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Oscar learns to love stylish sound

Voters, sound pros agree louder isn't always better

Once it was a given that a soundtrack’s volume and density wowed Academy voters. But no longer.

Indeed, in recent years, voters have turned away from loud, obtrusive efforts to honor soundtracks that blend nuance and emotion.

Just last winter, Academy voters turned to “Slumdog Millionaire” over “The Dark Knight.” “The Bourne Ultimatum” earned the honor rather than “Transformers” in 2007, and in 2006 the musical “Dreamgirls” trumped four more action-flavored offerings.

Sound mixers and designers like the shift. “It’s great to see perception (of award-winning sound) being broadened,” says “Up” sound effects re-recording mixer Tom Myers. “Just because something is loud doesn’t necessarily make it a good soundtrack. It can be, but there are shades and subtleties that I think people are starting to recognize.”

Cameron Frankley, who most recently served as the supervising sound editor on “Terminator Salvation,” believes the Academy’s general membership is awarding the entire experience of a film. “When they think about a musical, they say, ‘That sounded good, that was good music,’ as opposed to the nuance or detail that goes into another picture,” he says. “So, they are not necessarily judging (a film’s sound) on its complexities, but on the overall feel of the sound.”

Of course, beauty is in the ear of the beholder, but that doesn’t take into account the work that sound designers put into a film like “Terminator Salvation” or “2012,” each of which features approximately 1,300 visual effects shots that needed matching sounds.

On the original “Transformers,” the team created and mixed more than 1,000 sound effects for the film. An average drama uses about 100 tracks of sound.

While these action films boast hundreds of tracks, “2012’s” sound effects re-recording mixer Michael Keller says the key is picking the three most important sounds in any scene to feature. “If you cut every sound effect for everything you see in a frame, it won’t be clear,” he says. “Your eye doesn’t catch everything that’s happening; it goes to the thing that matters most, and that’s what we try to match sonically.”

That philosophy holds true for more dramatic fare, including an animated film like “Up,” Myers says. “There’s a scene that is a montage of the main characters’ marriage. At one point, we had a number of sound effects, but we stripped them out one by one until there was only Michael Giacchino’s score. We could have tried to shoehorn some effects in there, but it seemed to take away from the inherent emotion in the story.”

In fact, Myers says that’s what is resonating with audiences and Academy members. “If you’re doing your job right, you’re supporting the emotion and not drawing too much attention to yourself,” he explains. “They say the same thing about editing — flashy cutting suits some stories, but it is dependent on the story that you’re telling. If you’re drawing attention away from the story, then it’s not serving the greater good.”

Then again, Frankley thinks there may be another factor at play. “Since ‘Star Wars,’ we’ve had a lot of high-fidelity tracks, and filmgoers are probably desensitized now,” he says. “When we first experienced these big moments, the wow factor was huge. Now, I think the filmgoers kind of expect it, and it doesn’t get the attention that it may have had in the earlier days.”

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