Oscar history was made last year when for the first time both sound categories shared the same five nominees. “Dunkirk” went on to sweep the awards, which has happened five other times in the past 10 years with “The Hurt Locker” (2009), “Inception” (2010), “Hugo” (2011), “Gravity” (2013) and “Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015).
Handicapping the 91st annual race won’t come as easy. The contenders split into three basic genres — action, drama and music — but all are crafted with auditory precision and deep immersion into the story. The roughly 600 members of the sound branch will be at odds picking deserving nominees, a decision that may narrow down to genre preference and who knows whom.
Visual effects-driven action-adventure pics tend to be overlooked in sound, but are often noteworthy. Designers, editors and Foley artists build worlds from the ground up; nearly everything is brought to life. “Black Panther” and “Avengers: Infinity War” are the popular candidates, but often voters lean on the “Star Wars” franchise to fill the void, which sees “Solo: A Star Wars Story” in this year’s mix.
Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One” is set in 2045, when humanity escapes life through Oasis, a virtual reality universe where anyone can be anything. “Nothing existed for us,” says sound designer Kyrsten Mate, who collaborated with supervising sound editors Richard Hymns and Gary Rydstrom. “Steven wanted a stark contrast between the real world and the Oasis where everything is brightly colored, beautiful and intense. It meant we had to do a lot of experimenting and create whole cloths.”
Similarly, Wes Anderson’s unique stop-motion adventure “Isle of Dogs” brought a dystopian Japan to life. “Wes is very stylistic,” says re-recording mixer Christopher Scarabosio. “It meant all the created sounds and the mix had to match the incredible look of the animation. Many of the sounds were shortened and very specific. Music was sparse but powerful. Together, it created these desolate moments that shepherd the idea of being on an island with these forgotten dogs.”
In the drama arena, “First Man” is an intimate portrayal of the moon landing where sound immersed the audience in the experience of the astronauts. To simulate the powerful Saturn V rocket of the Apollo missions, microphones 200 to 400 yards away recorded the launch and re-entry of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy.
“We wanted space travel to have a chilling feeling as though the astronauts are leaving the world of the living and headed into a place where humans are not supposed to go,” says supervising sound editor and re-recording mixer Ai-Ling Lee.
Supervising sound editors Erik Aadahl and Ethan Van der Ryn crafted an auditory landscape driven by perspective for “A Quiet Place,” a movie that pins a family among sound-hunting creatures. Every detail was an exercise in contrast and dynamics where the slightest noise made a lasting impression. “The effect opens up the audience’s ears and forces them to use their auditory perception to hang on to every little detail,” Aadahl says. Re-recording mixer Brandon Proctor notes in the final mix, “Every sound was thought about. Every sound had to have a purpose.”
Other dialogue-heavy efforts include Jason Reitman’s “The Front Runner,” Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” and “The Hate U Give” from George Tillman Jr. The same for the quick-witted period piece “The Favourite,” “Mary Queen of Scots” and Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma,” a black-and-white film set in 1970s Mexico, where supervising sound editor Sergio Diaz spent 18 months recording period cars, planes and neighborhoods south of the border.
Music can pose technical challenges including the sultry songs in “Cold War” or the piano playing in “Green Book.” For “Vox Lux,” production mixer Damian Canelos met with multiple musical scenes that culminate in a 10-plus minute live performance from Natalie Portman, who plays pop star Celeste.
On “Mary Poppins Returns,” every cast member had an impression of their ear canal made and fitted with a custom earwig to support performance.
“ADR was not an option for us. Playback needed to be precise so actors wouldn’t have to adjust,” says production mixer Simon Hayes. In post, a painstakingly complex temp mix connected the pieces.
“It’s like a jigsaw puzzle. We spend a lot of time with a very fine brush to make everything feel truthful,” notes re-recording mixer Mike Prestwood Smith.
Building the energy of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” re-recording mixer Paul Massey had access to all the original 24-track material of Queen, including the Live Aid concert and the band on tour. “We tried to evolve the sound in the film as the band did,” Massey says. “The early material is slightly out of balance in comparison to something polished. It added a type of rawness to it.”
The sound team behind “A Star Is Born” took on the colossal task of recording every single vocal and instrument live. Ear pieces allowed Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga to hear the music and sing a cappella without it being amplified to the crowd. Production mixer Steve Morrow used multiple mixing boards to record up to 61 different audio tracks. “It was a technical challenge for everyone, but it gave a sense of authenticity to the performances you can’t find in a traditional studio setting,” Morrow says.
(Pictured above: Noah Jupe, Millicent Simmonds and writer/director John Krasinski on the set of “A Quiet Place”)