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Oscar Below-the-Line Contenders: Too Creative to Be Called ‘Tech Work’

At this time of year, all eyes are on the best-picture prizes; otherwise, the media devote most of their energy on the “money categories” — i.e. acting. (Writers and directors get a little attention, if they’re lucky.)

But in truth, the artisan races are often the most interesting. Voting from the guilds is under way and there is genuine suspense in how they — and Oscar voters at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences — will go in a wide-open year.

Even longtime film workers may not understand how complicated below-the-line work is. For example, a veteran sound editor may not understand all the intricacies of an art director’s work, and vice-versa. So here are a few misconceptions about artisans, and some tips for voters, pundits and film fans.

It’s not tech work!
These people are creative and they’re storytellers. “Tech work” makes it sound like they’re mindlessly pushing buttons and twisting knobs. Variety prefers the term “artisan”; “below-the-line” is a little legal and “craft” is a little limited. But, whatever you do, please — out of respect, don’t call them “tech” categories.

Don’t vote for the obvious.
An actor has an awards advantage if playing a character with an accent or disability. Similarly, there are often hooks in artisan categories that prove a to be a boost. The award for cinematography often goes to the film with the most beautiful scenery (bonus points if there are sunsets). Sound awards go to the loudest film. Costume design: Period clothes (bonus points if there are gowns).

Great work is often invisible.
In “Furious 7,” the visual-effects team used a library of footage to create close-ups of the late Paul Walker, and made them look like they were filmed on the spot. The sound design in “Mad Max: Fury Road” is pretty darn flashy, but some of the most impressive stuff is often below the radar. The multiple vehicles have different sounds; for example, the team added subtle animal noises (whales, bears, lions) to augment the engine sounds of the War Rig (Charlize Theron’s vehicle). Thus, the War Rig becomes a living character. If you listen, you can maybe detect the sounds; but the goal is to make it all work on a subliminal level.

Screeners are tricky.
Yes, they are convenient, allowing voters to catch up on films without multiple trips to the multiplex or to screenings. But movies are planned for the big screen, and you won’t get the full effect of the artisans’ work at home, no matter how great your setup.

It’s harder than it looks.
We all have digital cameras (in our phones), we all wear clothes; so we think we understand cinematography and costume design. Um, no. Just remember that nothing on screen is an accident: Every car in the background, every button on a jacket, every distant footstep. It was all carefully planned.

If you want to know more about the complexity of an artisan’s tasks, ask them. You can also go to variety.com/artisans and variety.com/video to read about their work as well as watch videos in which they explain it and show examples of it. But whatever you do, don’t you dare call them “the boring categories,” because they’re not. And don’t call them “tech.”

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