OSCAR GUIDE: Best Sound Mixing

Posted by · 9:59 am · February 14th, 2011

I feel like we’ve done a pretty decent job of educating some of our readership on the difference between Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing over the last five years here at In Contention. It struck me that we haven’t really covered it in a focused way this season, and the Oscar Guide seems as good a place as any to recap.

Sound editing, which we covered Friday, concerns the manifestation of artificial sound effects and the overall manipulation of the sonic identity of a film. Sound mixing concerns the balance of those various elements, in addition to music and dialogue, as well as the on-the-set maintenance of production audio. This year’s slate was an eyebrow-raising one to say the least.

The nominees are:

“Inception” (Lora Hirschberg, Gary A. Rizzo and Ed Novick)
“The King’s Speech” (Paul Hamblin, Martin Jensen and John Midgley)
“Salt” (Jeffrey J. Haboush, Greg P. Russell, Scott Millan and William Sarokin)
“The Social Network” (Ren Klyce, David Parker, Michael Semanick and Mark Weingarten)
“True Grit” (Skip Lievsay, Craig Berkey, Greg Orloff and Peter F. Kurland)

One Best Picture nominee turned out to be quite the surprise on this list, while a certain summer actioner well-respected by the branch caught others off guard. But there is nevertheless a dominant figure in the below-the-line realm this year.

That film is Christopher Nolan’s “Inception.” As mentioned Friday, this Best Picture-nominated blockbuster is the card-carrying respectable actioner this year. Recent examples of same have included “Star Trek,” “The Dark Knight,” “The Bourne Ultimatum,” “Blood Diamond,” “Black Hawk Down” and “The Matrix,” few of which, mind you, would have made it into Best Picture contention in a 10-nominee system. And less cerebral action fare has won the award in the past (“Speed,” “Jurassic Park,” “Terminator 2: Judgment Day”). All of that adds up to a pretty safe shot at the win for Lora Hirschberg, Gary A. Rizzo and Ed Novick. Personally speaking, the mix felt a bit overwhelmed with little delineation between it’s various, distinct elements, but the Academy at large won’t likely think in those terms.

The biggest surprise of the lot was Paul Hamblin, Martin Jensen and John Midgley scoring for Best Picture frontrunner “The King’s Speech.” It signified a wider reach of appeal for the film than anticipated, surely. And part of me is inclined to defend it. After all, it’s a film where audio maintenance is key to character. With every click and clack of King George VI’s stammer, the catch of his voice and the clarity of his hesitation, the sound of the film, at least in some way, lets the audience into the narrative.  Regardless, it’s a surprise likely to have run out of steam with the nomination, because the Academy surely doesn’t perceive it as a sound film, especially with other Best Picture-nominated choices that make more sense.

There is a theory that supports the wild idea that Greg P. Russell could finally win that Oscar (after 14 at-bats) for his work on summer blockbuster “Salt” with co-nominees Jeffrey J. Haboush, Scott Millan and William Sarokin, but I’ll save that for another post at a later date. For now, it’s safe to say most didn’t see this nomination coming. But, anecdotally, it appears to me if it were up to the sound branch (which largely caught up with the film later in the season), this might be the actual winner. The balance of materials is probably the most deserving of the field, the more one considers the sound nature (ha!) of that harmony.  The sound technicians can be as “about the work” as the makeup artists, and this is a heightened yet creative mix that properly got its due.

Things really hit a brick wall for “The Social Network” in January. For a solid month, it was “the film,” and then it wasn’t. And if it had remained “the film,” it’s quite possible Ren Klyce, David Parker, Michael Semanick and Mark Weingarten would have been swept along for their admittedly nuanced work on the film’s soundtrack. Much effort on the publicity side of things has gone into illuminating the below-the-line elements of the film this season, and with due cause. The mix in particular is an extension of director David Fincher’s notorious perfectionism, finding dynamic ways to sonically tell the story whether it’s in cascading rapid-fire dialogue, the integration of an internalized original score, the pulse-pounding rhythm and strained conversation of a dance club or, simply, the layered-in clip-clap of a part of “f*** you” flip-flops.

Much like in the sound editing field, the likely alternative to the respected blockbuster when it comes to Best Sound Mixing might just be the western. In “True Grit,” the sounds of the wild west are woven organically with Carter Burwell’s poignant score, the garbled drunken ravings of an ornery Marshal and the eloquent linguistic rhythm of the film’s engaging ensemble. Greg Orloff and Peter F. Kurland have been here before for other films but they join Skip Lievsay and Craig Berkey for the second time on a Coen brothers venture. As mentioned in other installments of the Oscar Guide, the film was clearly revered enough to land 10 Oscar nominations, certainly not a number to sneeze at. But if you’re thinking one of the sound categories is likely to go the western’s way, this is the better bet of the two.

