Oscar winners explain why their categories AREN'T technical
Leading up to the Oscars, we looked at four categories moviegoers may mistakenly think of as “technical.” The truth is, there were no technical categories in last night’s telecast: Every winner was honored for his or her creative contribution to the film. In case you missed those earlier pieces — which explain what editors, sound editors, sound mixers, and cinematographers actually do — here are excerpts from winners in those categories that prove the point:
Argo editor William Goldenberg:
“It sounds funny, but a lot of people tend to think it’s a purely technical job where you literally go in and cut slates off, and the director says, ‘Do that, do that, do that,'” said Goldenberg, who won his first Oscar for Argo, but was also nominated this year for editing Zero Dark Thirty with Dylan Tichenor and previously for The Insider and Seabiscuit.
The editor begins work when cameras start rolling, and does the first cut of scenes — and of the film — on his or her own. Goldenberg, who’d previously cut Gone Baby Gone for Ben Affleck, went to the Argo director’s home editing room every Sunday, even during production, to show him his week’s worth of work. “Even though I wasn’t getting specific notes from him, I was getting a feel for what he wanted. It was almost like by osmosis: just having all his conversations in my head gave me a feeling of like, Oh, I know Ben would hate this or I know this isn’t what he’s looking for.” Affleck turned over nearly 1 million feet of film, including a noteworthy amount of footage of a parrot being enticed to squawk for the tense airport finale. “It was really hilarious, because you couldn’t see Ben, but you could hear him off-camera. He’s just squawking and squawking and squawking, and then the bird would finally do it, and he would squawk over the bird or be talking over it,” Goldenberg says. “It was a lot of bird.”
Just watching the dailies of the climactic scene had Goldenberg’s stomach in a knot, so the tension was already there thanks to great writing, acting, and directing. But he also helped build it. When editors present first cuts to directors, they like to include rough ideas of sound effects and temporary music, so it feels like a film. It was Goldenberg’s idea to have the sound slowly fade out in the airport to make the audience feel as though they were inside the houseguests’ worried minds:
Argo was a tonal balancing act, and never more delicate than in the sequence when Alan Arkin’s character organizes a read-through of the fake hit Argo at the Beverly Hilton.
For more on what editors do, with additional anecdotes from the Life of Pi and Silver Linings Playbook nominees, along with Zero Dark Thirty‘s Tichenor, click here.
NEXT: The art of sound editing
Zero Dark Thirty supervising sound editor Paul N.J. Ottosson, who tied with Skyfall‘s Per Hallberg and Karen Baker Landers:
Early in his career, Ottosson, who previously took home the sound editing and sound mixing Oscars for Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, would create a sound for everything he saw on the screen. “I would make them as big and cool as you possibly could,” he says, laughing. “They’d bring me to the stage, and sometimes the director would take out things: “We don’t need this. You don’t need this.’ And you’re just thinking Why, I see that thing on the screen? But at some point, you become more of a storyteller and start to focus on the story itself, and it’s a revelation. You understand how much better your work becomes and how much more important it becomes to the movie itself.”
Essentially, the sound editorial team is responsible for assembling every sound you hear in the movie except the score and the dialogue that was recorded on set. This includes atmospheric sounds like the wind and ocean; hard effects, which are sounds synched for things like cars, gunshots, and explosions; and nuance sounds such as footsteps and people touching things with their hands.
There are films with sonic palettes that lend themselves to a lot of music, which can help create tension, but Bigelow’s realistic Zero Dark Thirty isn’t one of them. “Kathryn’s just trying to unfold this unbelievably interesting behind-the-scenes story of how the greatest manhunt came about. It wasn’t because there was a big 100-piece orchestra behind it,” Ottosson said.
He pointed to a scene in which Osama bin Laden’s courier is being tracked through the market:
Ottosson’s time as an officer in the Swedish military was essential for Zero Dark Thirty. He pointed to the Marriott hotel bombing scene.
His experience also informed the raid scene:
But to play stark is not what Ottosson wants either. “You want to have some kind of life to get some peaks and valleys in the sonic space as well,” Ottosson said. “Your ears are supersensitive. You hear things that you might not even think you’re hearing. If I were to pour water into a cup, your ear can actually hear whether it’s cold or hot water. But you don’t think about it in regular life.” Translate that to Zero Dark Thirty: “What’s behind that wall? And the next block down? What do we hear in every direction? By building up these things really dense, you can add things or you can detract things to maybe make a scene more tense or maybe not so tense so you have someplace to go to,” he said. “So when we wanted a lot of chaos all around us, I would push all those things up. Then when we wanted more tense and internal, I would pull all those things down. And then when we cut from being outside a building to inside a building, it would be the difference of hearing these things really, really wide around you, and going into a really claustrophobic space and pulling everything in to the center. As a moviegoer, I don’t think you hear all of that, but it has an effect over time.”
