Sound people had a tough year. Like everyone else in the industry, they found less film work. Second, with COVID, audiences mostly watched movies on the small screen, not getting the full impact of sound, which could affect Oscar voting. (Adding insult to injury: When journalists write about the disadvantages of home viewing, they often focus on cinematography, but a lot of BTL work is diminished on a smaller screen, including sound.)
Third, Oscar’s two sound categories were combined last year, which underlines a key AMPAS question: Is the Oscar show for saluting great work or is it primarily a TV show to entertain the masses?
When I began writing about film years ago, I didn’t understand why the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences needed two sound categories. Now, I realize Oscar could actually use more.
In the Midge Costin-directed documentary “Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound,” Steven Spielberg salutes the important contribution of sound workers, saying “Our ears lead our eyes to where the story lives.”
In a similar vein, Martin Scorsese writes in the March 2021 issue of Harpers, “Fellini was as creative with sound as he was with images.” And George Lucas has said that sound is 50% of a film.
We’re talking geniuses here. Those people understand the importance of sound to any film.
On April 28, AMPAS announced consolidation of its sound mixing and editing categories. Officials gave no reason, but it had been discussed for many years. Some members were convinced it was either to reduce the number of awards during the televised ceremony or because too few people understood the difference. Some in the Academy’s sound branch are fine with this move, saying the same number of individuals will be honored. But for others, it’s not just a question of facts, it’s the perception that sound artistry is being minimized yet again.
There has been a recent movement to present behind-the-camera Oscars during commercial breaks. And, of course, many people who should know better still refer to sound under the umbrella of “the tech categories.” Yes, every talent requires technical skill, but the creativity is being dismissed.
AMPAS and ABC execs are missing a good bet; there are ways to shorten the show — feel free to ask me — and brief segments could explain to viewers what sound people do (and what an editor does, a costume designer, etc.).
Category confusion is no excuse. Designers may not understand the intricacies of editing; editors may not comprehend hair/makeup, and so on. The Oscarcast could explain to viewers (and some industry members) what’s involved in each job.
Back to the issue of small-screen watching: At home, you may have a giant TV, but you probably don’t have a sound system comparable to most cinemas.
In December 2018 B.C. (Before COVID), I attended a screening of Universal’s “1917” and chatted with the man next to me. He was a camera operator who had seen the film at home and wanted to experience it on the big screen. After it ended, I asked his reaction. “I loved it! The sound!” he enthused. This was the immediate reaction from a visual guy.
Starting in 1929, Oscar’s sound award was given to a studio’s sound department. It took 40 years before individuals were named. (The first two winners were Jack Solomon and Murray Spivack, for 1969’s “Hello, Dolly!”)
In the early days of talkies, sound work was technical. On Oct. 28, 1946, Variety reported on a proposal for sound engineers to get on-screen credit: “It’s a bromide that the engineers can make or break a star, but the idea of putting a soundman’s credits up there with director, writer, etc. hasn’t ever been seriously considered.” Happily, things have changed since then, and filmmakers see a sound team as invaluable creative collaborators.
Of all the devastating news in 2020, AMPAS’ decision to combine both sound awards is hardly in the top 10. The ship seems to have sailed, but it’s worth revisiting because the dilemma is a microcosm of Oscar in the 21st century.
Yes, the Oscarcast is a business consideration, with millions at stake. But the question is how to respect business decisions yet not shortchange the people who make the arts and sciences of the organization’s title, and to make the public appreciate what they do.
We live in a celebrity culture, but let’s not minimize the contributions of the people who, as Variety said in 1946, can make or break those stars.