Sound Editing and Sound Mixing Nominees Often Overlap

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.”

Q&A: Tim Burton On Frankenweenie

In the final stretch before the Oscar ballot deadline, there’s still hope that voters remain undecided in the animation category. Though Walt Disney has cornered the Oscar slot with three titles, its Frankenweenie stands as an island against the epic Brave and the existential crisis comedy of Wreck-It Ralph. The film is an auteur’s youthful dream short, once buried by the studio that has resuscitated it as a 3D stopmotion feature—the first in black and white. This Frankenstein homage about a boy who brings his dead dog back to life is signature Burton complete with his monster movie motifs, funky production design, and poetic adolescent themes. Many will argue that Burton is long overdue for an Oscar, and God knows, he’s come close: He was previously nominated in the animated category for 2005’s Corpse Bride. His 1994 absurdist biopic Ed Wood garnered a supporting actor win for Martin Landau (as Bela Lugosi) and best makeup, while 2007’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street won best art direction and noms for Johnny Depp as best actor and Colleen Atwood’s costumes. Another appealing Burton attribute for Oscar voters is that he remains an iconoclast among the big-studio directors working today—he’s a visual artist with a spooky canon that appears alienating with its deep subtext, but that lures the masses with its fanciful spins on children’s tales such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland. AwardsLine recently spoke to Burton about his career and Frankenweenie’s place in it.

AwardsLine: Why was this the best time to make Frankenweenie as a stopmotion feature? You were just as successful then as you are now and could have conceivably made it in 1993 instead of Nightmare Before Christmas.

Tim Burton: All these projects take a long time. I remember when I first designed Nightmare, it took about 10 years to get that in place because nobody really wanted to do stopmotion, and in a way, there weren’t a lot of facilities that were doing it. We did the Frankenweenie short many years ago, and I never really planned on it being anything else. Over the years, I just kept kind of thinking about the relationship with my dog, but also other monster movies, the kids and teachers from my school, and even the downtown places in Burbank. A lot more thoughts came into Frankenweenie, and it just felt like the right medium for it. It was fun to do the live action thing, but going back and forth and looking at the original drawings (stopmotion) felt like a more pure version to do it. And, again, it was fun to expand on all those kind of memories.

AwardsLine: Was there a specific part of Burbank that you grew up in that you based the setting upon?

Burton: Off Victory Boulevard, Hollywood Way, moving toward North Hollywood, but the flatlands of Burbank. And a little bit of the downtown area, up where the City Hall is, but mainly the flats. There’s also that geography of the flats and then the hill—the sort of up-against-the-mountains kind of thing.  It was based on memories—the starkness of things like the park and even the downtown; we tried to personalize it as much as we could. The original we shot live action in Pasadena, which isn’t really the same kind of feel and look of Burbank. Burbank is kind of a hermetically sealed place. It doesn’t really change much. There are more trees now than there used to be, but it’s kind of the same.

AwardsLine: When you made the original short, where did you see it being placed?

Burton: It was originally meant to go out with an animated feature. It’s like in the old days when animated features were fairly short, they’d have a nature live action short Country Cougar Goes to Hollywood—you know, that kind of “raccoon comes to town” stuff. The idea was it would go out with Pinocchio as a featurette. Then when Disney saw it, they got freaked out by it, and so it didn’t get released. They showed it in front of Pinocchio and nobody had a bad reaction to it, but when Pinocchio and the whale came onscreen, kids were screaming and crying out of the theater. That’s what Disney movies do! So it never got released, but it was still enjoyable to do.

AwardsLine: That’s really bizarre. I was crying and screaming when I saw the whale as a kid, but there was never a Disney short that could trigger such an emotion.

Burton: I know, that’s the weird thing. It’s hard to find logic in things sometimes. That’s why I can’t analyze things too much because it often doesn’t make much sense.

AwardsLine: Well, given whatever hiccup you had with Frankenweenie, you had a really successful run with the studio. How has Disney’s philosophy, or their way of thinking, changed toward avant garde artists such as yourself? How has it changed throughout the years?

Burton: Obviously there’s been different regimes over the years. All different types of people have come in, but they always try to follow some slightly strange Walt philosophy, which gets kind of abstract down the years. But I have to say, on this movie and my recent experiences with them, there were no arguments about the black and white; they seemed to understand it. I think it probably helped that the movie didn’t cost a whole lot; it made it easier to accept the black and white. They were cool about it, and they were very supportive of it, and I’m just always very grateful when that happens. It’s not their usual thing so for me it means a lot.

AwardsLine: What is it that you love about stopmotion? I know 3D makes the art form more amazing.

Burton: Well, I mean I love it. I think of Ray Harryhausen’s work—I knew his name before I knew any actor or director’s names. His films had an impact on me very early on, probably even more than Disney. I think that’s what made me interested in animation: His work. And there’s something that’s old-fashioned and quite beautiful about it. The thing that’s amazing is, it’s like live action but imagined, and it’s tactile. The puppets are usually these beautiful little works of art that move, and to see a character walking in and out of shadows one frame at a time and the lighting, it’s like a real movie. There’s something magical about it. It kind of connects you back to the origins of film, in a way. There’s something about seeing this little inanimate object coming to life that’s just very exciting. That’s why with Nightmare I held out for so long to do it.

AwardsLine: I remember the ParaNorman filmmakers speaking at Deadline’s The Contenders and mentioning that it took them a week to shoot one minute of footage. Is that the same production time for you?

Burton: Oh, yeah.

AwardsLine: Or do you have the benefit of working with several crews?

Burton: No, we had a pretty small crew. I would say there were times that we wouldn’t even get a minute in a week. We had a smaller crew, definitely, than we had on Nightmare or Corpse Bride, for sure.

AwardsLine: Wow. On those films, were you able to do two minutes a week or is that just a crazy schedule?

Burton: No, it depends. It depends on the shots. I mean, it can take up to a week to do a shot, depending on the complexity of it. At most, you’d be lucky to get a couple of shots a day once you get up and running and ramping, and you’re fully into it. Also, sometimes you start out with a slightly smaller crew, and as it goes the people that are assistants actually are quite good at animating, so (you) sort of train people that don’t start out as animators but several months into production they become decent animators. So it kind of changes a little bit.

AwardsLine: So you’ve actually taken on journeymen in stopmotion, and by the end of the film, they’ve become pretty experienced?

Burton: Yes, and it’s actually quite difficult because it’s such a rare find. The people that are good at doing it get lured into the more lucrative computer animation, and/or they go to other companies, so each time I’ve done a project. I’ve had to find people. There’s a few people I’ve worked with that have been consistent, but you have to start from scratch almost each time because, also, it takes time to mount. From Nightmare to Corpse Bride to this, building the puppets takes a lot of R&D. There’s a lot of time: Here’s the drawing, but is the puppet going to work? And there’s a lot of ripping and tearing, and now we have to make this bigger, and you know all that stuff that goes into making (it) that takes up quite a bit of time.

AwardsLine: Well, creative justice has been served and Frankenweenie is nominated for an Oscar. Have you ever tried to make heads or tails of the Academy and the way they vote? Did you ever make a film and say to yourself, “Hey, this could possibly be Oscar worthy”?

Burton: No. I mean, I can’t even target this for children or adults (laughs).  Honestly, I think you can find by our conversation, there are a lot of things that are quite abstract about the whole thing, so I think for me it’s not something that’s in your control. It’s hard to analyze or predict things. I think if I ever had that thought, it would freak me out and I wouldn’t be able to do a project!

AwardsLine: I first saw Pee-wee’s Big Adventure when I was 13, so I’ve grown up with your career and came to embrace your work in the same vein as David Lynch and Terry Gilliam. Each of you had your own distinctive voice, but what you’ve been able to do that they haven’t, is you’ve become widely appreciated and most of your work is mainstream. What do you attribute that to?

Burton: Again, it’s hard for me to analyze it because, as everybody, you have your ups and downs, but it’s funny because I’ve never been able to target. Like I said, from the beginning of my career, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice were on some of the year’s worst Top 10 lists and it’s like, “Whoa!”, you know? So I’m no stranger to bad reviews and things. But then many years later, those two worst movies of the year, “Well those were his two best films,” you know? (laughs). Like, is it going that downhill? Some of the worst movies of the year were my best? I may as well just end it all right now. So I mean it does make it kind of a strange in an Alice in Wonderland kind of world in that way. I find that the most special thing to me is if you’ve connected to people in some way. If someone comes up to you on the street and says something to you and you know it’s meant something to them and it’s connected to some project. That, I find, is amazing. Every movie can go either way and you never can predict it.  That whole MoMA exhibit (on my work)—a lot of people think that I went to MoMA and said, “Hey, would you put my artwork up in your museum?” (But) they came to me, which I was quite surprised about, because it’s not something that I would have ever thought of or even considered. So that was a strange surprise. I liked the curators. I felt my work was in good hands, but again it was not something I was looking for. It was an amazing, interesting surprise.

AwardsLine: Was there ever a filmmaker or studio executive who influenced you in your career and made you trust your voice?

Burton: I’ve had lots of help. To be honest, whatever troubles you’ve had, I’ve also gotten the opportunities to do things. I remember early in my career with Disney, which was a very strange time in the company—there were a couple of executives who were very supportive of me and kind of let me do my own thing. You know when I went to Warner Bros. there was a woman named Bonnie Lee who was an executive who helped me to get to Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. They’re giving you the money, and you try to find people you relate to as much as possible, so I’ve been lucky to have people, especially early on, be supportive and help me along.

