Oscars 2012: Best Sound Mixing

This post was originally written and published for LAMB’s Devour the Oscars 2012 series.

The Oscars are almost here! It’s the moment everyone on the planet has been looking forward to since the 83rd Annual Academy Awards last February! Well,…maybe not, particularly when (debatable) there were not many mega-stand-out-sure-fire Oscar winners. Usually they don’t start showing until December anyway. Drive received much Oscar hype but has ended up with just a single nomination, and for the first time in ever Pixar did not receive a Best Animated Feature. I’m here, however, to talk about the Best Sound Mixing category.

I am not an expert on sound. In fact, it might be what I know the least about, which is something I should correct being a film production student. I’ve always been confused by what the difference between Sound Mixing and Sound Editing is, and Wikipedia only helped so much. Mixing refers to the interloping of all the different audio tracks within a film: dialogue, effects and score. Sound mixers have to make sure the audience can hear and understand what they hear at all times (i.e. hopefully Nolan hires a good one for Bane’s dialogue). Editing refers to the recording of sound, notably where it concerns sound effects and Foley.

It’s still a bit confusing to me, but I do know that sound Oscars tend to go to awesome films as opposed to “artsy” films: Inception, The Dark Knight, Star Wars, Jurassic Park. The list of Best Sound Mixing (which is also just called Best Sound) winners are some great blockbusters. Best Sound/Mixing has been around since the 3rd Academy Awards (1929) whereas Sound Editing was picked up in 1963 and not consistently until 1981. Still, it’s one of those awards not many necessarily fret over but is still fun to keep up with. Let’s take a look at the 84th Annual Academy Award Nominees for Best Sound Mixing:

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – I would be able to ogle over how awesome this movie sounded more if this were the Best Original Score category. As for Sound Mixing, yeah, it’s solid, obviously. Fincher, teamed with Reznor/Ross and no doubt the same sound team as The Social Network know what they’re doing. Fincher’s latest films make sound something both backgrounded and foregrounded. It’s almost always playing, but you only notice it when he wants you to notice it. This film sounds like we are in the harsh tundra of northern Sweden solving a tense, sexually charged murder mystery.

Hugo – I really, really enjoyed this film, mostly for its thematic elements. It also has a solid score, but thinking back to its sound track (dialogue + music + effects) it’s equally great. You feel like you’re not only in a Paris train station but that it is the 1930s, and only Scorsese could so accurately recreate many of the early film set pieces and spectacles he does. The film’s theme is the magic of moviemaking, and it’s a tad ironic but oddly fitting that it would be praised for its sound design considering it’s all about films from the silent era. Another reason Hugo is a superb blending of old and new tools and techniques of the film art form.

Moneyball – I did not see this one (though I’m seeing it 1 February), so I can only assume the roar of baseball fans mixed with the emotional intensity of how much we know this team and Pitt and Hill’s characters have invested in the game is really moving. There isn’t much more I can say, though I’m skeptical towards it being able to compete with the other four. Still, it’s interesting that it was nominated.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon – Say what you will about Michael Bay’s Transformers movies but you can’t deny he knows how to use surround sound, especially in an IMAX theater. The seats rattle under the booms as you hear characters move from one corner of the theater to another. The score is nothing particularly remarkable, and I’ll reserve talking about the dialogue, but the massive amounts of sound effects of gears clinking and epic battles and buildings being destroyed. It’s very impressive. You may hate Bay and his movies, but you’ve to give props to his post-production sound team for their hard work.

War Horse – Again, I have not seen this picture, so I can say very little which means nothing at all. I hear good things, however, but it isn’t really a film that appeals to me to start with. No doubt it sounds great with the large-scale battle sequences and heroic racing hooves of the horse, but…somehow I suspect the Oscar will go to one of the other films, speaking solely for the audio track.

My pick: Unless there’s something surprisingly spectacular about Moneyball or War Horse, I think even without having seen them it still comes down to the three I have seen. Having to pick is difficult without having the opportunity to watch them all again (or without really knowing what I should listen for in great sound mixing). But, I will probably have to go with Hugo. It’s the most nominated film, so obviously the Academy loves it, and it really is pleasing to the ears. Alas, I would not be surprised if it went to Dragon or Transformers. We’ll just have to watch and find out!

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