Tech Support: How an 0-34 trio of Oscar nominees helped make 'Skyfall' a sensation

Posted by · 5:28 pm · November 10th, 2012

When you stack up the Oscar records of cinematographer Roger Deakins, composer Thomas Newman and sound mixer Greg P. Russell, an amazing stat hits you in the face: 0-34. Three guys have gone to the Oscars 34 times and not once have they walked away with a trophy. And this year, each of them feature on one of the biggest critical and commercial hits of the year: Sam Mendes’ “Skyfall.”

Whether any of them manage to earn a prize for their work on the film is still to be seen, but just that such dramatically unrewarded but clearly peer-respected below-the-line talent can be found on one film this season is pretty sensational. Russell attributes that to the vision of Mendes, a filmmaker who has, after all, put together award-worthy crew after award-worthy crew over his 15-year feature filmmaking career.

“These are his players,” Russell says humbly. “I”m new to this deal because Roger has been doing work for Sam, and Thomas has done, I think, all of Sam”s films. So there”s that history and I was privileged to be a part of it.”

Russell, who has been nominated 15 times over his career for such films as “The Rock” and “Armageddon,” as well as franchises like “Spider-Man” and “Transformers,” actually met Deakins two years ago during the Academy’s class photo event at the annual nominees luncheon. Russell was nominated for Philip Noyce’s “Salt” while Deakins was up for the Coen brothers’ “True Grit.” In fact they can be seen standing next to one another in the photo.

“We were standing side-by-side and I said, ‘I”ve been a huge fan of your work, and consider you the very best,'” Russell recalls. ” I mean, I think he is probably one of the greatest cinematographers that”s ever lived. And we’re sitting there going, ‘We”ve been to this thing however many times between the two of us, and we”ve never won this thing.'”

But the peer recognition never gets old, Russell says. And Newman agrees.  “It’s very exciting but it can be a crazy kind of carousel ride, those things,” Newman says of the Academy Awards. He has beenin the Oscar mix 10 times, for films as “The Shawshank Redemption” (for which Deakins was also nominated — the first nod for each of them, in fact), “Finding Nemo” and “The Good German,” as well as “American Beauty” and “Road to Perdition” for Mendes. “I think the beginnings of the shows always start off a little nicer than the middle and the endings, as a buddy of mine said, because there’s just more and more losers in the room the more the night goes on. But it’s still exciting.”

Deakins has been nominated nine times, for such films as “Kundun,” “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” “No Country for Old Men” and “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” at the Oscars. Somehow he’s never won, though he has be awarded by the American Society of Cinematographers twice (for “The Man Who Wasn’t There” and the aforementioned “The Shawshank Redemption”).

But he doesn’t have much to offer on the subject of losing. He is, like his colleagues, happy to get the recognition and keep doing the work. And on a film like “Skyfall,” he’s pleased to be a part of such a robust below-the-line mixture.

“I think the whole thing is so rich as a piece,” he says. “A lot of Bond movies, they’re quite simple, aren’t they, visually and sound-wise? They’re quite clinical and simple. And not to say that’s bad, but that’s the sort of tradition of it, really. Whereas this is really kind of rich and complex. There’s a lot of things in it that probably are quite new to the franchise. So the soundtrack is just one of them. It’s like this rich blend of things. I thought that was one of the great successes of it.”

Russell says he was happy to be along for the ride via Mendes’s long-time mixer Scott Millan (who handled score and dialogue, while Russell handled effects). But when he sat down to do the temp mix and first got a load of Deakins’s work, he was floored.

“Everything that raises the bar, raises the bar,” he says. “Period. And when you look at visuals that are just outstanding, and clearly you find yourself mesmerized, you want to do your best to sonically deliver the goods. It”s a ballet of visuals. And you just go, ‘Wow.'”

Russell says Mendes wanted the score to rule in the film. Dialogue clarity was of course number one, but the director was consistently conscious about Newman’s work being propulsive.

“We were going to find all of our opportunities in and within that,” Russell says, “but not obscuring that. Any time we are overloading the track to where we”ve lost the thread of music, it”s a no-no. We want the tone and theme and signature lines to never be obscured. There”s certainly tons of opportunities within the movie for effects to be thriving. But we really wanted to stay clear of the music and let that be the prominent driving force within the film.”

Deakins says the entire enterprise had an added element of difficulty because everyone had to stick within a certain sort of genre, to a degree. That of the Bond genre, not to put too fine a point on it. “Because if you stretch too far out of it the audience is going to go, ‘Hey, wait a minute. I came to watch a Bond movie,'” he says. “I think Tom felt, in a way, that was a restriction. But I thought it was brilliant the way he wove in the new music with the original kind of themes and with Adele’s song and stuff. It’s so rich and varied.”

Newman was equally floored by Deakins’s work when he got a look at the film and began turning over ideas in his head of how to work within that genre — which of course has a long history of music — but still offer something fresh.

“It was just out of the gate gorgeousness, you know,” he says. “Just in terms of the geometry of the design and the sense of how light was used. I’m a huge fan of Deakins. We’ve kind of run into each other along the way. He’s such an approachably nice guy and an interesting guy just to have a conversation with. I love his work.”

And when he saw the fully completed mixture at the London premiere of the film at Royal Albert Hall, he was delighted at how sound and image worked together. “Of course it was a huge, huge boomy room,” Newman says, “but I was very impressed by how it all sounded. It was very exciting moment-to-moment and very, very believable. I was really very much in the spaces and locales that I was in.”

We’ll see if Russell, Newman and Deakins can make it to their 16th, 11th and 10th nominations, respectively, for “Skyfall.” But whether they do or not is plainly beside the point. The film is awash in craft, and it doesn’t stop with this oft-recognized trio.

From the production design of four-time nominee (and winner for “Bugsy”) Dennis Gassner — along with his twice-nominated set decorator Anna Pinnock, to the film editing of two-time nominee Stuart Baird, to the sound editing of three-time nominee (and winner for “Braveheart” and “The Bourne Ultimatum”) Per Hallberg, it’s a crew that knows its stuff. And that’s to say nothing of those on the team who probably ought to have received some Academy recognition by now, like costume designer Jany Temime. They’ve all come together to deliver what is already seen by many as the best installment of a 50-year-old franchise.

“There”s a lot to be proud of,” Russell says. “And I think everyone resonates that same sentiment, that we all have a lot to be proud of to be part of this movie.”

“Skyfall” is now playing at a theater near you.

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