Will win: “Inception”
Could win: “True Grit”
Should win: “Salt”

Should have been here: “Black Swan”

Check out my current rankings for this race at its dedicated Contenders page here.

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

[Photos: Columbia Pictures, Warner Bros. Pictures]

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49 responses so far

  • 1 2-14-2011 at 10:14 am

    JJ1 said...

    I actually think True Grit “deserves” Sound Mixing. The sound effects (guns, horses) were great. I always heard the dialogue (and dialogue is important in a wordy film like this). And the music is great without being overbearing. Mix ’em all up, and I found this an extremely pleasing auditory experience.

  • 2 2-14-2011 at 10:19 am

    N8 said...

    I absolutely agree “Black Swan” should have been nominated, but you confuse me, Kris. Weren’t you so adamant that “TRON Legacy” was your favourite mix of the year?

  • 3 2-14-2011 at 10:21 am

    Graysmith said...

    Now that I’ve finally seen The King’s Speech I have to say I’m surprised there was such a “backlash” aimed at it for getting a sound nomination. Rather than it just being a token nomination, I think it used sound in an exceptional way. Just think of the first speech in the beginning of the movie, where every little hesitation and sound he utters echoes and reverbs around the arena, enhancing his insecurity and pain. The sound in that scene is every bit as important to that scene’s success as Firth. Or think of the scene where he finally listens to the recording of himself.. Sound was definitely a more significant aspect of the film than people are giving it credit for.

    Anyway, I agree Black Swan should be here. I saw it the other night and the use of sound was very distinct. Really surprised it didn’t get nominated, in hindsight.

  • 4 2-14-2011 at 10:24 am

    red_wine said...

    This category for many of the older members might simply boil down to whether they can hear and understand the dialogue. Thats as much as one older member told Pete Hammond at Deadline. That voters pick? The King’s Speech and admittedly the sound is good indeed for a film that is so heavily dialogue driven. Bertie’s stammers had presence enough just to let us into the mind of this troubled man.

    The lack of understanding the dialogue might work against TSN and True Grit, people might blame the mix for what was infact intended in the mix.

    Inception of course is the default winner and too few members would have bothered to even see Salt to vote for it.

    I think the way the mixers showcased Daft Punk’s outstanding score in Tron Legacy inclines me to vote for it in the Should Have Been Here category. Specially towards the finale of the film, I just loved how the score overwhelmed the soundtrack. It gave a kind of “epicness” to the scene that it did not on its own possess.

  • 5 2-14-2011 at 10:42 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    N8: It was for a while but the more I re-watched Black Swan, it bubbled to the top for me. TRON has the best sound editing of the year, IMO.

  • 6 2-14-2011 at 10:56 am

    Zac said...

    If I’m understanding the differences right, sound editing is the creating of the sounds and sound mixing is the placement of the sounds on the soundtrack.?

    If that’s right, it seems to me the definitions are reversed. I thought that editing was putting all the sounds in the right place on the soundtrack and mixing was the creation of the sounds for placement in the soundtrack.

  • 7 2-14-2011 at 11:00 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Yep, you’ve got them reversed, though mixing is a little more nuanced than that. It’s about sculpting the soundscape like a mound of clay. Pulling back on this, punching up that, etc. Editing is the creation of elements and can also concern editing them into the track. Sometimes the duties have crossover, naturally.

  • 8 2-14-2011 at 11:02 am

    Graysmith said...

    Best Sound Editing used to be named Best Sound Effects and later Best Sound Effects Editing (up until 1999). So yes, sound editors are the ones coming up with the crackles and pops, while the sound mixers are in charge of the overall sound (music, effects, dialogue, etc).

  • 9 2-14-2011 at 11:03 am

    Paul Outlaw said...

    Kris, did your spell-checker turn “actioner” into “auctioneer”? ;-)

  • 10 2-14-2011 at 11:07 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Paul: Yes! LOL

  • 11 2-14-2011 at 11:08 am

    Maxim said...

    I take objection to calling “Speed,” “Jurassic Park” and “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” “less celebral”. Each is smart film, in its own way and remains so, even in relation to those other films.

    P.S. Sound editing really is an incredibly poorly named category.

  • 12 2-14-2011 at 11:09 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Take exception if you want to whittle it down to me somehow slighting them as “dumb,” but it’s pretty clear that they are (each of them personal favorites) indeed “less cerebral” than “Inception.”

