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A Lesson in Sound: Why the Oscars for Sound Mixing and Sound Editing are so Different

The Academy Awards categories in conversation quite a bit are, of course, Best Sound Editing, and Best Sound Mixing. So many times we hear that there is little differentiation between the two awards; or that the actual meaning of both is just not clear enough; or that they should just merge them into one Sound category.

Let’s look at the soundscape of cinema as a bowl of salad. Salad Editing is basically the ingredients. The assembly of the thing, what goes into the bowl. Cucumbers; olives; feta; red onion. Salad Mixing is, well you’ve all mixed a salad – uniting the components to an aesthetic consistency. Maybe a bit more olive oil, and sprinkle of some oregano, to balance it all out.

Imagine starting afresh, watching scene after scene of a movie without sound. And then with the sound, fathom that every single thing you hear while watching, be it a pin drop or the big bang, has at one time or another been designed, recorded, edited, and mixed. Look at the early silent form of cinema, when the sound of this wondrous film history was just in its infancy.

Starting with score tracks over the picture, and phonograph recordings. Now we have Dolby Stereo, sound people working hard at their digital audio workstations. We take a lot for granted – microphones, booms, headphones, leads, computers, mixing desks – but these are the essential building blocks that help create the sound of cinema as we know it.

Except, do we? When it comes to the Oscars, many are left scratching their heads at the two sound categories. Especially right now, with many still scrambling to get their final predictions in order. There have been a lot of correlation between the two over the years, as in the amount of times a film wins both against the split.

So, spit out your gum, and sit up straight – take notes if you wish.

Sound Editing

Remember the salad ingredients? Well, look at the sounds that are recorded for a film as similar components. Except in audio-land, we are talking about a door closing, light sabers clashing, a wolf howling, the voice on the end of the line. The sounds can be recorded on the shoot or during stages of the production. And with it, the world of the film is built.

Watch this short scene from WALL-E, and pinpoint just the individual sounds you can hear. There are so many, there is no way you will get them all without pausing.

How many did you note? There’s the iconic robot’s tracks rolling; his sigh; the sound of squashing the bug, then the said bug popping back up; trash gathered, then compressed; the bra resting on his eyes; a squeaky toy; car keys jingling; tapping the bat and ball; whistle; a ring dropping to the ground; the fuzz of the fire extinguisher going off; oh, and Thomas Newman’s organic music score. There are loads more, though.

That was kind of easy, I guess, given the necessity for animated films to produce sound. Much, much more of a blank slate, for the majority the sounds are not recorded naturally during filming. Sound effects, fictional sounds, real sounds, dialogue, music tracks etc. form the basis of animated films given their format.

Some of the winners of the Academy Award for Best Sound Editing (Sound Effects Editing once upon a time) include inventively crafted sounds, essential to the film’s narrative, action, and impact. These are often films were the sound effects ring clear long after you’ve seen it.

Creatures coming to life in Bram Stoker’s Dracula or King Kong; larger than life characters given added dimension in Who Framed Roger Rabbit or RoboCop; gunfire crazy in Die Hard or The Matrix; a distinct look at the future in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, or the tragic past in Titanic; the reality of the fantasy world in Inception or The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.

The associated guild, awarding Sound Editing (as well as Foley, Dialogue, Music, Automated Dialogue Replacement), Motion Picture Sound Editors, hand out their Golden Reel Awards for such great achievements. And these fall, understandably, in various branches of motion pictures – more recently with Foreign Language Film and Feature Documentary.

Animation Feature Film winners have included Beauty and the Beast, and this year’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Sound Editing for Music winners have ranged from The English Patient, to High Fidelity, or even the more specialized La La Land. Their Dialogue and ADR category has been won by films like Total Recall, Alien 3, and this year’s Bohemian Rhapsody – but rarely translate to Oscar wins. A more reliable indicator might be the Sound Effects and Foley award were Jurassic Park, Speed, and Inception went on to win the Academy Award for Best Sound Editing.

So, speaking of dinosaurs, have a look at this quick clip from Jurassic Park. Perhaps even just have the audio on, and listen through the squawking creatures, footsteps on the crunchy surface, John Williams’ score, and of course the sounds of dinosaurs. In this scene, its Raptors. Breathing, they too listening for the cocking of the gun, and the hunter’s breathing, before the creature rustles through the leaves, exhales victoriously, and attacks. We are left with the screaming man, and those crunches of him being eaten.

Those working in this sector of the industry, viable for Best Sound Editing Oscar consideration include:

Sound Editor: selects, gathers, and prepares sound recordings.

Sound Designer: creates sound tracks; edits recorded audio.

Dialogue Editor: edits the recorded dialogue; works on ADR.

Sound Effects Editor: creates and / or manipulates sound effects.

Foley Artist: recreates everyday sound effects.

Sound Mixing

So, you have your ingredients in the bowl, let’s get some balance. Sound mixing is often referred to in terms of balancing various levels of sound effects, dialogue, music etc. The overall ambiance and sound design is ultimately layered appropriately across the motion picture. Think about the prominent sounds, scene-for-scene, and the background noise. The varying levels of the sound track, including the dialogue and music cues. And whether or not the volume needs to be yanked up, barely audible, or even fluctuating during a scene.

