Tech Support: 'War Horse,' 'Transformers' in the, uh, mix for Best Sound Mixing
When dialogue was originally introduced into films, Charlie Chaplin considered it a fad that wouldn’t last. Alas, we now know how wrong that was. But sound can not only enrich a film by its addition of dialogue. The use of sound can build mood and tell the story in ways that would not be possible if our films remained silent.
Formerly called simply "Best Sound," the category of Best Sound Mixing awards the individuals who: 1) mix together dialogue, music, sound effects and everything else we hear in the soundscape of a film (up to three re-recording mixers) and 2) capture the sound as it is being filmed (the production sound mixer). This distinguishes the category from Best Sound Editing, which awards the creation and integration of artificially created sounds.
The category has an affinity for blockbusters and war films. That said, musicals frequently show up here, too. Moreover, Best Picture contenders can surprisingly get caught up in a sweep (“The King’s Speech”’s nomination last year is a good example).
Names like Kevin O’Connell, Greg P. Russell, Michael Minkler, Bob Beemer, Christopher Boyes, Anna Behlmer, Randy Thom and many others frequent this category every year. It’s a fairly insular group. While new members are welcomed every year (especially if they’re on a Best Picture contender), it tends to be the exception rather than the rule.
With those reflections, I’d have a difficult time not leading off this week’s discussion with Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse.” A war film, with an added components of horse sounds, sweeping score and intimate drama, it already has all the makings of a Best Picture contender and has a crew anchored by Andy Nelson and Tom Johnson, both favorites (with Gary Rydstrom on the team to boot). A nomination seems highly probable.
Spielberg has two films in the hunt this year with “The Adventures of Tintin” also unveiling itself in December. While animated films do not do as well here as in Best Sound Editing, this is not a typical animated film and will combine action and a John Williams score in a very likely December blockbuster. Also with an experienced crew of Christopher Boyes, Michael Hedges and Andy Nelson, this seems like a frontrunner.
In the realm of animated titles, I’d also say it would be worth watching “Rango,” where the sounds of the Wild West were highlighted. This helped “True Grit” and “3:10 to Yuma” earn nominations in recent years. Branch favorite Paul Massey anchors the crew. Adding up his name, the work and the respect given to the film, a nomination may be in the cards.
The only other animated film that bears consideration here is “Cars 2.” But in addition to the fact that it feels like much more a sound editor’s film than a mixer’s (due to its reliance on artificially created sounds), its underwhelming reception, in addition to the fact that its predecessor failed to score in this category, makes me highly doubtful it will end up among the final five.
It’s always necessary to remember the summer blockbusters. And leading the way in that regard would appear to be “Transformers: Dark of the Moon.” Michael Bay’s films have an extraordinary record in this category and this was the only place where “Revenge of the Fallen” managed to be cited two years ago. The crew of Jeffrey Haboush and especially Greg Russell and Gary Summers have an extraordinary history of success in this category. When one also considers that this film was considered an improvement upon its immediate predecessor in this series, all the stars that seem necessary for a nomination seem to align.
As far as critical respect and the 2011 summer blockbusters were concerned, it was hard to trump “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” The sound was undeniably important. But while Doug Hemphill is a past winner, I cannot shake the feeling that this film will be more remembered for its visual effects. But this is no more than a hunch, as respected summer blockbusters must always be considered here, especially when they have a very effective and important mix.
J.J. Abrams’ “Super 8” also has a very vocal fan group and received significant critical respect, if admittedly not adoration. More importantly, it featured numerous opportunities for its sound mixers to display the full range of their talents, not only in cool alien noises but also in a very loud train crash. Anna Behlmer and Tom Johnson, the film’s re-recording mixers, are both branch favorites and production sound mixer Mark Ulano has two nominations including a win to his credit as well. This list of factors leads me to believe this is a top-tier contender.
There are other blockbuster titles that would probably be unwise to completely rule out, such as “Real Steel,” “Captain America: The First Avenger,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” and “Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol,” but “Super 8,” “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” and “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” seem to have the best combo of respected crew, big box office, reasonable critical respect and notable opportunities for the sound crews to prove themselves. At least in my eyes.
Martin Scorsese’s upcoming “Hugo” is worth mentioning. I frankly do not know how much opportunity there will be for sound artists to display their talents [EDITOR'S NOTE: There are some unique opportunities with contraptions and trains and whatnot.] but I could see this film as a crafts category sweeper. Scorsese regular and four-time nominee Tom Fleischman is responsible for this mixing job, so that doesn’t hurt matters.
Another family film that will shortly be released is “The Muppets,” an attempt to revive a franchise that was once beloved but has been damaged by continual poor quality efforts in recent years. The attempt to go back to basics apparently is resulting in it being quite the musical showcase. Now none of this seems a recipe for a nomination yet so why I am mentioning it? Because 20-time nominee Kevin O’Connell is responsible for the mix. Now I don’t think these pieces will add up to a nomination but if any film this year could bring O’Connell back into the running after a four year absence, this would appear to be it.
Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium” trilogy has undoubtedly earned a spot in literary history. David Fincher’s adaptation of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” offers the combination of potential major hit status, much suspense and some action, which could easily result in a nomination here. The sound crew on this film still has not been credited on IMDb (not unusual -- assume the usual suspects), but Fincher’s last two titles, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” and “The Social Network,” both found homes here, if they were also admittedly both Best Picture frontrunners.
With “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” Stephen Daldry is going to try to continue his rather amazing Oscar run. While the film may not seem on paper to be a natural contender for a sound mixing nomination, many of the film’s flashback scenes may prove otherwise. Moreover, the film could sweep. Not saying it will but it might. We shall see.
I’ll end by citing a film that may seem bizarre to consider here but probably should not be ruled out: Michel Hazanavicius’s “The Artist.” I began this column by noting how sound revolutionized film 84 years ago, and this film tries to recreate the feel of the bygone era from before that time. Even so, restraint in sound is still sound and required very creative work from this crew. [EDITOR'S NOTE: And one particular scene is a sound showcase.] While they have no Oscar history, that tends not to matter when the film is a nominations sweeper, which I am increasingly confident this title will be. I’m not banking on a nomination. But I’d say it’s still very very possible, despite seeming absurd on the surface.
Those are the top-tier contenders as I see them. Feel free to opine on these musings, including what I may have overlooked, below!