Good Sound Gives Films Emotional Power

Audio designers explain the tricks of their trade

Star Wars the Force Awakens
Courtesy of Disney

Around this time of year, supervising sound editor Mark A. Mangini finds himself fielding phone calls from fellow Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences members who aren’t part of the sound branch.

“They’ll ring me and say, ‘I’m having a little trouble. Give me a little a little primer on the nuances of what makes great sound work from an expert’s point of view,’ because a cinematographer or a production designer usually isn’t familiar with the nuances,’” says Mangini, who’s nominated for sound editing on “Mad Max: Fury Road” (along with David White).

The confusion is understandable.

The Oscar for sound editing honors the one or two department heads who typically carry the title supervising sound editor or sound designer. According to Academy rules, they “must approve the sound effects and their specific placement in the film, coordinate the creation of newly designed sound and Foley effects, and coordinate the editing of dialogue and ADR.”

The sound mixing award honors up to three sound re-recording mixers, who apply the final balance, placement, EQ and effects during post, and no more than one production mixer, who records sound during the shoot.

“Essentially, a sound editor is kind of like being a sous chef,” explains sound re-recording mix Karol Urban (“Grey’s Anatomy”). “It’s making sure that all the ingredients are there and strategically placed in time to assist the storytelling. Then the mix would be the proportion of how that was cooked, or in this case, how much reverb, how much processing and how it fits with all the elements,” including the music score.

As with food, the definition of what defines quality cinema sound depends on one’s tastes.

“What I like is something that sounds very clean, where the elements aren’t competing with each other,” says sound designer David Acord, who’s nominated in the sound editing category for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” (with Matthew Wood). “If it’s a music moment, I don’t want it to be crowded by effects and dialog. If it’s a big effects moment, maybe let’s lose the music there.”

Unlike the clothes built by costume designers and the sets created by the art department, which have colors and textures that filmgoers can clearly see, sound is ethereal and its effects are often subliminal.

“When I’m watching a film, I’m not listening for anything in particular,” says re-recording mixer Chris Scarabosio, who’s nominated in the mixing category for “The Force Awakens” (with Andy Nelson and Stuart Wilson). “To me, when the sound has succeeded, you get so wrapped up in the film and the experience that nothing takes you out of it.”

Film craftspeople like to say that the best work is transparent, but the flashy look-at-me efforts tend to get the honors, whether they’re grand scale sets or opulent Victorian-era costumes. The sound awards are no exception.

“We fear we give away an award for most sound, not best sound,” Mangini says.

A lot of that may have to do with the non-experts voting on the awards. The five nominees in each category are decided by the Academy’s sound branch, whose 505 members include sound editors, mixers, recordists and executives. But the final awards are decided by all of the Academy’s 6,856 voting members.

Some wonder how a film can get nominated for sound mixing and not sound editing (like “Bridge of Spies”) or vice versa (like “Sicario”).

“Sound mixing awards are often given to films for the way the music was mixed,” says sound designer Lon Bender, who’s nominated for sound editing for “The Revenant.” “So if a film’s sound has a lot of detail and fantastic stuff, but it doesn’t feature music, the general voting population is more likely to vote for the music-oriented show for the mixing award.”

But supervising sound editor Alan Robert Murray, who won the sound editing Oscar last year for “American Sniper” (with Bub Asman) and is nominated again this year for “Sicario,” thinks there could be non-sound factors at play in his film’s lack of a mixing nomination.

“I think the fact that (‘Sicario’) came out against a big hit like (dual sound nominee) ‘The Martian’ might’ve had an effect,” says Murray says. Then again, “maybe it’s the way everything seamlessly went together and didn’t make a conscious effort to be in your face.”