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A Primer on Oscar’s Sound Editing and Mixing Categories

Filmmaking is a collaborative medium, as everyone likes to point out. But one key contribution is misunderstood more than any other: sound.

Oscar voters will weigh in on sound editing and sound mixing in final balloting, which runs Feb. 12-23. But even industry veterans can get confused at the difference. Here’s one way of remembering: E comes before M in the alphabet, so sound editing usually occurs before mixing. But they’re not separate entities; neither can live without other.

“Singin’ in the Rain,” the 1952 comedy set in the early days of talkies, shows how rough the transition to sound was, in a scene in which a boom mic picks up every noise. When the film-within-the-film makers think a take is good, the dailies show magnified extraneous sounds. This helped perpetuate the myth that the sound person is on the set, recording all the noises that end up in the final print and that’s pretty much the only things that the audience hears.

So here is Sound 101, a brief overview on what each category means, and what to look for.

Sound Editing

Production sound mixers are on the set, recording and mixing live what the audience will eventually hear such as dialogue. There are various experts who are sound editors and who assemble sounds you hear on screen — the dialog, the Foley, ADR (automated dialog replacement), walla (crowd noises), incidental sounds (paper rustling), atmosphere (wind, a distant tugboat) and sound effects (engines revving, gunshots). Sound editors make audio choices; sometimes they tap into a library of sounds, sometimes they make their own recordings, and sometimes they fabricate sounds that are completely new.

“The mixer decides the shaping, sculpting and dovetailing of different sounds to work together as one.”
Ren Klyce, sound designer

In “Mad Max: Fury Road,” supervising sound editor Mark Mangini and his team received a print that was basically a silent film, so they built from there. (The production sound mixer did an expert job, but much of it was unusable, thanks to the extreme conditions of filming in Namibia.) They invented sounds for the breathing mechanism of villain Immortan Joe; they also created layers of sound for each vehicle, to make each one distinct (Furiosa’s War Rig included subtle animal noises).

Sound Mixing

While production sound mixers are on the set during filming, there is also a post-production sound mixer, who performs one of the final stages of post work. The key person or team is the re-recording mixer — the sound mixer who takes the all the sound editing elements and the elements from some other mixers (ADR mixer, Foley mixer, scoring mixer) and, together with the sound that was captured and mixed on set by the production sound mixer, brings the whole thing together for the finished project.

The sound elements are often prepared/gathered in isolation, and the post-production sound mixer takes all of these (plus the music score), and determines the appropriate levels, judging which elements the audience needs to hear. In other words, after the sound editors have assembled what the audience hears, the sound mixer determines how they hear it. The mixer decides when to de-emphasize atmosphere sounds and prioritize music, for example.

The sound mixer has hundreds of channels of audio; with a big action movie, that number can rise to 2,000, as was the case on “Fury Road.” The mixer chooses only a handful of channels at a time, deciding what sounds will best tell the story. In a 20-minute climactic chase, the mixers balanced the noise of vehicles, dialogue and crowd noises. And when Mad Max has a flashback/blackout, there is absolute silence for a beat — a very dramatic choice.

Inside Out” sound designer Ren Klyce notes that the animated movie starts with the birth of Joy, which requires one sound — for baby Riley’s first emotion. When other emotions arrive and start manufacturing memories, the sound gets more dense “as the mixer decides the shaping, sculpting and dovetailing of different sounds to work together as one.”

Name That Category

As far back as 1929/30, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences gave awards for “sound recording.” In 1963, the organization initiated a “sound effects” category, which was presented in addition to “sound.” In the 1970s, the newish category was known as “sound effects editing.” In 1979, it changed to sound editing. Starting in 2003, the “sound recording” and “sound” category took on its current name, sound mixing.

Every year, the question arises: Do we really need two Academy Award categories for sound. The obvious answer: Actually, we need about seven categories. But we’ll settle for these two.

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