Voters eschew typical tuners for eclectic blend

Audio pros across the country had an almost universal reaction to this year’s sound nominations — surprise.

Many were looking for the musicals “Sweeney Todd” and “Hairspray” to be included. Others thought blockbusters like “American Gangster” and “Pirates 3″ were naturals.

In their place, though, were films that ran the thematic and aural gamut, including “There Will be Blood,” “No Country for Old Men,” “Transformers,” “Ratatouille,” “The Bourne Ultimatum” and “3:10 to Yuma.”

Not having a musical in the mix is a bit of a switch for the Academy. Over the past six years there has only been one other year (2003) where a musical wasn’t nominated in the sound mixing category.

The blend of styles in each category, reports multiple Oscar winner Randy Thom, is good for all concerned. “I think when you have all blockbuster action films nominated, you don’t have much of a choice. It’s really wonderful to have some full-on action films and some much more eccentric and subtle tracks.”

Over the past decade, Academy members have tended to cast their votes for epics in the sound editing category. In 1997, “Titanic” won the award, followed by “Saving Private Ryan,” “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” and “Master and Commander.” Last year’s winner was “Letters From Iwo Jima.”

The key, those working in sound agree, is following the letter of the nomination. “The award is for the best sound contribution,” says Scott Millan, who is nominated for “The Bourne Ultimatum” this year. “So, we have to have highlighted the story without being obvious.”

In the sound mixing category, the criteria are a bit different, which leads to a broader range of winning films, including musicals. Oscar-winning mixer Paul Massey isn’t surprised when a musical receives the award. “I think there is a portion of the membership of the Academy that thinks of good sound when it hears music,” he says.

Greg P. Russell, who is up for a sound-mixing Oscar with his partner Kevin J. O’Connell for the pair’s work on “Transformers,” has had firsthand experience with those feelings. O’Connell and Russell have been beaten out for the Oscar by mixers on musicals in three of the last four years.

“It’s such different criteria as far as mixing,” Russell says. “It’s unfortunate that the collective membership doesn’t differentiate between great music versus sound mixing as a whole in terms of creating a complete new world.”

History shows when a musical doesn’t win, a film that takes viewers into a new world a la “Transformers” or a time in history like “3:10 to Yuma” has a good chance: 1999’s award went to “The Matrix,” the 2000 kudo to “Gladiator” and the 2005 trophy to “King Kong.”

So, given the Academy’s history, an educated deduction could be made about who will be winning this year. At the same time, none of the nominees is willing to hazard a guess. “It’s hard to judge the mood of the Academy,” Thom says with a laugh. “I wouldn’t even begin to know how to predict.”

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