What’s in a sound? This week on The Awardist, I wanted to break down two categories that are often overlooked at the Academy Awards ceremony, but could just be the key to winning that Oscar ballot.
The Oscar for Best Sound Editing is a category that honors a film’s sound design, looking at individual components such as field recordings, sound effects, music, and all the other sonic elements created for the story. Evolving alongside picture editing, this category was first introduced at the 1964 Oscars.
In contrast, the Oscar for Best Sound Mixing honors the process that takes place after all the sound components are brought together, fusing them into one seamless track for the whole film. This award was one of the early categories at the Oscars, beginning in 1930.
Winning one doesn’t necessarily mean winning the other at the Oscars. 1966’s Grand Prix was the first film to win both categories, and was followed by Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, The Right Stuff, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Jurassic Park, Speed, Titanic, Saving Private Ryan, The Matrix, King Kong, The Bourne Ultimatum, The Hurt Locker, Inception, Hugo, Gravity, Mad Max: Fury Road, and most recently Dunkirk.
The sonic offerings showcased this year span an array of genres and stories, and use sound to guide and immerse audiences. Below, the sound designers behind three awards contenders reveal how sound — and its absence — played a crucial role in the telling of three very different stories.
As Damien Chazelle explored the journey to the 1969 moon landing in the Neil Armstrong biopic First Man, he wanted to capture a documentary feel by using as many original and authentic sounds as possible, said Ai-Ling Lee, the sound designer and re-recording mixer on the movie.
“It presented an unique challenge for the whole team as we tried to keep the sound design grounded, gritty, and almost an unpolished feel to the quiet, intimate scenes, like a 16mm home movie, and then contrast that with the immersive and visceral feel of the dangers of going into space,” Lee added.
The result is a quiet, nuanced portrait of a man who shouldered the burden of losing his baby daughter along with the burden of an entire nation in the run-up to the Apollo 11 mission. But before Armstrong (played by Ryan Gosling) became the first man on the moon, there were several other missions that paved the way, in particular Armstrong and David Scott’s 1966 Gemini VIII mission in orbit. Lee said Frank Hughes, a consultant on the film who used to train astronauts, said that the Titan II missile which launched the Gemini VIII rocket had a very particular “whoop” sound at the very point of ignition. In order to spin a creative re-imagining of the flight, Chazelle places the camera inside the claustrophobic cockpit as the shuttle hurtles into space, catching the rattles of the metal sheets and the roaring of the sheer force of speed. “We wanted to replicate the G-force experience of being strapped to a rocket and being shot into space,” Lee said.
To create those actual sounds, they recorded motion simulator rides and went to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where they blasted the acoustics chamber with nitrogen gas to capture what it might sound like inside the rocket during launch. There’s a roaring crackle they captured from the launchpad of SpaceX rockets, combined with the shaking of metal pieces, nuts, and bolts to convey the high risks of flying in a spacecraft that used to feel so dangerous. These sounds are layered with rhinoceros growls, lion roars, horse whinnies, and animal stampedes to create the rushing, deafening sound of the craft soaring into space. The thruster sounds were captured using real lunar landers from other rocket companies in the Mojave Desert, and the sonic boom was recorded from a SpaceX launch at Cape Canaveral in Florida.
“There’s chaos and claustrophobia in the cockpit, but it builds up into the intense moment when they get into orbit and Neil switches off and drops off into a quiet moment,” Lee said. “For first time, he sees the curvature of Earth, and there’s that haunting music from [composer] Justin Hurwitz, just the clicking in the quiet.”
When the Gemini VIII spaceship suddenly spins out of control, marking the first time a U.S. spacecraft suffered a critical failure in space, Lee said they amped up the danger with discordant sounds and used a deck of cards to create the ticking of the dropping altimeter. “Damien wanted it to play even more surreal, so besides us creating a loop of a low-end spin using sounds of train couplings and sounds created with software synthesizers, we had Justin make loops using flutes, strings, and radio squelches that I processed through a distortion plugin, so they all sound like they are coming from the