  • 13 2-14-2011 at 11:11 am

    red_wine said...

    Except Inception isn’t cerebral in the least.

  • 14 2-14-2011 at 11:16 am

    N8 said...

    Right on. Loved the mixes on both TRON and Swan. Tough to decide.

  • 15 2-14-2011 at 11:34 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    “Except Inception isn’t cerebral in the least.”

    You can dislike the film’s execution all you want, but I think a statement like that is just willful ignorance.

  • 16 2-14-2011 at 11:41 am

    Dylan said...

    So the scene in The Social Network in the club where the music is really loud but you can still understand what the characters are saying, but you kind of have to put some effort into it (which Fincher did on purpose I understand)…that’s a case of sound mixing, right?

  • 17 2-14-2011 at 11:44 am

    red_wine said...

    To think that Inception is in any way a thoughtful film strikes me as the zenith of overestimation. Having a convoluted plot that a portion of the audience finds difficult to keep up with does not equal high-minded film-making. Inception, I believe, engages (if I could call it that) the mind in such a superficial uncaring way that the instinctive desire to dismiss it entirely is checked by the amusement at its eagerness to confound.

  • 18 2-14-2011 at 12:14 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    It’s a cerebral film. I’d say it’s inarguable. Think beyond it’s labyrinthine structure and into the theme. Dig a little? And just because “a portion of the audience” can’t keep up doesn’t mean the film is somehow not thoughtful. Maybe “a portion of the audience” is not thoughtful. And hell, it even dumbs it down as best it can throughout with exposition.

    You have an obvious bone to pick with the movie and can’t really discuss it thoughtfully (though oh ho you try with such highfalutin verbiage as that last attempt at a zinger). It’ll always come down to the fact that you hate it and want to bend the light toward your side of that argument. Happens with some commenter and some movie every…single…year.

    No one can delight in gray anymore. It’s all either black or white.

  • 19 2-14-2011 at 12:16 pm

    Wheel said...

    “To think that Inception is in any way a thoughtful film strikes me as the zenith of overestimation.”
    I’m sorry, but that is a really, really ironic sentence.

  • 20 2-14-2011 at 12:17 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Dylan: The short answer is yes, but things like that are very much a collaboration.

  • 21 2-14-2011 at 12:20 pm

    DylanS said...

    Kris: Wouldn’t “Avatar” be lasy year’s card carrying respected blockbuster

  • 22 2-14-2011 at 12:28 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Yes, but The Hurt Locker was last year’s Best Picture-winning war film. War films always do well in the sound categories. (And by the way, I actually predicted Avatar for one if not both sound categories last year, so I definitely got that wrong.)

  • 23 2-14-2011 at 12:35 pm

    DylanS said...

    I meant “Avatar” over “Star Trek”, which you mentioned above and not “The Hurt Locker”.

  • 24 2-14-2011 at 12:35 pm

    Joe7827 said...

    Okay, I don’t feel qualified to comment on the Soud Mixing category (if a voter can’t tell the difference between Sound Mixing and Sound Editing, should they really be voting for them?), but I will say this: for all of the talk about “that great dance club sequence in The Social Network”, I’m just wondering – wouldn’t it have been better to set that scene somewhere else? That particular moment has absolutely no reason to be set in a bar, the fact that it is set in a bar adds absolutely nothing to the scene, and setting it in a bar really undercuts the significance of the moment. This is my opinion, of course, and perhaps nobody else’s. But I had to bring it up because of all the impressively (dare I say perfectly) constructed scenes in the film, this is one that did not work for me.

  • 25 2-14-2011 at 12:54 pm

    DylanS said...

    Joe7827: I think your point is valid, but the setting and the atmosphere of that scene certainly aid in making it more memorable (which, considering how everybody keeps mentioning it, it is) and in that situation, I think that is all the location really needs to accomplish for a job well done, the dialogue could take it from there.

  • 26 2-14-2011 at 12:56 pm

    Maxim said...

    “Take exception if you want to whittle it down to me somehow slighting them as “dumb,” but it’s pretty clear that they are (each of them personal favorites) indeed “less cerebral” than “Inception.””

    Well, first of all, you were also comparing those films to the likes of ““Star Trek” and “The Bourne Ultimatum”, which, as much as each of them has their own smarts, are in no way more cerebrally involving.

    “No one can delight in gray anymore. It’s all either black or white.”

