Let's hear it for Oscar nominees for sound

At Sunday's Academy Awards ceremony, other categories will get much more attention. But if it wasn't for the sound crew, we'd all be watching silent movies.

Steve Guttenberg
Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.
Steve Guttenberg
3 min read

There are two Oscar categories for best sound: best sound editing and best sound mixing. The sound editor designs and pre-plans the sound for the film. If it's a special-effects movie like "Avatar," the sound editor supervises the crew charged with creating the film's soundscape, including all of the sound effects.

Sound editors and mixers are the Rodney Dangerfields of the film biz; they don't get any respect. Look for their names at the very end of the credits, way, way down there with the caterers, hair stylists, and dog wranglers. Yet their mission is near impossible: create a seamless soundtrack that is, in fact, constructed from thousands of sonic fragments.

It's a colossal multichannel jigsaw puzzle, except a lot of the pieces don't fit. It's the mixers' soundtrack machinations that thrust the audience into the reality of the film they're experiencing--the subterfuge totally works--most viewers believe they're watching a literal record of what the camera "saw" and what the microphones "heard." Depending on the type of movie you're watching, most, sometimes 90 percent of the sound was recorded after the film was shot.

The mixers typically work on 15- to 20-second sections of a film, running the sequence over and over, constantly tweaking the balances. They might get hung up on a single music cue for 2 hours. Movies still run at 24 frames per second, and each frame of picture might have hundreds of sound elements. There are background tracks (traffic, wind noise, etc), specific effects tracks (gun shots, birds chirping, etc), foreground dialogue tracks, background dialog (for crowd scenes), plus lots and lots of music tracks.

Music mixing always requires finesse, moving the music in relationship to the picture as little as two frames can completely shift its impact on the scene. Moving a bar here, a downbeat there--it's all about how the music blends with the effects and dialogue--it's easy to lose it. Changes in the music's equalization, balance, and volume can change from picture cut to cut.

Mixing a film is a highly technical endeavor, but at the end of the day, it's not a nuts-and-bolts medium, the film has to feel right. Picture editing dictates the internal rhythms, but sound pushes the film; it has all the little engines that make things happen. It's what gets you caught up in the emotions of the story.

That's why I'm always pushing quality sound, it's the key to having a great home theater experience.

The Academy Awards will be presented Sunday, with the show airing on ABC at 5 p.m. PST.

The sound mixing nominees are: "Avatar," Christopher Boyes, Gary Summers, Andy Nelson, and Tony Johnson; "The Hurt Locker," Paul N.J. Ottosson and Ray Beckett; "Inglourious Basterds," Michael Minkler, Tony Lamberti, and Mark Ulano; "Star Trek," Anna Behlmer, Andy Nelson, and Peter J. Devlin; and "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen," Greg P. Russell, Gary Summers, and Geoffrey Patterson.

The sound editing nominees are: "Avatar," Christopher Boyes and Gwendolyn Yates Whittle; "The Hurt Locker," Paul N.J. Ottosson; "Inglourious Basterds," Wylie Stateman; "Star Trek," Mark Stoeckinger and Alan Rankin; and "Up," Michael Silvers and Tom Myers.