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Oscar lacks home for ‘designers’

Eye on the Oscars: Vfx, Sound & Editing

In the entertainment industry there’s no shortage of job titles whose meaning is mysterious or undefined, at least to the uninitiated. The Oscar sound categories, sound mixing and sound editing, can be especially mysterious for non-sound pros.

Most titles in the sound department describe clearly defined roles in mixing and editing, though. Yet one title is gaining popularity even though the Academy doesn’t have a category for it: “sound designer.”

At Oscar time, where does “sound designer” fit in? It doesn’t help that unlike some other department-head titles, like director, there’s no guild controlling or regulating “sound designer.”

The sound designer’s function is most closely related to that of the supervising sound editor, which began to take on some more administrative meaning as sound departments grew and the technology involved in sound became more complex and opened more creative doors.

“There aren’t set rules for the duties that fall under this title and sound is extremely collaborative,” says Chuck Michael, sound designer, supervising sound editor and sound re-recording mixer on “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” “We’re always giving each other ideas and making suggestions in the sound department so it’s rare that one single person is entirely responsible for something because we work as a team.”

Gary Rydstrom likes the sound designer term because he believes it reflects the creative guidance one person can bring to a film when he or she supervises the creative and administrative aspects of sound.

“The sound designer interacts with the director, hires the sound crew and oversees the work that’s been done and often does a good part of the work themselves,” says Rydstrom, who was sound designer and sound re-recording mixer on “War Horse.”

“It definitely has meaning that’s related to what we’re doing because we’re designing the sound, directing the sound and putting the department together.”

Randy Thom, who is credited on “Rio” as supervising sound editor, sound re-recording mixer and, yes, sound designer, says, “Walter Murch was the first person to take (sound designer) credit on ‘Apocalypse Now,’ and it was given to him by Francis Ford Coppola. It was meant to recognize the overall contribution and supervision of sound on a film by Murch.”

Regardless of origin, Michael thinks the meaning behind the title will take time to develop.

“We’re still at the stage where not everyone who could justify this title takes it,” he says. “And, in some cases, if a director is very hands on with the sound he or she could be doing a lot of that work.”

The growing popularity of the sound designer title begs the question of whether one of the sound Oscars should be for “sound design,” in the same way statuettes are given for production design or cinematography.

For the time being, Thom, Rydstrom and Michael aren’t calling for a “sound design” Oscar category.

“I think the two categories we have now — sound mixing and sound editing — cover what’s done very well,” says Thom. “They distinguish two different areas of achievement and the sound editing category covers the person who would take the title of sound designer.”

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