AwardsLine: Touching on Johnny Deep for a moment.  You know, I never watched 21 Jump Street…

Burton: (laughs) Yeah, I’ve never seen that.

AwardsLine: Well, Edward Scissorhands was the first time I ever saw him act, and he blew me away.

Burton: I think it probably helped that I hadn’t seen 21 Jump Street (laughs).

AwardsLine: What did you see in Depp early on?

Burton: It was quite simple. I mean, I knew about 21 Jump Street, and I had seen pictures and stuff, and I met him and he just reminded me of what the character was. At the time he was perceived as a teen idol, you know, a Justin Bieber type of guy, but as a person he wasn’t that. So, for me, he mirrored what Edward Scissorhands was: He was something inside, but people treated him a certain way because of the way he looks. So in a weird way, he was the character, because he had those feelings.

AwardsLine: Is he involved early on in the scripts with you, particularly with Dark Shadows? I remember Seth Grahame-Smith mentioning at a Q&A that Depp acted out the character of Barnabas Collins in a development meeting with both of you.

Burton: It depends. Every one has been different. I’m trying to think back.  With Ed Wood, the script was there. I think on Sweeney Todd, I just asked him, before there was a script, if he’d go for it. But usually there’s a script.

AwardsLine: And your next project?

Burton: Yeah, I don’t really know what it is, so don’t bother with that (laughs). Really. Because I just sort of injured myself so I’m just getting through the pain threshold now, so it’s kind of hard to think at the moment. And I don’t really have anything at the moment.

AwardsLine: Jumping back to Frankenweenie, you said you re-created some of your teachers in the film.  And there’s this great homage to the old monster movies: There’s a kid who looks like Igor, the science teacher looks like Vincent Price who I’ve always known has been an idol of yours. Now, did these people in your life actually look like Igor and Vincent Price?

Burton: Oh, yeah. There was definitely a weird girl—I very specifically remember her. And some of the people there were a mixture of types. There was a couple that were maybe like two people that were kind of stuck into one—just the sort of dynamics and the kid politics and the way kids act toward each other and the wise oldies. Again, I just tried to go back and remember all those feelings and the way that other kids felt quite strange to me. So I just tried to capture those feelings of those memories.

AwardsLine: Lastly on the music. Your composer Danny Elfman mentioned that there isn’t a shorthand between the two of you after working together for several years, that each time is like starting anew. What was your take on your musical process together, particularly with Frankenweenie?

Burton: It is funny because I’ve known him since the beginning of my career so it is strange. It doesn’t seem like it’s getting any easier (laughs). I don’t know what that is all about because there is a weird—I mean, I’m not a musician, so it’s hard for me. I do find it hard sometimes to communicate with him, and the easiest thing for me to do is to play him a piece of music, but he doesn’t like that. And I don’t really like doing that either because it’s like, well, most composers don’t like temp scores. On a project like this, it’s the kind of (Bernard Herrmann) stuff that he loves, so there’s that kind of obvious connection there. He grew up loving those old monster movies as well. He got the emotion of the story as well. So it wasn’t that difficult.

Les Miserables Production Design

Diane Haithman is an AwardsLine contributor. This article appeared in the Feb. 13 issue of AwardsLine.

The set for an empty street—easy, right? Not when you’re working on the movie version of the hit stage musical Les Misérables for director Tom Hooper (2010’s Academy Award winner for The King’s Speech). Production designer Eve Stewart says Hooper was such a stickler for authenticity in re-creating 1832 Paris that, for the first few days, “there was an awful lot of horse poo about—real horse poo.” To avoid a rebellion on the part of cast and crew, real horse droppings were quickly replaced with fakes. By phone from London, Stewart talked about this and other challenges in creating just the right look for Rue de la Chanvrerie as described in Victor Hugo’s classic novel.

1) Buildings in 1832 Paris, the year of the June Rebellion depicted in the film, “were still very medieval, not like the Paris you see now,” says Stewart, who was able to find historic newspaper pictures to use as guides. Tall buildings lined streets so narrow that people could throw furniture out upper windows and quickly create a barricade. These buildings, constructed at London’s Pinewood Studios, are 40 to 50 feet high. “It was actually cheaper to build them that height than to do it by computer,” Stewart says. More modern Parisian streets were made wider, says Stewart, so revolutionaries could no longer block passage “with a couple of armchairs.”

2) The buildings are not only tall, they lean and sag in all directions. “What was really difficult for me was to persuade the usual perfectionist carpenters and plasterers to make everything crooked,” Stewart explains. “It was really important to have all the buildings look like exhausted, tired, stricken members of the community.” Stewart used mostly salvage wood and old doors to help create the downtrodden look.

3) The cobblestone street is wet after a summer storm, the backdrop for the dying Éponine’s big song, “A Little Fall of Rain.” Because songs were performed live, the roofs of buildings were carpeted to mute the “raindrops” falling from water machines hanging from grids on the studio ceiling. In fact, Stewart says, many design details, including horses’ hooves, carriage wheels, and beads, had to be “made rubbery” or coated to avoid clops, clacks, and clinks during live musical performances.

4) This sign for an ophthalmologist’s shop has a literal meaning as well as a symbolic one. Circa 1832, “making spectacles was quite a big business in Paris, especially in the backstreets. It was described in Hugo’s novel, so I was keen to get it in,” Stewart says. The eye also plays into an attempt to introduce a subtle religious motif throughout the film: “Quite often you’ll see a little cross, the eye of the Lord, individual bits and pieces to show the greater spirit of the Lord.”

5) Other signs of the times: As described in Hugo’s novel, Parisian streets were teeming with businesses that promoted their wares by hanging posters and graphics and even painting directly on plaster walls. As in the case of the sagging buildings, Stewart wanted a naturalistic imperfection, so she hired an 80-year-old English sign writer, Graham Prentice, to do the lettering, rather than a scenic artist. “I was very keen to get slightly wonky sign-writing,” Stewart says. “He’d walk around in his old Parisian overalls. It was part of the joy of that set. It was a little community. Carpenters and painters would take pride in their own buildings: ‘Ours was better.’ ”

Anna Karenina Production Design

Diane Haithman is an AwardsLine contributor. This article appeared in the Feb. 13 issue of AwardsLine.

The Anna Karenina design team had to switch gears fast when director Joe Wright decided to set Anna’s oppressive high-society world inside a theater instead of shooting on location in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Money talked; location shooting would have blasted the film’s modest $31 million budget. Production designers had only 12 weeks to create interior and exterior “locations” that could exist within the confines of a theater set. In this stylized approach, the movie audience is aware of the theater, but the movie characters are not. The walls around Anna become literal, not figurative. “A Rubik’s Cube is often how we described this film: You’d twist it and then, suddenly, you’d twist it again, and it would just fall apart in your mind,” says production designer Sarah Greenwood. “You’re not just making pretty pictures here; you are telling a very big story.” Greenwood and set decorator Katie Spencer talk about putting together the puzzle of the living room set for the Moscow home of Oblonsky, Anna’s brother.

1) This scale model of the Oblonsky house stands inside the larger Oblonsky living room set, which in turn stands inside the larger theater set. Designers liken the layers of interiors (and meaning) to Russian nesting dolls. Keira Knightley’s Anna and the children look like giants trapped inside the ornate small-scale house. Although she is visiting her brother’s family in Moscow, Anna, from St. Petersburg, still appears caged the way she is in her own austere home and loveless marriage.

2) Greenwood and Spencer designed this colorful, richly textured interior to contrast Anna’s life in St. Petersburg with her brother’s life in Moscow. Greenwood says that during this period, Moscow borrowed from the exotic Eastern style of the Ottoman Empire and was “rejoicing in its Russian-ness,” whereas design was more spare and Western in St. Petersburg. The chaotic scatter of pillows, musical instruments, and children’s toys also highlights the difference between the earthy, boisterous Oblonsky home and the passionless lifestyle of the Karenina family.

3) This little theater-in-a-box is a child’s toy, but also represents a scale model of the larger theater set. Inside the small theater, the stage is set for The Nutcracker ballet (a detail audiences might never notice, but that became a fun project for art department assistant Martha Parker). Another insider’s treat: The little blocks on the ministage are a miniature version of the medium-sized alphabet blocks Levin uses to propose to Kitty in a later scene. Completing the trio: On this set, up high and to the right, are several alphabet blocks in a larger size.

4) The designers call this gold chair and footstool “transition pieces” from the living room set to the theater’s backstage area, represented by the empty picture frames and painted flats stacked behind and alongside the chair. Light streams into the theater through a window piled with snow. In the movie, this prop-shop area is the theater’s basement, but the actual set was built on the same level as the rest of the theater spaces. The chair is draped with a 100-year-old real leopard skin rented for the production (law would prevent the use of a new fur from an endangered species). In late 19th-century Moscow, Spencer observes, there was no such thing as too much opulence, or too much gold leaf.

5) The doll fits into the story, but also pays homage to director Joe Wright’s upbringing. The English director’s parents founded Little Angel Theater, a puppet theater in Islington. “The doll she’s holding is a puppet, and that little puppet was made by Joe Wright’s mother,” says Spencer. “Keira (as Anna) also uses the puppet when she talks about when she was first married and how she believed in love.”


The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Production Design

Diane Haithman is an AwardsLine contributor. This article appeared in the Feb. 13 issue of AwardsLine.

