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Sound Gets No Respect, But Combining Its Two Oscar Categories Makes Sense

Sound design is woefully underappreciated, but the Academy's new Best Sound category is a better reflection of the craft in the digital age.

Ai-Ling Lee received four Oscar nominations for sound editing and for sound mixing on “First Man” and “La La Land.”

Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound

Let’s get this out of the way: Great films tell stories with sound, but you’d never know it for the kind of credit accorded to the mixers and editors who create it. While cinematographers like “Roger” and “Chivo” have become rock-star mononymous with their images that people can see, aural peers like Gary Rydstrom, Ai-Ling Lee, Julian Slater, Skip Lievsay and Ren Klyce lack the same kind of recognition — even as their work plays a role that’s as great, if not greater.

So when the Academy Governors chose to reduce the number of Oscars awarded for sound by 50 percent, to one — combining Best Sound Editing and Mixing into a single category, Best Sound — that looks like yet another slight to the craft. However, the change was inevitable: The delineation itself didn’t recognize the way modern-day films create sound.

That’s not to suggest sound mixing and editing are the same thing. They are not, and each has its own guild with its own awards. Motion Picture Sound Editors have the Golden Reels, which splits sound editing into disciplines including Best Dialogue/ADR, Best Sound Effects/Foley, and Best Music Underscore (music editors). When the Cinema Audio Society celebrates the best in mixing, they include production, re-recording, dialogue, scoring, ADR, and foley mixers.

However, to the Academy at large, and tens of millions of film fans, their appreciation and understanding of the craft is reduced to what they can hear — what we commonly refer to as sound design. It’s much like production design; an appreciative eye doesn’t delineate the contribution of how locations are dressed, sets are designed, constructed, and painted, props are chosen, or how color, texture and space are used to tell a story.

The Academy’s two sound categories are also a relic of a pre-digital age that fails to account for the evolution of post-production sound. Today, sound editing and mixing have overlapped to the point that even the most astute audiophile might have trouble distinguishing the contribution of each. A lot has changed since the time when movies were cut, spliced, and taped together on flatbeds, and the sound editing team recorded and created sounds that were edited into various tracks.

“Dunkirk”

Richard King, the four-time Oscar-winning sound editor (“Dunkirk,” “Inception,” “The Dark Knight,” “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World”), said he believes the merger was inevitable and overdue.

“When I started out in the ’80s, we worked on film,” he said. “As a sound editor, one could only hear one sound at a time so it was totally a conceptual process designing the sound of a scene or event. You didn’t hear your creation till you got to the stage. Random access editing on a computer changed all that. Now all those tracks can also be heard together and mixed in editorial, taking the design process another giant step forward.”

In an earlier time, the mixing team would be the first ones to take the various tracks and figure out how they blend and work in unison; that’s no longer the case. Similarly, actual sound creation is no longer purely the realm of the sound editor.

“Re-recording mixers subsequently do a lot of editing and adjusting to that work,” said King. “And some are the very people who cut the tracks in the first place.”

We often associate getting just the right sound with sound editors — the wail of a police siren, or the crumbling of the earth — but today just as much credit is due to how it’s manipulated and combined with other sounds, which is the domain of the re-recording mixer.

For example, there’s the sound of a glacier crumbling in “Our Planet.” Watching this, you might assume the sounds themselves were the product of the sound editing team gathering noises from field recordings, sound libraries, or foleys. Those raw materials are there, but there is a process of selection, creation, and manipulation that belongs to re-recording sound mixer Graham Wild. Here, he tells the story of how we experience an enormous chunk of earth crash into the ocean.

It’s accurate to say the roles have blurred to some degree, but it is more accurate to say sound editing and mixing have become more unified, working together in a more sophisticated way. Top sound designers and artisans increasingly require a combined skill set and incorporate both mixing and editing into their jobs on a daily basis.

All of this also applies to the increasingly blurred lines between sound design and score, something that Academy has tried to ignore — but progress is slow in the awards world.

Possibly the best justification for combining sound mixing and editing is the recent award results themselves. In 11 of the last 14 years, four of the five nominees in the sound editing and mixing categories (decided by members of the Academy’s sound branch) were the same. Academy voters picked the same film to win both awards eight times during that period; when the winners do diverge, they fall into an absurd distinction: guns (sound editing) vs. music (sound mixing). “Letters from Iwo Jima” vs. “Dreamgirls” in 2006, “Skyfall” and “Zero Dark 30” (tied) vs. “Les Misérables” in 2012, and “American Sniper” vs “Whiplash” in 2014. Not exactly a sophisticated take on the difference between sound mixing and editing. In fact, it’s reductive of a craft that has only grown more complex.

Additional Reporting by Bill Desowitz. 

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