David Mermelstein is an AwardsLine contributor. This article appeared in the Feb. 13 issue of AwardsLine.
Leaving artistic issues aside, you could—at first glance—say that the competition for best original score isn’t a fair fight this year. Three of the nominees—Mychael Danna (Life of Pi), Alexandre Desplat (Argo), and Thomas Newman (Skyfall)—have never won an Oscar, and one of them (Danna) is enjoying his first nomination. Dario Marianelli won once before, but his nom for Anna Karenina is only his third. So who’s the heavyweight in the ring? None other than John Williams (Lincoln), who has won five Oscars for original score, as well as one for adapted score.
Williams is basking in his 39th nomination for original score. His first was for The Reivers (1969), starring Steve McQueen. His closest competitor within this group is Newman, who is savoring his ninth nom since 1994, when he earned two—for Little Women and The Shawshank Redemption. Desplat is suiting up for his fifth round since 2006, when The Queen first brought him close to Oscar gold.
Though virtually omnipresent on the Oscar ballot from 1990 to 2005, Williams has been less visible since the 2006 film year, though this year marks the second in a row in which he’s back on the ballot—and last year, he was there twice: For The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse. As for this bunch going mano a mano, Williams was absent the first year Newman was nommed, but since then—in 1999, 2002, and 2004—neither won when the other was also in competition. And the same was true the one year, 2005, that Williams and Marianelli previously duked it out—the younger composer’s first time in the ring. Newman and Desplat have also sparred before—in 2006, the latter’s Oscar debut, and 2008—with neither emerging victorious.
So where does that leave us this time around? A case can be made for the lately hyper-prolific Desplat, who also wrote the scores to this year’s best picture nominee Zero Dark Thirty and original screenplay nominee Moonrise Kingdom. And the talk of Argo walking off with the best picture statuette could add some kick. But two years ago, Desplat was up for The King’s Speech, which landed the big prize even as he emerged empty handed. Indeed, in the past dozen years, only three films have secured both the best picture Oscar and the prize for best score.
Still, the Academy has shown a fondness for novel instrumentation. Slumdog Millionaire took the award four years ago, and the year before that, Marianelli won for Atonement, in which he ingeniously incorporated a typewriter into his music. For his part, Desplat seamlessly weaves into the Argo score a mix of Middle Eastern instruments—including the ney, oud, kemenche, and ethnic percussion.
Newman, an heir to Hollywood’s most storied film-score dynasty, has the most noms without a win in this quintet, so accrued good will could be a factor in his favor. But Skyfall is the latest entry in the James Bond franchise, and some of the film’s most memorable cues were written by others—including John Barry, a four-time score winner who was never even nominated for his Bond music.
Given the Academy’s penchant for sentimentality and tradition, some might write off the idea that a first-time nominee—in this case Danna, also nommed for best song—could win, but Oscar history suggests otherwise. For the past two years, the statuette for score has gone to an Oscar debutant—Ludovic Bource (The Artist) last year and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (The Social Network) the year before. In fact, from 2000 on, seven of the 12 winners had never been nominated before their first victory.
Yet Marianelli offers formidable competition with his endlessly inventive score to what could have been a very tired subject, Anna Karenina. Without ever sounding forced, his music to Anna is consistently, often surprisingly, catchy—something the Academy seems to favor given recent winners like Bource for The Artist, Michael Giacchino for Up (2009), and A.R. Rahman for Slumdog Millionaire (2008).
That leaves Williams, now 81, the grand old man of Hollywood film scoring. He hasn’t won an Oscar since Schindler’s List (1993), which could bode well for him a la Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady. (Oscar loves a comeback.) And his score for Lincoln is top-drawer—anthemic, comfortable, and ideally suited to the subject. But Williams has been amply recognized already for his contributions to cinema, and unless the Academy intends to send a valedictory message, it might choose to spread the love. That’s certainly been the pattern in recent years. Once a far more predictable category, best score’s days as a bellwether seem a thing of the past. But that’s no bad thing, because the Oscars need upsets, too.
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.”
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:
“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.
“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.
“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.
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” |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.
Thomas J. McLean is an AwardsLine contributor. This article appeared in the Jan. 30 issue of AwardsLine.
In a year filled with remarkable imagery, the work of the Oscar-nominated cinematographers stands out as integral to the success of the movies they shot.
The nominees bring broad experience to their films. Seamus McGarvey, nominated for shooting Anna Karenina with director Joe Wright, came to the project off the summer blockbuster Avengers; Robert Richardson shot his fourth film with Quentin Tarantino with Django Unchained; Claudio Miranda went both digital and 3D to lens Life of Pi for Ang Lee; Janusz Kaminski made his 13th film with Steven Spielberg in shooting Lincoln; and Roger Deakins ventured into the world of James Bond with Skyfall.
AwardsLine asked the five nominees for Oscar’s Best Achievement in Cinematography to pick a key scene and break it down in detail. The choices, like the nominated films themselves, speak to the challenges inherent in the craft and its essential importance to making a movie.
The Scene: In a single sweeping, shot Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) leads Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley) on the dance floor at a high-society ball, with their electricity igniting movement from the other dancers. They connect in a moment of silence, and, for a moment, the auditorium is empty before the dancers return, bringing the star-struck couple back to reality.
