Which is more Oscar worthy: the sound of fading footsteps down a corridor or the sounds of automatic gunfire ricocheting through a narrow street?
When Oscar ballots go out March 8, Academy members will be presented with an annual dilemma. While it may be easy enough to vote for best picture, actor or actress, the balloting gets tougher when it comes to such “intangible” categories as sound, or even sound effects editing.
Veteran sound practitioners echo the sentiment: Pictures that don’t necessarily have the best sound nonetheless pick up sound Oscars.
“The technical aspects of sound are obscure to a lot of people,” admits Joe Wachter, president of IA Sound Local 695. “A truly good soundtrack is something that most people are not even going to notice.”
Which doesn’t mean that the top four or five sound jobs are usually missing in the nominations. The nomination process takes care of that.
In the case of sound effects editing, one of the more subtle fields, members submit five films. “When the ballots are counted, the top seven films then go into the bake-off,” says Chuck Campbell, who won Oscars as sound editor on “E.T.,” “Back to the Future” and “Who Framed Roger Rabbitt.”
The “bake-off is a 10-minute screening of each film for the sound editing members. From there, the list is narrowed to three. (Sound effects is one of the few Oscar categories with three nominees, rather than the usual five.)
“That way we present the entire membership the very best work of the year,” Campbell says. But when it comes down to the final vote, all 4,924 Academy members get to make a choice in every category. At this point, most senior sound guys agree, a lot more goes into the choosing than just sound superiority.
“For those members who are not in the sound end of the business, I think they choose whatever is most pleasing to them,” says Leo Chaloukian, a sound veteran who is former president of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. “Some people like a lot of loud sound, a lot of booms and crashes. And others want a soft soundtrack that’s not annoying.”
Chaloukian and others agree that the award can be swayed by the story and performances in a film. “There have been cases where a film that wins best picture also won best sound but, in my opinion, it had a terrible sound job,” Chaloukian says. “But the picture carried it.”
This year, sound effects nominees are Bruce Stambler, John Leveque, “Clear and Present Danger”; Gloria S. Borders, Randy Thorn, “Forrest Gump”; and Stephen Hunter Flick, “Speed.”
For best sound, the nominees are Donald O. Mitchell, Michael Herbick, Frank A. Montano, Arthur Rochester, “Clear and Present Danger”; Randy Thorn, Tom Johnson, Dennis Sands, William B. Kaplan, “Forrest Gump”; Paul Massey, David Campbell, Christopher David, Douglas Ganton, “Legends of the Fall”; Robert J. Litt, Elliot Tyson, Michael Herbick, Willie Burton, “The Shawshank Redemption”; Gregg Landaker, Steve Maslow, Bob Beemer, David R.B. MacMillan, “Speed.”
While everyone interviewed commended those choices, they expressed surprise that “The Lion King” and “True Lies,” both of which are described as having superb soundtracks, were not nominated.
“Sure it can be confusing,” admits one soundman, “but there are a lot of categories that are confusing. When it comes down to it, most people really don’t know what a director shot and what an editor edited.”
Another soundman sums it up: “What we do isn’t appreciated all that much, but I keep having this same argument with the camera guys. What we do is important and I keep asking them, ‘Have you heard a good picture lately?'”