    This is sort of the point I’m getting at, too. If the movie isn’t dumb why point out that it’s “less celebral”? I really don’t want to be splitting hairs here at all, by the way. Honeslty. It’s just that in the context of what you were saying I couldn’t help but feel, that you’ve slighted them in that way. Especially since you seemed to imply that aforementioned Star Trek was in a higher company.

    I guess I’ve always been sensative in cases where I feel that wrong candidates are used as examples of something being “less” or “worse” than something else. And vice versa.

    I think Jurassic Park is THE classic smart sci-fi (not sf) film. It touches on science in a playful but ultimately somewhat plausible way.

    Speed may not be as cerebral as Inception but I’d argue it uses some of the same brain muscles. If I had time I’d brake it down into beat to show you what I mean.

    Again, this isn’t me splitting hairs over something obviously being less celebral than something else. It’s the fanboy in me saying, hey, this films aren’t that dumb.

  • 27 2-14-2011 at 1:09 pm

    Zac said...

    Thanks for the clarification, Kris.

    IMHO, they should call it Sound Creation and Sound Placement to avoid confusion.

  • 28 2-14-2011 at 1:38 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    It wasn’t a value judgment, Maxim. All you do is split hairs

  • 29 2-14-2011 at 1:39 pm

    Mike said...

    I think that The Social Network is the best in this category. There were scenes with so many things happening but you could still follow the story. To me, it seems like that film that mixed sound the most and the best, while Inception seems like the one that had the best sound. I think Inception will win both categories, but I think it is much more vulnerable in the mixing one.

  • 30 2-14-2011 at 1:39 pm

    red_wine said...

    My zinger! I was just having some fun Kris. :D

    But I do find the epithet “cerebral” misapplied with regards to Inception. It always kinda bugged when people described it as a blockbuster with brains. As if! Beneath its polished veneer, I don’t see it as any different from other competently assembled blockbusters. The premise of sub conscious espionage and a reputation of a difficulty lend it some respectability I guess and awards prospects but its concerns (if any) strike me just as hollow (and non existent) as other blockbusters who are denied a ticket to the party.

    I would call movies like Mulholland Drive or Syndromes And A Century cerebral. They have something to say which goes much beyond their atypical structures. Complication in plot hardly makes a case for lofty intentions. Inception does not have a voice and that condition might make people apply the literal term ‘dumb’, which though not quite accurate would be less inappropriate than ‘cerebral’.

    Ah but I don’t hate the movie even if I may give that impression. : )
    There are other movies that I like less.

  • 31 2-14-2011 at 1:46 pm

    m1 said...

    Should have been here: The Town.

    Enough said.

  • 32 2-14-2011 at 2:01 pm

    Speaking English said...

    “True Grit” ought to win this for a beautiful balance of dialogue, music, and other rich sound effects like gunshots and galloping horses.

    “Inception” is loud. Loud does not equal best, especially when the loudness starts to drown out the words.

    Should have been here: “127 Hours,” same as with Sound Editing.

  • 33 2-14-2011 at 2:06 pm

    Maxim said...

    “It wasn’t a value judgment, Maxim. All you do is split hairs.”

    And all you do is dismiss arguments that seemed to differ with your views of things.

    A person who’s complaying about the prevalence of discreet black/white thinking has no business telling others that something is not a value judgement, especially when that’s very much up for debate.

    Only someone who places no value in intellectual aspects of movie watching would argue that your comparison didn’t contain at least some negative connotations.

    Wasn’t even what I talked about.

    I pointed out that I didn’t think Star Trek/Bourne Supermacy was more “cerebral” than Speed or Terminator 2. That was the balk of my argument to which I was semi-curious to hear a response. But hey, it’s a lot easier to call that hairsplitting then to actually acknowledge/address what the person is really saying. I am genuinly sorry I wasted my time.

  • 34 2-14-2011 at 2:14 pm

    Speaking English said...

    ***– wouldn’t it have been better to set that scene somewhere else? That particular moment has absolutely no reason to be set in a bar, the fact that it is set in a bar adds absolutely nothing to the scene, and setting it in a bar really undercuts the significance of the moment.***

    Oh, it absolutely has a reason. Don’t you think it’s notable that there’s a huge, revelatory, game-changing business meeting going on in a place where the words can barely be heard over the thumping music? Perhaps an older generation would have that same conversation over a cup of coffee, but Gen Y is a different animal.

  • 35 2-14-2011 at 2:42 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    “The premise of sub conscious espionage and a reputation of a difficulty lend it some respectability…”

    Go beyond that. It’s dealing with a lot of the intriguing issues of repressed emotion that Shutter Island is dealing with, but on a broad, blockbuster canvas. Again, it’s not just about its structure, it’s about it’s deeper thematic strokes, which are valuable, I think.

