Oscar Watch: Craft

Oscar crafts nominees transcend genres while staying focused on the story

Film Editing

"Sometimes not editing is the best kind of cutting," first-time editing nominee Elliot Graham says. That approach was fundamental in shaping his vision of how to cut "Milk," which earned acting nominations for Sean Penn and Josh Brolin. Recalling one speech Penn gives, Graham notes: "We played the entire speech in one handheld shot. His performance was just so strong, I didn't want to cut away."

What's intriguing about this year's nominees is how many of them have followed that principle, letting the performances shine. "The subtlety of finding performances is getting noticed," says Dan Hanley ("Frost/Nixon"). "It means voters are taking notice of the craft."

"Frost/Nixon" is the fourth nomination for Hanley and Mike Hill, longtime Ron Howard collaborators who won an Oscar for 1995's "Apollo 13." Hill says that, like the editing on "Milk," their work was about doing justice to the actors -- which often meant holding a shot long enough to let its full drama sink in.

That was especially true when it came to the intense conclusion of the Nixon interviews. "When Nixon finally admitted that he let the country down, it was a choice to just stay with him as long as we could," Hill says. "We wanted to be uncomfortable with Frank Langella's hesitations and breathing."

Of course, allowing a performance to come through is just one element in editing.

In the case of "Slumdog Millionaire," "The biggest challenge was getting the film to work as a whole," says editor Chris Dickens. "With so many timelines and different facets to the story running concurrently, there was always a danger that the film would be difficult to understand or (would) feel fragmented."

"Slumdog's" device of taking the viewer back and forth through time may give the movie an edge when it comes to winning the Oscar. Another advantage: Danny Boyle's drama is widely expected to win the top prize, and historically the best picture winner often takes the editing category.

Like "Slumdog," "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" also used time shifting. "We were treading between too hot and too cold emotionally, so that it would ring true and feel genuine," says first-time nom Kirk Baxter, who co-edited the film with Angus Wall.

Lee Smith faced a quite different challenge on "The Dark Knight": The film required a wide-screen theatrical version and an Imax version. "We needed to extensively test," he says, "to ensure that the cuts were not so quick that the audience would get disoriented, looking at that Imax screen, and at the same time not interfere with the pace of the standard cinema version."

Sound Editing and Sound Mixing

The sound categories may bring justice to those who thought "Wall-E" was robbed of a best picture nomination. With so little dialogue, sound played a vital role in creating the animated world and giving voice to a lonely robot who could speak little more than his name.

"Wall-E" is widely expected to clinch both sound categories, bringing two more Oscars to four-time Academy Award winner Ben Burtt -- who is nominated for both sound editing and mixing -- as well as Oscars for his sound editing partner Matthew Wood and the entire mixing team (rounded out by Tom Myers and Michael Semanick, who is also nominated for mixing "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button").

The unique sound in "Wanted" was recognized for mixing (Chris Jenkins, Frank A. Montano and Petr Forejt) and for sound editing (Wylie Stateman). "The most important thing is that it wasn't over-built," says Jenkins, describing the mix. "Sound was very task-specific."

With "Dark Night," it was about character.

"Certainly, there were a lot of creative challenges in creating atmosphere and the intensity of the action sequences," says Gary Rizzo, nominated for sound mixing with Lora Hirschberg and Ed Novick. "But (director) Chris Nolan is all about character, and characters and story override everything."

Out of respect for the late Heath Ledger, the production -- which also got a sound editing nom for Richard King -- agreed that the Joker's performance had to be entirely his own. "There is not a syllable that isn't Heath's performance," Rizzo explains.

"Slumdog Millionaire" recreated the busy streets of Mumbai with music, sound effects and pace. Scoring nominations were Resul Pookutty, Richard Pryke and Ian Tapp for sound mixing, and Glenn Freemantle and Tom Sayers for sound editing.

The final nomination in the mixing cat-egory went to "Benjamin Button's" team of Ren Klyce, David Parker, Mark Weingarten and Semanick, who used sound to bring authenticity to many decades and locations.

Rounding out the sound editing nominees are "Iron Man's" Christopher Boyes and Frank Eulner. Boyes emphasized the use of sound to sell the components of the metal suit, as well as to juxtapose action and humor.

Visual Effects

This year's visual effects nominees -- "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," "The Dark Knight" and "Iron Man" -- have all been applauded for realism, seamless integration with live action, and support of story.

But sometimes a project comes along that seems to signal that a bigger change is on the horizon. A believable CG human has long been an unattainable goal in the VFX community, and for many, "Benjamin Button" marks a turning point. If enough voters agree, then the nominees for "Benjamin Button" -- Eric Barba, Craig Barron, Burt Dalton and Steve Preeg -- will walk away with the Oscar.

Using visual effects, Brad Pitt was able to perform the aged title character for the first 52 minutes of the film. A body actor did the performance from the neck down, and the head was replaced with an aged CG Pitt, created using a combination of VFX tools and techniques, some developed at lead VFX house Digital Domain.

A challenge for "The Dark Knight" -- and its nominated VFX team of Chris Corbould, Nick Davis, Paul Franklin and Tim Webber -- was that about 40 minutes of the movie was shot in Imax, a first for a narrative studio film. That meant the visual effects needed to be finished for the format, requiring a reworking on the VFX production pipeline to support 8K and 5.6K. The work had to be believable at that high resolution and Imax screen size, with some shots entirely computer-generated.

The visual effects in Jon Favreau's "Iron Man" included the creation of several iterations of Robert Downey Jr.'s complex metal suit -- a combination of CG from lead VFX house Industrial Light & Magic and practical suits from Stan Winston Studio. For a flying reference, the team motion-captured skydivers in a wind tunnel.

The nominated team of Shane Mahan, John Nelson, Ben Snow and Dan Sudick also used VFX to create Tony Stark's world, including the exterior of his mansion.