Audiophiles still hooked on ‘Star Wars’ sonics

'Menace' will be pursued by 'Matrix,' 'Hollow,' 'Mile'

Oscar may be holding his ears again this year when the nominees for sound and sound effects editing are announced, if the tradition of honoring earsplitting soundtracks sticks. Add you can probably be assured joining in the din will be the thundering roar of a juggernaut whose great-grandfather redefined this category forever: “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace.”

But just when the Empire appears to be striking back, digital sound editing has faded in industrywide, offering a new wave of dynamic, high-profile projects. Meanwhile, quieter fare is joining the mix to challenge “Menace” as a force with which to be reckoned.

“You have to do really great work, your movie has to be popular and you have to not be releasing the same year as a ‘Star Wars’ movie,” comments C5’s Skip Lievsay on how to steal a sound statue.

However, Lievsay, whose ethereal “Sleepy Hollow” and ambitious “Wild Wild West” are standouts this year, admits that the category is going through a renaissance of sorts.

“There’s a movement away from the louder is better concept,” he says. “I think even the filmmakers are tiring of that race to be loudest. Movies are kind of enjoying a quieter period now that everyone understands how to make dynamic digital releases without burying the first four rows of the audience.”

While “Hollow” balances Gothic f/x with Danny Elfman’s signature score and “West” takes a cue from seminal Oscar winner “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” by cranking foreground noise to rev action, Skywalker Sound launched “Menace” beyond its first four rows by inspiring Dolby EX — an additional sound field mounted at the back of theaters. The system is currently heard on 5,500 screens worldwide.

“Everybody seems to think that good sound means big sound,” observes Mark Mangini, co-owner of Weddington Prods. and supervising sound editor of Oscar hopeful “The Green Mile.” “Most often, the pictures that win for sound are the big, obvious ones. We should really rename our award ‘best achievement in most sound.'”

For “Mile,” Mangini devised ways of incorporating delicate tracks into director Frank Darabont’s plaintively powerful settings.

“The challenge was how to make a three-hour movie which takes place in an isolated prison block sound interesting,” Mangini muses. “Part of that was creating a new way of recording foley where we restaged action on actual locations because we wanted it to sound so real. We then linked this fiber-optically to an actual, proper recording studio where we could have a nice, high-tech monitoring environment.”

Other subtle works hoping to make noise this year include “The Insider” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley.”

“A couple years ago, a film won for best sound that a lot of people didn’t expect, ‘The English Patient,'” points out Randy Thom, Skywalker’s re-recording mixer on “Snow Falling on Cedars,” and sound designer for “Bicentennial Man” and “The Iron Giant.” “It certainly was not a film that had a huge, flashy soundtrack, but it was very tasteful and subtle, and people appreciated that.

“That may be indicative of a change in consciousness that the best sound isn’t necessarily the biggest or the loudest or the most bombastic.”

Moving up a few decibels, the year spawned a new breed of MTV-inspired sonic upstarts hungry for legitimization: “Fight Club,” another Skywalker project in Dolby EX, and German import “Run Lola Run” are both tops with Hollywood sound snobs. But lack of B.O. bang may trumpet a fizzle for both flicks when nods are announced.

The one digital debutante with the right mix to maul “Menace” may lie somewhere in “The Matrix,” Dane Davis’ ambitious audio ensemble being hailed as a shoo-in if it weren’t a “Star Wars” year.

“My tongue was hanging out just reading this script and thinking about all the opportunities,” says Davis, who also served as supervising editor for the Wachowski brothers’ debut, “Bound.” “(‘Matrix’) is a loud movie, but the goal all along was to make it as dynamic as possible. I enjoy really loud sounds, but I really hate things that are too abrasive, so we were constantly defining that line up through the mixing.”

“I think the front-runners for awards are ‘Epsiode I’ and ‘The Matrix,'” speculates one venerable sound pro. “‘The Matrix’ is a very stylish job and shows a lot of taste.

“‘Episode I’ is no less successful than the other (‘Star Wars’) movies, but I think the film suffers from a problem where people were slightly disappointed because of expectations that could never be realized after all these years. They may be fighting their own momentum when it comes to receiving awards or people appreciating their work.”

So will “Menace” be dogged by its pedigree come Oscar night?

“There’s a lot of pressure because you feel you’ve got to build on the previous films and figure out how to top yourself,” says Ben Burtt, sound designer for all four “Star Wars” films. “Can you create the magic again? The award is great and it’s fun and your parents love it. It’s an honor from your peers, but it can’t be the thing which sustains your work every day.”

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