I’m disheartened that many Academy voters will decide who the contenders for this year’s awards are by viewing (and listening) from a streaming service or platform. I am not a cinema purist, nor am I advocating a return to “only in a cinema” — this is just an examination of the ways we judge films and how we can make the most informed decisions.
The compromises made to watch a film on televisions, laptops and tablets result in reduced fidelity to image and sound that make some disciplines difficult to judge adequately — judgments that rely on technical as well as artistic fidelity. They rob sound (my field) of its fullest impact and some of the attributes that differentiate good work from great work.
Will we be able to recognize the most worthy contenders?
Two years ago, I judged the contenders for animated short online. I streamed all the candidates on my laptop. Upon seeing them again during an encore performance at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater, I wanted to change my vote. The experience of seeing these films “as they were intended” had a significant impact on my perception of their quality.
Sound is particularly aggrieved because most will listen on televisions or (God forbid) their devices — on two speakers, missing out on the immersion and fidelity found in most cinemas. Movie soundtracks are meant to be experienced in multichannel surround-sound, augmented by deep bass (the subwoofer).
Imagine asking Academy viewers to watch contenders for best cinematography with one eye?
Some voters have home theaters that can approximate the cinema audio experience, but that is not the norm. And even then, these audio mixes are modified and diluted to suit those environments.
The rest will listen on TVs with soundbars or laptops with speakers the size of an olive. Would you watch a film on a screen the size of an olive? The most insight a viewer might gather thusly would be: Yes, there are costumes; yes, there is hair and makeup; and yes, there is sound.
While the Academy streaming platform does allow for 5.1 surround-sound, it is sometimes glitchy and unreliable (as are Netflix, Amazon and other streaming options). It does not allow for Dolby Atmos, 7.1 or Imax audio mixes, the formats many filmmakers intended you to hear their movies in.
More importantly, a 5.1 surround -sound mix is not available on every film, leaving the listener with a stereo mix by which to compare. How can that be a level playing field for the best sound award? Imagine streaming some films in 1080p but others in standard def? Would that be fair to cinematographers?
I have to believe fellow artists in the Academy are as disheartened. I know the care they put into their work — work that relies on critical color balance, resolution and clarity of an image. I know how DPs obsess over focus, light and shadow; production designers over the selection of colors and hues; or makeup artists over intricate detail in facial appliances or stippling. All are compromised by the digital algorithms and consumer hardware used to bring us films quickly and conveniently.
This is not our work. It is a facsimile of it.
The Academy is beginning to acknowledge the changing landscape regarding where we see films, yet I think how we judge films is at least as important as whether that film was shown in a cinema for seven days. This year’s argument shouldn’t be which films are eligible for nomination but how the #%*! can we tell which ones deserve our votes in the first place?
Mark Mangini is a five-time Academy Award-nominated sound designer known for films including “Blade Runner 2049,” “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” and “The Fifth Element.” He won an Oscar for sound editing for “Mad Max: Fury Road.”