By Mandi Bierly
February 25, 2013 at 05:51 PM EST

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:

Goldenberg: What gave me the idea was when Ben Affleck’s character comes into Tehran [earlier in the film], he’s at passport check-in and there’s a little skirmish off to his left. Some guy gets hauled away by the police, and then they stamp his passport, and I made the sound of that passport stamp a little bit accentuated. He’d gotten a little distracted, so it snapped him back to attention, and he clears passport control. When they went through that check point on the way out, I thought it would create a whole different level of tension to slowly drop the sound out. I used this sort of tonal temporary music that had this droning heartbeat feel to it. All the characters were so convincing at looking scared, so I had great shots to cut to and cut away from. I think when you’re super nervous like that, your heart is beating out of your chest and you’re trying not to give that away. It’s not the first time anybody has ever done it in a movie, but dropping the sound out subtly really gets you in each character’s mindset and feeling how terrified they were. Then I used that sound again of the passport stamp to snap everybody back out and bring all the real sounds back. [Argo‘s Oscar-nominated sound mixing team] was able to take what I did in my Avid, and just make it even better. Instead of a small editing room, it’s got to fill a big theater, so they were able to take that idea and really just make it even more impactful.

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.

Goldenberg: It’s a microcosm of the whole movie in a way, because we’re combining all these different tones in this three-minute sequence: the read-through of the fake script, which is with these actors in silly costumes saying kind of cheesy dialogue; combined with a mock execution with the hostages in the Embassy; combined with what our houseguests are doing; combined with stock footage of newscasters at the time. I always felt when I read the script — and I think Ben and [now Oscar-winning screenwriter] Chris Terrio felt the same way — that if we could make that sequence work in terms of mixing all these tones, then it was indicative of how it could work for the whole movie.

I did it over and over and over again until it felt right, moving things around — some things were subtle, some things were big moves like switching sections to not juxtapose anything silly with anything incredibly dramatic and life-threatening. I remember looking at it at some points while I was first cutting it and thinking I had it really good, and then looking at it and going, “I hate this. It’s not working at all.” And then I’d work on it some more. From the point where I hated it to where I loved it, it was a matter of just subtle adjustments. It really does show the subtlety of editing and how little things can upset the whole thing. Michael Mann [for whom Goldenberg cut Heat, The Insider, Ali, and Miami Vice] always referred to it as mercury: you gather it up and then one little part moves off to the side. That’s kinda how you feel when you’re cutting, especially something very sensitive like a lot of the scenes in Argo, where it was so easy to go sideways and mess it up.

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: I think in most movies where you had a car chase sequence or a stressful sequence like that, you would have a drum daka, daka, daka, daka playing as the car drives through corners. But Kathryn says, “Well, there wasn’t a whole lot of drums playing when these guys are driving around looking for him, so we’re not gonna do that.” With the picture editing, they do a lot of fast cutting trying to find all those angles, exciting things to look at, and then sonically, I would build so every cut is something different, things whizzing by us, and it’s really, really deep with stuff. You kinda need to cut it and build it like you would do with music, to maintain the same excitement that music would have given you. But then you limit it to what lives in that space. I couldn’t really go to Pakistan. But I found some sound effects guy who would go and record for me in this place where the movie takes place. And then I recorded people who were born in Pakistan but are here in the United States. The goal was to make it very, very authentic to this place.

Ottosson’s time as an officer in the Swedish military was essential for Zero Dark Thirty. He pointed to the Marriott hotel bombing scene.

Ottoson: I didn’t go to real war, but in the military, they kind of push you and push you so you forget that this is an exercise. I just know how a lot of these things sound in reality, but also how you perceive the sound. When I was close to an explosion the first time, I never remember that is was loud. I’m sure it was tremendously loud, but ahead of the sound is this shockwave of just moving air. And that hits you like a wall of something, and it’s tremendously scary — far more scary than something being loud, I think, because at some point, you just kind of compress the sound in your ears and it doesn’t get any louder. But when a shockwave hits, it’s just internal and there’s nothing you can do. If something’s loud, you can cover your ears. You can’t do that with shockwaves. In that scene, I wanted to convey the same thing for Maya [Jessica Chastain]. She works behind desks, she’s not used to any of this. So I placed these low-end sounds before the high-end sounds, so if you’re in a good movie theater, you would kind of experience what it is when the shockwave hits you — the low-end hitting you — and then secondary are these loud things. When I watch the movie with an audience, everybody’s just jumping out of their seats terrified.