Production designer Dan Hennah—nominated for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey with set decorators Ra Vincent and Simon Bright—says that this set for hobbit Bilbo Baggins’ comfy parlor is one of few that did not require a CGI extension to accommodate both fantasy elements and the movie’s large band of characters, who tend to appear together in many scenes. And even the simplest of sets required finetuning to meet the demands of 3D. By phone from New Zealand, Hennah talked about this scene in which Bilbo (Martin Freeman) talks with Dwalin (Graham McTavish) as the dwarf slurps his way through Bilbo’s carefully hoarded food supply.

1) Bilbo’s parlor had to be built twice: Once in “hobbit scale” and once in a .76 “wizard scale” for Gandalf (Ian McKellen), so Gandalf would appear to be too tall for his surroundings, whereas for the hobbits it would be, as Goldilocks might have observed, “just right.” Hennah says the less dramatic difference in size between hobbits and dwarves was taken care of by casting: Most actors portraying dwarves are taller than Freeman.

2) Hobbits hate adventure, so Bilbo’s home is full of things that make him feel safe: A warm teapot, a full larder, his favorite books. “This is 60 years before The Lord of the Rings, when he was sort of an old guy who had accumulated a lot of stuff and was sort of untidy; this was more (for) a casual, homely bachelor,” Hennah says. For The Hobbit, Hennah’s team took advantage of the fact that New Zealand can boast more traditional craftspeople than a Renaissance Fair. “We had potters and glass blowers and pipe makers and book binders. New Zealand is a great place for alternative lifestyles, and that often translates into making something that you can sell,” he explains. The designers created their own fantasy era rooted in 17th-century England, but “once you make up the rules, you have to stick with them or you break the spell,” Hennah says.

3) That’s no rubber fish that Dwalin is noshing on: It’s the real deal, caught by one of the prop dressers who’d been out just that morning trying his luck in the local bay. “There were probably quite a few real fish, we were cooking them up” to use on set, Hennah says. Since dead fish are like houseguests (best if they don’t stay around too long), the crew kept plenty of ice on hand to keep them fresh.

4) Often books on sets have authentic bindings but blank pages. But Bilbo, Hennah says, “is sort of a learned chap” who loves to read, so his books can’t hide on the shelf. Plus he’s writing his own book, There and Back Again, using a quill pen. A calligrapher with quill expertise was called in to create the book pages. And the calligrapher worked overtime on a document used in another scene at Bilbo’s home, when he reads over the alarming contract he must sign before accompanying the dwarves on their dangerous quest to reclaim Lonely Mountain from the dragon.

5) The Hobbit was shot in 3D using a high-speed 48 frames per second (normal 2D speed is 24 fps). Some film critics thought the images created by the high-speed process were too sharp, making The Hobbit look more like a videogame than a feature film. Critical taste aside, Hennah says that extra clarity required more careful attention to items in the background or middle ground that would have appeared out of focus in regular 2D. Plus, 3D tends to desaturate colors, so everything had to be made in brighter colors than it appears.

Best Picture Nominees Had Uphill Production Battles

Pete Hammond is Deadline’s awards columnist. This article appeared in the Feb. 6 issue of AwardsLine.

As the industry kicks into full awards mode, with one guild after another handing out trophies to whomever they consider the year’s best in any given field, it’s become increasingly clear this is a year like we have not seen in a while. Certainly every season we go through this ritual of watching the crème de la crème of the industry line up to get awards, but rarely have we seen as dense a field of top contenders, and especially deserving ones, as we have this year. The common denominator among most, if not all, of the contenders in Oscar’s 24 categories is how difficult it was in the first place to get any of these films made in a sequel-happy, franchise-loving, play-it-safe motion picture industry.

Daniel Day-Lewis, who stars in Lincoln,is the frontrunner in the best actor race.
Daniel Day-Lewis, who stars in Lincoln,is the frontrunner in the best actor race.

For example, Steven Spielberg began talking about Lincoln with Doris Kearns Goodwin before she started writing the book and struggled for well over a decade to bring it to the screen, getting turned down by three studios in the process. And first-time feature filmmaker Benh Zeitlin went against all industry norms to make the unique and hard-to-define Beasts of the Southern Wild come to life. But no matter who the filmmaker is, the most often-heard mantra is stick to your core beliefs and vision and somehow an Oscar-worthy film can be willed into being. Even James Bond ran into trouble when MGM went bankrupt and a normal 2½-year process turned into twice that for Skyfall, which went on to win five Oscar nominations. It also got recognition as one of the year’s best pictures from the Producers Guild, as well it should, considering what its veteran producers went through to just to make it.

Of course, it doesn’t matter who you are or how many Oscars you have won, it is never easy. Life of Pi’s Ang Lee worked a grueling five years before finally seeing his unusual and once-thought unfilmable film version of Yann Martel’s book get to the screen and earn $500 million-plus worldwide and counting. And 20th Century Fox had it in development for 10 years. “Everyone was nervous. The studio dropped me twice. It was a kid, water, a tiger, digital, 3D, Taiwan location, a philosophical movie, a film about someone adrift in water who wasn’t Tom Hanks,” Lee explains. It took him a solid year just to prep the digital water scenes before shooting any footage.

For a film on the opposite end of the scale, Silver Linings Playbook, which relies almost solely on its actors for its special effect, the journey was just as long and just as hard. It started with two late producer-directors Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella before eventually finding its way to David O. Russell, who wanted to make it five years ago, even before The Fighter, but found that the stars weren’t aligned yet. They eventually would be, but not before blood, sweat, and tears went into a shoot that in the end had to be accomplished in a remarkable 33 days for a 150-page script.

Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty closely follows the real-life raid on Osama bin Laden's hideout in Pakistan.
Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty closely follows the real-life raid on Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan.

Or what about Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s Zero Dark Thirty, the movie that was developed about the hunt for Osama bin Laden? The filmmakers had to turn on a dime when bin Laden was killed, rewriting the concept and reporting the story at the same time it was being crafted. And Argo, a true declassified story about the amazing CIA mission to use Hollywood know-how to help rescue six American hostages stuck in the Canadian Embassy during the 1979 Iranian crisis, spent years in development as a George Clooney project but only finally found its way through Ben Affleck.

Then there’s Les Misérables, a true worldwide stage musical phenomenon that still took 27 years to get to the screen and went through hell to do it. Or Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, which during a 130-day shoot saw its leading actors sidelined by emergency surgery when Christoph Waltz’s horse was bitten by a bee early on, and Waltz, thrown to the ground, had to have a pelvic operation. Then Jamie Foxx’s shoulder gave out, and he had to go into emergency surgery in the middle of production.

These select few, which made the immense effort required to see their films through, earned Oscar nominations for a job well done. These enormously talented film artists can still stand very proud that they got through it, made something great, and are headed to the Dolby Theater on Feb. 24. Some will get to the stage and some won’t, but this year in particular they all deserve to be called winners.

The French-language Amour follows a husband who must care for his ailing wife.
The French-language Amour follows a husband who must care for his ailing wife.

Amour (Sony Pictures Classics)

Producers: Margaret Ménégoz, Stefan Arndt, Veit Heiduschka, Michael Katz

Awards: 5 Oscar noms, Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or winner, 4 European Film Awards (best actor, actress, director, film), 1 Golden Globe win (foreign language film), 4 BAFTA noms, 1 CCMA win (foreign language film), and an Indie Spirit nom (international film).

No simplicity in small sets: “It wasn’t a very fast shoot. It took nine weeks. Even though the film takes place over two hours in roughly the same room, it’s complicated to dress the set, not only to make it interesting but that it syncs in every scene. Our actors weren’t young people, and they need more time to learn the script,” Ménégoz says.

No business in geriatric scripts: “Michael’s critical and boxoffice success with The White Ribbon ($19.3 million) didn’t open doors to financers. A lot of them were afraid of Amour’s subject matter surrounding elderly, ill people. It’s a taboo subject. I was able to make the film at €8 million ($10.8 million), but the French were so afraid that they didn’t give me enough money; I had to go back to our German coproducer,” Ménégoz recalls.

Seriously, we really need you for this: “Jean-Louis Trintignant stopped making movies years ago, but he’s worked nearly every day in all the live theaters in France. He completed a tour of poetry readings, and he likes his work in the theater. He is an actor that likes to be in front of the audience—on the set of a film, they’re very far away. He loved Caché by Michael Haneke. I gave Jean-Louis the script for Amour, and he told me that he didn’t want to make any more films: ‘I’m too tired and old. I like the theater,’ he said. He read the script and liked it, especially that it was comprised of three main characters and took place from room to room. He thought the dialogue was very precise, but found it to be a sad script. ‘I won’t do the film,’ he said. So I talked to Jean-Louis three or four more times until he finally accepted. Emmanuelle Riva always wanted the part. She auditioned with other actresses, but she knew deeply in her heart and head that this was the part for her. It was obvious she was the best as she made the perfect couple with Jean-Louis,” Ménégoz says.—Anthony D’Alessandro

A big cast and multiple shooting locations made Argo a producing challenge.
A big cast and multiple shooting locations made Argo a producing challenge.

Argo (Warner Bros.)

Producers: Grant Heslov, Ben Affleck, George Clooney

Awards: 7 Oscar noms, 7 BAFTA noms, 2 Golden Globe wins (director and drama), 2 CCMA wins (picture and director), 1 SAG Award (ensemble), PGA Zanuck Award, plus DGA and WGA noms.

