A hearing of its own

Sound bakeoff stays low-key despite category's rise

The Sound Noms
The Incredibles (Disney) Michael Silvers, Randy Thom
The Polar Express (Warner Bros.) Randy Thom, Dennis Leonard
Spider-Man 2 (Sony) Paul N.J. Ottosson

The Aviator (Miramax) Tom Fleischman, Petur Hliddal
The Incredibles Randy Thom, Gary A. Rizzo, Doc Kane
The Polar Express Randy Thom, Tom Johnson, Dennis Sands, William B. Kaplan
Ray (Universal) Scott Millan, Greg Orloff, Bob Beemer, Steve Cantamessa
Spider-Man 2 Kevin O’Connell, Greg P. Russell, Jeffrey J. Haboush, Joseph Geisinger

A correction was made to this article on Feb. 22, 2005

Thanks to Academy rule changes this year, sound editing shed its “special achievement” status and now has the same kind of “annual” juice that best picture and best actor enjoy.

Still, the newly enhanced legitimacy of sound editing meant only minor procedural changes for this year’s sound bakeoff — the annual showcase of shortlisted films that takes place at the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater. This year’s event was held Jan. 18, the night before the visual effects branch’s more publicized bakeoff.

Members of the sound branch were presented with a ballot form that included instructions to put a 1, 2 or 3 in the box next to their three picks, in order of preference.

Seven films were on the ballot, determined earlier in the month by a mail-in vote to all 400 members of the Academy’s sound branch that whittled down this year’s 270 eligible films.

The three films scoring the highest at the sound bakeoff become the sound editing category’s official noms. This year, “The Incredibles,” “The Polar Express” and “Spider-Man 2” made the cut.

(In a separate process that doesn’t involve a bakeoff, these three films, along with “The Aviator” and “Ray,” were also tapped by the sound branch in the sound mixing category.)

Similar to the f/x bakeoff, sound editing’s big event presents a rare opportunity for editors, mixers and otherwise technically talented branch members to emerge from their studios and mingle with their peers. But unlike the f/x bakeoff, the introduction of each film’s 10-minute sound reel — typically conducted by the supervising sound editor — isn’t replete with showmanship.

No Q&A session follows the reel, and most presenters merely thank their collaborators. Only Randy Thom — tapped in both sound editing and mixing for “The Incredibles” and “The Polar Express,” giving him more individual noms than anyone this year — described his work in any detail. Randy Thom won an Oscar in the sound-mixing category for his work on ‘The Right Stuff.’

“They’re shy people — it’s pressure for them,” says one observer, describing the average sound guru.

Immediately after the bakeoff, last year’s winner for “Master and Commander,” Richard King was overheard discussing his top three picks: “Spider-Man 2,” “The Polar Express” and “The Incredibles.”

King’s spot-on predictions are uncanny considering this is the first year that two animated films have been nominated in sound editing and only the third year an animated movie has been nominated at all. ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and ‘Aladdin’ were the first animated films to make the Oscars sound-editing bakeoff.

In particular, the audio branch appreciated how the real-world palette of “The Incredibles” made the pic sound more like a live-action film than a toon, according to branch denizen Richard Lightstone.

For “The Polar Express,” the sound branch appreciated the challenge of balancing audible dialog and a rollicking musical score with the big, metallic sounds of the larger-than-life train and its engine.

Says Thom: “When the train arrives, there’s a huge amount of dynamics: quiet moments when the boy is desperately listening for the Santa’s sleigh-bell and then the thunderous sound of when the train arrives.”

“Spider-Man 2,” meanwhile, was the category’s shoe-in nom — as it was for sound mixing. Acknowledged was the complicated audio work that went along with villain Doc Ock’s CGI-made tentacles and the rich musical soundscape of his “fusion” experiment.