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Oscar contenders: sound

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By Leonard Klady
They’re off and running and I see Matrix Reloaded taking an early lead with Master and Commander right on its tail, followed by The Alamo and there’s The Italian Job and Seabiscuit coming up the middle and a last minute spurt from Cold Mountain.
In the coming weeks there will be quite a number of new films jockeying for position in both the Sound Editing and Sound Mixing categories at the Academy Awards. The subtle distinction between the two categories has traditionally been a head-scratcher for the majority of Oscar voters. It’s also over the years seen subtle tweaking in both name and definition.
Among those who ply their trade in this arena, Sound Mixing is perceived as the more evocative of the two and Sound Editing (former Sound Effects Editing) leans toward the technical. In that respect Seabiscuit seems a natural among mixing contenders. Anna Behlmer and her team had some very particular challenges, including the use of both period radio shows and the creation of radio programs that were true to the sound of the 1930s and ‘40s. However, it’s the sound of the paddock that’s truly inspirational in the film with a vividness that effortlessly conveys the atmosphere and even the smell of the milieu. Behlmer had prior equine experience as the re-recording mixer on Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron.
In terms of Oscar, Sound Editing falls into the special achievement category with a maximum of three nominees. As with special effects (see prior story), a committee winnows the field down to as many as seven candidates and has its bake-off involving presentations and sound reels. Films have to score a minimum amount to qualify and that’s often meant fewer than three finalists. In 1987, for instance, RoboCop was the sole film to make the cut and received its prize sans competition.
The editing category gives the statuette to a film editor or sound designer while mixing goes to the re-recorders. In some instances the designer and re-recorder are the same person but generally speaking the first primarily involves production sound while mixing goes on in the studio after the completion of filming.
Since its inclusion in 1973 (sound Oscars date back to the third Academy Awards) the Sound Editing category has tended to single out films whose size and epic sweep can amply carry the weight of high-decibel production. In that regard the selection committee could well opt for such flamboyant entries as The Matrix Reloaded, Kill Bill, Terminator 3: The Rise of the Machines or Bad Boys II. More of a long shot is Timeline, which received top technical marks in previews but disappointing response to the time-travel story by Michael Crichton.
However, at this juncture, the two films that convey both heft and the ability to sustain a beautiful cacophony appear to be Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World and The Alamo. In both instances it would mark first time nominations for sound designer Richard King of Master and Commander and The Alamo’s supervising sound editor Jon Johnson. Johnson’s credits include U-571 and Independence Day, both of which were nominated in the mixing category, while King has earlier credits on Signs, Magnolia and Kansas City.
Turning to Sound Mixing, the award is presented to the production mixer and the co-rerecording mixing collaborators (maximum of three). And while invariably there might be one film that overlaps both categories, most nominees tend to get but one shot at a sound Oscar. As with the majority of Oscar categories, the first ballot that determines the final five nominees is restricted to the Academy’s sound branch.
Intentional or not, since the advent of two Academy Awards for sound the Sound or Sound Mixing slate has tended to embrace more upscale production. So, in addition to Seabiscuit and possibly Master and Commander, that would suggest a field that would also include Cold Mountain, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, the new live-action Peter Pan, The Last Samurai and, by dint of its unusual nature, The Singing Detective.
The Singing Detective, adapted by Dennis Potter from his award-winning television play, is a surreal descent into the mind of an ailing man that is punctuated by song-and-dance numbers and deft homage to bygone movies. It’s rare for a non-mainstream film to be nominated in either of the sound categories, but this year, with the studios’ decision not to send out screeners, The Singing Detective—released by Lions Gate—may wind up with a winning edge for supervising re-recording mixer and two-time Oscar winner Mark Berger.
The fate of both The Last Samurai and Peter Pan as possible nominees will likely be determined by commercial success or at least the perception of it during their respective opening weeks in theaters. However, the pedigree of Cold Mountain virtually assures its sound team of a spot on the ballot. Based on Charles Frazier’s award-winning Civil War era novel, it re-teams director Anthony Minghella and two-time Oscar winner Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now, The English Patient). Murch holds a special place in the sound community as teacher, mentor and eloquent writer on the use of sound in the movies. His credits also attest to a singular sensibility in the craft.

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