Having a writer on the set: “On my other two movies, stuff had to be rewritten, and I would go off into a corner and kind of puzzle over it. It would take me forever, and I would stay up all weekend. (On Argo), it was so nice to be able to say to (screenwriter) Chris (Terrio), ‘I don’t think it’s clear exactly what the agenda is of the State Department in this scene. Could you rewrite that scene?’ and have him come back later with the answer. I felt like I was looking at the back of a test,” Affleck explains.

Scale and scope mean challenges: “(For) those big protest scenes in the beginning, we had 2,000 actors, and those days were really impossible days. We had bad weather, but just logistically speaking, to get 2,000 people to a set, ready to shoot, by 6 o’clock in the morning, all having to go through wardrobe that day because you don’t fit them the day before, takes military precision. Everything takes forever—just to reset for the shot and to get everybody turned around and get everybody looking in the right direction is a major effort,” Heslov says.

But it was still kinda fun: “It was cold, it was raining, it was very hard to keep people around and, of course, it turned out somehow we didn’t have enough food—there were all sorts of problems like that. Meanwhile, I’m worrying about, ‘OK, let’s do the big shots with the cranes,’ and as we lose people, I keep making the big shots tighter and tighter and tighter because I’m worried people are going to start just walking off the job. The other issue was that the people who were available to be around all day to come be extras in movies are the elderly. The younger people are working. This is supposed to be a student revolution; the students are in school. So basically we had a lot of folks who were over 65 in a student revolution. So they just made up for it with passion—chanting, going nuts. It was ultimately exhilarating, fun, and thrilling—it felt like it had a real partnership,” Affleck explains.

Connecting with extras in L.A.: “It was intense. People had these stories of, ‘I was there,’ ‘This is how we escaped,’ so it just got overwhelming. It was like simultaneously shooting extras and day players and (doing) research. Not only were we hearing it, but they were telling everyone in the crew, and people in the crew were really moved. Up until that time, they had looked at it just as a movie, and not something based on historical events that were incredibly traumatic. So the whole movie absorbed an extra level of seriousness just being around the Persian population of Los Angeles; the majority of them left right around the revolution,” Affleck recalls.—Christy Grosz

Beasts of the Southern Wild features a 6-year-old star who had never acted before
Beasts of the Southern Wild features a 6-year-old star who had never acted before

Beasts of the Southern Wild (Fox Searchlight)

Producers: Dan Janvey, Josh Penn, Michael Gottwald

Awards: 4 Oscar noms, 4 Cannes Film Festival awards (FIPRESCI, Golden Camera, Prix Regards Jeune, Ecumenical Jury), 2 Sundance Film Festival wins (Cinematography, Grand Jury Prize), 4 Indie Spirit noms, 1 CCMA (best young actor/actress for Quvenzhané Wallis), 1 BAFTA nom.

Epic demands: “We had to find a 6-year-old, and we wanted to make this film on an epic scale on a low budget,” producer Josh Penn revealed at the PGA Awards Breakfast Jan. 26. “Then we had to make these giant prehistoric beasts that we didn’t want to do via computer, but rather live beings, so we got these baby pigs. Then once you have baby pigs, how do you make them 15 feet tall? Plus, none of us had made a feature film before.”

Cherchez la femme: “We had a similar challenge to Ang Lee (on Life of Pi) in searching for a movie star who we could rest the entire movie upon her shoulders. It was like the Hugh Jackman kind of thing with Les Misérables where there was only one person who could play the part, and they were somewhere in the first through fourth grade of Louisiana. Literally, a friend of Quvenzhané Wallis’ mother saw fire in (Quvenzhané) and said to her mother, ‘Quvenzhané likes to play make-believe. Why don’t you bring her to this audition?’  She never thought of acting before. We saw 4,000 kids across Louisiana and thought someday, this girl would walk into our lives. If we didn’t find this girl, there was no reason to make this movie.”

Christoph Waltz, left, is nominated for Django Unchained. He was thrown from a horse during production.
Christoph Waltz, left, is nominated for Django Unchained. He was thrown from a horse during production.

Django Unchained (The Weinstein Co.)

Producers: Stacey Sher, Pilar Savone, Reginald Hudlin

Awards: 5 Oscar noms, 5 BAFTA noms, 2 Golden Globe wins (supporting actor Christoph Waltz, screenplay Quentin Tarantino).

Location, location: “Nothing was easy about this movie. It was challenging from day one: Getting going, scouting New Orleans and Mammoth Mountain, then building our location there and realizing that we had no snow. Then uprooting to Wyoming, and Quentin driving by an elk field and saying to our line producer and location manager, ‘I want to shoot there.’ Well, that’s a challenge—it’s a wildlife preserve! Quentin will look at you at any given moment and say, ‘I need this actor that I shot with three weeks ago, and I need him tomorrow,’ ” says Savone.

“He always knew when he saw two or three of us approaching, that it was something large like global warming that we had to deal with —like the time when we had to inform him that it’s not going to snow in Mammoth for the first time in 100 years,” adds Sher. “There were a lot of ‘Bring me the broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the West moments.’ But we had a joke among the three of us: ‘No’ is not an option.”

Addition and subtraction of actors: “We had huge movie stars wanting to do day-player parts, people we had to work a schedule around given the film’s logistics. However, every one of those actors are used to being No. 1 on the call sheet, rightly so, so everyone typically schedules around them. Because of everyone else’s schedule, snow, weather, and location, we couldn’t do that for everyone. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Anthony LaPaglia went off to make other movies. The happy accident was that our schedule and Jonah Hill’s changed, making him available. Who ends up having Jonah Hill in one scene? We were so blessed, but we always knew the tail couldn’t wag the dog. Quentin needed to make the movie the way he needed to make it,” explains Sher.

Bee-stinging serendipity: “Christoph Waltz’s horse was stung by a bee during pre-pre-production, and Christoph was thrown and it was going to be a while before he could ride again. This is where the idea of the tooth wagon came from. Christoph suggested, ‘What if I rode a wagon?’ and Quentin and the late J. Michael Riva came up with the wagon, that magical tooth. It was heartbreaking when we lost Michael, and it was devastating for the film, the crew, and his family,” says Sher.—Anthony D’Alessandro

The live singing in Les Miserables meant everything from the sets to the costumes had to be modified to be quieter.
The live singing in Les Miserables meant everything from the sets to the costumes had to be modified to be quieter.

Les Misérables (Universal)

Producers: Cameron Mackintosh, Eric Fellner, Tim Bevan, Debra Hayward

Awards: 8 Oscar noms, 1 CCMA win (Anne Hathaway best supporting actress), 3 Golden Globes (best musical/comedy, supporting actress Hathaway, Hugh Jackman for lead actor in a comedy/musical), 1 SAG win (supporting actress Hathaway), and 1 DGA nom.

The Long Road: “I was originally going to do it 25 years ago after Les Misérables opened on Broadway and came close with Alan Parker. Over the years, we had inquiries, then in 2010, Eric Fellner (approached me); we’re Chelsea football fans, and we got to know each other socially. I like Working Title and they’re a very good company. Bill Nicholson started work on a screenplay. And then Tom (Hooper) rang up and asked to meet me. Being a complete film virgin I hardly knew anyone, and The King’s Speech was only just doing rounds at Sundance. Tom spoke passionately about how he would do it and that he felt it should be recorded live, and I felt passionately about that. That was the clincher, because Tom wanted to take what was a big leap in the dark. Les Misérables isn’t a normal musical; you need people who are comfortable telling a story through music. Tom Hooper was the man to do it. I’d been looking for directors over the years, and the fact that Tom came to me with a POV was the clincher,” Mackintosh explains.

No way, José: “There was a suggestion that it should be done in 3D, and I was very against it. Even though it’s my first film, I have joint final cut with Tom and Eric, and I represented all the music on behalf of Alain and Claude-Michel. It was a collaboration and couldn’t be any other way because I’d been so involved in the material for 30 years. This was the best way,” says Mackintosh.

Blowing up the stage: “The key challenge was finding the balance of reality, that it looked and felt authentic but at the same time it needed to be heightened. The style had to be similar to the style of the show. Gliding in and out of spoken word and singing so seamlessly that you didn’t realize they’re singing most of the time. Cinema is a medium of realism, and we had to find our brand of realism,” adds Mackintosh.

Making the impossible, possible: “This was one of the hardest films we’ve done. It’s a genre that’s challenging by its very nature—people aren’t used to going to see a musical in a movie theater. We also had to make sure that in adapting Les Misérables, we didn’t alienate fans, and having the original team of Claude-Michel Schönberg, Herbie Kretzmer, and Cameron Mackintosh, we were able to keep all the original DNA intact. Then, shooting a film with an appetite of $100 million for $60 million was interesting,” says Fellner.—Cari Lynn

Life of Pi was thought to be unfilmable until Ang Lee tackled the challenge.
Life of Pi was thought to be unfilmable until Ang Lee tackled the challenge.

Life of Pi (20th Century Fox)

Producers: Gil Netter, Ang Lee, David Womark

Awards: 11 Oscar noms, 1 Golden Globe win (best score for Mychael Danna), 2 CCMA wins (cinematography, visual effects), 9 BAFTA noms, DGA nom, WGA adapted screenplay nom.

