Oscars 2023: Best Sound Predictions

·12 min read
 IndieWire The Craft Top of the Line
IndieWire The Craft Top of the Line

As with the Oscar visual effects race, the race for sound might also be a fait accompli. In this case, Joseph Kosinski’s high-octane “Top Gun: Maverick” (Paramount) — where we’re put inside the cockpit with Tom Cruise during the amazing dogfights — is the film to beat. But there’s plenty of extraordinary sound from the other early frontrunners: Brett Morgen’s mind-blowing David Bowie documentary, “Moonage Daydream” (Neon); Matt Reeves’ noirish “The Batman” (Warner Bros.); Baz Luhrmann’s delirious biopic “Elvis” (Warner Bros.); and Jordan Peele’s flipped-out sci-fi/horror spectacle, “Nope”  (Universal).

They are joined by a host of other superhero, musical, and dramatic contenders. There’s Ryan Coogler’s transformational “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” (Marvel/Disney); the return to Pandora in James Cameron’s “Avatar: The Way of Water” (20th Century/Disney); the Daniels’ complex multiverse of “Everything Everywhere All at Once” (A24); Damien Chazelle’s Hollywood epic, “Babylon” (Paramount); Kasi Lemmons’ bittersweet Whitney Houston biopic, “I Want to Dance with Somebody” (Sony); Sam Mendes’ wistful ode to the cinema, “Empire of Light” (Searchlight Pictures); and Steven Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical “The Fabelmans” (Universal).

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“The Batman” - Credit: Warner Bros.
“The Batman” - Credit: Warner Bros.

Warner Bros.

The Spectacle of Sound

The hyper-real soundscape on “Top Gun: Maverick” worked brilliantly in tandem with the thrilling camera work, which fit six 6K Venice cameras inside the cockpits, thanks to the innovative Sony Rialto Camera Extension System overseen by cinematographer Claudio Miranda. The buzzword of the sound team was “synaptic,” to approximate what Cruise’s Maverick experiences in the cockpit. James Mather (sound designer/supervising sound editor), Al Nelson (sound designer/supervising sound editor), Gary Summers (re-recording mixer), and Mark Taylor (re-recording mixer) favored dynamics over the typical “wall of sound” (emphasizing breathing and the manipulation of the control stick). In fact, there’s almost no jet noise during one of the first flight training scenes until Cruise’s Maverick shoots through. That’s when you get the jet noises, the sound of air whooshing over the wings, the sonic reflection of the aerobatics you’re watching. In fact, the sound team worked closely with the muscularity of editor Eddie Hamilton’s cutting to smash against the sonic booms as if the power of the sound knocks the film into the next shot.

“The Batman” serves as a re-imagined detective procedural set in a grungy, totally corrupted Gotham. The team of Will Files (supervising sound editor), Douglas Murray (supervising sound editor), and “Les Misérables” and “Saving Private Ryan” Oscar winner Andy Nelson (re-recording mixer) focused a lot of attention on the individual sounds of Robert Pattinson’s soft-spoken yet physically imposing Batman and his costume (and, by extension, his muscle-car Batmobile), as well as the distorted sound of Paul Dano’s Riddler. They laid the groundwork early on with the teaser. Riddler’s disguised voice made use of a voice changer with a lav mic in the actor’s cheek inside the mask, and they instantly nailed it. Additionally, Batman’s voiceover was perfected with the boom and lav mics used in tandem, and by slightly turning up Pattinson’s voice. To counteract Batman’s slow body movements and footsteps, they added a sense of menace through his cape being a thick Japanese raincoat and his boots being snow boots.

For “Nope” (Universal), sound was a vital part of the experience, led by supervising sound editor and re-recording mixer Johnnie Burn (“Under the Skin”). Using “Jaws” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” as models, the sound team focused on the mysterious, predatory alien entity hidden behind the clouds that subsequently unfolds into an a unique wind creature. They resisted the urge to convey alien sounds early on, but when Jean Jacket reveals itself the sounds are an epic, organic form. In Dolby Atmos, Burn created a 360-degree effect director Jordan Peele describes as “a dome of sound.”

“Everything Everywhere All at Once” contains its own array of impressive sound signatures for tapping into Evelyn Wang’s (Michelle Yeoh) multiverse-hopping, crafted by the team of Brent Kiser (supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer), Andrew Twite (sound designer), and Alexandra Fehrman (re-recording mixer). Utilizing a few hundred specially designed sound effects tracks for each universe, they were able to convey the ambiances when needed. Thematically, the sound of broken glass symbolized the leakage of Evelyn’s mind between universes or her daughter Joy’s (Stephanie Hsu) talent for tuning through universes through the sounds of the radio.

Look for “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” to expand on the Oscar-nominated sound editing work of “Black Panther,” which created the unique Afro-tech soundscape of Wakanda. For example, they combined high-tech sounds for air ships with organic nature sounds, while also leveraging Ludwig Göransson’s Oscar-winning score to create a musical quality to the sonically propulsive action sequences. In the sequel, the Atlantis-inspired underwater civilization of Talocan is introduced as the baddies; its Aztec and Mayan inspirations provide new cultural references to be added to the soundscape.

