They Shoot Oscar Prognosticators, Don't They?
Handicapping the Technical Races, Part One
By J. Don Birnam
January 21, 2016

Let's just take a moment to appreciate that this movie is nominated for Best Picture.

Sound editing, sound mixing, make-up, and songs. What do these categories mean? Do Academy members understand them? If you want to win your Oscar pool, you’ll have to do well in these more obscure technical categories. We begin our yearly analysis of all categories - culminating with Best Picture the week before the Oscars - by looking at the sound and song categories, along with makeup.

Twitter and Instagram will have additional coverage, including live updates on results of the guild races in these and all technical categories.

The Oscars are nothing if not repetitive. At the start of the last stage of the Oscar season last year, I wrote: “Best Picture is in flux, and the acting categories are mostly done except for one. But Oscar ballots are normally won in the below-the-line races. And for all the predictability of some of the main awards, there is no dearth of suspense in some of the tech races.”

That is pretty much where we are now. Best Picture is in flux until the guilds speak, and the acting categories, except maybe Supporting Actress, seem done and easy to predict. So let’s shore up Oscar ballot scores. Always keep in mind the general rule with the tech categories: a Best Picture nominee tends to win over non-Best Picture nominees in the craft categories. This is particularly so since the Best Picture expansion in 2009, where the presence of more movies in the top slate results in the need to recognize a larger number of pictures. The presumption is not absolute, and does yields when a movie provides showy or obvious craft (think the costumes in Alice in Wonderland or in The Great Gatsby).

One other trend will be in play this year: a lot of these technical races are going to boil down to Mad Max vs. The Revenant. The key question is: will the Academy somehow find a way to split these awards in a logical way? Or does it make sense to predict a straight-up Mad Max or Revenant ballot and hope you get at least half right?

Best Sound Editing (aka Sound Effects)

Like clockwork, someone asks me at every Oscar party the difference between the two sound categories. Sound editing is just creating sound effects - making it sound like a gun went off or thunder crashed, when no such things occurred. Sound mixing is the overall sound - combining the score with the effects with the dialogue and making it sound correct and work together. Do people outside of the 300 or so members of the sound branch understand the difference?

In Best Sound Editing, the nominees are Mad Max, The Revenant, The Martian, Sicario, Star Wars. Sicario did not show up in Sound Mixing - not a fatal miss by any stretch, but between that and it not being a Best Picture nominee, we can eliminate it. The Martian did not strike me, in my limited knowledge, as a particular sound-heavy movie. Star Wars, interestingly, has never won a competitive Oscar for Sound Effects. The award did not exist when George Lucas first created those lightsaber and stun gun sounds (though it did receive a special achievement Oscar for sound), and Return of the Jedi lost to Best Picture nominee The Right Stuff. The Force Awakens has very good sound effects and would be a worthy winner, but I suspect they will use this and other tech chances to reward the movies the overall Academy liked more. In the history of this Oscar, it has only happened twice in over 30 years the a non-Best Picture nominee beats a nominated movie, the last being in 2007 when The Bourne Ultimatum beat No Country for Old Men.

Thus, I think it’s between The Revenant and Mad Max for the win, with the edge going to the much louder of the two - Mad Max. The sound editors for that movie had to create the explosion, the firing, and the car chasing sound effects. The striking sounds in The Revenant seem quieter to me, except perhaps the bear attack scene. The truth is, action movies do well here. So this will be a close race (and a tie like when Skyfall and Zero Dark Thirty tied) would be amusing.

Will win: Mad Max
Could win: The Revenant

Best Sound Mixing (aka Best Sound)

Like last year, the match between sound effects and overall sound is nearly exact, with only Bridge of Spies appearing on this list but not the other. Thus, the other four nominees are Mad Max, The Revenant, The Martian, and Star Wars. Last year, I was one of the first pundits to predict that Whiplash, the one movie in Mixing without the Editing nomination, could pull off a victory for its combined use of the loud drumming and the crescendo screams by J.K. Simmons.

There is no obvious contender for that loud music mix this year - although one does wonder why the mixing effects in Love & Mercy and maybe even Straight Outta Compton did not find space here instead of the more muted The Martian. I’m also counting out Star Wars, as the movie is heavier on effects than on total sound. Bridge of Spies seems to be in third place - the music, dialogue, and sound in that movie are, as in every Spielberg film, superbly adept to the tone and tenor of the picture. Still, wins for Inception, Whiplash, and The Hurt Locker in this category show that louder movies are favored. This gives the edge, once more, to Mad Max and its loud music over sound effects.

This seems like a year in which the same movie will win both awards, so if you’re not sure of which, placing one in each category on your ballot may increase your score. For now I’m sticking with Mad Max.

