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Nouse Devours the Oscars Day 2: The Sound

Andrew Kendall explains the difference between Sound Mixing and Sound Editing and wonders which Best Picture nominee will reign supreme in the sound categories

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Editor's Note: We're going through the film nominees as we prepare for Oscar night on February 28. We move to the less than glamorous but very essential sound categories.

Image: Moviestore/REX Shutterstock
Image: Moviestore/REX Shutterstock

Why are there two sound categories? No matter how often the poor presenter forced to present the sound awards tries to explain the difference, the question is asked every single year about the Oscars. And I am loathe to buck trend, so I shall oblige with an explanation of how the two differ.

The Sound Mixing category is the category that has been around longer, it was originally simply called the award "Best Sound". This rewards the film for its overall sound design. How does the dialogue seep into the music into the effects? Is the music too loud and the dialogue too low? That's the sound mixing aspect. So, the managing of all the different sound elements already present in the film. It's typically the place where Best Picture nominees are more likely to turn up.

Sound editing, on the other hand, rewards the sounds created for the film - it's previous title Sound Effects Editing was a bit more helpful. The created sound like the battles in Star Wars, or the crackling of the forest in The Revenant, or the ambient noises of space in The Martian? Those are the sound effects which this category aims at recognising. So now that we've sorted out their difference. What do we make of the nominees this year? Six films share the ten nomination slots with four of them appearing in both categories. It's moment like these that make people presume the two categories are the same thing which they are definitely not, any sound designer would point out with hostility.

Bridge of Spies (Andy Nelson, Gary Rydstrom, and Drew Kunin)
Mad Max: Fury Road (Chris Jenkins, Gregg Rudloff, and Ben Osmo)
The Martian (Paul Massey, Mark Taylor, and Mac Ruth)
The Revenant (Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montano, Randy Thom, and Chris Duesterdiek)
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Andy Nelson, Christopher Scarabosio, and Stuart Wilson)

In keeping with tradition, the Sound Mixing category features four Best Picture contenders with The Force Awakens as the outlier. Here are some stats for you, the last time a film not nominated for Best Picture won for sound over a Best Picture nominee was for the 2007 ceremony where The Bourne Ultimatum triumphed over No Country for Old Men et al. A Picture nominee gets a leg up here, and as the fifth nomination for a Star Wars film in this category, the nominee may just be a nominee.

Both The Martian and Bridge of Spies do fine job mixing music with their ambient sounds making for worthy nominees (Spielberg films always tend to do well here, see Lincoln and War Horse, for example) but neither film seems a likely threat for the probably sound heavy duo of The Revenant and Mad Max. Both films feature outstanding sound work. In the sound mixing debate I would tip my hat to The Revenant which makes key use of silence to augment its overall sound design to excellent heights.

Mad Max: Fury Road (Mark Mangini and David White)
The Martian (Oliver Tarney)
The Revenant (Martin Hernandez and Lon Bender)
Sicario (Alan Robert Murray)
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Matthew Wood and David Acord)

In Sound Effects editing Bridge of Spies is replaced by Sicario and joined by the other four nominees. Sicario, oddly, would have been a contender for me for its sound design (the mixing of the tense score with the ambient noises of the final raid is hauntingly effective). And I'm liable to think that Mad Max and Star Wars. Indeed, here too, being a Best Picture nominee helps but I'm not sure the understated effects of The Revenant will thrill voters. They might be more inclined to look to the sprawling desert noises of Mad Max and the sounds of that far off galaxy of Star Wars. I would probably give this one to The Martian, but if Star Wars sentimentality seeps in I expect to see it pick up a cursory nod in a category just like this.

Trivia: Andy Nelson has been nominated 20 times for his sound mixing (two of those nominations this year). He won previously for Saving Private Ryan and Les Miserables. Over in Sound Editing Alan Robert Murray has also won twice (for Letters from Iwo Jima and American Sniper, just last year), he has been nominated eight times in total.

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