You all know Gravity. The opening ten minutes, before the shit hits the fan, is a remarkable example of so much what Sound Mixing is about. So have a watch, but instead of plucking the actual sounds from space, register how these sounds are actually utilized. There are a ton of examples right here:

Those opening sounds, before the visuals even greet us, is reminiscent of those familiar sounds from Earth’s nature itself. The title card even states that in space there is “nothing to carry sound”. Steven Price’s atmospheric score rises, whooshing, and then a crescendo as the title ‘Gravity’ appears. Then, the audio diminishes.

We’re in space, the distant talking crackles in, and the voices communicating in space eventually get louder as they approach us. Price’s score reduced to a faint hum. As the shuttle gets closer, the rumble of the engines grow. And the golden oldie tune is made to sound like it is playing on a radio within the scene.

Voices get closer, just as the characters do. The song is turned off, the hum of space appears louder – even a quiet radio conversation is heard in the distance. Sandra Bullocks’s Ryan talking, with a kind of dull acoustic of the space helmet. The confined sounds of the tools. And with the glorious view of the Earth, the music glides by – and then ups its tempo, intensity and volume at “Mission abort!”

A glimpse at a few of the winners of the Academy Award for Best Sound Mixing (formerly just Best Sound), demonstrates incredible, often impeccable reconstruction of a film’s sound balance. Think about the astonishing breadth of mechanical sounds as the ship goes down in Titanic; the ferocious acoustics of Whiplash.

The depth of music editing in Amadeus or Chicago; the multi-channel adrenaline of war zones in Platoon or Black Hawk Down; the authentic soundscapes of epic material in The Last Emperor or Dances with Wolves. Often thousands of audio snippets fine-tuned to find the perfect cinematic balance.

The Cinema Audio Society Awards recognize excellence in Sound Mixing. And like the Academy Awards, have honored some truly brilliant work in the alteration and enhancement of motion picture sound.

The unfathomable film worlds of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring; transported back to an ancient Rome in all its glory in Gladiator; or the continuous, varying levels of danger captured in Dunkirk.

All indebted to the exceptional sound mixing work. And in this field, films dominated by music do well, given the intricate balance of both music and vocals throughout. CAS Award winners Walk the Line, Dreamgirls, and Les Misérables were deemed to demonstrate excellent mixing of their complex soundtracks.

Over in World War II, one of the greatest Oscar winners for Best Sound Mixing is Saving Private Ryan. I mean, that opening beach ambush is still a masterful audio experience, 20 years on.

What starts with a whooshing shoreline, crashing waves, takes us to the anxiety of soldiers heading for the beach. The balance between the slight rattling of the water cannister, the vomiting, the accelarated engine, Captain Miller and his men having to raise their voices to talk.

When that door creaks open, the ping-ping pat-pat of the unexpected, relentless gunfire, explosions, almost burst your ears. Artillery sounds submerge with the underwater shots, and buzz in and out as we bob above and below the surface. Bullets hitting metal, human bodies, the water – you really get the feel for mayhem up close, far away, and somewhere in between.

When Miller falls into a daze, temproarily deafened by the onslaught and shock, everything is muffled a la blocked ears. The sounds fizz back in via the shriek of approaching bombs. The extraordinary range of sounds from the huge booms, down to the grains of sand pitter-pattering back to the ground. The Oscar was easily won in those first few minutes. Take a look:

Winners of the Best Sound Mixing Academy Award are more often than not those with these job titles:

Audio Engineer: records and mixes live sound.

Re-recording Mixer: mixes pre-recorded dialogue, sound effects, music.

Production Mixer: records all sound in preparation final film edit.

Scoring Mixer: collaborates with the film’s score composer and music crew.

ADR Mixer: amends the dialogue related sound.

Foley Mixer: collaborates with Foley Artists in post-production.

Remember when Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar was criticized for the over-bearing sound and quiet dialogue? And it caused quite a stir when it was nominated at the Oscars. That is considered poor sound mixing.

Although there were rumbles of similar issues with Nolan’s last film, Dunkirk, there was little argument over it winning both Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing at last year’s awards. To wrap up, watch the short clip from Dunkirk, and have a think why it won both Sound categories.

Best Sound Editing: the film’s input from the music score; the sounds of the planes; rattling of the soldier’s equipment; rifle fire; boom of the bombs dropped on the beach, and the sand settling; distant voices.

Best Sound Mixing: the harrowing range of the soaring sounds of the planes coming down – volume notches up as they enter the frame; the effects of planes swooping on by; the booms as the bombs hit the beaches are deliberately delayed ever so sightly (milliseconds) to separate the sounds of the impact in our senses; faint gunfire; soldiers ruffling about, gathering themselves, small mumbles – all in sync with the notion of a large attack against smaller entities.

So there you have it. The difference between Sound Editing and Sound Mixing – as easy as fixing up a delicious Greek salad. Right? Any questions?

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