Practical preplanning: “I didn’t know if could do this film. It was still waiting for me after Taking Woodstock. I began to think about it. It was unsolvable both on the economic and artistic sides: The two sides that will never meet, like Pi. Well, what if I had another dimension? And I thought 3D,” Lee said at the PGA Breakfast Jan. 26. “The only reasonable place to do this was Taiwan—I needed every resource from Hollywood. I brought my kids to school over there. It’s a long process. I did all the casting and previsualized the water section, all 70 minutes of it.”

Finding Pi: “Three thousand people auditioned for the part. It was crucial to find a 16-year-old Pi. There’s no Indian 16-year-old movie star. So I had to search for new faces. We have an army under casting director Avy Kaufman. We just asked every high school in India. Most of those who auditioned hadn’t done more than a school play, if that. After three rounds, we came down to 12. Suraj Sharma was one of them. Later, I found out, he didn’t go through the audition. He escorted his younger brother to the audition, and the casting director said, ‘What about you?’ When I met him, he looked like Pi. He’s the everyman. I felt his vibe in his soulful, deep eyes from my professional instinct. When I read him, it was heartbreaking. He started to cry when he told me one of the second stories (I gave him). It was heartwrenching. Halfway through (the audition process), he was the kid. So he anchors everything: The older and younger Pi, the whole picture around him. I was very lucky. He never acted before, and I had three months to drill him. We shot the movie in order so that he could lose weight,” adds Lee.

It took Steven Spielberg 12 years to get Lincoln made.
It took Steven Spielberg 12 years to get Lincoln made.

Lincoln (Disney-DreamWorks)

Producers: Kathleen Kennedy, Steven Spielberg

Awards: 12 Oscar noms, one Golden Globe win (best actor drama, Daniel Day-Lewis), two SAG wins (best actor Day-Lewis, supporting actor Tommy Lee Jones), three CCMA wins (actor, adapted screenplay, score), 10 BAFTA noms, DGA nom, WGA adapted screenplay nom.

No stone unturned: “On the surface, it looks like one goes out, buys Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, hires the finest American playwright, gets Steven Spielberg, and just add a little water,” said Kennedy at the PGA Awards Breakfast Jan. 26. “When Tony Kushner’s 500-page script arrived, Steven called and said, ‘What are we going to do? I can’t make this!’ Tony asked, ‘Do you think we can do it as a miniseries?’ Whittling down the script was a laborious process and took years. It wasn’t until Steven recognized a suspense drama inside the legislation, and that isn’t something you walk into a studio and say, ‘Hey! Here’s a great idea!’ It was essentially 15 pages of Doris’ book, but the philosophical idea behind Lincoln having the foresight to bring people into his cabinet who didn’t agree with him was the foundation of the story.”

Getting everyone on the same page: “We had an extraordinary reading in Cooperstown, NY. Doris pulled together an illustrious group of people to read the script for the first time. We knew there were many historians that wrote different accounts of Lincoln and had several different interpretations,” adds Kennedy. “Those fascinated with the voice of Lincoln; details like that we had to extrapolate. I think Tony read 300 books before he wrote this script. He read many details that came from The New York Times. When those debates went on with the 13th amendment, much of what Thaddeus is saying goes right down to ‘nincompoop.’ ”

Determined casting: “Daniel said no a lot to the role. But it was an exercise in tenacity on Steven’s part. Daniel inhabits that role. His process for determining what he’s going to do next is a long one. Playing Lincoln was something he wasn’t going to come to easily. When he said yes, it was around War Horse. We had 150 speaking parts that we wanted to cast. Thank God for the Internet. It allows directors and producers to get into a room and look at a wide variety of talent. We had the benefit of Tony Kushner who had amazing relationships with amazing actors in New York. We had these big boards in front of us with faces of real people. We knew it was going to be hard to keep track of the Democrats and the Republicans and knowing that the Democrats are what the Republicans use to be, and whether they were from the north or the south, when the vote took place, keeping track of who you saw before, all of that was a quite a jigsaw puzzle,” explains Kennedy.

Silver Linings Playbook was in development with Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella before finding its way to David O. Russell.
Silver Linings Playbook was in development with Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella before finding its way to David O. Russell.

Silver Linings Playbook (The Weinstein Co.)

Producers: Bruce Cohen, Donna Gigliotti, Jonathan Gordon

Awards: 8 Oscar noms, 4 CCMA wins (acting ensemble, actor in a comedy for Bradley Cooper, actress in a comedy for Jennifer Lawrence, best comedy), 1 Golden Globe win (best actress in a comedy/musical), 1 SAG win (best film actress), 5 Indie Spirit noms, WGA adapted screenplay nom.

Synthesizing: “Getting the tone right was a challenge,” says Cohen. “The script that David O. Russell had written and the movie we fell in love with was an intense family drama and romantic comedy. Those types of films are very hard to do. It’s hard to market them and assemble them.”

Timing: “Making this movie in 33 days was a Herculean undertaking, and the script was 152 pages long. That’s a challenging schedule for any movie, let alone a script that is that long—40-45 days would have been ideal,” says Gordon.

Falling stars: “When we received the greenlight from the Weinstein Co., as a producer you typically take the money and say, ‘OK, here’s the start date.’ But Mark Wahlberg (who was to play Pat Jr.) had Contraband. We would have been backed into Thanksgiving 2011, and we couldn’t go beyond that date in terms of shooting given our budget constraints. It would have meant we pushed into the New Year in terms of shooting. Then Anne Hathaway (who was to play Tiffany) had this crazy Dark Knight schedule. They would get her for this huge period of time, and then she would drop in and out of that schedule,” explains Gigliotti.

The right faces at the right time: “Casting was the biggest challenge and getting the right actors in these roles. By comparison to the other films that are nominated, we had a pretty small budget, and it’s not as though we had a lot of money to spend in terms of cast. We had to have actors that were recognizable in order to make the numbers work—that’s for the business side. The challenge for the creative side is to find actors who could inhabit those characters and be authentic. Bradley Cooper is a big movie star in terms of The Hangover. That’s a plus on the business side, but then one needed to evaluate whether he was right for the role. That’s a total tribute to David O. Russell since he understood Bradley’s depth and how he could get that performance. Jennifer Lawrence was a different kettle of fish. She was in the middle of Hunger Games. We didn’t know it was going to be so behemoth. She did the Skype interview; we showed it to Harvey Weinstein, who is fearless when it comes to these things. He took one look and said, ‘Cast this girl! She’s unbelievable!’ I don’t know if we would have made this movie if Bob De Niro said no. We didn’t have a lot of money. How do we get Bob De Niro and not pay him a fortune? It came down to David. It’s really a potent thing when David and his actors connect. Jacki Weaver was the casting director’s idea. Jacki was in a production of Uncle Vanya in Washington, D.C. One look at her eyes and Cooper’s eyes and you think they were connected. You believed she could have been Bradley’s mother,” says Gigliotti.—Anthony D’Alessandro

The real story that Zero Dark Thirty tells was unfolding as Mark Boal was writing his script.
The real story that Zero Dark Thirty tells was unfolding as Mark Boal was writing his script.

Zero Dark Thirty (Sony Pictures)

Producers: Kathryn Bigelow, Mark Boal, Megan Ellison

Awards: 5 Oscar noms, 1 Golden Globe win (best dramatic actress for Jessica Chastain), 2 CCMA wins (actress, editing), 5 BAFTA noms, DGA nom, WGA original screenplay nom.

Everywhere at once: “This is not a $45 million movie; this is an $85 million movie. There’s over 100 different sets in this movie, we filmed on three continents with helicopters and special effects and (covering) a 10-year time period and 100 speaking parts and a giant action sequence, and at times we were shooting like a TV schedule—five pages a day. Part of the challenge was getting this much scope—we filmed in Pakistan, we filmed in India, we filmed in Jordan, we filmed in Washington, we filmed in the U.K. Part of the challenge was getting this much scope on the screen, and we could really do that because Kathryn had a vision for how to do it, and because she shoots it and it’s done and we can move on. There’s not a lot of second-guessing going on,” says Boal.

No fear of Babel: “I like going to these places where there isn’t a lot of film infrastructure. Jordan has absolutely none. India has some. Of course there’s a big film industry there, but it wasn’t really geared to making a movie about an American CIA team hunting a terrorist, for any number of reasons. It’s hard to shoot action in India—very, very, very hard. You can’t do aerial photograph; there’s a million permits if you want to take a gun out,” adds Boal.

Red tape: “These are hard movies to get made. Negotiating with those governments, moving equipment in and out, dealing with security issues, dealing with the secrecy issues, dealing with the press, dealing with government pressure and investigations from our government. We were under investigation by Republicans since the day we started this movie for just trying to get information. That’s not easy to have hanging over your head when you’re simultaneously trying to arrange for the use of three military Black Hawks from a foreign government. It gets complicated pretty quickly,” adds the screenwriter-producer.

Worst-case scenario—production or post-release: “The politics is pretty tough, I will say. I would take the logistical challenge of trying to find a 40-ton crane in Jordan over dealing with Washington any day of the week,” Boal says.—Paul Brownfield

First Year Of Online Voting Was Rocky For Academy

Pete Hammond is Deadline’s awards columnist. This article appeared in the Feb. 13 issue of AwardsLine.

This year the big question hasn’t been exactly who Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences members are going to vote for, it has been instead whether they can figure out how to vote at all.

