mac Ruth for The Martian
  • Jon Taylor, Frank A. MontaƱo, Randy Thom and Chris Duesterdiek for The Revenant
  • Andy Nelson, Christopher Scarabosio and Stuart Wilson for Star Wars: The Force Awakens

I literally just watched Bridge of Spies minutes ago and have little to say about the sound. That should speak for itself. There were moments when the sound was so bad it took me out of the scene. I ascribe this more to the editor than the mixer, but I do blame the mixer for not just turning the levels all the way down. This is exactly the sort of movie I expect to be up for awards, though it's the sort of movie that I will loathe writing about because it will be a nigh endless screed of how little joy I can find in it.

image credit: ftongl

Let's just get it out of the way that I have a crush on Mad Max: Fury Road. It is one of only a few movies I saw in theater in between Academy Award seasons, and it is one of a small handful movies I have seen in the theater multiple times. If I could have its babies, I would. Alas, I was not born with the appropriate biology to breed with a non-human masterpiece. One of the reasons for my unabashed love for Fury Road is the sheer amount of world-building and conceptualization that went into it. What the film lacks in dialogue (and, oh, does it lack), it fills in with a million other details. The sound crew is no exception to this creation process as they fill in the story and often create the pace with engines roaring, fires flaring, weapons explosions, and metal shredding. It's a phenomenal job that compliments the tone of the film with a very brutal sort of beauty.

While there have long been a lot of genre and science fiction films inhabiting the sound categories, there seems to have been a recent uptick in "serious space movies" that not only find themselves here, but that also garner critical acclaim as well as public adoration (see: Gravity and Interstellar). The difference, though, is that where Gravity took great care to model the lack of sound in space and Interstellar took great care to model the physics of black holes, The Martian kinda just sounds bland. Get back to me when they model how sound travels on Mars.

The Revenant really shines in the technical categories. The film lends itself to a certain repetition which perhaps over-satiates the ears, but in doing so, the sounds are a real treat. There are gorgeous punctuation marks of musket fire that resonate deliciously as they are perfectly leveled to ache but not to hurt. There's a grumpy bear whose grunts and groans and roars animate her just as thoroughly as the CGI does. There's a sonorous, scene-setting quality as trees sway in the wind, and there are small cues as avian trilling fills in for ringing ears. From top to bottom, the sound plays a large role in bringing the audience into the film and forcing them into The Revenant's world.

I hope you still like guns, because Sicario has more of them than anything else you'll see this year outside of Wanenmacher's Tulsa Arms Show. There were some really beautiful choices in sonic elements - was that the rubbery thump  of a car running over a traffic cone? Unfortunately, there were some really tragic ones. I heard perhaps the least realistic key-press noises for a laptop in my life. It was reminiscent of playing Carmen Sandiego on my aunt's IBM in the early nineties - no, not the keyboard I played on, the poorly digitized sound of the keyboard in the game. Sometimes, the sound editing comes across like when an actor puts on a strong affectation and you spend the whole performance wishing someone had told them no one actually talks that way. Mostly things were really solid in Sicario, but I have to wonder if this Jekyll and Hyde act will doom it.

What? Did you expect a Star War to not get nominated for a bunch of technical awards? Next I know, you'll suggest a Lord of the Ring will fail to be nominated for animating a Dungeon & Dragon Transformer X-Man Avenger of the Pirate of the Carribean. Everything is singular; don't fight me on it. Yeah. I took that too far. Deal with it (•_•) / ( •_•)>⌐■-■ / (⌐■_■) Now that I have that out of my system, Force Awakens, like Fury Road had to create a whole ecosystem of sound to envelop the audience. Like most things about Force Awakens, there's a lot of interplay between new and old. There are subtle updates to sound, and quiet throwbacks. While I didn't personally appreciate that directorial tone in the film, I do respect how well they pulled it off.

There is a lot of really solid work on both sides of the workbench in these films. Ultimately, I look at the depth and breadth of the work done in Mad Max: Fury Road as well as how large a role the sound played in that film, and I have to wonder if anything can overtake it. I think The Revenant and Star Wars: The Force Awakens stand a chance, but, unless they're long odds, I wouldn't put money on it.

Will win
Sound Editing: Mark Mangini and David White for Max: Fury Road
Sound Mixing: Chris Jenkins, Gregg Rudloff and Ben Osmo for Mad Max: Fury Road
Should win
Sound Editing: Mark Mangini and David White for Max: Fury Road
Sound Mixing: Chris Jenkins, Gregg Rudloff and Ben Osmo for Mad Max: Fury Road

* I hadn't realized that I still had to watch Bridge of Spies putting me two and a half hours further behind. I'll likely write but not publish tonight.
** It is not actually up for 2015 Oscars. I know someone's going to ask.

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