‘Bad news’ for sound bake-off

Pleas to Academy fall on deaf ears

A year after being publicly dissed by thesp Mike Myers in front of a global television audience, the sound branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences seems to be out to prove that given the choice between self-congratulation and self-immolation, setting one’s self on fire is preferred.

For the second year in a row, only two sound teams have been nominated for the sound editing award, “Monsters, Inc.” and “Pearl Harbor,” when three contenders are possible.

“It’s bad news for the category,” says Gary Rydstrom, the much Oscared sound man whose work includes “Monsters.” “The work represented in this year’s bake-off is as good as it has ever been. To not have three nominees looks like we can’t find three films with sound editing that deserves recognition. Which is obviously not true.”

This year’s Oscar short list included “A.I. Artificial Intelligence,” “Amelie,” “Black Hawk Down,” “The Fast and the Furious,” “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” “Monsters” and “Pearl Harbor.”

The repeat of last year’s results, an extra-short list of noms, sets up a mildly confusing scenario, say some industryites. Three of the sound-editing bake-off participants “Amelie,” “Black Hawk Down” and “Ring” have been nominated for the sound Oscar.

Ostensibly, the winner of the category will have done so, at least according to logic, with sound editing that couldn’t even get a nom.

“You can’t have the best sound without great sound editing,” says Bruce Stambler (whose work on “Fast and the Furious” was also in the sound editing bake-off). Stambler has one Oscar to his name (“The Ghost and the Darkness”) and a number of mentions. “But you could have great sound editing and not have a great final mix.”

Trouble by numbers

In brief, the sound Oscar is supposed to recognize the whole film sound package — dialogue, sound effects and music — the final mix of all elements. Best sound editing (a special achievement award that doesn’t have to be awarded in any given year if the work isn’t deemed worthy) recognizes the work of the teams that, among other things, create and mix sound effects.

“It’s all politics,” says a vet post house PR agent of the consecutive undernominated years. “There’s so much internal fighting (in the sound branch) you’d think they were electing the president of the Screen Actors Guild instead of trying to honor the best work of the year.”

From Rydstrom’s point of view, the lack of a full slate of noms in the editing category is more the result of statistics than Machiavellianism. At the bake-off, the sound branch members get to vote on the final seven on a scale of six to 10. Any film that doesn’t achieve an average score of 8.5 cannot be considered for a nom. Three years ago, the average score needed was 8.0.

“I’m sad about the whole situation,” says Stambler, who was previously nominated for his work on six projects. “The work that was done by Per Hallberg on ‘Black Hawk Down,’ for example, was extraordinary. To present a situation where we’re saying that work wasn’t good enough to be even nominated isn’t beneficial for the people involved and the craft in general.”

At the Academy, there are indications that the voting system for the sound bake-off will come under intense scrutiny at post-Oscar meetings in May.

“Everyone agrees that there are more than enough films to warrant three nominations this year,” says Rich Miller, awards administration director for the Acad, who adds that are no guarantees or even necessarily a need for the voting system to change. “It may be that we need to educate the voters (at the bake-off) more than we have in the past. Some people may not realize that giving a film a nine when you could give it a 10 may make the film ineligible for a nomination.”

For his part, Stambler, among others, has insisted for some time that the sound editing kudo should get five noms to bring it up to par with the sound category. “It’s an inequity that doesn’t make sense,” he says.

Despite his misgivings, Rydstrom adds that the bake-off format should be kept. “It can bring attention to a film that might ordinarily be over-looked. Even though the current system is short-circuiting itself.”

This year’s bake-off short list — generated by a sound branch committee — was considered to be one of the best in recent memory.

“It was good to see such a wide range of genres represented,” says “Amelie” sound editor Gerard Hardy from his studio in Paris. “The quality of my colleague’s work was very high.”

Despite the perennial complaint that studio bean counters are constantly putting downward pressure on sound budgets (“No one wants to wait for the sound guy,” quips one leading sound designer), Hardy and his bake-off colleagues praised the producers of their projects.

“In our case we were given the time and resources we needed to get the job done right,” says David Farmer, sound designer for “Lord of the Rings.” The film’s sound effects were almost all made from scratch for the first installment of the J.R.R. Tolkien trilogy.

“Using (pre-existing) sound effects won’t keep people from coming to see a film,” Farmer continues. “But if creating something original makes a film feel real, then it does make a difference.”

The bake-off is an annual event, held in early February, when the sound branch of the Acad gets together and votes on the merits of a short list of seven films and whittles it down to the slate of Oscar contenders.

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