OSCAR GUIDE: Best Sound Mixing

Posted by · 10:52 am · February 9th, 2010

Transformeres: Revenge of the FallenThe year’s sound mixing category had relatively few surprises, just glancing at the tea leaves of the season.  There was a typical 4/5 crossover between the Cinema Audio Society and the Academy, with “District 9” missing both here and in the sound editing field.

One might be quick to chalk this, in fact all of the tech races up to the tech-heavy elephant in the room.  But let’s not forget “Slumdog Millionaire” managed a win here last year, over a decently respected piece of blockbuster entertainment.  And at the end of the day, the Academy at large generally just votes for its favorite film of the bunch, rather than think too much about what’s deserving in the field.

The nominees are:

“Avatar” (Christopher Boyes, Gary Summers, Andy Nelson and Tony Johnson)
“The Hurt Locker” (Paul N.J. Ottosson and Ray Beckett)
“Inglourious Basterds” (Michael Minkler, Tony Lamberti and Mark Ulano)
“Star Trek” (Anna Behlmer, Andy Nelson and Peter J. Devlin)
“Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” (Greg P. Russell, Gary Summers and Geoffrey Patterson)

This really is a standard cross-section, three Best Picture nominees, two blockbusters.  But the race is probably down to two films, both of them also in heavy contention for the year’s Best Picture statuette.

“Avatar” was most intriguing for the sense of place it created, the land of Pandora incredibly tangible on the screen.  That invocation stretched to the sonic soundscape of the world, a feat just as commendable as the visual effects that made it a visceral reality.  Four of the industry’s titans lead the field, 39 Oscar nominations between them for work that includes “Return of the Jedi,” “Jurassic Park,” “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” Titanic” and “The Lord of the Rings.”  This might be the safe call for betting souls on Oscar night.  After all, the film is nothing if not the front-running contender throughout the crafts categories.  But one can’t help but wonder if this particular category is as sewn up as all of that.  A split in the sound categories could most certainly happen this year, as it did last year.

The beneficiary, I think, would be “The Hurt Locker,” which is considered by and large to be the frontrunner for a Best Picture win and showcased some creative and immersive sound design itself.  Director Kathryn Bigelow and her team (Paul Ottosson of the “Spider-Man” franchise leading the way) were concerned with creating a 360 degree sound environment for the war-themed action-suspense flick.  And it is an effective piece of work, lending itself perfectly to the trademark tension of the piece and working nicely in conjunction with a measured, at times quite eerie and participatory score by Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders.  If you’re looking for a leg up on your Oscar pool, this could be quite the tie-breaker as it is a tighter race than most want to believe.

One of the surprises in the field was “Inglourious Basterds,” though it really shouldn’t have been much of a shock considering the talent involved.  It was always right there on the bubble.  Michael Minkler and his 11 nominations leads the way here, and he’s on quite a roll as of late.  Why?  Well, the last three times he’s been nominated he has won in the category, a streak stretching back to 2001’s “Black Hawk Down.”  Of course two of those were for musicals, gimmes when it comes to the Academy.  But the work on Quentin Tarantino’s film can’t be dismissed all that much.  This is a purposeful piece of filmmaking that relies on its soundscape to ratchet up the tension here, blow out the soundtrack with an action aside there.  I wouldn’t call it a spoiler in the category but it’s certainly a handsome nominee.

For this film-goer’s money, the best example of creating a soundscape in a film this year, the best in both sound fields, in fact, was the summer blockbuster “Star Trek.” From veteran mixing team Anna Behlmer and Andy Nelson, the work was dynamic, creative and most of all, it wasn’t derivative in the slightest.  Finally, for instance, a film is willing to embrace the realities of sound in a space environment (note the whip of silence that hits the track as a trio of “space jumpers” leaps into the vacuum).  The various effects are seamlessly woven in, while Michael Giacchino’s bombastic score is laid quite nicely over the track throughout.  It’s unfortunate that the category is so whittled down to a select two films, but I hold out a modicum of hope that the Academy may want to recognize the film in one of these fields.

It has been a long road to 13 nominations for mixer Greg P. Russell.  Long because he’s yet to win a trophy, largely because the films he works on — like this year’s nominee, “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” — are the sort of blockbuster fare that the Academy at large doesn’t respect, even if the work is consistently superlative.  This year Russell partnered up with Gary Summers after parting ways with former partner Kevin O’Connell and the result was the most intricate mix of his career.  This was, in fact, the only category where the film was recognized at all, missing in both the sound editing and visual effects fields.  It’ll likely be another year of staying in his seat for Russell, but that can’t take away from the vibrant, innovative work that went into this mix.

Will win: “The Hurt Locker”
Could win: “Avatar”
Should win: “Star Trek”

Should have been here: “Antichrist”

The Hurt Locker

What do you think deserves to win this year’s Oscar for Best Sound Mixing?  Have your say in the sidebar poll!

→ 16 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Filed in: Daily

16 responses so far

  • 1 2-09-2010 at 11:34 am

    JJ said...

