Awards Watch: Tech Crafts II

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A look at Oscar's film editing, sound editing, sound mixing and visual effects races

To nobody's surprise, "Avatar" dominates this year's tech race.

"When 'Avatar' is out there, it's the 800-pound gorilla in the room," says Visual Effects Society chair and VFX supervisor Jeff Okun. "Every film gets judged next to that."

"Avatar" figures in four of the main craft categories: visual effects, film editing, sound editing and sound mixing.

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In film editing, it faces four of the other best picture nominees: "District 9," "The Hurt Locker," "Inglourious Basterds" and "Precious," and in this category the final decision can go to any of them. Tentpole films like "The Bourne Ultimatum" (which won in 2008) and "The Aviator" (winner in 2005) often take home the gold, but smaller indie films such as "Crash" (winner in 2006) and last year's "Slumdog Millionaire" that have captured the zeitgeist have also won the Oscar.

"Sometimes people are looking at it for craft and sometimes they're looking for an emotional response," notes editor Sally Menke, Quentin Tarantino's longtime colleague and a previous nominee for "Pulp Fiction." "Editing is multileveled, which is why (the nominations) are all over the map."

Each film in this category, she says, is "amazingly edited. They are all really different, and it proves the point that editing has to be different, to go after character, tension, excitement."

Editor and first-time nominee Joe Klotz ("Precious") agrees. "It's a pretty diverse field," he says. "Sometimes a film with multiple story lines and convoluted connections can pick up a win, as 'Crash' did. Sometimes it's the style: 'Slumdog Millionaire' upped the ante with a style of cutting that worked for that story."

The reboot of "Star Trek" drew admirers for its dazzling array of sound and visual effects. Film set, left, film with final visual effects, right.

Nowhere does "Avatar" loom larger than in the visual effects category, where it goes up against "District 9" and "Star Trek." According to Okun, the trend with the Academy "is to look for outstanding work that pushes the envelope," and "Avatar," with its wealth of digital characters and virtual worlds, more than fits the bill.

Peter Jackson's effects house, WETA Digital, was behind both "Avatar" and "District 9," and "Avatar" nominee Joe Letteri has won all three of his Academy Awards working on films for the company. Still, he says, "Avatar" is the culmination of all his previous work.

" 'Lord of the Rings' created a fantasy world people hadn't seen before," he says. "With 'King Kong' we focused on a lead character that could carry scenes on his own, with more virtual world around him. That's where we started the discussion with Jim (Cameron)."

WETA Digital's Oscar track record goes four-for-four on the three "Rings" films and "Kong." But, if it seems likely that Letteri (nominated with Stephen Rosenbaum, Richard Baneham and Andy Jones) will nab his fourth award this year, don't forget that "Star Trek" was admired by experts for its fresh and vigorous reinvention of the franchise -- and that "District 9" (directed by a VFX artist, Neill Blomkamp) does exemplar work on a shoestring budget. And that may register.

"The second thing the Academy likes to reward is if someone does something equal to the best out there, with a lot of innovation but on a ridiculously small budget," Okun argues.

No surprise that the nominations for sound editing and sound mixing essentially mirror one another; they usually do. Both categories have nominations for "Avatar," "The Hurt Locker," "Inglourious Basterds" and "Star Trek." Pixar's animated "Up" rounds out the sound editing category, while "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" completes the sound mixing nominees.

"It's hard to have one without the other," says three-time Oscar-winning sound mixer Michael Minkler, who picked up his 11th nomination for "Basterds." "Good material and a good mix usually go hand-in-hand."

But not always, says Mark Stoeckinger (who did sound editing on "Star Trek" with Alan Rankin).

"The Hurt Locker" dazzled despite a documentary feel and low budget.

"You can have a beautiful mix and the content can be not that interesting or unique," he says. "And if you have interesting content put together in a unique way and the mix can't articulate that, the mix falls short. More than likely, however, you need both of them working in harmony."

Sound editor/mixer Paul N.J. Ottosson embodies that. He's nominated for "Locker," both in the sound editing category and with Ray Beckett for sound mixing.

"You're looking for totality," Beckett says. "And that comes from all the elements. You need to have one to have the other."

The mirroring effect for the sound categories, however, does not necessarily extend to winners: Last year, "The Dark Knight" picked up the sound editing win, while "Slumdog Millionaire" earned sound mixing, a split that also happened in 2007. While musicals or music-heavy films tend to be magnets for sound mixing votes, that's not the case this year: "Nine" and "Crazy Heart" failed to impress in the sound categories, though each was nominated elsewhere.

The key to a win, Stoeckinger says, is a film where sound plays an important role in the storytelling. "Sound is often dismissed as a techy thing, like putting stucco on a house," he notes. "But it's tailored and crafted specifically for the film, and directors all care about it as much as they do every other element."

He points out that "Star Trek" faced the challenge of incorporating classic, iconic sounds with fresh ones that rejuvenated the franchise. "J.J. (Abrams, director) likes to get involved in the details," he says. "He's really into samplers and sequencers and everything we have to make great sounds."

"Hurt Locker" earned its nomination this year, in part, for its use of sound to help audiences share the lead character's point of view. "It's not an ADR mindset," Beckett says. "We were using documentary techniques on set, getting the live dialogue and local sounds as much as we could."

That means, essentially, very little looping was done -- as with "Basterds." "The real voices were done from production," Minkler notes. "Right from the beginning, (Tarantino) has to have good sound. He'll retake a shot for sound."

Tarantino is also known for his attention to the specifics of sounds. "The gunshots are made up of hundreds of tracks," Minkler adds. "Audio is just as much a role player as his star."