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.

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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

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