Will win: Mad Max
Could win: The Revenant

Best Original Song

I always think of the sound branch of the Academy as the Joe-Schmo branch. They’re sound nerds or technicians that are not necessarily lovers of beauty in film. They constitute a significant portion of the so-called “steak-eaters” of the Academy, who can be counted on to reward male-driven dramas like The Revenant and snub emotional ones like Carol.

Not so the music branch, one of the ones that likes to show independence in its nominations (although, one may reasonably question that independence after last year’s fiasco of removing a nominee from the list after evidence of strong-arming in the nominations surfaced). In any case, this year they nominated Earned It from 50 Shades of Grey, Manta Ray from Racing Extinction, Simple Song #3 from Youth, Til It Happens to You from The Hunting Ground, and Writing’s On the Wall from Spectre. I was most surprised to see missing See You Again from Furious 7, given Paul Walker’s death, and I expected Love Me Like You Do to make it in from the SM-porn 50 Shades.

Off the bat we can eliminate the Racing Extinction song from the obscure Manta Ray, and I have trouble seeing them wanting to make an Oscar winner of 50 Shades. Writing’s on the Wall becomes the obvious, default choice, as it comes from the most recognizable movie. Still, the song was nowhere near as acclaimed as Adele’s Skyfall, which leaves room for something else. Simple Song #3 is perhaps the best part of Youth, although that movie’s somewhat surprising miss in every other category makes me wonder if it is too weak to make it.

Finally, some are saying that it could finally be Diane Warren’s turn to win, after seven nominations spanning three decades (and losses for hits such as I Don’t Want to Miss A Thing and Because You Loved Me). Nothing would please me more than that, seeing as it would also make an Oscar winner of Lady Gaga. But, remember that the names of the nominees do not appear in the tech categories on voters’ ballots - only the movie does. And if Manta Ray is unknown, so is The Hunting Ground. So I just don’t think it’s in the cards absent a stronger campaign for it than what we have seen so far

Will Win: Writing’s On the Wall – Spectre
Could Win: Simple Song #3 – Youth

Best Original Score

This category tends to be an embarrassment of riches and this year was no different. Making the cut were Bridge of Spies, Carol, Sicario, Star Wars, and The Hateful Eight. Credible alternatives would have included the beautiful Alexandre Desplat score of The Danish Girl, while the subtle music of Spotlight was nothing to sneeze at. Alas, in the one showing of weakness all morning, Spotlight did miss out here when nominations were announced. The Revenant, meanwhile, was disqualified under branch rules relating to the amount of original material in the score - it may have made it 13 nominations otherwise.

This category is the easiest call of the night here. Johan Johansson, who scored Sicario and was nominated for The Theory of Everything last year, is once more along for the ride. I was surprised in a way to see John Williams get in again for Star Wars, mostly because the original elements of the soundtrack take one or two passes to appreciate over the more familiar and recognizable aspects. Thomas Newman did it again, providing Bridge of Spies a sweeping and beautiful score worthy of John Williams, who normally scores Spielberg pictures but was busy with The Force Awakens. Sadly, Newman will remain Oscar-less despite his ever growing number of nominations. Only Carter Burwell’s Carol score may have a chance at an upset, as the movie is paced consistently by the emotional, melodramatic tones.

But, no, this year belongs to famed Italian composer Ennio Morricone, a multiple nominee but winner of only an honorary Oscar, for his stunning score of The Hateful Eight. Despite Tarantino’s movie not being a Best Picture nominee (and you have to go back to Friday in 2002 to find a non-BP nominee winning here), this is one of those undeniable achievements - the score of the movie grabs you from the beginning but does not go overboard like many other Tarantino soundtracks tend to. Morricone already won the Globe and he will win the Oscar in a landslide.

Will win: The Hateful Eight
Could win: N/A

Best Make-up and Hairstyling

Where other branches like to give left-field type nominations, the makeup artists in the Academy seem to pride themselves in selecting purposefully terrible movies (from Norbit, to Jackass) to show their independent thinking. This year was no different, with a nod going to The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, along with the more conventional nods for - guess who - The Revenant and Mad Max.

The first movie, which I dutifully watched (thank you makeup branch for making me sit through two hours of old Swedish people screaming like crazy), has no chance. The prosthetics to make the actor look old are not particularly impressive, at least no more so than the ones used on Johnny Depp in Black Mass (which tells me they really just like to screw with us). And not since Men in Black robbed Titanic of what would have been the record-setting 12th Oscar has a non-Best Picture nominee triumphed over a Best Picture contender in this category.

So, the frostbite effects and the bear scar and wounds makeup of The Revenant, or the psychedelic artistry of Mad Max? This one is closer for The Revenant - a significant portion of Leo’s performance is helped by the memorable makeup. Indeed, there is precedent for an acting win to go along with a makeup win when it is present - The Iron Lady and La Vie En Rose are but two recent examples. So I’m going to risk The Revenant here, though the more obvious choice is again Mad Max.

Will win: The Revenant
Could win: Mad Max