Oscar-nominated sound editors explain their key challenges (and the sounds you may not know they create)

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Image Credit: Keith Bernstein

Leading up to Sunday’s Oscars, EW.com will take a closer look at four categories that moviegoers may mistakenly think of as “technical.” After tackling Film Editing, we turn to Sound Editing, with insights from the nominated supervising sound editors of Argo (Erik Aadahl and Ethan Van der Ryn), Life of Pi (Eugene Gearty, who shares his nod with Philip Stockton), Django Unchained (Wylie Stateman), and Zero Dark Thirty (Paul N.J. Ottosson). Skyfall‘s Per Hallberg and Karen Baker Landers complete the category. (Update: Read our Sound Mixing and Cinematography pieces.)

Early in his career, Zero Dark Thirty‘s supervising sound editor Paul N.J. Ottosson, who won both the sound editing and sound mixing Oscars for The Hurt Locker, his first collaboration with Kathryn Bigelow, would create a sound for everything he saw on the screen. “I would make them as big and cool as you possibly could,” he says, laughing. “They’d bring me to the stage, and sometimes the director would take out things: “We don’t need this. You don’t need this.’ And you’re just thinking Why, I see that thing on the screen? But at some point, you become more of a storyteller and start to focus on the story itself, and it’s a revelation. You understand how much better your work becomes and how much more important it becomes to the movie itself.”

For Argo‘s Ethan Van der Ryn, a two-time Oscar winner for King Kong and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, working on Saving Private Ryan was a turning point: “Steven Spielberg knew that he wanted to play the invasion of the Normandy beach with sound only, no music. So it was really an open slate to make it work with sound — to get to use the right, authentic sounds so you really feel like this experience is recreated for the viewer in an immersive way and you’re there, but also be able to do it in a way that becomes very emotional, that’s not just about getting all the details right. You have to have the right ingredients, but you need to weave them together in a way that works on an emotional, powerful sonic level.”

To understand the art of sound editing, we asked the nominees to talk us through some of their key challenges and scenes. But first, let’s start with the difference between sound editing and sound mixing, a separate Oscar category.

Essentially, the sound editorial team is responsible for assembling every sound you hear in the movie except the score and the dialogue that was recorded on set. This includes atmospheric sounds like the wind and ocean; hard effects, which are sounds synched for things like cars, gunshots, and explosions; and nuance sounds such as footsteps and people touching things with their hands. Though it’s more fun to talk about those sounds they gather and create (which we’ll do), they also edit and clean up the production dialogue delivered to them for clarity — syllable by syllable if necessary for directors like Quentin Tarantino who want to use as little ADR (Automated Dialogue Replacement) as possible, notes Django Unchained’s Wylie Stateman, a six-time Oscar nominee who’s done all of Tarantino’s films since Kill Bill: Vol. 1.

It’s the production sound mixer’s job to capture that dialogue on set as cleanly as possible to preserve the actor’s original performance. Post-production, the sound mixing team takes all the prepared sound elements mentioned above (there could be tens of thousands), plus the score (there were roughly 96 music tracks in Skyfall, for example), and affixes them to the screen and positions them in the theater while also setting their volume levels relative to each other. So they, too, create that immersive, emotional experience.

NEXT: The art of building tension without music

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