February 27, 2010

Oscars 2010: Sound Mixing

Lunch_OscarStatue_325_325x445Contrary to the uninformed belief, Sound Mixing and Sound Editing are indeed different. Like I mentioned in my Sound Editing column, I was (am?) one of the uninformed who could not really tell you the difference. I have done a little bit of research a this point and now understand the basic differences between them. There is a pretty well defined line between the two categories. Editing involves the creation of sounds, foley effects, dialogue, and making sure all of the scenes have the right sounds. Mixing, on the other hand has to do with bringing all those sound elements together making sure the levels are right, that the focus is where it should be and the right sounds are in the right place.

Yes, the categories are definitely related to each other, but they are done be different people and they are both very important to the film. So far as who wins the top prize, the popular opinion I see around he web is that the loudest movie among the nominees is the one who wins. However, as I look at the winners over the past few years, I have to disagree with that sentiment. For example Transformers did not win and that was easily the loudest nominee that year. It lost to The Bourne Ultimatum. All right, I guess that's a loud movie too. Looking at othe recent winners, I would not consider Slumdog Millionaire, Dreamgirls, or Ray to be particularly loud.
I will say it is an interesting idea of assuming the loudest being to be winner as many likely identify "good" sound with high volume. I think a good approach would be to judge it as you judge quality speakers. You do that by listening to low volumes, if the sound definition is still good and well representative of the source, the speakers are good. Poor or cheap speakers will lose quality quicker at low volumes than high and good speakers can be listened to very low and still give a solid experience. What I am saying is maybe we should pay more attention to the quieter moments. Although, while this is a probably a good way to get an idea, it is not the whole picture. We must look at the bigger picture of the scene and even bigger at the film as a whole.

The award has existed since the dawn of the Talkie, nearly as long as the awards themselves. It was originally just called "Sound" (it was changed when Sound Editing entered the fray in the early 1960s. The first winner was The Big House for 1929-1930, a film I've never heard of. Actually the first winner I have heard of did not come until 1942 when Yankee Doodle Dandy.

This year there are five flms nominated for the award and it looks like many other categories I have looked at. Alphabetically, the nominated films are: Avatar, The Hurt Locker, Inglorious Basterds, Star Trek, and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.

Now to take a look at them in the order I believe they will finish:

Inglourious Basterds
I love the film and have said as much before, I just do not really see it as a viable candidate in these more technical categories. The film is highly dialogue driven (it is Quentin Tarantino after all) and ir sounds just right. Seriously, I have nothing but love for the film and the mix is a good one, I just do not find that it jumps out at me.  guess that could b the sign of a good mix, right? I suppose so. However, I feel other films are stronger in the mix area, or at least more active.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
This is a good one if you are looking for loud and obnoxious. This movie has a lot going on in the sound mix from transformations to explosions, crunching metal to the roar of engines, not to mention dialogue and a host of other sounds. Quite frankly, the mixing team has their hands full to keep it from flying completely off the rails. This could not have been an easy task considering what is going on visually. It is a delicate balancing act to make sure we get the right mix. For what it is, it is solid, as good as can be expected, but when taken in conjunction with the film as a whole, it is a bit of a mess. Perhaps this team should be commended for doing what they did with what they had to contend with.

The Hurt Locker
Now, this placing may be a little arbitrary by me, wanting to see another film higher up the list. In the end my ordering does not really mean much as we will only ever know the number one film. In any case, this movie does have a very good mix. It features a great dynamic mix of loud and soft. The opening sequence is a good example of the dynamics. It has the quiet intensity that goes with revealing the bomb, the high energy of finding someone with questionable intentions, it has friendly conversations, not to mention the moving footsteps and tire treads of the remote controlled machine they use. All of which has a perfect balance to get you on the edge of you seat. The rest of the movie follows that lead. It definitely has a shot at winning.

Star Trek
I would love to be able to call Star Trek an Oscar winning film. Sadly, I feel pretty sure that will not be the case, so I will have to settle for Oscar nominee. That is't so bad is it? Especially considering the film had so many questions prior to its release. As for the mix, it is very good. It strikes a balance between the barely contained insanity of the Transformers sequel and the finely honed intensity of The Hurt Locker. This film brings a balance to the dialogue, ambiance, score, and th plethora of special effects sounds that were created just for this movie. The movie is just so much fun and the sound is a big part of that, everything in its right place.

James Cameron's first fictional film since Titanic is a pop-culture and technological phenomenon. It has captured people's imaginations in ways that few films have been able to do. All manner of technology was created to make it work. While reading up on the film, I learned that the CG elements could be edited in pieces and in layers (face and body separate from each other and then different layers of the background). It is quite fascinating. Now combine those elements with the combination of on set sound and newly created sounds blended to just the right balance to suck you into this alien world. I do not think this is the greatest film, but there is something so special about what it has accomplished and the audio mix goes along way to selling the immersive nature of the 3D film. I have a good feeling this will com out on top.

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