“Avatar: The Way of Water” continues the story of the Sully family by exploring other regions and civilizations of Pandora, particularly the Metkayina reef clan that live along the shores of the oceans. The aquatic world required new underwater performance capture tech from Wētā FX. So we can expect the returning Oscar-nominated sound team (led by Christopher Boyes as supervising sound editor/sound designer/re-recording mixer) to expand the scope of the planet and come up with an innovative aquatic soundscape.

“Moonage Daydream” - Credit: screenshot/Neon
“Moonage Daydream” - Credit: screenshot/Neon

screenshot/Neon

The Sound of Music

“Moonage Daydream” was designed by Brett Morgen to be an IMAX-sized theme park ride built around David Bowie’s persona as a performer. The director was granted unlimited access to Bowie’s personal archives, including all of his master recordings and hours of discovered 35mm and 16mm film of his stage performances. The soundtrack contains 48 musical tracks from the original stems. The sound team was led by “Bohemian Rhapsody” Oscar winners John Warhurst (supervising sound and music editor), Nina Hartstone (supervising sound editor/sound designer), and Paul Massey (re-recording mixer), along with “Ford v Ferrari” nominee David Giammarco (re-recording mixer). It truly was a convergence of sound and vision, mixed for IMAX 12.0, 5.0, Atmos, and 7.1/5.1. However, it was the IMAX mix that was the most innovative: The layering of the vocal tracks along with the music, sound effects, and everything else is a sensory overload. For instance, while you’re seeing an image of Bowie onstage, you’re also hearing helicopters or gunshots. Overall, there’s a much larger degree of immersion by constantly leaning on the sound, which becomes part of the narrative.

With “Elvis,” Baz Luhrmann’s go-to sound guru, Wayne Pashley (sound designer/supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer), embarked on a great American operatic tragedy. Sweeping primarily through three decades in the life of Elvis Presley — unprecedented mega-stardom in the ’50s, Hollywood mainstreaming in the ’60s, and Vegas resurrection in the ’70s — there’s a complex weave of music and sound effects as the main driving force of the sound design. With a combination of playback recording and live recording, fully restored vintage microphones from each era were used to capture the performance pieces, and to seamlessly integrate new Austin Butler recordings with original Presley vocals.

“I Want to Dance with Somebody,” the biopic of cultural icon Whitney Houston (Naomi Ackie), traces Houston’s journey to musical superstardom from her breakthrough in the ’80s to her pivot to acting in the ’90s and her valiant struggle with addiction along the way. The “Bohemian Rhapsody”and “Moonage Daydream” team of Warhurst, Hartstone, and Massey are joined by “Titanic” Oscar winner Mark Ulano (sound mixer), and they’ll undoubtedly leverage their experience for capturing and layering period sounds (concert crowds, retro recording equipment) with a focus on softer, more romantic and intimate performances. Similar to Rami Malek portraying Freddie Mercury, they will be building around Houston’s singing voice using Ackie’s breaths.

“Empire of Light” - Credit: Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures
“Empire of Light” - Credit: Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Sounding off About Hollywood and the Movies

The soundscape of Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon” is all about capturing the anxious transition in the late ’20s between silents and talkies. That leaves a lot of creative opportunities for conveying early sound techniques for shooting movies, along with wild parties, premieres, screenings, and real life period sound effects for the talented sound team: “First Man” and “La La Land” nominee Mildred Iatrou (supervising sound editor),”Ford v Ferrari,” “A Star Is Born,” and “La La Land” nominee Steven Morrow (sound mixer), and Andy Nelson (re-recording mixer).

“Empire of Light” — which is Mendes’ answer to “Cinema Paradiso” — centers on the landmark Empire movie palace in a quaint ’80s seaside English town. This allows the Oscar-nominated sound team of Oliver Tarney (sound designer/supervising sound editor), Rachael Tate (supervising sound editor), Chris Burdon (re-recording mixer), and William Miller (re-recording mixer) to create a period soundscape of movie projection and crowd sound effects (including the gala premiere of “Chariots of Fire”), along with other period sounds associated with an amusement park, dance hall, and other excursions for the interracial love story between Olivia Colman and Michael Ward.

With Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans,” a coming-of-age story about aspiring filmmaker Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle) set in post-World War II Arizona, the sound team — led by four-time Oscar winner Gary Rydstrom (supervising sound editor/sound designer/re-recording mixer), Brian Chumney (supervising sound editor), and Andy Nelson (re-recording mixer) — re-imagines the suburbia of Spielberg’s youth. In addition to activity surrounding the house and the neighborhood, there are also the sounds associated with the director’s early filmmaking works.

