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Longlists to Nominees: Sound Mixing and Sound Effects

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The sound categories are a pain in the ass, because sound work, more than any other aspect of a film, is generally meant to go unnoticed–if the sound work stands out, it’s usually for a bad reason. Truly innovative sound design is sadly rare. So to evaluate sound work properly–rather than just picking any big, loud film and saying “fuck it”–one has to carefully analyze the films in question, and that’s not always feasible. So, excepting those films which I have on hand, I’m going to have to rely on memory to guide me through the process, along with my own past notes for what I liked best–whose authority I will, admittedly, have to fall back on from time to time.

First up is Sound Mixing.

  • All is Lost
  • Captain Phillips
  • Gravity
  • Her
  • The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
  • Inside Llewyn Davis
  • Lone Survivor
  • Man of Steel
  • Pacific Rim
  • Rush
  • Spring Breakers
  • 12 Years a Slave
  • Upstream Color

Now, what goes, and what stays? Here’s what I had as my final five as of a few weeks ago: All Is Lost, Pacific Rim, Rush, 12 Years a Slave, and Upstream Color. 

All Is Lost has to stay. The soundscape for that film was amazing. The Academy’s failure to nominate it for both sound awards is ridiculous. I predicted Rush would be a major contender in these categories months ago. Though I’m not sure I’d award it, at the moment, I think it belongs here. I don’t especially remember how Upstream Color sounded with a theatrical sound system, but it does more interesting things with sound than 99% of movies. It’s staying.  So that leaves Pacific Rim  and 12 Years a Slave, plus all my other nominees. Now, 12 Years is an incredible film, but I’m hard-pressed to remember details about the soundscape. So I’m tentatively leaving it off. Pacific Rim sounds dandy, but the problem is, it’s a big, loud action film, and how do you pick one over another? As far as sound effects are concerned, absolutely. But for the mixing…let’s put it tenatively on. So we have three locks, one maybe off, and one maybe on.

Back to the longlist:

  • Captain Phillips sounds good, and makes good use of boat engine sounds, gunshots, etc. Definitely worth considering. (The Academy went with it.)
  • Gravity would be a lock for most people, but I remember thinking the sound mix was problematic–the music, especially, tended to sound too loudly mixed. Maybe it was a quirk of the theater I saw it in, maybe it was a nitpick, but it bugged me at the time. So I’m not going for it. (I do want to rewatch it before the Awards, so maybe it get back on, but for now, no.)
  • Her…hmm. Not sure why I put it on. It’s not on my older list, and I’m not sure when I put it on the longlist. I can’t remember anything exceptional about the sound design, so I’ll pass on it.
  • The Hobbit feels too easy. The mix was fine, but the effects were more noteworthy. So I’ll consider it there. There’s no room for it here.
  • One of the (only) two nominations the Academy gave Inside Llewyn Davis was for its mixing, which is pretty par for the course for singing-heavy films (Les Miserables won last year), but…I just don’t quite feel it.
  • Lone Survivor, with its battle scenes, had a great mix (the Academy agreed), and…that’s what I’ll swap 12 Years a Slave out for. It works.
  • Man of Steel was fine, but like I said for Pacific Rim, big action films kind of blur together for me, mix-wise.
  • Spring Breakers…nah. Maybe for Effects, but the mix isn’t really outstanding.

So I’ve got All Is Lost, Lone Survivor, Rush, and Upstream Color as locks, and Captain Phillips and Pacific Rim duking it out for the fifth slot.

The Jaeger-Kaiju battles are pretty well mixed. So…let it on. Keep Captain Phillips on hand (pending a rewatch) as a possible swap on.  (NOTE: Having reevaluated the soundscape of Spring Breakers, I’m putting it on over Pacific Rim, pending a rewatch of Rush.)

The nominees:

  • All Is Lost
  • Lone Survivor
  • Rush
  • Spring Breakers
  • Upstream Color

Next up is Sound Effects.

  • All is Lost
  • Captain Phillips
  • Dallas Buyers Club
  • Frozen
  • Gravity
  • The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
  • The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
  • Lone Survivor
  • Pacific Rim
  • Rush
  • Spring Breakers
  • Upstream Color

My initial final five: All Is Lost, Pacific Rim, Rush, Spring Breakers, Upstream Color.

Upstream Color stays. No question about it. All Is Lost really should as well, and Pacific Rim…well, it’s not like the sound department recorded real mechs and monsters, now did they? So that’s three. Rush and Spring Breakers are up for debate, however. It’s interesting to note that the Golden Reels (the Motion Picture Sound Editors’ awards) completely overlooked Rush. And given the strengths of Lone Survivor, I think it needs to go on. As for Spring Breakers, the use of sound effect motifs–especially gun-cocks–is quite effective. So while it’s not a rock-solid fifth nominee, I’m saying it’s a good contender. Let’s go to the longlist.

  • Captain Phillips: Worthy, but not so much so that I need to go with it.
  • Dallas Buyers Club: They actually did some interesting things with sound in that film (naturally, the Academy ignored that while nominating the film editing), but not to the degree that would make for a strong nominee, especially given my relative lack of enthusiasm for the film. So I’ll just pass on it now.
  • Frozen: Normally, an animated film would be a lock here–I gave my award last year to Wreck-It Ralph, after all–but the work here wasn’t especially outstanding. I’ll pass.
  • Gravity: Again, most people would have this as a lock. I’m watching this video (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/08/gravity-sound-effects_n_4062879.html) to help me decide what to do.
  • The Hobbit: Strong one. The sounds of Smaug himself were especially effective. Definitely worth considering here.
  • The Hunger Games: I think I put this on here thinking “Action movie. Probably will have notable sound effects.” Nothing that stuck with me, I fear.

So it comes down to Gravity and Spring Breakers for the final slot. Now, while rewatching Spring Breakers, I started thinking, “I could actually make a really good case for this in the Mixing category.” Now, the Academy’s categories are “Sound Mixing” and “Sound Editing“, and under those divisions, yes, Spring Breakers would definitely belong in the latter category. But here…this is tough. First, I’m going to retroactively swap out Pacific Rim for Spring Breakers in Mixing.  Second…having watched the video, I’m reminded of the issues I had with the Gravity soundtrack. I don’t want to totally cut it out of the running without rewatching it, but for now, I’m giving Spring Breakers the edge.

So here, pending further notice, are the nominees:

  • All Is Lost
  • Lone Survivor
  • Pacific Rim
  • Spring Breakers
  • Upstream Color

Also, honorable mention to A Touch of Sin, for having the single coolest sound effect of the year.

Off to a good start. Tomorrow I’ll do Visual Effects.

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