    I, too, found Star Trek’s sound mixing to be particularly wonderful. The blending of crisp dialogue, wonderful sound effects, & Giacchino’s rousing score was excellent.

  • 2 2-09-2010 at 11:36 am

    aspect ratio said...

    It’s certainly an impressive line-up this year. Even if Transformers isn’t a good movie, it’s hard to fault the craft aspect of it. I do think it’ll ultimately be a slamdunk for Avatar though as it is voted for by the entire membership. They’re mostly clueless to the subtleties and simply votes for the popular movie. Luckily the winner usually is worthy in spite of this though, thanks to the nominees put forth by the branch who know what they’re talking about.

    Last year was awful though. Slumdog Millionaire winning over the likes of Wall-E, The Dark Knight and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Blech.

  • 3 2-09-2010 at 11:42 am

    aspect ratio said...

    I thought Star Trek’s strength was much more the sound editing bit than the mix. It’s definitely deserving to be nominated for both, but if I had to chose I’d say Ben Burrt deserves to win for Sound Editing more than anything.

    It’d certainly make it up in some way for him losing for Wall-E last year.

  • 4 2-09-2010 at 11:54 am

    N8 said...

    Can’t decide between Avatar and The Hurt Locker. They’re both so good!

  • 5 2-09-2010 at 12:11 pm

    T.S. said...

    Recent trends have demonstrated two films are more likely to split Sound Editing and Sound Mixing than one film is to win both. But, considering the type of film it is, “Avatar” certainly does fit the trend from the last 20 years of a “big film” picking up both sound categories (and two of them, “T2” and “Titanic,” were Cameron films).

    However, I say it doesn’t hurt that “The Hurt Locker” is a war film, “Avatar” feels like more of a shoo-in for Sound Editing than Sound Mixing, there are no musicals in this category, and Mixing is more likely than Editing to follow the Academy’s Best Picture.

  • 6 2-09-2010 at 1:44 pm

    Ali E. said...

    Should have been here: A Serious Man.

    Really creative sound design. As in most of the recent Coen Brothers films…

  • 7 2-09-2010 at 3:20 pm

    Jessica said...

    Kris, I’m surprised that you didn’t list The Lovely Bones as the “should have been here” film. I remember you said it had the best sound mixing of the year.

  • 8 2-09-2010 at 3:26 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    I probably said something like that at some point. It had amazing sound, indeed, but you know. Things ebb and flow in the mind. Antichrist stuck out more to me when it came time to indicate a “should have been here.”

  • 9 2-09-2010 at 3:35 pm

    Anthony B. said...

    Should have been there: Drag Me to Hell

    As much as fantasy and sci-fi do not get their due within the Academy, horror is almost uniformly ignored. The thing of it is that to make a good horror film the sound must be spot on.

    Drag Me to Hell relies so much on unseen threats and the building of tension, and its soundscape is a primary reason for its success on that front. That along with Christopher Young’s beautifully over-the-top score were enough to convince me it should have gotten a mention in this category.

  • 10 2-09-2010 at 6:23 pm

    Duke said...

    I agree, The Lovely Bones has great sound.

  • 11 2-10-2010 at 4:39 am

    matsunaga said...

    I’m pretty fine with the nominees except for “Transformers”… I hope “Harry Potter” showed up here even as a nominee..

  • 12 2-15-2010 at 11:01 am

    John said...

    I would have no problem with TRANSFORMERS being nominated for Sound Editing (which as I understand it, involves the Sound FX), because the movie was obviously full of various cool noises for the robots, plus many bangs/booms/crashes. However, I think this nomination for Sound Mixing, no matter how intricate is possibly the most galling nomination of the year. This movie’s sound design was assaultive, not artful. Mr. Bay’s films usually walk a narrow line between the two, and they’re usually pretty sound-heavy (hence why his movies usually get nominated here), but this movie just seemed repetitive in its noisesomeness. Compare the finale of this movie to the finale of TRANSFORMERS 1, or the Pearl HArbor attack in PEARL HARBOR to see the differnce.
    I agree with the poster who mentioned DRAG ME TO HELL, althoughI’d probably give my vote to its Sound Editing team. UP was quite strong, I’m always impressed by the soundscapes created for purely animated pictures. However, the Academy frankly nominated the wrong uber-hack’s action opus in this category… Roland Emmerich’s apocalyptic 2012 might be a comedy on par with PLAN 9, but its action and scope are audacious and intricate, rather than assaultive.

  • 13 2-17-2010 at 2:06 pm

    movieman said...

    Will win: “Avatar”
    Could win: “Star Trek”
    Should win: “Inglourious Basterds”
    Should have been here: “Drag Me to Hell,” “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”

  • 14 2-24-2010 at 12:10 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Oh dear. It seems my “will win” and “could win” were switched here and I didn’t notice it for two weeks! Take note: I am and have been predicting “The Hurt Locker” for Best Sound Mixing (as of this moment).

  • 15 10-07-2010 at 3:42 am

    James Landry said...

    Maybe it’s between avatar and transformers. Well let’s just wait and see then be surprised.

  • 16 10-07-2010 at 4:41 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    I hate to break to it to you, James, but…