Good Sound Gives Films Emotional Power

Audio designers explain the tricks of their trade

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.”

More Artisans

  • Game of Thrones Iceland TV Incentives

    Iceland Offers Productions Majestic Landscapes, Stunning Architecture and a 25% Rebate

    Few places on Earth contain the natural majesty of Iceland. The Nordic island, nestled between the North Atlantic and the Arctic Ocean, holds some of the most breathtaking natural wonders on the planet: the fiery pyrotechnics of live volcanoes, steam curling up from natural hot springs, vertiginous drops from oceanside cliffs and waterfalls cascading into [...]

  • Schitt's Creek Wigs

    'Schitt's Creek': Inside Moira Rose's Iconic Wig Collection

    Moira Rose, the family matriarch of cult classic “Schitt’s Creek,” is known for several things: her pronunciation of the word “bebe,” her love for her TV family (and sometimes Alexis) and her countless vibrant wigs. Played by the always delightful Catherine O’Hara, each episode (and wig) is a joy to witness on screen. “I think [...]

  • Kira Kelly Cinematographer Queen Sugar

    'Queen Sugar' DP on How Ava DuVernay Encourages Creativity on the OWN Series

    Cinematographer Kira Kelly, who earned an Emmy nomination for her work on Ava DuVernay’s “13th,” feels that her time spent on nonfiction projects over the past two decades has improved her ability to cope with the demands of shooting narrative fare.  The scaled-down resources — often just Kelly and maybe a focus puller or a [...]

  • 'The Souvenir' Costume Designer Fashioned 1980s'

    'The Souvenir' Costume Designer Put a Decadent Twist on Opulent ’80s Style

    Set against the backdrop of London’s early-1980s cultural renaissance, British auteur Joanna Hogg’s exquisitely sculpted and critically acclaimed “The Souvenir,” which A24 has been widening in platform release for the past month, follows film student Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) and her gradually destructive romance with the magnetic Anthony (Tom Burke). “We didn’t want a film [...]

  • Legion

    How Production Designer Marco Niro Created a Visual Climax for FX's ‘Legion’

    FX’s “Legion” has always drawn inspiration not only from the Marvel “X-Men” comics on which it is based, but also from the weirder corners of pop culture. When creator Noah Hawley cast “Downton Abbey” star Dan Stevens as the lead — David Haller, a mutant whose telepathic powers have been misdiagnosed as mental illness — [...]

  • Luciano Pavarotti

    Ron Howard Turned to Editor Paul Crowder to Make His 'Pavarotti' Documentary Sing

    Ron Howard is fast becoming a noted music documentarian: His 2016 film, “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week — the Touring Years,” released by Abramorama in theaters and Hulu on television, was a Grammy winner. His follow-up is “Pavarotti,” a doc about the man who became one of the most successful and beloved opera singers in [...]

  • Lesley Barber Film Composer

    How 'Late Night' Composer Lesley Barber Channeled Paul Shaffer for Talk-Show Theme

    When director Nisha Ganatra started planning “Late Night,” the new Emma Thompson-Mindy Kaling film about a failing late-night network talk show, she knew she’d need a house band and a theme for the program. Her first call was to composer Lesley Barber (“Manchester by the Sea”), with whom she had worked a few years ago on [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content