    Maxim: If it was an argument that started from a place other than assuming that I was calling three films I love “dumb,” it wouldn’t have needed dismissing. Putting words into my mouth and starting down a needlessly argumentative path. You do it all…the…time.

    By the way, you’re missing me by connecting “less cerebral” to Bourne and Star Trek, though I can see why you’d make the mistake. “And less cerebral action fare has won the award in the past (“Speed,” “Jurassic Park,” “Terminator 2: Judgment Day”)” is a standalone sentence, with nothing to do with the sentence before it.

    “A person who’s complaying about the prevalence of discreet black/white thinking has no business telling others that something is not a value judgement, especially when that’s very much up for debate.”

    This is, sorry, so stupid. Do you understand what a value judgment is? You’re basically telling me with this sentence that I didn’t mean what I said I meant.

    Are you kidding me with this?

    No, it’s not up for a debate. Me saying a handful of films are “less cerebral” is NOT a judgment of their value, but merely a consideration of their perception, which is of the UTMOST IMPORTANCE when discussing things like Academy voting history.

    I feel like I have to walk you through discussions sometimes…

    My bottom line: Try not to start from a place of taking offense to something that obviously wasn’t meant as offensive.

  • 36 2-14-2011 at 2:48 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    I think Speaking English nails the importance of the club scene’s setting. I’d also wonder if they (Zuck and Parker) might have actually gone there, because they filmed it at Ruby Skye in San Francisco.

  • 37 2-14-2011 at 3:12 pm

    kel said...

    The only sounds I can remember from INCEPTION is Hans Zimmers’ score. I do not remember the sound track at all. I was too absorbed in the visual effects and soundtrack

  • 38 2-14-2011 at 3:13 pm

    kel said...

    soundtrack (1 word) = hans zimmer’s score
    sound track (2 words) = sound mixing/editing

  • 39 2-14-2011 at 3:16 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    No, you’ll find it used as one word for the soundscape of a film (i.e. the latter above) just as much.

    Also, as one word, it can be applied to a selection of songs from a film, but I don’t think it’s necessarily proper to use it interchangeably with “score.” Though certainly its used as such in retail purposes from time to time.

  • 40 2-14-2011 at 7:24 pm

    Andrew F said...

    I’d be voting for either “The King’s Speech” or “True Grit” on this one. Both crystalline, beautiful soundtracks of excellent balance and intriguing details. I loved the startling thuds and bone-cracks in “Grit”.

    I haven’t seen “Salt”, but I’m comfortable in saying that “Inception” doesn’t deserve to be here. I found the mix to be muddy and simply /loud/. In fact, I’ve found this with almost every Nolan film. He does decent sound effect editing, but his mixes are pretty awful.

  • 41 2-14-2011 at 8:26 pm

    Speaking English said...

    Yes, Andrew, exactly right. “The Dark Knight” didn’t deserve a Sound Mixing nomination, and neither does “Inception.”

  • 42 2-14-2011 at 11:38 pm

    DarkLayers said...

    Andrew F, I didn’t particularly perceive Dark Knight or Inception to be muddled to the point of irritation, though I understand how someone else might. But, “Memento”?

    In any case, it’s worth noting that “Inception” did win BAFTA and “Hurt Locker” beat “Avatar” there.

  • 43 2-15-2011 at 5:01 am

    Rashad said...

    Inception debate aside (I’m with Kris), in a field of 10, TDK, The Matrix, Blood Diamond and Black Hawk Down make it. I was actually surprised BHD didn’t that year, when it was one of the best easily, and Ridley scored a director nomination.

    Jurassic Park deals with the classic man vs science and not knowing his limitations. It’s everything you want out of a sci-fi adventure film. Pure classic.

  • 44 2-15-2011 at 6:01 am

    JJ1 said...

    Jurassic Park is still my win for 1993, and that’s why heavy, HEAVY competition. It’s the ultimate sci-fi adventure film, I agree. Certainly of the 90’s.

  • 45 2-16-2011 at 8:48 am

    JT said...

    Crystal-Clear Conversation Amid the Pounding Music


  • 46 2-16-2011 at 10:43 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    “in a field of 10, TDK, The Matrix, Blood Diamond and Black Hawk Down make it.”

    BHD and TDK, yes. The others, not likely.

  • 47 2-23-2011 at 9:23 am

    David Sarokin said...

    Salt should definitely take the award. Not only was the sound mixing superb, but Billy is my brother, and I want to see him up there, so he can thank his big brother for decades of wise guidance.

    David Sarokin