With the advent of online voting for the first time in Academy history, the path during the nomination balloting hasn’t been a smooth one for many voters. Some found that the Academy’s security steps, necessary to avoid hackers, have also kept voters out, forcing them to make repeated attempts at getting their ballot completed.

Poll_positionAlthough all the guilds and other voting groups have moved full force into the world of online voting, the Academy went through a slow, methodical process before finally settling on Everyone Counts, a company known for working with the U.S. government in a similar capacity. Unlike most industry groups, the Academy is a prime target for infiltration by cyber terrorists who would like nothing more than to gain access to vote totals and embarrass the high-profile Oscar process, which in 85 years has never been compromised.

But keeping voting hacker-proof caused its own set of issues, when in November the Academy had to extend its registration period after member complaints. After that, AMPAS also backed down and agreed to send an old-fashioned paper ballot to any member who had paid their dues but hadn’t bothered or didn’t know how to register for online voting. All along, the Academy offered paper ballots as an alternative but initially had required a one-time registration for those as well—something longtime members used to getting ballots in the mail automatically didn’t realize.

Many voters said they were able to vote online with no problems, but a large and very vocal group complained that they were locked out of the system and had to spend valuable time trying to vote over the course of two or three days.

Although the Academy sent out repeated email reminders, provided a ’round-the-clock phone number for member support, and set up kiosks in the lobby of its Beverly Hills headquarters, some members experienced great frustration. However, as president Hawk Koch told me on the morning of the Oscar nominations, the turnout was still the largest the Academy had seen for nominations in several years. But he also said nothing was perfect on a first try. And before final voting began on Feb. 8 (ballots are due back on Feb. 19), the Academy sent members a detailed—some might say too complex—guidebook on how to accomplish online voting. The Academy also sent out emails offering the option of a paper ballot to anyone who wants one. From my admittedly nonscientific sample survey, a lot of members took them up on the offer by the deadline of Feb. 1.

For those determined to enter the brave new world of electronic Oscar voting, the Academy told them they will need four things: 1) A voter identification number; 2) A voting password (not to be confused with their member password and one that must contain a mix of letters, numbers, and a special character); 3) A security code; and 4) A telephone where voters will receive their special code by text after entering their VIN and password.

The Academy’s E Voter Guide then takes the voter step by step into how to actually cast their ballot once they have successfully logged into the system in the first place. Some members told me it took them two or three tries after getting locked out for a 24-hour period to actually finish the task during nominations. If you try a password too many times, and it doesn’t work, you have to call the Academy support line to get a new one.

Certainly Academy officials, who took great care before embarking on this new adventure for Oscar, are hoping this will get easier with time. It took the Screen Actors Guild seven years before they were comfortable that it was running smoothly enough to eliminate paper ballots. The Academy is dealing with a membership that might not be so tech savvy. But for an organization that is such a tempting target for hackers, it is not an easy task, and the option of paper ballots will probably be around for a long time. “Please tell them, just send me a paper ballot. I’m begging,” one Oscar-nominated longtime member told me.

The bottom line is, if you want to vote, you will be able to vote. “What I can say is, we will not jeopardize the integrity of the Oscar ballot. We will make sure that everybody can vote,” Koch told me.

This Year’s Race Parallels 1962

Pete Hammond is Deadline’s awards columnist. This article appeared in the Feb. 13 issue of AwardsLine.

Many have said 2012 has been the most remarkable year for movies in the Oscar race in a very long time. The dense list of quality contenders makes for quite a race, and it’s somewhat reminiscent of another legendary year for cinema a half-century ago.

Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia.
Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia.

The year 1962 was an embarrassment of riches, and in many ways, just an embarrassment for the Academy. Yes, they did include the year’s two best films, To Kill a Mockingbird and (eventual winner) Lawrence of Arabia, in the best picture lineup and both have endured as certified classics. Both were worthy. But then the Academy padded out the remaining three spots with popular studio offerings like The Longest Day, The Music Man, and most egregiously, the bloated Marlon Brando remake of Mutiny on the Bounty. OK, these films might have been decent entertainment, but were they the best the Academy could do 50 years ago? Hardly.

Just consider the films that didn’t make the cut: Blake Edwards’ Days of Wine and Roses; John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate, Birdman of Alcatraz, and All Fall Down; Arthur Penn’s The Miracle Worker; Robert Aldrich’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?; Otto Preminger’s Advise & Consent; Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita; John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance; David Miller’s Lonely Are the Brave—and this is just a partial list! Was it because all these films were in black and white? Well, so were Mockingbird and Longest Day, so that doesn’t explain it. Were they too challenging when compared to the populist films that made the cut instead? The point is, we are still seeing, experiencing, and talking about most of the best picture also-rans today. They have stood the test of time, a feat perhaps greater than ever being nominated for a best picture Oscar.

The Music Man earned a best picture nomination, but like Argo, Les Miserables, and Zero Dark Thirty, it failed to earn a best director nom.
The Music Man earned a best picture nomination, but like Argo, Les Miserables, and Zero Dark Thirty, it failed to earn a best director nom.

It is interesting to note that, just as the Academy has done this year in failing to nominate the directors of best picture nominees Argo, Les Misérables, and Zero Dark Thirty, the Academy’s directors branch of 1962 was just as prickly and contrarian in ignoring the directors of three best picture nominees (Longest Day, Mutiny, and Music Man) in favor of smaller entries like David and Lisa, The Miracle Worker, and the foreign language Italian film Divorce Italian Style, which like this year’s Austrian/French Amour also nabbed nominations for acting and writing, winning for the latter just as Amour could do. The directors of those best picture also-rans were every bit as worthy of the nomination they didn’t get (Frankenheimer’s three 1962 classics should have gotten him a nod just based on volume alone). Some things never change. And, quite frankly, considering the advanced age of some Academy members, many of the same people are still doing the voting.

The year 1962 was also when James Bond was introduced to the movies in Dr. No starring Sean Connery, still one of the best of the Bonds, yet it didn’t merit a single nomination back then. In fact, Bond has been consistently ignored throughout the past 50 years, with just a handful of technical nominations and awards. A half-century from the time Bond was introduced, it seemed like it was all going to change this year with Skyfall, which was poised to become the first Bond ever to earn a best picture nom. It didn’t happen, just like it didn’t happen 50 years ago. At least the Academy has been guilted into a special tribute to recognize this most successful—and brilliant—of all movie franchises.

Beyond best picture, which did at least go to a very deserving winner in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, the acting races across the board were gut-wrenching cliffhangers. I can’t recall the four categories to ever be so competitive as they were that year. For best actor, try to choose among Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird, Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, Jack Lemmon in Days of Wine and Roses, Marcello Mastroianni in Divorce Italian Style, and Burt Lancaster in Birdman of Alcatraz. If it weren’t for Peck’s iconic Atticus Finch, which deservedly won, certainly O’Toole would have triumphed the first time out for his glorious T.E. Lawrence instead of going zero for eight and becoming Oscar’s most losing actor (thank God they finally gave him an honorary award).

Best actress was an imposing quintet with Bette Davis in a shocking comeback role, Lee Remick as a drunk, Geraldine Page as a fading film star, Katharine Hepburn doing Eugene O’Neill, and the winner, Anne Bancroft, training the blind Helen Keller. Pre-Oscar bets from Hollywood experts were on each and every one to prevail. There were duo Oscar upsets in the supporting races, too. Virtually everyone thought Lawrence’s Omar Sharif would win, but he was upstaged by a career nod to Sweet Bird of Youth’s Ed Begley. And in supporting actress, it was Angela Lansbury as Laurence Harvey’s conspiratorial and chilling mother in The Manchurian Candidate who was seen as a sure thing, only to be passed over for 16-year-old Patty Duke as Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker. It was the criminally overlooked Lansbury’s to lose—and she did, never getting another shot. Oscar fans are still smarting, though Duke’s performance still holds up.

Sometimes Oscar races leave lasting scars. It’s about what could have been. And in a year as good as 2012 was, will we still be arguing the outcome 50 years from now just like we still do about ’62?

Oscarcast Producers Want To Honor Tradition And Modernize Ceremony

Pete Hammond is Deadline’s awards columnist. This article appeared in the Feb. 13 issue of AwardsLine.

Oscar telecast producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron know their stuff when it comes to putting on a show. With huge musical successes in movies (Chicago, Hairspray, Footloose), TV (The Music Man, Cinderella), and Broadway (Promises Promises, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying), they have the chops to pull off the film industry’s biggest night of the year, though it has sometimes proved a pitfall for other producers. It can be challenging when the Academy mandates that valuable airtime goes to all 24 categories, including sound mixers, makeup and hairstylists, and producers of documentary short subjects, to name a few. But that doesn’t faze this veteran producing pair who say they started assembling the show’s elements from the day they got the job in late August.

Oscar telecast producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron say they have been working on the show since they were appointed in August.
Oscar telecast producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron say they have been working on the show since they were appointed in August.

“We certainly are going to be celebrating the nominees and winners like a regular Oscar show, but they are fitting into the design of the show that we’ve created, so there’s going to be an enormous amount of entertainment,” Zadan says, pointing to the 50 years of James Bond tribute they have announced, which won’t be a reunion of the actors who played 007 despite rampant media speculation. “It’s something else, something very unique and very exciting but no, we’re not getting the Bonds together.”