Behind the Scene: “(Director) Joe (Wright) worked very closely with Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui on the choreography of the scene, and the actors rehearsed it very much in advance to create a gestural language for this dance—one that wasn’t a classical waltz; it was fresh and modern and expressive. What we also explored with it was the idea of the photography shifting in its personality during the take, so we would migrate from a kind of an objective point of view to a subjective one within the same shot, and that the camera would shift perspective within the shot and then back again. From a lighting point of view, it allowed me to experiment with lighting that I had never tried before—theatrical lighting within a movie setting. All those things make it gently distinctive in terms of the film. On the day of, we had a plan for how we would shoot it, and we spent quite a bit of time planning the shot and planning the choreography. I had a huge amount of work to do in terms of programming the lighting changes because even as the camera is moving around in a circle, there are quite complex shifts in the lighting that I was controlling on a wireless pad, with which we were able to cue the lights live to preprogrammed settings. There were probably 30 or 40 cues in that one shot. But it has a simplicity. You don’t want to overwhelm the shot or the emotion of the shot with trickery.”
The Scene: A flashback, in which Django (Jamie Foxx) fails to convince the Brittle brothers not to whip his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington).
Behind the Scene: “The style is wildly different than the majority of sequences within Django Unchained. When Quentin talked to me of the scene, he asked that we shoot with two cameras, which is quite rare for us. He knew that an emotion and a spiritual space would be found once we began filming, and he wanted to capture that. Spiritual is an understatement. Shooting the scene was an act of enlightenment. Both Jamie and Kerry poured their hearts and their souls into the sequence. To watch the acting on set was extremely difficult for me, as it moved further and further away from acting or as I moved further and further from perceiving it as acting. When I was photographing Jamie, I noticed clouds race across his eyes then mist raised as he fell to his knees begging, tears sliding down his cheeks. Kerry was tied tightly to a wooden frame, stripped of her clothes, and one of the Brittle brothers pulled back a whip and fiercely let go. Kerry lurched from the lashing. Her screams stopped everyone on the set. I began shooting within a state rarely achieved: A blind desire to capture this particular moment that was so very real that, in hindsight, I know was out of place for a feature film. Deeply provoked and touched by the acting, which appeared to disappear as we settled into the past. It was as if we were transported through time. The setting, meaning the location, was on Evergreen Plantation, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Two-hundred-year-old live oaks covered the property. Beneath these stunning trees sat 20 or so slave quarters. Ironic to have such beauty atop such hideous history. We filmed amidst those slave quarters. Haunting. A vital slap of reality. What was extremely challenging was to maintain a vision for the scene when the events within the frame were as powerful as these were. Documentaries can mirror the moment described above. But I have experienced few in my career that rival.”
Life of Pi
The Scene: Young Pi (Gautam Belur) attends a spectacular candlelit ceremony with his Hindu mother as his older self narrates his and his family’s differing views on religion.
Behind the Scene: “It’s supposed to be big, with lots of light and spectacle. So I thought it would be really beautiful to try to fill this place with tons of candles. And I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could totally light the space with candles? How many would it be?’ And we were kind of walking around and measuring, and Ang (Lee) was talking like we should have one for every square foot. That’s 50,000 candles! We had to have that lit for the whole night, so I think we ordered 120,000. I don’t think it still was enough, and we added more with CG. The story was a little bit more about the mother—this was her religion, and they were taking her to this place and she was very introspective at that moment. That was shot pretty early on, just outside of Pondicherry. It was a scene about getting the kid. The kid was young and sometimes a little bit hard to get. We did know the beats. and we did go through those beats, and we wanted to be getting some angles on top—and we shot until the sun came up.”
The Scene: Having successfully passed the 13th amendment and ending the Civil War, Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) is reminded he is due at the theater and walks down the halls of the White House toward a greenish window and the exit.
Behind the Scene: “It’s not a difficult shot. I just like the metaphor of it, and that’s what makes it special. I chose that shot simply because it represents the metaphor of what is going to happen. This is the last time we are seeing him, except for his death bed. And I like that he’s going toward slightly greenish glass, which resembles the light on his death bed, which had a little bit of a greenish quality. He’s almost walking toward an unknown future, which as we learn quickly, it’s death. One of the difficulties was to find the proper choreography between Mr. Slade, who was his servant, who was trying to remind the president about taking his gloves with him, and the pace and direction of the president walking toward that glass window. I think we had done several takes, because somehow we couldn’t get the coordination between the camera and the actors’ movement. I also remember it was very dimly lit. It was probably not the brightest set that I’ve done in that particular movie. We wanted a bit of a silhouette of Lincoln going toward the exit of the White House. We all know what happens to him, and it’s a combination of sadness because he’s going to die but yet it’s not a completely depressed scene because he’s achieved so much.”
The Scene:James Bond (Daniel Craig) engages his target, a professional hit man (Ola Rapace), in a fight to the death in an under-construction skyscraper illuminated by a massive LED screen at night in Shanghai.
Behind the Scene: “It’s one we shot early on, and I felt I was taking a chance by suggesting or pushing for that kind of look, the big LED screens and light and the whole set just with those source lights that you see in the shot. Also the fact that we did it on stage as opposed to a location, which was the original intention. And I was quite pleased the way it turned out. When it’s one of the earlier scenes in a shoot, you feel a sense of relief that you’ve achieved something close to what you had in your mind’s eye when you started. We spent a lot of time prepping. Obviously it was a big stage set, and there was a lot of very particular lighting that was built into the set. We spent actually weeks and weeks testing a few different big LED screens for the playbacks. And then we had to order a particular one we liked, which was a combination of being a fine pixel count and also being practical to do in the size we wanted, because it was about 60 by about 40 or 50 feet, I think. And we had to find one we could rent for the period we needed it and, in fact, it was available for only a small window of time, so we had to shoot the scene and then it had to be broken down and sent back before we had really cut the scene. It was a bit of a risk in it, really. But it was good being on stage at Pinewood because we were shooting there quite a bit, and I could go in at the end of the shoot day and look at the lighting and just gradually build it. ”