Sunday, 24 February 2008

And the Award For Best Sound Goes To....?

And so here it is, Oscar night. A celebration of all things film over the last year, where our favourite movie-makers gets to vote for their favourite movie moments. This year has seen a very strong showing across almost every category, and should be the kind of ceremony in which upsets are rare.

There is, however, one category that Monkeypipe is unable to understand, that of “Best Sound”.

Most categories award a single achievement of a single person, or a single area of production – Best Actor, for example, is impossible to muddy with confusion as to whom the award is intended for. Best Costume, or Make-up, is awarding a definite product or arena of the production. Sound, split into the sub categories of Best Sound Mixing and Best Sound Editing, based on the nominees especially, seems to be awarding unknown moments of the whole process. Sound Editing is probably less confusing, as it is directed at the process putting together the final soundtrack for the overall finished film. Sound Mixing, however, is less clear.

Collaboration is an oft used term for cinema, and it is rare that a thank you speech doesn’t include some mention to all those that helped craft the overall product. One could argue that Best Cinematography is awarding not only the lighting cameraman but also the entire lighting crew, however it will be the lighting cameraman that collects the award on the night. Sound, it’s not clear who is being awarded at all. Sound Mixing could very easily mean the Production Sound Mixer – that is the person who is on set, day to day, collecting the performance and ambience – it could mean the person who mixes this down in post, however the implication is that this role would be covered in Best Sound Editing. If this is the case, however, then the choice of nominees and winners over the years highlights perhaps the rather nebulous nature of Sound in film.

If a musical or music heavy production wins a nod, is it chosen because the Sound Mixer did a good job on the non-musical bits? Or because Music is a more defined sound and so an easy pick? When a film is sound heavy it is rarely, if ever, recorded live, instead a process of playback is used, similar to music videos, in which a track is played out loud, and an actor or actors will mime to the pre-recorded piece. From a Sound Mixer’s point of view, most things recorded on the day will be a “guide” only, and the master recordings from which the play back was produced will be returned to in the edit. As far as the involvement of the Sound Mixer in this process goes, it’s fairly minimal.

Some films are heavily looped, or ADR’ed (Automated Dialogue Replacement) – that is the performance track of the actor on the day is unusable for some reason and so a new piece of sound will be recorded and dropped into the final mix – often this process takes place in a studio with an actor watching the scene and being cued as to when they need to re-act their piece so that lip-sync is more or less exact. As the ambience of a dead studio can often be the polar opposite of the shooting environment, if this is done badly it can stand out terribly. Again, the Sound Mixer is rarely if ever involved at this stage. Some films require ADR because of a technical issue, some practical – a changed line of off dialogue to alter or aid the story-telling, for example, or a shot or shoot in which stunt or effects presences affects the shooting ambience (wind machines being a good example).

The idea of sound mixing and editing at it’s synthesised practical level is to ensure that the sound track is smooth, that the seems of cutting the film are audible ironed out and therefore appear seamless. It’s rare that a Production Sound Mixer will do little more to aid this process than limit the controllable extraneous noises during shooting, and keep the recorded sound track as flat as possible – that is limit the unalterable equalisations (a field mixer will have around 3 points of equalisation, high, mid and low – in keeping these flat there is greater scope for the Sound Editor to smooth out transitions that can be unaltered if need be). From a practical point of view the placement of mics and matching of shot to shot recording is paramount to enable to editor to do as good a job with the live sound as possible. Keeping the dialogue tracks as clean as possible is one key.

A sound-scape is a very different thing to a sound track. If the celebration of a well-designed and rich sound track is being awarded, this is once more looking at the sound editing stage.

And so to this year’s nominees for Best Sound Mixing, of the five films nominated I have seen three, and one of those not watched is Ratatouille – an animated film for which surely Sound Editing is being nodded toward. I hope that No Country For Old Men wins, a film that has some fantastic Sound Mixing present, from dialogue to ambient. Then again, I’m not clear as to which part of the sound mix the award is going, or who will collect the statue if that name is called out later tonight.

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