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Immersed in Movies: Assessing the Sound Oscar Races

Photo of Bill Desowitz By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood February 13, 2013 at 3:47PM

While "Argo" might be the Oscar frontrunner for sound editing and mixing, jarring and humoring us with a bizarre Iranian hostage rescue mission, all of this year's nominees create fascinating soundscapes: "Django Unchained" offers a spirited yet analogue-like experience associated with the spaghetti western...

Even so, coming up with vocalizations for the animated Richard Parker (from Oscar-nominated Rhythm & Hues) was even more daunting than the sounds of the ocean. Thus, as CG has become more and more photo-real, this has raised the bar for sound, too.

While "Lincoln" utilized recordings of accurate clocks and watches that the 16th President actually heard, the diverse crowd noises during the ruckus House of Representatives debate provided the biggest challenge for mixers Nelson, Gary Rydstrom, and Ronald Justice.

And because Steven Spielberg requested as little ADR as possible, it was through trial and error that the team found the right variety and dynamics that flowed sonically throughout the halls of Congress.

With "Skyfall," the directive from Sam Mendes was to use sound emotionally and in support of the action rather than to fill in the sonic color. Interestingly, the team of designers (Per Hallberg and Karen Baker Landers and mixers Scott Millan, Greg Russell, and Stuart Wilson) created various transitional cues to get us into the Bond mindset; and in one scene the sound of waves takes us from violence to calm. However, the simple sound of a garage door opening to reveal the iconic Aston Martin DB5 accompanied by the classic "Bond Theme," followed by the hum of the car pulling out takes us back in time to the origin of the franchise.

Of course, the most memorable sound in the movie is the destruction of the Aston Martin DB5, which elicits the angriest reaction from Bond in the entire movie and groans from us as well.

Finally, "Zero Dark Thirty's" sound designer Paul Ottosson played with sounds in an unusually organic way. For instance, in the controversial opening torture sequence, the sounds of the waterboarding are very naked and sterile to get us to focus on the horror we're watching.

"I [also] sneak in these other ethereal sounds [using his wife's spike fiddle, the Erhu], introducing something new and unreal. It's visceral and more of a dreadful feeling, "Ottosson reveals. Later on, he "plays up some of the outside sounds to show that [Maya] is in control and driving forward." It's all revolves around Maya's obsession to get bin Laden.

Like all the nominees, the creative soundscapes make us more active participants.

This article is related to: Skyfall, Les Miserables, Django Unchained, Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, Sound and Score, Immersed In Movies, Features, Awards, Life of Pi

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.