Among other entertainment spots planned is a tribute to the movie musicals of the past decade, including this year’s best picture contender Les Misérables, Dreamgirls (I hear with Jennifer Hudson performing), and the producers’ own best picture champ, Chicago. And singing on an Oscar show for the first time in 36 years will be Barbra Streisand. My bet is she’ll sing “The Way We Were” in honor of its late composer Marvin Hamlisch, though the producers are not offering specifics on that one.

Both producers say they’re eagerly anticipating seeing first-time host Seth MacFarlane take the stage. “He has great charm. He embodies kind of a post-millennium host in that tradition of Johnny Carson, Bob Hope, and Billy Crystal. He is the next step in terms of making the show current,” Meron says about the reason why the Family Guy and Ted creator got the job.

In fact, MacFarlane’s oversized teddy bear Ted has already confirmed an appearance on the telecast alongside his costar Mark Wahlberg. In addition to being a first-time host, MacFarlane is a first-time nominee as cowriter of Ted’s main title song, “Everybody Needs a Best Friend.” Norah Jones will sing it on the show, as the producers have also decided to bring back the tradition of having all five nominated tunes sung live. Among them, pop superstar Adele will be singing the hit nominee “Skyfall” and performing on television for the first time since she swept the Grammys a year ago.

Don Mischer, 15-time Emmy winner and a producer of the Oscars for the past two years, is returning to direct. “If you can put entertainment around the awards and maintain the dignity of the Academy, or put some humor and a little bit of irreverence around it, you can make it more entertaining, and it makes for a better show. I think (Zadan and Meron) are really on track to do that,” Mischer says.

Family Guy and Ted creator Seth MacFarlane will host the Oscars for the first time this year.
Family Guy and Ted creator Seth MacFarlane will host the Oscars for the first time this year.

Academy president Hawk Koch, who hired the producing pair, says they have gotten rid of a lot of what he calls “shoe leather.” “We are going to present all the categories, but between Craig and Neil and I, we have found a way to move it along,” he says.

There’s added pressure this year because of the well-reviewed performance of Golden Globes hosts Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, which help push ratings up 24% compared to last year. The Academy certainly does not want to come up short in comparisons with that NBC show.

As for MacFarlane, he has a good attitude even though reviews of his “performance” hosting the Academy nominations announcement with Emma Stone were decidedly mixed. Some Academy members thought he went too far with his jokes, others thought it wasn’t appropriate to mock nominees just as they were becoming known for the first time. “It’s a ruthless bit of scrutiny you’re under, so I’m not going to think about that. I’m just worrying about making it as funny as it can be and as fun as it can be,” MacFarlane said shortly after the nomination announcement.

For Zadan and Meron, however, it’s all about putting on the best show possible. In preparation, Meron says he watched 40 previous Oscar telecasts. He has great respect for the producers and what they tried to do. “What I learned is that (past) producers of the show really took chances and shook things up all through the course of Oscar history,” he explains. “It really is a great tradition to be a part of.”

Moments In Oscar History, Part 3: The Directors

In honor of the 85th Academy Awards, AwardsLine is spotlighting memorable moments and winners from the last eight decades. This is the final installment, Part 3: The Directors.

Frank CapraFrank Capra, 1939: The 11th Academy Awards took place Feb. 23, 1939, in downtown Los Angeles’ Biltmore Hotel. Although no specific emcee steered the ship, the evening began with a rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and Basil Rathbone introduced Frank Capra as president of the Academy. Just days before, Capra had threatened to resign and boycott the ceremony in an effort to get the studios to recognize the Screen Directors Guild. He ended up prevailing over Motion Picture Producers Association president Joe Schenck—going so far as to follow him to Santa Anita Racetrack after Schenck missed a scheduled meeting. Capra’s film You Can’t Take It With You won picture and directing prizes; Spencer Tracy (Boys Town) and Bette Davis (Jezebel) won lead acting prizes; and supporting honors went to Walter Brennan for Kentucky and Fay Bainter for Jezebel.

“My third Oscar for best directing left me so stunned, I remember little of my ‘thank you’ mumblings. The rest of the program was a blur. But when Jimmy Roosevelt opened the best picture envelope and broke the suspense with, “And the best picture of the year is You Can’t Take It With You!”, my poor numbed brain tail-spinned into total amnesia.

“The crazy events of the past week: Chasing Joe Schenck to the racetrack; the strike vote, my resignation and boycott of the Academy; the last-minute producers’ agreement that called them off, that put the Directors Guild in business; the whole wonderful Academy Banquet that climaxed in my third best director and my second best picture Oscars—these were the events that simply reaffirmed a lifelong belief: Everything that happens to me happens for the best.”—Frank Capra on his Oscar wins, from his 1971 autobiography The Name Above the Title. His previous wins were for 1934’s It Happened One Night and 1936’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.

William WylerWilliam Wyler, 1960: The 32nd Academy Awards took place April 4, 1960, at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood and was hosted by Bob Hope. MGM’s Ben-Hur won 11 of the 12 Oscars for which it was nominated, including picture and director for William Wyler, lead actor for Charlton Heston, and supporting actor for Hugh Griffith. It was the second year in a row that the Culver City studio took home best picture after previously winning for Gigi, and Ben-Hur broke the record of most Oscars in a single evening. Lead actress honors went to Simone Signoret—the first actress to win for a foreign film—for Room at the Top, while the supporting Oscar was awarded to Shelley Winters for The Diary of Anne Frank.

“My deepest appreciation to Sam Zimbalist and Joe Vogel for their confidence, and to my fellow members of the Academy for this [raising the Oscar]. Thank you.”—William Wyler (left, with John Wayne) earned his third career Oscar for directing Ben-Hur. His previous directing wins were for 1942’s Mrs. Miniver and 1946’s The Best Years of Our Lives.

Billy Wilder backstage at the 1960 (33rd) Academy Awards ceremony.Billy Wilder, 1961: The 33rd Academy Awards took place April 17, 1961, at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, with the ever-present Bob Hope serving as emcee. It was the first time the show had taken place outside of Los Angeles or Hollywood in three decades. The ceremony also marked the beginning of ABC’s half-century association with the Oscars, with ABC winning broadcast rights to the show. Billy Wilder won picture and director Oscars for The Apartment, though neither of his nominated actors, Shirley MacLaine nor Jack Lemmon, earned trophies. Best actor was Burt Lancaster, and supporting actress was Shirley Jones, both for Elmer Gantry; lead actress went to Elizabeth Taylor for Butterfield 8; and supporting actor was Peter Ustinov for Spartacus.

“Thank you so much, you lovely discerning people. Thank you.”—Billy Wilder accepting his directing trophy for The Apartment, which earned a total of five Oscars that night. Wilder also won the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award in 1987 at the 60th Academy Awards.

Warren Beatty 2Warren Beatty, 1982: The 54th Academy Awards were held March 29, 1982, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, hosted by Johnny Carson, who had held the reins since 1979. The two major prizes were split, with Chariots of Fire earning best picture and Warren Beatty winning for directing Reds, a film that some thought would win both awards. Henry Fonda won best actor for On Golden Pond, though he was too frail to attend the ceremony; Katharine Hepburn won her fourth Oscar for her lead in the same film; John Gielgud won a supporting trophy for Arthur; and Maureen Stapleton won for her supporting role in Reds. After thanking two other nominees, Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton, in his acceptance speech, Beatty turned his attention to the studio executives who greenlit his film.

“I do want to name Mr. Barry Diller who runs Paramount, Mr. Dick Zimbert who’s been very kind to me, Mr. Frank Mancuso, and Mr. Charles Bluhdorn who runs Gulf + Western and God knows what else. And I want to say to you gentlemen that no matter how much we might have liked to have strangled each other from time to time, I think that your decision, taken in the great capitalistic tower of Gulf + Western, to finance a 3½-hour romance which attempts to reveal for the first time just something of the beginnings of American socialism and American communism, reflects credit not only upon you, I think it reflects credit upon Hollywood and the movie business wherever that is. And I think that it reflects more particular credit on the freedom of expression that we have in our American society and the lack of censorship that we have from the government or the people who put up the money. Thanks.”—Warren Beatty accepting his directing trophy for Reds. He also took home the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award in 1999.

Sydney Pollack backstage at the 1985 (58th) Academy Awards ceremony.Sydney Pollack, 1986: The 58th Academy Awards took place March 24, 1986, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, with Jane Fonda, Alan Alda, and Robin Williams serving as hosts. Sydney Pollack’s Out of Africa won seven Oscars out of 11 total nominations, a virtual sweep, although neither of its nominated leads—Meryl Streep nor Robert Redford—won for their roles. Lead actor honors went to William Hurt for The Kiss of the Spider Woman, and lead actress was Geraldine Page for The Trip to Bountiful. Don Ameche earned the supporting actor Oscar for Cocoon, while Anjelica Huston took home a supporting actress trophy for Prizzi’s Honor.

“Thank you very much. Frank Price made this film possible. He had the courage when it mattered the most and was easy to say no. I knew it was impossible to get a screenplay from this material, so I didn’t try; Kurt Luedtke didn’t know it was impossible and so he did it. David Rayfiel kept us honest. Meryl, Bob, Klaus, and Malick brought those characters to life and made an incredible world. All of us being helped all the time by Terry Clegg who kept us going. I had a team of editors who locked themselves in a room with me seven days a week, 12 hours a day and behaved as though nothing else in the world existed. John Barry made it all sing. Karen Blixen lived that life and turned it into art and taught a generation a new way to write prose. My wife, Claire, gave me more encouragement than I have any right to have, put up with more, was more tolerant. I’m indebted to all of them. I can’t leave this podium without saying, I could not have made this film without Meryl Streep. She is astounding personally, professionally, in all ways, and I can’t thank her enough. Thank you.”—Sydney Pollack accepting his directing Oscar for Out of Africa, for which he won a second producing trophy that same evening when the film was named best picture.

