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For Your Consideration – The Oscar-Nominated Sound Editors

February 16, 2016 | By

The Academy Awards honors two categories in sound that may seem confounding but there’s a simple distinction between the awards. Sound editing references all the sound elements created for a film besides its music – the sound effects, foley, dialogue, or ADR – an example, the lightsaber in Star Wars or you can look at it as all the ingredients necessary to make a pizza. Sound mixing on the other hand is how well all those elements, including the music, are blended and balanced to tell the story. Or how the pizza tastes after coming out of the oven.

Since 1963 Oscar has been recognizing the sound editing category, and though it’s adopted various names in its history, the award has always been given to the picture with exemplary aesthetics in sound editing or design.

When considering a film’s visuals, it’s easy for us to comprehend what we’re seeing as an artistic expression whether we like it or not. But when it comes to our ears, it’s harder for us to make this connection. Thus, a piece of sound can very quickly take us out of a story either subconsciously or not. A good sound element has to be heard without being heard. It has to move the story without you recognizing it. It has to evoke an emotional response without being overstated. Sound editors, and sound mixers for that matter, have to be acutely aware in the decision making process or it can quickly ruin a scene. It’s defining a difficult balance and the ones who do it well enhance the story without being noticed.

The nominees in best sound editing this year are Martin Hernandez and Lon Bender for The Revenant, Mark Mangini and David White for Mad Max: Fury Road, Oliver Tarney for The Martian, Alan Robert Murray, for Sicario, and Matthew Wood and David Acord for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The films conquer a vast array of locations, traveling to distant galaxies right down to the U.S.-Mexico border. They’re all unique and each one tells an interesting story.

The Revenant

Martin Hernandez

Martin Hernandez

Director Alejandro Iñárritu illustrates a unique character to aurally enhance the trying journey of trapper Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) – that character being nature. “Alejandro was always thinking nature as one of the performers on camera,” said supervising sound editor and designer Martin Hernandez. “And it’s quite a task as a mixer to think about that. To think about how to make this character talk. You can change the scene and the film in so many ways so it’s important to make that dynamic eloquent in how loud and vast and big it is.”

The Revenant

The Revenant

What’s unique about The Revenant is the relationship of sound to what we see on screen. The team built a sound palette that went beyond the visuals. “Some editors tend to use sounds to fill what they see on screen. That seems to be ok, but it’s not a true meaning of cutting sound for film,” said Hernandez. “It’s important not to forget where the sound is coming from or where the sound is going to. The emotional storytelling can be told through sounds you’re not exactly looking at but you know they’re there and make sense.”

The gravitational pull of these sounds built an emotionally subliminal bond that started with a simple note from the director. “I stopped in with editor Stephen Mirrione and they were putting a few scenes together, trying to see where the movie was going. Alejandro asked me to keep in mind what I just saw, but to build the sound of the film without looking at it,” notes Hernandez. “I looked at it as more of a feeling of what I liked, not by the sound’s meaning. I wanted to make a single piece that had production sound, effects and music to get a feeling if it belongs to the movie or not.”

Mad Max: Fury Road

Mark Mangini

Mark Mangini

Imagine an empty world. Now fill that empty world with a few thousand people living in a vast desert with nothing around. Maybe there are a few rock structures but not even a bird flies overhead. Think about that visually. Now think about how it would all sound. Empty. Quiet. Now add in the roars of V8 engines, the crunching of metal on metal, and an otherworldly blinding storm. That was the challenge for supervising sound editor Mark Mangini and sound designer David White in Mad Max: Fury Road.

In contrast to The Revenant, nature played a desolate character in this film. The fuel to the audio fire was played by the vehicles, characters themselves. Max’s Interceptor, the War Rig, a supped up Cadillac Coupe De Ville dubbed the Gigahorse, the Nux Car, the Ploughboy, the Peacemaker, Doof Wagon, and the dozens of other road hogs that clashed with Imperator Furiosa. “All of those vehicles are real and on some level evolve out of the gearhead culture of hopped-up V8 engines and big exhausts,” Mangini said. “We took the original production recordings and then we embellished them into bigger, broader sounds.”

Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max: Fury Road

What was distinctive about the sound treatment for the vehicles was they weren’t always metal crushing metal. “The Fury Road story reminded me of Moby-Dick. The War Rig is the great whale and Immortan Joe is Ahab. We used that as a metaphor – Joe being this crazed captain with the intent of killing the War Rig at all costs. And that propelled all sorts of different sound motifs from a visualization standpoint to the sound work. When you’d see a harpoon skewer the War Rig’s tanker, we’d sweeten it with hump back whales moaning and growling. When liquid would burst from the truck, we would have a whale’s blowhole shooting off.”

