With so many great films released in 2012, this Oscar season was undoubtedly one of the more exciting ones of recent years. The Academy Award nominated films were all top-notch in their respective categories, and the wins were equally well deserved. As sound guys, our attention is usually set on the two creative categories that belong to our particular trade, Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing.
Though Sound Editing and Mixing both tend to focus on different disciplines within the world of film sound, the two categories share an important symbiotic relationship. For one to exist and to be effective, the other component must be solidly in place. Let’s first discuss what sets the two categories apart.
Sound Editing vs. Sound Mixing: Unraveling the Confusion
As the name implies, Sound Editing involves the detailed and creative preparation of all sound elements. This includes the smoothing, de-noising and cleaning up of all production audio recorded on location, the flushing out of background ambiences (through pre-existing libraries and/or custom recordings of existing environments), the precise crafting of sound effects (doors, cars, guns, punches, etc.) and Foley (cloth, footsteps, hand pats and grabs, bodyfalls, etc.), and the designing of sounds for things that don’t normally exist in our world (lightsabers, dragons, etc.). The Supervising Sound Editor is responsible for all the edited elements of a film, and in the case of a win, he or she is awarded the Oscar.
Sound Mixing begins with the commencement of principal photography and ends on a mixing stage during the film’s final sound mix. The production sound team is responsible for capturing (i.e., “mixing”) clear, understandable and, first rate dialogue, which, once picture has been cut and locked (or “locked enough”), is then delivered to the sound house for commencement of dialogue editorial and the overall sound editing process. Upon completion of sound editorial, all elements are then assembled, tweaked, adjusted and prepped by the Supervising Sound Editor for review with the clients and for final delivery to the re-recording mixer(s). The final mix is where all the elements described above (including the film’s music) are combined (i.e., “mixed”). On the mixing stage, the responsibility now lies with the re-recording mixers to bring out and define the filmmakers’ vision in full cinematic glory, and in the event of an Oscar win, the award goes to both the re-recording mixers and the location sound mixer.
Well-recorded production tracks truly can facilitate the editorial process, which, in turn, can help pave the way for a rich and dynamic final mix. It’s the big, beautiful circle of life, and as a sound editor, I truly appreciate the unique and symbiotic relationship between Editing and Mixing. However, could it be that this wonderfully tight bond between both categories is the very reason people ask the “what’s the difference” question to begin with? Can a voting member of the Academy honestly watch a film, and distinguish the fine, blurry lines between sound editing and mixing? The easy answer is, maybe, maybe not. A sound professional can probably take a strong educated guess when it comes to separating the two disciplines, but usually additional information is required in order to cast a truly well-directed vote. Thankfully, supplemental documents and materials are sometimes included when a project is submitted for an award, and said materials sometimes detail the challenges faced and conquered in both the editing and mixing of a film. Sound shows, screenings, blogs, behind-the-scene featurettes, and interviews are also some excellent ways to get more information to help one tell the two categories apart.
To quote from fellow sound colleague Martin Lopez from an article he contributed to KPBS.org (dated February 25, 2011). “… in a strange way, we who create the soundtrack are responsible for the confusion.” I couldn’t agree more with Martin, but I have to add one thing: When done well, it’s a great sounding ball of confusion.
The Oscar Winners and Some Late Night Humor
LES MISERABLES took home the award for Sound Mixing, while SKYFALL and ZERO DARK THIRTY tied for Best Sound Editing. As one may recall, the resultant tie led to a bit of lighthearted lampooning on Late Night TV for the winning sound supervisors, Per Hallberg and Paul N.J. Ottosson, respectively.
As Jimmy Fallon and Conan O’Brien pointed out via parody, “not only do Per and Paul ooze of endless talent, incredible vision and a deep appreciation for sculpting phenomenal soundscapes with their equally-gifted sound teams, they both also have long, beautiful, flowing blonde locks.” Yep. Hair. Apparently, the similar hairstyles were all the Late Night leaders needed to spoof our sound comrades. Of course, it was all done in the name of fun, and hey, sound design and editorial got to enjoy a few extra minutes in the post-Oscar limelight. Personally though, I always vote for the bald guy.