Tech Support: Space, music and the high seas clash in the race for Best Sound Mixing

Posted by · 7:36 pm · November 28th, 2013

Welcome to Best Sound Mixing. This Oscar category loves blockbusters and war films, particularly (albeit by no means necessarily) of the prestigious variety. Like many categories, being a Best Picture contender also helps here, and there is one particular sort of film – the musical – that does disproportionately well here, as the work done on a musical”s soundtrack is obviously incredibly important to the film”s success.

Most individuals recognized in this category tend to be previous nominees, and there are many sound artists who have received well in excess of five or 10 nominations over their careers. These talented individuals frequently anchor the list.

The one film this year that seemingly has everything this category goes for – blockbuster, Best Picture contender, an aural experience – is Alfonso Cuarón”s “Gravity.” Clearly headed for a whole host of Oscar nominations, this film boasts a sound crew led by Christopher Benstead, Niv Adiri, four-time nominee Skip Lievsay and past winner Chris Munro. They seem certain to be in the final five this year and may very well find themselves winners.

All of Lievsay”s previous nominations have been for Coen Bros. movies (two for “True Grit” and two for “No Country for Old Men”). He may well get another double nomination this year, albeit for two different titles as opposed to two different categories, as he is also mixing the Coens” “Inside Llewyn Davis.” This atypical musical produced a soundtrack that virtually everyone agrees is appropriately memorable, and it was an achievement of a particular stripe given the on-the-set capturing of the vocals and instrumentation. Lievsay, past winner Greg Orloff (“Ray”) and three-time nominee Peter Kurland (“Walk the Line,” “No Country for Old Men”, “True Grit”) are, in my view, in solid shape.

Then we get to our films that occurred at sea. I maintain that “All is Lost” contained some of the best sound work I have heard in recent years. Steve Boeddeker and Brandon Proctor made a soundtrack that was absolutely integral to the experience of the film. We”ll see how it does overall in awards season overall but I would find it ludicrous if J.C. Chandor’s team cannot find a home here. Sound legend Gary Rydstrom served as a consultant.

“Captain Phillips” perhaps did not have as distinguishing a mix as an edit. But an important mix it had. I also think it is likely heading to nominations for Best Picture and Best Director. If it does, one would expect below-the-line nominations to follow, with the sound categories (and Best Film Editing) being the most obvious places. Munro is on board here as well, with re-recording mixers Mark Taylor, Chris Burdon and Mike Priestwood.

“Rush” is a film that has all the makings of a contender, with its memorable and exciting car races. While not a big box office success, it has a following and so will not be ignored entirely this awards season. Again, the sound categories and film editing, alongside Best Makeup and Hairstyling, appear its best chances. Stefan Korte, Martin Steyer and Danny Hambrook would be first-time nominees.

By all accounts, “Lone Survivor” has superb sounds of the military variety that this category tends to relish. With a prime December release date, it will be fresh in the branch”s mind. We”ll see if David Brownlow and Andy Koyama can earn their first Oscar nominations.

All three “Lord of the Rings” films earned nominations here, with the last entry winning. “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” earned a Cinema Audio Society nod last year. While this did not transfer to the Oscars, it shows that Peter Jackson”s seasoned sound crew remains respected by members of the sound community. So watch out for “The Desolation of Smaug.”

“Man of Steel” did not do for Superman what “The Dark Knight” did for “Batman.” But it was a visual and audio treat, in addition to earning a vocal fanbase. Frank A. Montaño and Chris Jenkins have nine nominations and two wins between them while Michael McGee would be a first-time nominee.

Straight-up sequels on the race include “Star Trek Into Darkness,” whose predecessor was nominated here, and “Iron Man 3,” whose predecessors have (somewhat surprisingly) not. Both sequels were fine but also somewhat underwhelming. “Iron Man 3” does have past nominees Peter J. Devlin and Jose Antonio Garcia on its crew (Mike Prestwood Smith and Michael Keller are searching for first nominations), but I doubt it will score where its predecessors came up short. “Star Trek Into Darkness””s sound crew is anchored by last year”s winner Andy Nelson. But again, I am doubtful.

Perhaps the best bet of the summer blockbusters is Guillermo Del Toro”s “Pacific Rim.” Exciting geeks and respected by audiences and critics, this perhaps has the most novelty of the mainstream blockbusters. That could lead to a nomination. The fact that Gregg Rudloff and John Reitz have 10 nominations and three statuettes between them doesn”t hurt the film”s chances. Tim LeBlanc would be a first-time nominee.

I would consider “12 Years a Slave” here as well. The film doesn”t necessarily jump to mind as an aural showcase but the sounds of the Deep South (including the ship) were impressive. And this category (more than Best Sound Editing) can welcome in a film that just starts to get nominated everywhere. Leslie Shatz was once nominated for “The Mummy” and while the crew appears to otherwise be made up of Oscar virgins, that doesn”t always matter when the film is a sweeper.

I”ll end by citing a film that may not naturally seem a contender. Disney”s “Frozen” has opened to very strong reviews. While animated films usually do better in Best Sound Editing than Best Sound Mixing (due to the need to create artificial sounds throughout), this is also a musical and the soundtrack as a whole sounds great. I”m not convinced it”s headed towards a nomination (the crew hasn”t had much Oscar success to date) but I certainly would not rule it out.

So there are the top baker”s dozen contenders as I see them. What say you?

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