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Guest Blogger: Sound Editing vs. Sound Mixing

Clarifying the Difference Between the Oscar Categories

Above: Colin Firth delivering "The King's Speech."

Martin Lopez is a former San Diego resident who now works as a sound editor and designer in LA. He clarifies what the difference is between the Oscar categories of Sound Mixing and Sound Editing... just in case you need some pointers for your office Oscar pool.

The Oscar categories for Sound Mixing and Sound Editing are sometimes hard to distinguish. From inside the industry, the distinction in the roles and personnel who perform this work is quite clear. I will try to describe the different types of sound editors that work on a film and what work their work entails.

Sound editors create and prepare sound elements for eventual mixing. A dialogue editor goes through every line of dialogue in the picture editor's turnover of a film. Dialogue editors spend weeks cleaning-out on set noise, and disguise changes in background noise and quality in takes recorded over several months and often in different cities. For instance, dialogue recorded in a residential home from 9am in the morning till 7pm at night and cut into a single continuous scene requires much finesse. When well done, this work is entirely invisible. The original tracks bump and pop over every edit with the ambience outside changing but the final product appears continuous and seamless.

Sound effects editors create all of the non-dialogue and non-music sound elements for use in the film mix. This includes things like background ambience, vehicles, guns, doors, devices, and foley sounds (foley is a technical process by which sounds are created or altered for use in a film, video). Unenlightened filmgoers believe all these sounds are merely recorded on the set with the actors' dialogue. When sound effects editors do our job well we only reinforce that belief. That's because when well done, our sound effects fit in and feel completely organic. Our goal is NOT to draw attention to the illusion we create.

Tobey Maguire spinning a web as Spidey in "Spider-Man 2."

Columbia Pictures

Above: Tobey Maguire spinning a web as Spidey in "Spider-Man 2."

There are cases, however, when sound editors or sound designers take center stage. These cases are when we are purely inventing sounds for things that do not exist. When creating web sounds for "Spider-Man," for instance, I had to create sounds that made the visual effects feel real. This required much experimentation. One might not imagine that stomping on a half-full katsup squeeze bottle would suit a superhero but that is a primary component of the web sound design. Sound editing/design is most rewarding in those tasks. The routine cutting of door closes and car drive-bys, not so much. But all of it is the job.

Now, when the sound editors have completed their work they organize what may amount to 100-300 tracks of sounds for delivery to the mix. The department head of sound editorial is the Supervising Sound Editor. This is the person that sits through the mix and interacts with the mixers and filmmakers to achieve the final mix. Formally speaking, the sound mixers are hired directly by the production and are independent of the sound editors.

Film mix stages all develop their own climate. On some mixes, the picture editor runs the mix stage, on others, the director is more present. Still others, a producer may be the driving force. Either way, the mixers combine all of the sound effects, dialogue, and music tracks into the final soundtrack of the film.

"Inception" is one of the films nominated for a Sound Editing Oscar this year.

Warner Brothers

Above: "Inception" is one of the films nominated for a Sound Editing Oscar this year.

Now, the sound editing Oscar is awarded to the supervising sound editor on the film. One might think of it as all of the creative work and decision making that happens before the mix. The sound mixing Oscar is awarded to the sound mixers and the location sound recordist. That is, those that inherit all of the prepared tracks and define the balance of all these elements to support the dramatic vision of the director (as well as the recordist who recorded the voices of the actors on the set). They must decide where does music drive the story, and where is silence more effective? Of the many sound effects elements brought to the stage, which are used? These decisions are made on the mix stage under the guidance of the picture editor, director, and producer, with the supervising sound editor also present and a creative contributor.

Now for the cruel part. No matter how brilliant the work of the sound editors and mixers on a film, if the film isn't a financial success, or popular among critics and filmgoers, no one cares. Even a merely competent sound job on a very popular film stands a much better chance of winning an Oscar for sound mixing or sound editing. [This year "The King's Speech" nomination for sound mixing is probably based more on the film's popularity than the sound work whereas the brilliant work on "Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World" was overlooked since the film did poorly at the box office.]

A cursory review of past years winners will bear this out. Academy members appear to have a habit of dog-piling on a favorite film. As if they want to lavish as much praise on it as possible. Alas, we are all human, and subject to our inherent foibles. It is difficult to detach the sound editing or sound mixing component from the whole of the experience. This is, ironically, our goal. It is what we strive to achieve. A seamless vision. So in a strange way we who create the soundtrack are responsible for the confusion.

--Martin Lopez lives in LA and works as a sound editor and designer. He began working as a sound designer in San Diego on the sequels to "The Attack of the Killer Tomatoes." He has also worked on the American "Godzilla," "Spider-Man," "Mulan," and "This is It." He's currently finishing up work on the upcoming "Priest."

The 2010 Academy Award Nominees for Sound:

"TRON: Legacy" received a sound editing Oscar nod.

Walt Disney Studios

Above: "TRON: Legacy" received a sound editing Oscar nod.

Sound Editing

“Inception” Richard King

“Toy Story 3” Tom Myers and Michael Silvers

“Tron: Legacy” Gwendolyn Yates Whittle and Addison Teague

“True Grit” Skip Lievsay and Craig Berkey

“Unstoppable” Mark P. Stoeckinger

"The Social Network" received a sound mixing nomination from the Academy.

Columbia Pictures

Above: "The Social Network" received a sound mixing nomination from the Academy.

Sound Mixing

“Inception” Lora Hirschberg, Gary A. Rizzo and Ed Novick

“The King's Speech” Paul Hamblin, Martin Jensen and John Midgley

“Salt” Jeffrey J. Haboush, Greg P. Russell, Scott Millan and William Sarokin

“The Social Network” Ren Klyce, David Parker, Michael Semanick and Mark Weingarten

“True Grit” Skip Lievsay, Craig Berkey, Greg Orloff and Peter F. Kurland

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