Oscars: Best Sound Predictions 2021

Bill Desowitz
·5 min read
 IndieWire The Craft Top of the Line
IndieWire The Craft Top of the Line

How fortuitous that we have some of the most innovative and imaginative use of sound in the very first season that the Academy merged sound editing and sound mixing into a single category. From now on, it’s about the total sound craft, and “Sound of Metal,” “Mank,” “Tenet,” and “Soul” are the standouts, with “The Midnight Sky,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “News of the World,” “Greyhound,” “Nomadland,” and “The Trial of the Chicago 7” also contending.

But Darius Marder’s “Sound of Metal,” in which Riz Ahmed portrays Ruben, a heavy-metal drummer slowly losing his hearing, is the favorite to win the Oscar for its complexity and detail. This is a film about sound because of the the way it explores deafness as a way of experiencing sound and vibration. Getting inside Ruben’s head creates the dichotomy between “omniscient sound and perspective sound,” according to the director, who tapped supervising sound editor Nicolas Becker (“Arrival,” “Gravity”) to create this unique soundscape.

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Becker made the internal vibration become all the more intense for this musician. He used a combination of multi-directional mics to create a hyper-real effect along with condenser mics. Plus, Becker put mics underwater and on the actor’s skull, which even captured the sound of his eyelids closing. A high-voltage transformer achieved a beast-like sound, from which he pulled a range of vibrational tones. Additionally, the sound of Ruben’s cochlear implant seemed cold and synthesized. Jaime Baksht, the re-recording mixer, then combined the sounds to complete the experimental soundscape.

For David Fincher’s “Mank,” the black-and-white Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) biopic about Golden Age Hollywood and scripting “Citizen Kane,” go-to sound editor and mixer Ren Klyce experimented with modern tech to reproduce the aural limitations of movies from the ’30s and ’40s. And he did it through reverse engineering. First, Klyce made it sound great, then he downgraded the spectrum, treating every aspect separately, and then he mixed it several times, adding distortion, compression, and other artifacts. Finally, at Skywalker Sound, he created heavy echo, reverb, and other annoying anomalies to authenticate what “Citizen Kane” sounded like in a movie theater.

For “Soul,” Pixar’s first Black-led feature, which is divided between a jazzed up New York City and the ethereal “Great Before,” Klyce was tasked with creating two distinct soundscapes. And they were each made to play off the jazz music composed by Jon Batiste and the synth score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (who were recommended to director Pete Docter by Klyce). While the urban setting sounded hectic and full of danger, the sound of the semi-transparent, pre-birth world was calm and child-like.

Christopher Nolan’s time-inverting “Tenet” required four-time Oscar-winning sound editor Richard King to also create the sound of two parallel worlds: one moving forward and the other backward. Therefore an entirely different sonic vocabulary was necessary for each. A lot of trial and error and experimentation was involved while also dealing with the demands of an epic, globe-trotting action adventure with gunfights, car chases, and recording local background sounds all over the world to create convincing contrasts between locations.

“There wasn’t any comprehensive solution,” King said. “Every inverted sound required its own approach. Many sounds, if simply reversed, feel too comic, so, in most cases, we recorded and created sounds which had the ‘feel’ of backwards sounds using techniques such as pitch envelopes or having the reverb of an event occur before the event.” This was especially true of car chases and fight scenes.

All contenders are ranked alphabetically. No film will be deemed a frontrunner unless I have seen it.

“News of the World”
“Sound of Metal”

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”
“The Midnight Sky”
“The Trial of the Chicago 7”

Long Shots
“Da 5 Bloods”
“The Invisible Man”
“Judas and the Black Messiah”
“One Night in Miami”
“The Outpost”
“The Prom”
“Wonder Woman 1984”

Key Oscar Indicators

The Academy’s sound branch currently has 634 members, of which 542 are active and 92 are retired. The reason for the consolidation was overlapping Oscars throughout the last decade and sound editors doing a lot of their own mixing. However, the Motion Picture Sound Editors (MPSE) and Cinema Audio Society (CAS) of sound mixers remain active as separate organizations. The heavily favored “Sound of Metal” looks to buck the Oscar trend that leans toward action and musicals. In terms of animation, seven Pixar films have been nominated, with “The Incredibles” winning for sound design in 2004. “Toy Story 3” was the last to be nominated for sound editing in 2010.

Key Dates

Monday, February 1, 2021
Preliminary Oscar voting begins
MPSE nomination voting begins

Thursday, February 11, 2011
CAS online nomination voting begins

Friday, February 19, 2021
MPSE nomination ends

Tuesday, February 23, 2021
MPSE vetting meeting

Wednesday, February 24, 2021
CAS online nomination voting ends 5:00 pm PT

Sunday, February 28, 2021
Submission deadline for the Oscars

Monday, March 1, 2021
MPSE nominations announced, final voting begins

Tuesday, March 2, 2021
CAS nominations announced

Friday, March 5, 2021
Oscar nominations voting begins

Wednesday, March 10, 2021
Oscar nominations voting ends 5:00 PM PT

Monday, March 15, 2021
Oscar nominations announced

Thursday, March 25, 2021
CAS final online voting begins

Tuesday, April 6, 2021
CAS final online voting ends

Monday, April 12, 2021
MPSE final voting ends 5:00 pm PT

Thursday, April 15, 2021
Oscar Nominees Luncheon
Final Oscar voting begins

Friday, April 16, 2021
68th annual MPSE Golden Reel Awards

Saturday, April 17, 2021
57th annual CAS Awards

Tuesday, April 20, 2021
Final Oscar voting ends

Sunday, April 25, 2021
Winners announced at the 93rd Academy Awards (Oscars)

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