The AMPAS’s sound categories—Achievement Sound Mixing and Achievement in Sound Editing—are often trivialized afterthoughts to viewers at home, and even to some Academy voters who may not be primed in the specific mechanics of cinematic sound.
The Hollywood Reporter disclosed an anonymous Academy member’s ballot earlier this week. The voter abstained from discussing the sound categories, saying, “I never vote for these categories because I have no idea what’s good sound or bad sound — and believe me, I’m not alone among Academy members.”
More recently, the Academy has been known for rewarding the same film in both categories, which is usually the standout genre film of the year that earned an abundance of nominations. Two of Gravity’s seven technical Oscars were the sound awards. The Hurt Locker’s winning streak stretched to both categories. Inception and Hugo also scooped up both sound awards. The only recent year where the Academy voted for different films in each category was 2012: Les Miserables won Sound Mixing, and Skyfall and Zero Dark Thirty tied for Sound Editing.
This year’s races in the sound categories are not extremely predictable. Each nominee is juggling several favorable and detrimental variables.
The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies
After being recognized with six mentions from the Academy this year, American Sniper emerged as consensus prediction for both sound categories. A double American Sniper outcome appeared to be the most logical, seeing as it is a popular action film with a great deal of noisy gunfire. Even more than being just a spectacle with its war action, the sound design was extensively manipulated to engulf the viewer in Chris Kyle’s tension-filled decisions of whether or not to pull the trigger on Iraqi citizens. American Sniper fits the profile of a “Sound Awards Sweep” film, but it does not appear to have the undeniable winner momentum that a film like Gravity had. Sound Editing is the strong bet for American Sniper, even if Sound Mixing is awarded to another film.
Interstellar was predicted for the longest time to be the Inception of 2014, and steal away the sound categories, visual effects and maybe cinematography. Now, it’s best labeled as a wild card. The film did well with nominations considering how conflicting the reviews were, but that critical backlash cannot be ignored, no matter how much of a technical marvel the film may be. There are Best Picture nominees with just as impressive sound designs in the race, so Interstellar is probably not the average voter’s default pick. One of the many controversies surrounding Interstellar was the wobbly sound mix. Some found the dialogue difficult to discern amongst the thundering score and rocketing action. However, that negative response to the mix did not prevent Interstellar from receiving a nomination from the Academy’s sound branch.
Birdman won the Cinema Audio Society guild award for sound mixing in a motion picture amongst nominees Interstellar, American Sniper, Guardians of the Galaxy and Unbroken. CAS is typically a reliable source in foreshadowing which film will take home the Oscar for Sound Mixing. (The most recent film to win CAS but not the Oscar was True Grit in 2010. Inception won the Academy Award.) Birdman could duplicate its CAS success at the Oscars because of its Best Picture frontrunner status. Modern-day Best Picture winners garner at least three awards total, and a problem pundits are having in predicting Birdman for Best Picture is projecting other categories it could win besides the big prize and cinematography. If they are placing Birdman high in their Best Picture ranking, the Academy could vote in its favor for the sound awards.
The audio strengths of Birdman lie in the sound mix, not necessarily the sound effects. Birdman only has one scene—the fantasy climax—of stereotypical sound awards bait, but the rest of the film is accented with a vibrant jazz score. (In a few self-referential moments, Birdman pokes fun at its audacious score by literally displaying the drummer on screen.) Other advantages of its sound mix include scenes where characters exuberantly yell at one another and many sequences obviously feature stage performance action and dialogue. Winning Sound Mixing seems likely, but the forecast for it also snatching Sound Editing is not as probable unless the Academy goes on a Birdman-voting-binge.
The BAFTAs went in a completely different direction by rewarding Whiplash for Best Sound. What started out as a little vehicle for J.K. Simmons has seemed to fervently impact industry voters. The buzz around Whiplash is so strong that some think it could win all four of the Oscar categories in which it’s nominated, with the exception of Best Picture. This could be a problem for it winning Sound Mixing, because four wins feels excessive for a film of its size without winning subsequently Best Picture. If it wins Adapted Screenplay and Film Editing in addition to Supporting Actor, voters may look elsewhere for their Sound Mixing pick.
Like CAS, the BAFTA’s winner typically aligns with the Oscar winner too. The last instance where the two didn’t match was in 2006, when BAFTA recognized Casino Royale while the AMPAS awarded Dreamgirls. In a similar way as past winners like Les Miserables and Dreamgirls, Whiplash also benefits from its plot being immersed in reverberating music for the majority of the film.
Unbroken, Angelina Jolie’s full-length directorially debut, was debunked by critics as average after misleading trailers created unearned pre-release buzz. The film only scored three nominations, all technical, so a win in either sound category would be odd, as would a victory for The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. The commotion of the final Middle Earth chapter will probably not draw too many voters away from the bigger, more respected films.
Since Whiplash is only nominated in Sound Mixing, this year could be following 2012’s pattern where a music-dependent movie wins Sound Mixing and allows a war film, American Sniper, to win Sound Editing. A similar outcome occurred in 2006, with Dreamgirls winning Sound Mixing, and Letters from Iwo Jima taking Sound Editing. But I have a feeling Birdman could rise to the occasion and collect the Sound Mixing Oscar, especially if it flies to a Best Picture trophy later in the ceremony.
PROJECTED SOUND MIXING RESULTS
3. American Sniper
PROJECTED SOUND EDITING RESULTS
1. American Sniper
5. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies