Thomas J. McLean is an AwardsLine contributor.
Few categories offer as much confusion in Oscar pools as best sound editing and best sound mixing. Unlike the more esoteric categories where few have seen the nominated films, most of the nominees for these categories often overlap and have worked on blockbuster movies.
But while everyone knows the movies and knows what sound is, the difference between the categories remains elusive even to well-informed voters and those working in the fields themselves.
The short description of the differences goes like this: Sound editors assemble all the sound elements except music and edit it into a soundtrack that is synchronized to the images on screen. That includes assembling everything from dialogue tracks recorded on location to sound effects, Foley and ADR, or additional dialogue recording. The mixer then takes the elements of the edited soundtrack and the music and adjusts the volume levels and 3D placement in the theatrical environment.
The longer description is much more complicated.
“There is a lot more of a overlap of duties as it were for the two jobs, but it’s totally a collaboration from beginning to end,” says Philip Stockton, nominated along with Eugene Gearty for the best sound-editing Oscar for Life of Pi.
Asking some of this year’s nominated mixers and editors to describe what they do and the differences between the two categories yields some interesting answers.
“One way of thinking about it is kind of like an orchestra, where you’ll have the composer composing the symphony and then a conductor saying, ‘More flutes here,’ and that’s very much what mixing is—it’s like conducting,” says Erik Aadahl, nominated along with Ethan Van der Ryn for sound editing on Argo. “We’re more the composers on the editing side. The mixers are the conductors, and they find those perfect balances to tell the story—between music and sound design and our dialog—and weave all those together as a conductor would with an orchestra.”
“The sound editing—for which sound design also falls within that category—that’s where the initial sound choices or the sound palette are determined,” says Greg Rudloff, who along with John Reitz and Jose Antonio Garcia are nominated for sound mixing on Argo. “Once they’ve gathered all these sounds and they’ve put them in synch with the picture, then they bring it to us on the mixing stage. Now we take all these elements—whether they’re dialogue, music, sound effects, background, Foley, whatever—we take all these elements and we start blending them together. We start creating the final mix.”
“In many ways what we’re doing is preparing bricks and lumber, but I don’t build the final structure. That’s what those guys do,” says Drew Kunin, who as production mixer on Life of Pi shares a nomination with Ron Bartlett and D.M. Hemphill.
Within these broad distinctions, the nature of the work can cover a wide range of tasks on any given movie.
Having worked on every Ang Lee movie since The Ice Storm still didn’t prepare Kunin for the challenges of Life of Pi. The sequences filmed with actor Suraj Sharma on the tank simulating his trans-Pacific crossing were extremely difficult to record. The sounds of the wind and wave machines, a nearby freeway, the relative noisiness of 3D cameras and the size of the tank made it difficult to get any usable material, prompting Kunin to set up an on-location looping stage. That allowed Sharma to re-record and synch his dialogue while he was still in the moment and at the same age. That meant less of Kunin’s work as production mixer made it into the film. “Certainly a smaller percentage than with any other Ang Lee film that I’ve worked on because a huge portion of the film was compromised by the physical effects, by the tank and the wind and wave machines.”
On Django Unchained, sound editor Wylie Stateman says director Quentin Tarantino wanted a hyper-real feel to the sound that also reflected the 1960s and 1970s spaghetti westerns to which the movie was paying homage. That meant creating all the gun sounds from scratch, with location recording in Monument Valley and Death Valley. It also meant creating horse sounds that synched with the music when possible and paying attention to details in the intimate dialogue moments, such as the clink of dishes or sipping of drinks during dinner scenes.
“Quentin’s films are very much custom made from original elements so that they’re emotionally connected to both the visual style and his historical perspective,” says Stateman.
History also played a significant role on Argo, where the sound editors assembled a large cast of Farsi-speaking extras and recorded them from behind windows and other locations to create sounds for the opening scenes of the U.S. embassy take-over in Tehran.
“The way that Ben (Affleck) and the picture editor, Billy Goldenberg, constructed that whole sequence, it was perfect for us to be able to be right out in the middle of it and then inside the U.S. embassy hearing the chaos through the windows and really building the reality of that whole experience,” says Aadahl. “It was really gratifying to see it all come together.”
As the overlap shows—Argo, LIfe of Pi, and Skyfall were nominated in both categories—there is significant collaboration between editors and mixers that has been growing thanks to digital technology.
“There used to be a very definitive line between what sound editors do and sound mixers do, and it’s a little blurrier now in, I think, a very good way,” says Stockton. Generally, that means sound editors are increasingly involved with and present for the mixing. “Sound editors go to mixes; mixers don’t hang around while you’re editing,” says Stockton. “One feeds into the next.”