Even for a realistic film like Zero Dark Thirty, there are moments when you do non-literal things with sound to express the emotion of the story. An example is when Jennifer Ehle’s character, Jessica, is waiting for the doctor she doesn’t know is a suicide bomber to show up at Camp Chapman.
For more on what sound editors do, with additional anecdotes from Argo , Life of Pi, and Django Unchained nominees, click here.
NEXT: The art of sound mixing
Les Misérables production sound mixer Simon Hayes, who received an onstage thank you from Anne Hathaway:
Post-production, the sound mixing team takes all the prepared sound elements from sound editorial (there could be tens of thousands), plus the score (there were roughly 96 music tracks in Skyfall, for example), and affixes them to the screen and positions them in the theater while also setting their volume levels relative to each other. But during production, it’s up to the production sound mixer to capture the dialogue on set cleanly and avoid the actors doing ADR (Automated Dialogue Recording).
“The production sound mixer on any show is responsible for preserving the actors’ original performances and making sure that the feelings and the emotions during a scene on set are carried all the way through from the production process into the post-production process,” said Hayes, who shared his win with re-recording mixers Andy Nelson and Mark Paterson. “If the production sound mixer has done a good job, and recorded so perfectly that background noise won’t become an issue, that is the performance you see on-screen in the cinema.”
Hayes pointed to the scene in which Eponine (Samantha Barks) is walks down Rue Plumet singing “On My Own” in the rain:
Though Anne Hathaway was stationary for “I Dreamed a Dream,” it presented its own challenge:
For more on what re-recording sound mixers do, with additional anecdotes from Skyfall and Argo nominees, click here.
NEXT: The art of cinematography
Life of Pi cinematographer Claudio Miranda:
The cinematographer may be in charge of how to technically achieve the shots on a film set — lighting, camera movement, and framing — but what he and the director are really collaborating on his how to tell their story creatively and emotionally. “What mood do you feel when you watch the movie?” said Claudio Miranda, who was previously nominated for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. “When you look at the movie, I don’t want you to think about me, I want you to think about the scene. It’s very important to me that you don’t think this is a fantasy-reality play. You need to believe this. I feel like if I’m too fake with lighting, you’ll be taken away and not immersed in the story. When I’m lighting a set, I go, ‘Am I there? Am I there yet? Am I there yet? Am I there yet? Am I there yet?’ And then I’ll let go when I say, ‘Okay, we’re here. We can work with this.'”
Making moviegoers feel like they’re adrift on a boat with Pi and Richard Parker obviously presented challenges. “We had an amazing tank that we built and I helped design. We knew we were going to be inside there shooting for 2.5 months, so it was worth it to be able to do anything we want. On all these kind of scenes, we had an idea of what the weather would be like. In that tank, I can create storm clouds, nightfall. We had curtains that I can block out [light], doors to open and let in real sunlight,” Miranda said. “So lighting-wise, [the movie] had a big ebb and flow. There’s high noon, which is kind of harsh and crisp, and then it gives way to maybe like the beautiful golden light, like in the scene where the sun comes up and there’s that beautiful music that comes along with it. Pi throws the can out and it only goes so far, and then it ends with him going to the tiger, and the tiger does this little growl, and Pi backs up, and then he starts talking to God at that moment. It’s a very beautiful scene, but it’s also beautiful because there is an ebb and flow of not so much beauty beforehand. If it was all that, it wouldn’t be that special.”
Of course it’s the special scenes that moviegoers remember best about Pi. While Miranda and director Ang Lee looked at a watercolor painting for inspiration for the painterly sky in the scene described above, Miranda looked for real references for the most magical scene.
Another scene that was special to him was the candlelit scene. “I really wanted the candles to light the whole scene. I decided with the crew, and I said, ‘There should be at least 50,000 candles on camera to cover the space. To last the night, they bought over 120,000 candles to keep what we see going. We had 2,000 people lighting. I don’t care what anybody says, when you’re there, you go, ohmygod, it is a beautiful spectacle. You walked away from that night, like, Ah. (Contrast that to one of his favorite scenes in Benjamin Button: “I like a room where people can walk around freely. I don’t like lighting people in a box, where they can’t move. There was one scene in Benjamin Button, when he’s saying goodbye to Mr. Oti, when I just put a light bulb in the middle of the whole scene, and I said, ‘Let’s just try this bulb in the middle, and let’s just let it be the bulb, and let it be what it is: Let it blow out, let it be horrible, let it be this, but this is the scene.’ I love that moment.”)
Lee also wanted to use 3-D as a storytelling point, with where the actors are placed. “There’s the scene where the ship sinks, and the ship is on the inside of the screen and Pi is floating a little bit outside. It’s kind of like a separation — this is his life going away,” Miranda said. “So when I lined it up, we put him in the audience-plane side of the screen and the ship was on the opposite side. We play different aggressions, like if an actor is being aggressive, we’ll put him towards screen as well. We wanted to play 3-D as a story point because it’s another way to make you feel the story.”
For more on what cinematographers do, with additional anecdotes from Anna Karenina nominee Seamus McGarvey, click here.