“I have really only a smidgen of an idea what’s really [the] best sound, only because I don’t have Dolby Atmos at home,” said Williams, who now teaches film at American University. “Typically, even if I’m not in Los Angeles, I could go to any of these big-screen theaters — I’m talking about good houses — where I could really go in there and hear this film the way the filmmaker wanted me to hear it. . . . The year that “1917” was on the screens, I went all the way over to AMC Tysons Corner in Virginia just to have a house where I knew I would have the proper surround [sound], the proper Dolby Atmos presentation. I could sit center-center and just let the film take me over.”
With academy members unable to gather in person to evaluate the nominated films, the nominating and voting process for best sound may be the most dramatically affected by seeing movies at home. Rather than having the immersive, sometimes bone-rattling experience of a movie’s music, dialogue and sound effects coming at them from all sides, voters are at the mercy of home systems that vary according to technological sophistication, household budget and personal taste.
“There may have been subtleties I couldn’t really eke out,” says Williams about the challenges he faced during the nomination process. “I can only turn the speakers up so loud before it’s a lease-breaker or my wife threatens to kick me out.”
Nicolas Becker, the supervising sound editor for nominee “Sound of Metal,” admits that “of course it’s 10 times better” to experience the film in a theater; sound is an integral part of the movie, which stars Riz Ahmed as a rock drummer losing his hearing. Working closely with writer-director Darius Marder, Becker created an intensely subjective sound design, allowing viewers to share the protagonist’s new reality as sounds become distorted and occasionally drop out entirely.
Becker is particularly disappointed that most people haven’t seen “Sound of Metal’s” ending as he intended it. Inspired by John Cage’s “4’33,” during which a pianist simply sat onstage for four minutes and 33 seconds while the audience and ambient noises provided the music, Becker wanted viewers in the theater to be thrown back into their own immediate sonic space. Instead, he observes, home viewers “are kind of stuck with [themselves] in a kind of void. . . . But of course, with this situation it became something more deep: You’re stuck in pure silence with your headphones.”
If this year’s process is compromised, that didn’t deter sound branch members from nominating and voting. Bobbi Banks, who most recently was supervising dialogue editor for “Coming 2 America,” notes that “even though not everybody has a 7.1 [channel] room, I think that, as we listened with trained ears, we were still able to come up with some really great-sounding nominees. And they’re all so different in scope.”
For Lora Hirschberg, an Oscar-winning re-recording mixer who has worked on many Marvel films and the recent “Borat Subsequent Movie Film,” participating in this year’s nominating process wasn’t an issue. “The sound [branch] members are usually pretty savvy about their home theaters and know how to calibrate stuff,” she says. “It’s the rest of the [academy] members that are disadvantaged here.”
Indeed, lots of academy members might own multichannel soundbars and other finely tuned audio equipment. But will garden-variety laptops and televisions be able to discern the meticulously blended layers of water, propellers, gunfire and changes in boat speed in the climactic scene of “Greyhound”? Will they pick up the delicate environmental sounds in the old-fashioned western “News of the World”?
Veteran sound designer and editor Randy Thom isn’t as concerned as some might assume. “I don’t think you should have to experience a film in a perfectly calibrated place to judge how good the sound is,” says Thom, who won Oscars for his work on “The Right Stuff” and “The Incredibles.” “All of us who work in movie sound know that it’s a fool’s gambit to rely too much on minutiae, or on tiny, subtle nuances, because we know very well that in most normal movie theaters, most of those will be lost. So I think it makes a lot more sense to judge on more broadly based criteria and not feel like you have to listen to a movie with a stethoscope to know whether [it’s] been done well.
“You know, when I got the Oscar for ‘The Incredibles’ my little political speech was that these aren’t technical awards. Technical awards are given to people who design equipment. The people who edit films and do visual effects and do sound for films are judged on their artistic judgment, not on how fast they can turn knobs or how well they use software. . . . What I want to hear about is what sounds are in the film and how well they propel the story, and how well they’re integrated into the story.”
Thom points out that, historically, Oscars for best sound would too often go to the biggest, loudest movies — war pictures, science fiction epics, superhero flicks and the occasional musical. (Since the 1960s, the sound awards have been divided into two categories, for mixing and editing; this year they were consolidated, recognizing that their responsibilities and creative contributions had blurred over the years.) It’s still a minor scandal among connoisseurs that in 1974 the “Sensurround” gimmick used in “Earthquake” beat out Walter Murch’s far more subtle and ingenious work using silence and shifting dynamics on Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation.” (More recently, observers have also taken issue with “The Bourne Ultimatum” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” drowning out the more understated soundscapes of “No Country for Old Men” and “A Quiet Place.”)
“From my professional perspective, it can often seem that in the general vote the movie with the most sound is rewarded, as opposed to the best sound, from my professional perspective,” says Hirschberg, who is optimistic about this year’s voting. “People are listening differently,” she says. “They’re listening for balance and choices and nuances, things that [can get lost] in a big theater where you get the spectacle and the force of that environment. . . . I’m kind of hopeful that this way of listening might have brought attention to different aspects of the sound craft other than just the loudest, biggest, over-the-top elements we’ve noticed before.”
At least one of the sound nominees might actually be at a distinct advantage being seen at home this year: For “Mank,” sound supervisor Ren Klyce followed director David Fincher’s lead in creating a film that hewed closely to the production values of the 1930s and 1940s, when the story is set. Thus the soundtrack for the film isn’t a crisp, multichannel extravaganza but has been mixed to sound like the scratchy, low-fidelity mono recordings of the period. (Klyce is also nominated this year for his work on the animated feature “Soul.”)
Both “Mank” and “Sound of Metal” exemplify what sound designer and rerecording mixer Gary Rydstrom would like to see acknowledged more often. “The theatrical sound experience is not about being loud,” he says. “It’s about dynamic range and feeling enveloped. . . . It’s about being loud when you want to be loud and being quiet when you want to be quiet.”
Recent films like “A Quiet Place” and “Sound of Metal,” he adds, are also making viewers more aware of sound — and silence — as a crucial element of storytelling, as important a piece of cinematic grammar as the zoom shot or jump cut. “Sound people generally are, I’ll admit, sometimes annoyed and bitter about the fact that we’re behind the scenes,” Rydstrom says with a laugh. “It’s okay. The ways we use to manipulate audiences are less obvious to audiences than other ways. So much of moviemaking is akin to magic, and we’re definitely the trick that rarely gets explained. And that’s okay by me.”