Jon Voight Remembers Winning The Oscar

“There were wonderful films represented and great actors that evening. Bobby De Niro was up for The Deer Hunter, Warren Beatty for Heaven Can Wait, Gary Busey for The Buddy Holly Story, and Laurence Olivier for The Boys From Brazil, and I was the frontrunner according to Vegas odds and everything else. It seemed to be a moment between two Vietnam films, one being Deer Hunter and the other being our film, Coming Home.

A couple days before, I flew in from New York. Two seats away from me was Laurence Olivier. He was just recovering from prostate cancer. He had very thick glasses, as he could hardly see, and had arthritis that was so severe (that) when he stood up to put his coat on; he needed the help of his son Richard. It was very sad for me because I had seen Olivier play kings and do a magnificent job. I was really attentive to his entire career, and in his generation, he was the great actor who inspired and created dreams for other actors. So he was the man. Then I saw him in this state.

Then the night before the Oscars, I got a phone call at home. ‘Hello, Jon, this is Larry Olivier.’ I said to myself, ‘Oh, my God, I didn’t know what to call him!’ It was Lord Olivier. I explained my real attentiveness to all his work and the kindness of his call, and he called to say how wonderful my performance was. Can you imagine? That was a big deal.

Now, I go the Oscars and I’m sitting there with the nerves of that event. I had a little something prepared to say if it came my way, and all of a sudden Cary Grant introduces the lifetime achievement award, and it’s going to Laurence Olivier. There I am, part of this focus of that evening and even the center of that focus in some way because the best actor award is one of the big ones. So Cary Grant comes on stage and introduces very beautifully, as he does in his charming style, his friend, Larry Olivier.

And Larry Olivier walks out on stage. And he has no glasses. And he’s standing erect. And he gives a speech that is prepared, like a piece of poetry: A brilliant, beautiful speech of gratitude to the Academy, and to the business and to the art of filmmaking and his career. It was like watching a great sports moment. I’m thinking, ‘Oh, my God!’ He’s like a tightrope walker. I know the guy can’t move his arms. I know he can’t see. I know he’s in a debilitated state, but look what he’s doing. As I’m watching him, the people who are running the show saw my response immediately. I was very moved by him. And then as he started doing his speech, I was overwhelmed because no one comes that prepared in some sense. He was showing us not only through his career, but through his appearance, how to handle that moment in the spotlight. They cut from his speech to my response, back and forth. Finally, when he finished, I went ‘Phew!’ It was like watching an impossible act happen, and when he concluded with such a gracious speech, finishing with a perfect manner and words, it was ‘Bravo!’ for all that it meant.

When they finally announced my name, the first thing I said graciously and profoundly is that I was overwhelmed by listening to that great man speak. Sometimes, when they replay my Oscar acceptance, they play back that moment when I’m moved by Olivier as though it was my response to getting the Oscar. But it wasn’t. My response to getting the Oscar was to put my head down and say, ‘OK.’ I took a real long pause and made my way to the stage eventually. I didn’t have that kind of emotion coming off the announcement of my name. It was quite a stirring moment.

My real focus was on Olivier. It took away from me a little bit, so I was a little bit more comfortable, and it put my award in perspective in some fashion. It was a great thing to see the great man in that moment and to know all the things that I knew about him. I wasn’t so moved by receiving the Oscar. I was moved by it, but the emotion of that evening was invested in watching Olivier take the stage.”—As told to Anthony D’Alessandro

Original Song Category Sees Return Of Pop

Anthony D’Alessandro is Managing Editor of AwardsLine.

This year’s crop of contenders—a doc tune, a musical melody, a jazz ditty, and an Indian lullaby—are similar to the genres that the category has recognized in recent years. Pop-radio songs, which arguably have been sparse over the last 10 years with the exception of the Beyoncé-performed Dreamgirls song “Listen” and Eminem’s Oscar winner “Lose Yourself” from 8 Mile, marked their return this year with Adele’s James Bond ballad “Skyfall.” A glance at this year’s best song nominees:

J Ralph wrote "Before My Time" for Chasing Ice, which details the melting of the polar ice caps.
J Ralph wrote “Before My Time” for Chasing Ice, which details the melting of the polar ice caps.

“Before My Time” | Chasing Ice

Music and lyrics by J. Ralph

Where it’s heard in the film: End credits

Backstory: Looking to bring emotion to glacial meltdown, J. Ralph, who scored the Oscar-winning docs The Cove and Man on Wire, enlisted the breathy vocals of Scarlett Johansson and the touching high notes of violinist Joshua Bell. “As the song plays over the final sequence of the film,” Ralph says, “I wanted to create a transportive, hypnotic experience where the audience could absorb all they had seen, as if Scarlett is singing to each person individually. The song explores the dialogue between mankind and nature and the perception of time. In the end, no one is bigger than Mother Nature.”

Odds: Given the Academy’s penchant for songs that earnestly jibe with a film’s sensibility, don’t count out “Before My Time” just because it’s tagged to the end of a documentary. Just six years ago, the Academy gave an Oscar to Melissa Etheridge’s call-to-action environmental song “I Need to Wake Up” from An Inconvenient Truth.

Oscarcast host Seth MacFarlane is nominated for the song he wrote for Ted.
Oscarcast host Seth MacFarlane is nominated for the song he wrote for Ted.

“Everybody Needs a Best Friend” | Ted

Music by Walter Murphy; lyrics by Seth MacFarlane

Where it’s heard in the film: Opening credits

Backstory: “I had always wanted to have a song upfront in a showy way (in Ted) and have lamented the recent trend of putting credits at the end of the movie,” MacFarlane says. “It seems like a little old-fashioned showmanship gets lost when that happens. Walter Murphy remains one of the few composers I know who can write a catchy melody and keep it new.”

Odds: The chances of this song winning aren’t impossible. If anything, since 2000 voters have lauded adorable jazzy songs like Randy Newman’s Pixar two-fister “We Belong Together” from Toy Story 3 and “If I Didn’t Have You” from Monsters, Inc. It’s reminiscent of a Rat Pack standard, a genre MacFarlane knows best, having crooned such tunes on Family Guy and his big-band album Music Is Better Than Words.

Mychael Danna won a Golden Globe for Pi's Lullaby.
Mychael Danna won a Golden Globe for Pi’s Lullaby.

“Pi’s Lullaby” | Life of Pi

Music by Mychael Danna; lyrics by Bombay Jayashri

Where it’s heard in the film: Opening credits

Backstory: “Ang Lee’s thought was to have the film start in this children’s paradise, in a zoo—the place where Pi sprang from. It’s beautiful, literally enclosed with these marvelous animals and a mother’s love. And the best way to get this across was with a lullaby. Jayashri’s an established south Indian classical singer, and if I was an Indian boy, I would like my mother to have her voice,” Danna says.


Odds: Very good given the Academy’s embrace of world-music tunes such as “Jai Ho” from Slumdog Millionaire and “Al Otro Lado del Rio” from The Motorcycle Diaries, but Fox knows the types of niche tunes that sound sweet to voters’ ears: between 2007-09, the studio’s indie arm Fox Searchlight swept this category each year with songs from Once, Slumdog, and Crazy Heart.

Adele's opening-credits song for Skyfall marks the return of pop music to the original song category.
Adele’s opening-credits song for Skyfall marks the return of pop music to the original song category.

“Skyfall” | Skyfall

Music and lyrics by Adele Adkins and Paul Epworth

Where it’s heard in the film: Opening credits

Backstory: Adele and her “Rolling in the Deep” song scribe Epworth spent months tweaking “Skyfall” in order to hit its dynamic gravity. Rather than go with a romantic tone like other 007 ballads, the duo opted to reflect the film’s death and rebirth narrative in their song. And that homage to Monty Norman’s famous four-note Bond theme? Clearly intentional.

Odds: Even though this is the first Bond song nomination in 31 years (the last being Bill Conti and Mick Leeson’s “For Your Eyes Only”), 007 ballads are typically bridesmaids, and the Academy has been deaf to Top 40 tunes. However, Adele’s bluesy alto and the song’s hypnotic melody are sublime.

"Suddenly" was written specifically for the big-screen adaptation of Les Misérables.
“Suddenly” was written specifically for the big-screen adaptation of Les Misérables.

“Suddenly” | Les Misérables

Music by Claude-Michel Schönberg; lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer and Alain Boublil

Where it’s heard in the film: Jean Valjean rescues Fantine’s daughter Cosette from the Thenardiers.

Backstory: Director Tom Hooper requested the song from the musical’s original lyricist and composers after reading the passage in Victor Hugo’s novel. “We called the song ‘Suddenly’ because Valjean suddenly discovers the world is not all bad, it’s not about revenge and hatred,” explains Boublil.

Odds: A number of original tunes from Broadway big-screen adaptations have been recognized over the last decade, i.e. 2006 when three Dreamgirls songs made the category. However, the last one to win was 16 years ago: Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “You Must Love Me” from Evita. Nonetheless, it’s always better to have the original songwriters on the case, which is what team Les Mis did correctly.