His experience also informed the raid scene:

Ottosson: I try to place you in the position of how weapons sound in that environment. Like the weapons the SEAL team has in the end with the silencers on them. I know most movies, they would sound very Hollywood-like. You add a lot of oomph and make them really cool. In this movie, it wasn’t about being cool. It was about these guys going on a mission and executing this mission. And when you put those silencers on, that gun gets really, really quiet, and it doesn’t sound like it would hurt you. You can stand next to it shooting, and you don’t need  protection for your ears. When you see it in the movie, and they take out those people, I think it becomes even more horrifying because the gun doesn’t sound that lethal, but obviously there’s people dropping.

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.

Ottoson: It starts really confident. There’s a lot of stuff going on at the camp. And then as they’re waiting, we transition to taking out the sounds, because it becomes more internal about her. So she’s waiting, and we start off the music as soon as we see this car coming in the distant desert. There’s a little bit of hope for her. This is the guy now. As the car drives in, the music’s pretty powerful, but it comes from a small place and grows bigger and bigger. And then the car pulls in, and we end the music, and it’s just her now with this guy. At that point, I start building up the sound effects again, because it’s a little bit out of control. If you looked at that scene without any picture, you just listened to it, you would see how much sound work goes in to being a lot of sound, to almost nothing, to transforming to music, to transforming to a lot of sound effects again. And then, of course, this guy comes with bombs and blows himself up as well as everyone else there. The scene is strong by itself, but the work we did made it even stronger. That’s the goal for most scenes, and the movie itself: Find these peaks and valleys to give the story the room it needs to breathe or enhance the story that you have there.

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

Claire Folger

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:

Hayes: It’s a very, very challenging job to be able to record her singing clearly enough so that you don’t hear the rain overpowering her voice, so that you don’t hear the footsteps of the Steadicam crew underneath her voice, so that you don’t even hear her own footsteps, and all you’re trying to do is hone in on just her voice and record it as cleanly and upfront as possible so that the background noises on the set don’t in any way stand between the audience and the emotional performance of the actress. Every single piece of set that you don’t see on camera, we cover with soundproof material so that you don’t hear the rain hitting the set. We carpet the whole walk so that you can’t hear their footsteps. And it’s also a case of getting the microphone absolutely as close to the edge of the frame as possible. So literally, the boom microphone that recorded that scene is touching the edge of frame for the whole of her whole walk, and knowing exactly from the size of the lens the Steadicam is using how close he can get. And what we’re trying to do is to get the microphone absolutely as close possible, because the closer we get the microphone to the performance, the more of an emotional connection there is for the theater audience.

Though Anne Hathaway was stationary for “I Dreamed a Dream,” it presented its own challenge:

Hayes: We all knew when we were recording “I Dreamed a Dream” that we were witnessing something extremely precious and extremely special. Annie was in an extremely emotional state while she was singing that song, and what we tried to do was give her absolute freedom to go with whatever performance she wanted to do. And we started shooting without a rehearsal, because Tom and Annie decided that rehearsing could possibly waste a take. So we went into that not knowing whether Annie was gonna go loud or soft, and in fact, what we found out was Annie was gonna go loud and soft, so we basically mic’d that in a way that would be as unobtrusive as possible for her but really be able to grab the emotional aspect of her performance. And we did that by using a radio mic on her chest and also a boom mic, again right on the edge of frame, and we found that the boom microphone was really was fantastic on the louder pieces and on the emotional moments in between the words — for the breaths — the radio mic was a really important part of it. So I was really pleased to be able to use both of those mics so that afterward, we could do a blend of the pair of them and give the choice to Tom Hooper, and Andy Nelson, the re-recording mixer, as to which microphone they felt was most appropriate for each piece of the performance. The re-recording mixer was taking my vocal recordings and blending them with the music and deciding what the overall balance between vocal and music would be in the finished product.

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.

Miranda: There was a point when Ang and I went, in the middle of the night in southern Taichung, diving in the ocean in a bay that was phosphorescing. That was kind of our inspiration for the whale scene at night, and how that looked and how that felt and how the phosphorescence kind of went around your hand. As you shook your hand, the [phosphorescent plankton] get more excited and they become a little brighter. We played around with that in the movie. It ends up lighting the scene a little bit more. Being with Ang, in the middle of the night in an ocean just whacking away at phosphorescence — I just thought that was a pretty stunning moment.

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.

Read more:

Oscar-nominated sound mixers explain what you should (or shouldn’t) notice if it’s done well

Oscar-nominated sound editors explain their key challenges (and the sounds you may not know they create)

Oscar-nominated cinematographers explain how they envelop you in the story

Oscar-nominated editors clear up the biggest misconception about their category (and explain the decisions you may not know they’re making)

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