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Will “Star Wars” Awaken a Force within the Sound Editing race?

Star Wars Celebration 2015

What does a lightsaber sound like? Or a storm on Mars? Or Q’s latest gadget? Well we don’t know. Rather, films’ sound effects editors use their ingenuity to create these artificial sounds, to be integrated into a film’s soundtrack. The Academy Award for Best Sound Editing rewards the supervising sound editors who are responsible for this important craft.

War films and action films frequently score here, and science-fiction/fantasy is another favorite. Animated films also do disproportionately well in this category, which is not surprising given that all non-dialogue, non-music sounds need to be created. Best Picture nominees by no means dominate this category, but films that tank usually have considerable difficulty making the final five.

“The Martian” featured extraordinary sounds during crashes and explosions such that viewers feel they are on Mars/in space. Oliver Tarney was nominated two years ago for another October release –“Captain Phillips.” He seems a good bet for a second nod.

“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” will undoubtedly feature a feast of sound effects. Critical response is obviously unknown but there’s no doubt this will be a massive hit. Matthew Wood is a two-time nominee (“There Will Be Blood,” “Wall-E”) who would seem likely to return if the film is even of respectable quality.
Also coming out soon is “Spectre,” the latest James Bond title. Following up the massive critical and commercial success that was “Skyfall,” which won this category three years ago, will be challenging. Karen Baker Landers and Per Hallberg will be seeking another nod. Whether they get it depends, in my view, on the quality of the film.

Earlier this year, “Jurassic World” lit the box office on fire. The franchise’s first film won this category twenty-two years ago. The dino sounds are back, and could end up in play if the film manages to score outside the Visual Effects category. Al Nelson is seeking a first nomination while Gwendolyn Yates Whittle is seeking her third, having previously been nominated for “Avatar” and “TRON: Legacy.”

“Mad Max: Fury Road” may not have lit the box office on fire, but it sure excited critics. It will likely be revitalized with end-of-year critics’ citations. The film’s visual landscape has been justly praised, but listening to it also reveals just what an exceptional soundtrack it has, largely courtesy of extraordinary sound effects. Wayne Pashley, Scott Hecker and Mark Mangini have four nominations between them and might well end up with an invitation to this year’s ceremony.

“Everest,” on the other hand, is wowing audiences right now with its visual and aural effects. Glenn Freemantle won this award for “Gravity,” having come close to a win for “Slumdog Millionaire.” Unfortunately for the film, the box office is less than amazing. That may prove a serious obstacle to a nomination in this category but the work remains the sort this branch frequently cites.

“Sicario” has impressed critics with its gritty take on the drug war. The sounds of cars and guns are eerie. Alan Robert Murray has won two Sound Editing Oscars for Clint Eastwood efforts (“Letters from Iwo Jima” and “American Sniper”) and could well end up with his eighth nomination.

Tomorrow, “Bridge of Spies” opens as a Cold War thriller featuring sound effects courtesy of the great Richard Hymns. The film hasn’t knocked people’s socks off, but it is getting respectable ink. Perhaps more importantly, Hymns is a giant, and Spielberg films have an outstanding track record in this category.
But there are also many films to come. First among those coming to mind is Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s “The Revenant,” where the sound work will undoubtedly be pivotal in creating the mood of the American West in the early 19th Century. Lon Bender won an Oscar for “Braveheart” and was nominated for “Blood Diamond” and “Drive,” which leads me to be even more confident of the film’s chances here.

Water films frequently feature extensive sound effects. “In the Heart of the Sea” was moved to December, presumably to improve its chances for awards. Frank Kruse probably came close to a nomination for “Rush” and, depending on how Ron Howard’s latest is received, could very well end up with his first nod.
Quentin Tarantino’s latest two features, “Inglourious Basterds” and “Django Unchained,” both ended up with nominations in this category. “The Hateful Eight,” a western of sorts, will undoubtedly feature sounds of guns and snow. Given the recent success of Tarantino films here, this may follow suit.

I’ll end by discussing the dilemma poised by the fact that Pixar, which has a great track record in this category, has two films coming out this year. I’d look for the crazy joyous sounds in “Inside Out” to potentially earn Shannon Mills a first nomination. But then again, Mills has also created “The Good Dinosaur” with Pixar this year. One would think a dinosaur movie may actually be the more typically sound effects-heavy film. But will it have the reviews of “Inside Out”? Which of these titles has the better chance in this category is very much an open question.

Those are the top baker’s dozen contenders as I see them. And if I had to predict the final five from this vantage point, I’d go with “The Hateful Eight,” “Inside Out,” “The Martian,” “The Reverent,” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” Though we shall see how the next few months shake out…

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