What’s the Deal with 2021’s Best Sound Oscar?

Kyle Anderson
·4 min read

If you’ve watched the Academy Awards ceremony in any of the last, like, 25 years, you’ll no doubt remember the often belabored jokes-cum-explanation about the difference between Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing Oscars. Nobody watching at home can comprehend the difference, apparently. “Editing sound and mixing sound are different? Well, since I don’t know what words mean, I guess I’ll never understand.” But it was a yearly tradition at the televised ceremony to say, yes, these categories are separate, and no, you don’t really need to know why. And yet, for the 2021 Oscars, the Academy has created the single “Best Sound” category. Why?

Riz Ahmed in the Best Sound award nominee, Sound of Metal.
Riz Ahmed in the Best Sound award nominee, Sound of Metal.

Amazon

To overly simplify: Sound Mixing largely involves recording and balancing sound on set, during production. Sound Editing is the process of after-the-fact editing the sound for picture, a post-production job. I think we can all understand the differences there. For years, the Oscars had merely a “Best Sound” award, meaning the on-set sound recording techniques; Best Sound Effects Editing came about later. In 2000 they changed it to Best Sound and Best Sound Editing; then in 2003 they added the “mixing” qualifier.

The decision was part of myriad announcements from the Academy 0n April 28, 2020 in response to the then-worsening COVID-19 pandemic and how it would impact the film industry for the year. The biggest push of this announcement was that movies that debuted on streaming services were eligible rather than the usual rule of at least a seven-day run in Los Angeles cinemas. (This has been a question for a while, given Netflix’s push for Oscar recognition. This year, naturally, the streamers have plenty of representation.)

Winner of both Best Sound Mixing and Best Sound Editing, Dunkirk.
Winner of both Best Sound Mixing and Best Sound Editing, Dunkirk.

Warner Bros.

Buried in the original Variety article was the mention that Sound Editing and Sound Mixing are now just Best Sound. The brief paragraph ends with, “This change was initiated by the sound branch,” meaning it was the sound professionals themselves who put forth the combining. Presumably they would know what they’re talking about? Not necessarily.

Another Variety article later that day interviewed several sound editors and sound mixers about the decision. Some were pro-merge, some were anti. Donald Sylvester, who won the Best Sound Editing award for Ford v Ferrari in 2020 explained that it’s a natural progression of the sound process in modern movies.

“It seems natural to me that sound has evolved into one category,” he says. Sylvester points out that the line between sound mixing and sound editing is so blurred these days, “I can’t tell when the sound was changed by one person or the other. By nature, the editors mix, and the mixers edit.”

Variety points out in the article that, because movies like Hugo, Dunkirk, and Bohemian Rhapsody had won both categories, that it seemed redundant to give both awards. But that’s not exactly true. Since 2000, only eight out of 20 times has the same film won Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing. Since 2010, that ratio blossoms to six out of 10, which I suppose constitutes a trend. But only once in all of those instances has the list of nominees been identical.

So while, yes, Hugo, Dunkirk, and Bohemian Rhapsody all took home both sound prizes, it was only Dunkirk that did it against the same field of competition. So even if the sound professionals in the Academy—remember, the only people who vote for each category aside from Best Picture are peers in the same field—award Mixing and Editing to the same movie, they’ve more often than not recognized that different films have strengths and weaknesses in the specific disciplines.

Best Sound Editing winner Ford v Ferrari.
Best Sound Editing winner Ford v Ferrari.

20th Century Studios

And let’s not also forget that just last year, the Oscars awarded Ford v Ferrari Best Sound Editing, but 1917 won Best Sound Mixing. And it’s not as though the exact same people are nominated in both categories if the movie is. They are distinct and different jobs, so are they all now going to get nominated if the movie is? It sure looks that way. So is this just a way to excise a single award from a very long ceremony?

I’m not going to pretend I know the difference and intricacies between sound mixing and sound editing. I don’t have to, because I don’t do those jobs. But for 91 years, sound mixers and sound editors were recognized as the completely different functions and skillsets that they are, and now it’s a blanket “Best Sound;” we hear it, so it’s a sound. Why now, when they still clearly recognize the difference, have they decided to merge the categories? Who knows, but it definitely leaves a strange ringing in our ears.

Kyle Anderson is the Senior Editor for Nerdist. You can find his film and TV reviews here. Follow him on Twitter!

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