The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on Sunday handed out a newly renamed Oscar for best sound — combining the prior sound editing and sound mixing categories into a single honor — and while this was a carefully considered change in the Sound Branch and many agree with the move, there are still varying opinions about merging the disciplines. Meanwhile, topics including a potential category name change and how the pandemic affected voting were also raised in this post mortem.
“Each Academy Branch updates its rules periodically. I expect that there will be further refinement by the Sound Branch,” sums up supervising sound editor, designer and rerecording mixer Randy Thom, a two-time Oscar winner for The Right Stuff and The Incredibles. “Going from two sound awards to one is controversial within the Sound Branch. On the visual side of things there are lots of categories: cinematography, production design, visual effects, costume design, makeup. So, quite a few people within the Sound Branch didn’t see why it was necessary to condense sound editing and sound mixing into one award. It’s true that many people do both jobs, and the equipment to do both jobs is strikingly similar, but it’s also true that editing sounds is still a different kind of work from mixing sounds.”
This year the Oscar for best sound was awarded to Sound of Metal, a film that followed a drummer played by Oscar-nominee Riz Ahmed who experiences hearing loss, which was acclaimed for its use of sound as an empathy machine to convey his point of view to the audience. It bested a field of nominees that also included Greyhound, Mank, News of the World and Soul.
Asked about the combined category (which continues to recognize the roles of the supervising sound editor, production sound mixer and rerecording mixer) following the win, Sound of Metal‘s supervising sound editor Nicolas Becker describes it as “amazing because we are a team. I believe you have to work in close collaboration. … This makes sense to be all together.”
One of the arguments for merging the categories had been that many voters don’t understand the difference between sound editing and mixing, coupled with the fact that these two awards often went to the same film. From 2010 to 2020, the sound editing and sound mixing Oscars were awarded to the same film six times. The four times they were not included a year ago when Ford v Ferrari won the Academy Award for sound editing and 1917 grabbed the Oscar for sound mixing.
“If anything, this round was probably a relief because a lot of [Academy] members don’t know the difference,” admits supervising sound editor Don Sylvester, who won the Oscar for Ford v Ferrari. “As a sound editor, I’m acutely aware of those differences and I often hear a voice in my head saying, ‘good mix,’ or, ‘nice sound effect,’ whenever I view a film. But I know that I’m in the minority. A single sound award makes it a lot simpler for the non-pro to vote.”
Rerecording mixer Andy Nelson, a two-time Oscar winner for Les Misérables and Saving Private Ryan (who also shares a category record for having been nominated a total of 21 times), has a similar view. “It was apparent that a lot of voters did not understand the differences in our craft, so combining the award has hopefully eliminated that confusion,” he says. “I don’t believe this recent change to our award has affected the outcome at all.”
But not everyone agrees that a combined category is the right approach to celebrating a motion picture’s sound. Asked how he thought this new category worked out and speaking in advance of Sunday’s ceremony, supervising sound editor Mark Mangini, an Oscar winner for Mad Max: Fury Road, admits, “the new best sound category is functional and our branch selected a tremendous slate of worthy films for nomination and the winner will, of course, be an exceptional example of sound in cinema. The sky is not falling. Yet the ability and opportunity to recognize the vast diversity of contributions in sound that undergirds the new best sound award has been irreparably compromised.
“The new combined award eliminates the voters’ ability to separately recognize extraordinary accomplishments in sound editing and sound mixing, with one perhaps coming at the expense of the other, creating a Hobson’s choice that serves neither our discipline nor the Academy’s own mission,” he relates. “These are still unique and distinct disciplines, as separate and distinct as cinematography and production design.”
He acknowledges that “good work was recognized at the end of the day … [but] our disciplines have been lumped inconceivably into one award for … expedience? Shortening the telecast? Confusion or lack of understanding about the differences in our disciplines? All unsatisfying reasons to eliminate the recognition of a valuable artistic contribution to film. At the end of the day, isn’t that what the Academy is supposed to be? A collegial organization of professionals supporting the cinematic arts and recognition therein.”
Acknowledging a related topic, Thom admits, “There are lots of people in the Sound Branch of the Academy who did not like the idea of one person being able to win two sound Oscars for one film. In my opinion, whoever does the work should win the award.” He cites as an example that Saving Private Ryan and Jurassic Park each won both categories and “there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Gary Rydstrom deserved to win both the sound editing and sound mixing awards, and he did win them. I don’t understand why anyone would have a problem with that. In any case, it is now written into the Sound Branch rules that an individual cannot receive more than one Oscar statuette for a single film, no matter how many jobs they do on that film.”
In fact, a couple of this year’s best sound nominees, Ren Klyce (nominated for both Mank and Soul) and Michael Minkler (Greyhound), served as both a supervising sound editor and rerecording mixer on their nominated movies.
Reached on Monday for his view on the combined category, three-time Oscar winner Minkler says, “I have always believed that for good sound editing to be successful it requires good sound mixing, and vice versa. So I have been a proponent of combining the award for a long time … [This season] I felt a fresh importance to the award for best sound because it is clear and seemed to be more relevant.”
Suggests Mark Ulano, Oscar-winning production sound mixer on Titanic, “This is a return to the much longer history of the award.” He points out that a single sound award was actually one of the earliest categories, first presented at the third Academy Awards held in 1930. A second, elective award for sound effects or sound effects editing wasn’t used until the early ’60s. The names changed several more times and during the mid-2000s, sound editing received permanent status.
“At the end of the day, this is about telling stories with sound,” Ulano says. “I’m with the change, respectively … It’s actually coming home, in a way [to] how sound has been treated as a contributing creative factor in telling film stories than the much shorter history of it being split up and compartmentalized.”
Thom notes that to further clarify the best sound category, he would personally favor a name change, to “best sound design.” He says, “That designation clearly distinguishes it from musical score, and in my opinion the work that sound effects editors, dialogue editors and mixers do is all sound design,” noting that in this scenario, “I’m imagining all of the same job descriptions would be eligible for the Award as are eligible now. Only the name would change.”
Separately, Sylvester’s takeaway on the season was more about how sound is judged in the home. “Because of the pandemic, this may have been the worst year to make significant changes to the awards themselves,” he says. “It’s renewed focus on the debate on how a streaming film and a theatrical film can or should compete against one another. For sound, even in the most perfect of worlds, home theaters are a far cry from movie theaters. Viewing at home may also be problematic for judging cinematography, but it’s a significant stumbling block for sound. I wonder how many people heard what the filmmaker actually intended on their home sound systems.”