“Bardo” - Credit: © Limbo Films, S. De R.L. de C.
“Bardo” - Credit: © Limbo Films, S. De R.L. de C.

© Limbo Films, S. De R.L. de C.

Three more to watch

Ron Howard’s “Thirteen Lives” (Amazon) offers a creative soundscape about the true-life Thai cave rescue for the team of Tarney, Tate, Burdon, Miller, and Paul Brincat (production sound mixer). They focused on the contrast between the cacophony of the rescue camp outside the cave (crowd recorded in multiple languages, with special attention paid to the specific northern Thai dialect) and the claustrophobic interiors (breathing patterns, tank clangs, all made to sound hostile). But rather than rather using Atmos to place rope pulls and tank clangs around the theater, they mixed it into a kind of ethereal everywhere dispersion.

Alejandro G. Iñárritu blurs reality and memories of the Mexican documentarian (Daniel Giménez Cacho) at the center of his semi-autobiographical “Bardo (or False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths),” from Netflix. It’s a surreal adventure, and a part of the disorienting mindscape is a complex soundscape overseen by Nicolas Becker and Martín Hernández (supervising sound editors/sound designers), Ken Yasumoto (sound designer/re-recording mixer), and Jon Taylor and Frank A. Montano (re-recording mixers). Dreams, fantasies, celebrations, and confrontations drift back and forth, with the protagonist grappling with an identity crisis. And no moment better illustrates this than the long take in the iconic Salon Los Angeles dance hall, where he dances in a state of limbo to such jukebox classics as “I am the Walrus” and “Let’s Dance.”

Olivia Wilde’s ’50s mind bender, “Don’t Worry Darling” (Warner Bros.), boasts a Hitchcockian-inspired sound design led by “Gravity” Oscar winner Skip Lievsay (supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer) and “Ford v Ferrari” nominee Steven A. Morrow (re-recording mixer). In particular, the mysterious Victory project is a wonderland of sights and sounds, and acoustically they needed to represent more than just dialogue, sound FX and music; they needed to help tell the story of a perfectly protected community away from the normal life we all experience. Acoustically, they wanted to make you uncomfortable when visiting Project Victory, but with a light touch.

“Lightyear” - Credit: Disney/Pixar
“Lightyear” - Credit: Disney/Pixar

Disney/Pixar

Don’t forget animation

“Lightyear” (Pixar/Disney) offered a first-time IMAX experience for Pixar, with director Angus MacLane framing the the Buzz Lightyear (voiced by Chris Evans) origin story as a ’70s sci-fi blockbuster with all of the retro sense of space spectacle. Working with IMAX was quite complicated for the studio, though, requiring a new way of handling the workflow for all of the consideration, including sound. The sound team led by Ren Klyce (sound designer/supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer, who also worked on “Turning Red”) and Benjamin A. Burtt (sound effects editor) got to create a soundscape inspired by “Star Wars” and “The Right Stuff,” with special attention to aerospace authenticity along with chunky, push-button consumer products from the ’80s.

With Guillermo del Toro’s stop-motion “Pinocchio” (Netflix), the challenge was finding the appropriate sound for the titular wooden boy. Sound designer/supervising sound editor Scott Martin Gershin (“Pacific Rim”), known for creating and massaging bespoke sounds, came up with a very organic signature for Pinocchio built around the dynamics of wooden pieces. He then worked with Jon Taylor and Frank A. Montano (re-recording mixers) to convey a sonic progression for his character arc.

Frontrunners 

“Elvis” (Warner Bros.)
“Moonage Daydream” (Neon)
“Nope” (Universal)
“The Batman” (Warner Bros.)
“Top Gun: Maverick” (Paramount)

Note: Only films that the author has seen will be named frontrunners at this time

Potential Frontrunners

“Avatar: The Way of Water” (20th Century/Disney)
“Babylon” (Paramount)
“Bardo” (Netflix)
“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” (Marvel/Disney)
“Empire of Light” (Searchlight Pictures)
“Everything Everywhere All at Once” (A24)
“The Fabelmans” (Universal)

Contenders

“All Quiet on the Western Front” (Netflix)
“Black Adam” (Warner Bros.)
“Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” (Marvel/Disney)
“Don’t Worry Darling” (Warner Bros.)
“Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” (Warner Bros.)
“Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” (Netflix)
“Good Night Oppy” (Amazon)
“I Want to Dance with Somebody” (Sony)
“Lightyear” (Pixar/Disney)
“Men” (A24)
“Nanny” (Amazon)
“Pinocchio” (Netflix)
“Strange World” (Disney)
“TÁR” (Focus Features)
“The Northman” (Focus Features)
“The Whale” (A24)
“The Woman King” (Sony)
“The Wonder” (Netflix)
“Thirteen Lives” (Amazon)
“Thor: Love and Thunder” (Marvel/Disney)
“Three Thousand Years of Longing” (UA)
“Turning Red” (Pixar/Disney)
“Wendell & Wild” (Netflix)
“White Noise” (Netflix)

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