Whether on an action blockbuster, a period drama, a comedy, fantasy or a musical, sound editing—the compilation of a soundtrack of sound effects and background sounds after a film is shot—can make or break a movie. If the sounds you hear don’t gel with the visual, it can be a very unnerving experience. But sound is such an esoteric discipline; to the discerning ear a poorly chosen, badly edited or inappropriate sound effect will stand out like a sore thumb. The rest of us, on hearing such a thing, are just left with a feeling that something isn’t “quite right.”Fortunately, each year it’s the Academy sound branch that decides upon which of the year’s movie releases are worthy of consideration for the sound editing Oscar. The branch, made up of sound editors, mixers, foley artists and sound technicians, considers all the year’s eligible films and votes to determine the five nominees. A change in the sound editing voting procedure has occurred in the past year; where previously seven short-listed films were whittled to three nominees by the branch at a popular bake-off, now there is no bake-off and the sound editing category has a guaranteed five nomination slots upon which the entire Academy will vote. Having five nominations at last puts sound editors on a level playing field with sound mixers, who have had five (or more) guaranteed nominations for over 50 years.So, when faced with the five best sound edited movies, how does a non-sound connoisseur determine what’s truly the best?According to Paul Huntsman, a governor of the Academy’s sound branch and chairman of the sound editing rules committee, those in the know look for a sound editing effort that supports the dramatic nature of the film, speaks articulately and has a cohesiveness or a uniqueness that sets it apart in some way. “It’s easy to make a film big and easy to make a film loud, but it’s much more difficult to make it articulate,” he says.”Good sound design is a subtractive process,” says sound editor Richard King, who won the best sound editing Oscar in 2004 for Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, and was nominated last year for War of the Worlds. “Rather than having 50 sounds happening at once, it’s better to have one sound, like a solo instrument that helps tell the story. It’s like real life is. If you’re driving along a street and you hear a horn, you only hear that one sound, not the car idling or the radio playing. Sometimes even no sound is better.” The sound effects are there to enhance the storytelling, not get in the way of it, he says.Voters should ask themselves do the sound effects enhance the drama of the film? They shouldn’t distract or take one out of the film-watching experience. King says he tries not to be too theoretical about his craft, favoring a more emotional approach. “It’s about finding the sounds that you accept as being appropriate and right and don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the whys and wherefores. You emotionally get it. It emotionally puts you in that place or frame of mind, or scares you or lulls you.”Like music, sound effects can heighten an audience’s emotional reaction to a movie. Voters should think about whether they were convincingly moved by the drama and its highs and lows.According to the Academy’s official guidelines, sound effects should reinforce and complement the story situations, but not overpower them. They should adhere as much as discernible to the period and the locale of the film. “Sound is a very collaborative process that can find its inception with the script,” says Day After Tomorrow and Mission: Impossible III sound editor Mark Stoeckinger. “It is the job of the sound editor to enhance and help tell the story, much like that of a picture editor, through the choice, placement and inherent design of the soundtrack. This includes everything from the performance of a foley footstep to the use of silence to help tell the story. The supervising sound editor, who is the named person for the award, has both the creative role of seeing the director’s vision through and orchestrating all the logistics that go into making it happen.”Most years it’s big action movies that dominate the sound editing nominations, though it’s those that favor a less-is-more approach that tend to win out. Apparently ice storms, battles at sea or giant gorillas on the loose in New York City can be quite subtly crafted.The key, says Stoeckinger, is in identifying what are the most important sounds to articulate in detail. “You have to pick and choose your moments so you don’t overwhelm with a wall of sound. For me, it’s a reactive thing.””Certainly when it comes to sound editing we have a strong reputation for [nominating] those big loud pictures,” says Huntsman. He agrees it can be easier to judge the sound editing on large action films. But, warns Stoeckinger, voters shouldn’t be swayed by the quantity of the sounds or their volume.Occasionally a quieter movie garners a nomination, such as 2002’s Road To Perdition (which lost to The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers) and last year’s beautifully crafted Memoirs of a Geisha, which found itself up against War of the Worlds and the eventual Oscar winner, King Kong. Subtleties can be judged primarily by considering whether the sounds intensify the film and if they’re used in support of the story, says Stoeckinger, such as “sounds used out of context in a unique and interesting way.”And if you don’t feel up to the task of judging a film’s sound editing, there’s always the option of not voting at all. According to one prominent Academy sound branch member, “When I see something I really don’t know much about, I don’t vote on it. I pass on it.” He feels it’s not fair to sway the vote away from what could be the more superior sound editing job, simply because you liked, say, the music, costume design and production value.
Written by Sam Molineaux