Throughout the film sound stayed clear from processed elements which grounded a sense of realism in the Mad Max world. “We tried to stay away from artifice,” said Mangini. “We didn’t want to use synthesis in too much of the sound design because it tends to ring untrue, and instead, we used more naturalistic and acoustical sounds.

The Martian

The Martian

The Martian

Ridley Scott’s The Martian grabbed six different Academy Award nominations including one in sound editing and it was Oliver Tarney who was tasked with creating the unrelenting and unforgiving sounds of Mars. Serving both as the sound designer and supervising sound editor, Tarney built an ominous track with heightened moments that choreographed the excruciating struggles of astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon).

Besides the acoustical challenges in developing sound elements for the uninhabited planet, bringing life to an isolated Watney was perfectly played through his breathing. By highlighting his breaths center screen, they emphasized the importance of his fight to stay alive while at the same time connecting the audience to someone who’s more than thirty million miles away.

THE MARTIANOutside the hell Watney battled, sounds were created for the Hab and the Hermes spaceship. The Hab was produced from generating low frequency oscillation tones from subwoofers that were put inside filing cabinets. In doing so, Tarney created a room that felt like it was continually shaking around Watney. It’s this kind of unique sound storytelling that separates the great films from the rest.

Sicario

Alan Robert Murray

Alan Robert Murray

Mastering the auricular art of the gunshot is a difficult challenge in sound. It’s an element all of us know too well so in creating something fresh a designer has to be careful enough in pushing practical boundaries. Director Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario cements us in a realistic narrative of the U.S.-Mexico drug war as we follow a group of agents trying to bring balance to the region.

Sound editor Alan Robert Murray balanced the film’s sound in a way that let cinematographer Rodger Deakins visuals speak volumes and then invaded our ears at the precise moment. “We started scenes with a very quiet, unthreatening atmosphere and then slowly moved through them feeding different textures via subliminal low-end bass or sound design tones to make the viewer feel that something isn’t right. Then as the anxiety builds, it suddenly stops to give the audience a second to recover. Then it all hits you over the head with the crescendo of the scene. It’s calculated but very cool.”

Sicario

Sicario

The characters carried their own sound story as well. “Kate’s very new to all of this. She’s very innocent and all these crazy things are happening around her. We wanted to keep her scenes isolated so you kind of feel her loneliness,” explained Murray. “When you first meet Alejandro you really don’t know anything about him. He has this kind of lingering mystery. When he starts to take over, we built more undertones into his scenes in order to play to the uncertainty of his characters.”

But what stands out in Sicario is the shootout that takes place in the underground tunnels. “The guns had to sound threatening in the tunnel which can be difficult because a space like that tends to wash out the sound dynamics. So when you have a scene where a shooter is off camera and then moves into view, each gunshot gets more concussive and more elements are added to the gunshot. That way by the time you’re close to the shooter the gun has totally changed but you don’t perceive it as a totally different gunshot. It’s something I call ‘dynamic realism’.”

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

David Acord

David Acord

Is it impossible to imagine Star Wars without the hype? To image it just a film and something that’s not engrained into our culture? You can’t. It may be all the marketing, the toys, the fandemonium, the epic story of good versus evil… But what about its iconic sounds? The crash of John Williams’ opening title score. The Millennium Falcon entering lightspeed. The stormtrooper’s E-11 blaster rifle. C-3PO. R2-D2. Chewbacca for that matter. And who could forget about the lightsaber – probably the coolest weapon in the galaxy.

Supervising sound editors Matthew Wood and David Acord had the difficult task of improving those iconic sounds while at the same time developing new ones that fit into a world we’re all too familiar with. “There was a lot of trial and error. Working on Clone Wars and Rebels provided a little training ground to approach our sounds for the movie, but even after working on The Force Awakens for fourteen months, creating the sound effects never got any easier,” said Acord. Wood added, “Star Wars has such a rich sound palette that has been created before by Ben Burtt. We wanted to keep that emotional thread alive from what’s come before, but David’s job was to come up with how to integrate it into the future.”

Star Wars The Force Awakens

Star Wars The Force Awakens

The team also engrained sound stories to the each character, specifically Kylo Ren and Rey. “Kylo Ren is unrefined. He was very raw with his power and not a very refined person,” says Acord. “J.J. really wanted the sound of his lightsaber to reflect him and the look of it does too. It’s this very unique Scottish claymore. A giant butte weapon, so the sound had to be a raw energy, almost an animalistic quality to it.”

Those character sounds continued for their use of the Force too. “At the very root level of Ren’s Force we used the purr of a cat that was pitched and slowed way down to a low rumble,” said Acord. “When Rey starts to fight back, I felt like her power lie from within so I created a calming sound that was similar to a rhythmic heart.”

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