Sound and glory

Oscars show audio's evolution

The place: the 1929-30 Academy Awards. The event: the first Oscar for achievement in sound presented to the MGM Studio Sound Department, Douglas Shearer, sound director for the film “The Big House” (Cosmopolitan; MGM). Since that time, both the role of the sound team and the recognition given by Oscar have evolved to reflect the current star status of the soundtrack.

In the past considered the poor relation of the filmmaking process, sound is now the equal partner of picture, and with the Oscars to prove it. Audio has two categories, with up to six possible award recipients.

“The achievement in sound category is a ‘must give’ award, meaning it must be given every year,” explains Curt Behlmer, senior VP of post-production services at Warner Bros. Studios and one of three governors for the sound branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (with Don Hall and Donald Mitchell). “The category recognizes up to three re-recording mixers and one production sound mixer. Five pictures are nominated by the members of the sound branch, then voted on for the award by the entire voting membership.”

The achievement in sound effects editing is an award of a different color. According to Don Rogers, consultant for Warner Bros. and former sound branch governor (1972-1982 and 1988-1994), “This award is not an annual award. It is given really by the Board of Governors. Someone will write a letter or a committee will recommend to the board that something special was done in a particular year in sound effects editing. The maximum amount of people who can receive this award is two, if it is given.”

Sound effects editors who are members of the Academy send in ballots recommending up to seven films. “Ten-minute excerpts from the seven films with the most recommendations are then presented and voted on,” says Rogers.

If two or three films reach a point scale of more than eight out of 10, the Oscar is voted for on the general ballot by the entire membership, and the awards are given at the general Academy Awards presentation. It there is only one film, the award is given at the Scientific and Technical Awards ceremony, a black-tie affair generally held about three weeks prior to the main event.

The wonderful Oscar Web site ( reveals the progression of change for the sound categories. For instance, the “achievement in sound” category was originally “sound recording” from the 1929-30 awards through the 1957 awards. Additionally, from the 1929-30 awards through the 1968 awards, the Oscar recipient was a studio’s sound department.

Jack Solomon and Murray Spivack garnered the first awards for individuals in this category for “Hello, Dolly!” (Chenault Productions; 20th Century Fox) in 1969 at the 42nd awards ceremonies.

The year 1975 saw the film “Jaws” clamp down on another rule change for this category. “We voted to extend the award to include two other re-recording mixers, because they are like collaborators on a project,” says Rogers.

The evolution and expansion of the sound categories reflects a growing importance for the soundtrack in the Hollywood community. Michael Kohut, president of Sony Pictures Studios’ post-production facilities, and the moving force behind the Sony SDDS digital playback system, says he feels that, “in years past, sound was not as important as it is today.”

Certainly, the advent of Dolby Surround in 1975, coupled with the fantastic influence of “Star Wars” in 1977, launched audio to new levels of importance. “Now, with digital playback available in 35mm theaters, sound has become a vital aspect of filming, and the general moviegoing audience is becoming aware of this,” Kohut says.

The spread of surround sound to the home is another phenomenon influencing audio and the Oscar. According to Cecelia Hall, VP of the sound department for Paramount Pictures, “The advancement in the technology in con-sumer products is also pushing sonic awareness, with things like laserdisc, with Dolby AC3, the whole home theater revolution, THX — even games come in surround sound. It used to be that kids only related the adrenaline rush from sound with rock music or heavy metal, but now that kind of interest and understanding has certainly ex-panded into cinema.”

As more theaters implement digital audio playback, the dramatic role of the soundtrack will continue to grow. And the winner is — everyone.

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