The Lesser-Known Oscars Categories As Explained By Those Who Won
And one of this year's nominees.
BY JESSICA GOLDSTEIN | Feb 28, 2016 | Film & TV
With the Oscars on the horizon, you are surely prepared to make the case for your Best Picture favourite, to engage in debates over whether or not it's really "Leo's year," to accept a Brie Larson victory in part because, loveable as Jennifer Lawrence is, we all know that Joy is a hot mess that few people bothered to see. But if you want to stand out in a sea of moderately-informed friends at the viewing party that night—or, more likely, around the water cooler/on Slack the next morning—you're going to want to appreciate the stuff no one understands: The technical categories.
If you already know the difference between sound mixing and sound editing, congratulations! You are an exceptional filmgoer. But until just weeks ago, I had no idea. So I called up some Oscar winners and nominees in sound editing, sound mixing, production design, and makeup and hairstyling to learn about these behind-the-scenes stars. If these insights help you sweep your Oscar pool, feel free to Venmo me a cut of your winnings.
This Year's Nominees: Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian, The Revenant, Sicario, Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Our Resident Experts: Per Hallberg and Karen Baker Landers
You know them because: The duo won Oscars for Skyfall and The Bourne Ultimatum. If you've seen any of the Bourne movies, Gladiator, Braveheart, Black Hawk Down, Ray, American Gangster you have seen—well, technically, heard—their work.
A studio or director hires you and you read the script. Then what?
Per Hallberg: When you read it, your imagination is wide open. You figure out what the story is really about. Good sound is not 100 explosions a second. It's: Did you do the things to accentuate the experience, that make the story special?
Karen Baker Landers: There are different categories that you start with: atmosphere and background, cars, creatures on a planet that's never been heard before, weapons. We split it up by category and work through and try to create the soundtrack for the film.
Where do all these sounds come from? Do you rely on a library of sounds, or on sounds you find out in the world?
KBL: It's usually a combination of the two. Although on Spectre, when we had the Aston Martin and the Jaguar race, those are two very specific vehicles with very specific sounds, so we go and record those. If it's something we can play with, like a vehicle that had never been seen before, or something we need to augment to give it more power, we may pull stuff in from our library. We do a lot of layering.
What are the most difficult sounds to get right?
PH: The voice of Godzilla was a nut to crack. The clashing armies in Braveheart and Gladiator, too. It ended up feeling like two battle tanks crashing in the middle.
KBL: Sometimes it's the simplest thing, too. You'll have this huge film and you can't get the right ringtone sound on a cellphone to make the director happy. A lot of times it's not about doing what the directors say, but doing what they mean: finding the emotion behind their examples.
PH: Creature vocals are difficult, too, because anybody that is making a movie with a big creature in it comes to any of us that does this for a living and says, "We want it to be bigger and more badass and different than anything we've ever heard before, and it has to have a vocabulary so we can feel what the creature is doing and saying and feeling."
Do directors have a great vocabulary for telling you what they want something to sound like? My sense is they are better at articulating visuals.
KBL: That's 100 per cent accurate. Sound is a very odd thing to convey or create. They'll use references, but a lot of times you have to get really good at reading body language.
PH: I'm flashing back to doing Braveheart with Mel Gibson, and he actually said, "I don't know how to explain it to you." And I remember saying, "That's not your job. Why don't you tell us what you want it to feel like?"
What do you think people misunderstand about your job? What do you wish audience members appreciated about your work?
KBL: We replace virtually every sound that you hear. And it's done with a lot of thought toward the story. It's all about telling the story that the director is trying to convey.
PH: The inherent problem with all this is that we're working really hard on an illusion to make the audience feel that they are transported somewhere else, to a different time and place, and they shouldn't really notice what we do to make them feel that. If done really well, you shouldn't sit and think about it.
KBL: One of the scenes in Skyfall, where Bond and M pull up and get out of the car and they're looking out over Skyfall, we cleaned out every bird that was on the production track. And then we re-write "emotional bird" at the right emotional moment. Those are subtle things—no one would ever know we did that—but you know that you're feeling a certain way emotionally.
What's your take on this year's nominees?
PH:The cool thing this year is that it's a varied group. Mad Max: Fury Road is this over-the-top, fun ride. And then you have something like The Revenant,which is about sucking you into a different world, to quiet places that have a subtlety and eeriness to them, the water and the cold.
With acting categories, it seems like the Academy rewards look-at-me, dramatic stuff even when it isn't necessarily as difficult or well-done as quieter or comedic performances. Is there the same bias in the sound world?
PH: I think it's easier for non-professionals, and even professionals, when they look at a film, to go for the big ones. A lot of times you see the bigger, louder films on the nomination list. That's just the world that we live in.
KBL: The subtler films are what I prefer. One of the films this year that wasn't nominated in this category, but for which I thought the sound was amazing, was Bridge of Spies. Completely subtle, but everything in that film was just perfection from a sonic point of view, even the way the filing cabinet opened. There's nothing grandiose about the sound, but I remember thinking, What a beautiful job.
This year's nominees: Bridge of Spies, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian, The Revenant, Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Our Resident Expert: Craig Mann
You know him because: He won an Oscar in 2014 for Whiplash. Other credits include Dope, Captain America: The First Avenger, and The Bourne Ultimatum.
How, exactly, does sound mixing work?
It's done in a room similar to a movie theatre. The only difference is there's a large sound consul in the middle of the room. Depending on your setup, that's anywhere form a 12- to 32-foot soundboard. We take all the material prepared by editorial, plus music, and spread that around the room. We select the balances, decide how loud or quiet something should be, finalise sync on everything. When it leaves our hands, that's the final product that you will hear in a theatre. The sound mixing is really the last step, audio-wise, before audiences get the movie.
What drew you into sound mixing, as opposed to sound editing?
For me, it was about seeing the final thing come together, to shape the final product, with all the music and dialogue and effects.
What was the most challenging part of Whiplash?
The time constraint that we were under, given how broad the demands were. The entire process, editorial and mixing, was about six weeks, which is a ridiculously short amount of time. A realistic schedule, even for a more basic walk-and-talk film, is more like 12 to 14 weeks. And overall, the general note from the director [Damien Chazelle] was he wanted everything to feel as real as possible. He is a trained jazz drummer, so there wasn't any trick or sleight-of-hand we could use that would fly here.
How much of time is Miles Teller really playing the drums?
About 30 per cent was Miles actually playing on a set. Anything where he was rehearsing. The long dolly shot down the hall that started the film, that was all him. The tricky part was the band material, the jazz combo in the club for example. They use prerecords quite a bit, and all that was made in a studio. So it needed to sound like it blended in. It couldn't feel like the film was turning on and off a CD. We wanted to get the reality of the space that we're in.
What's the one thing people don't understand about how you do your job?
The average movie-going public doesn't realise how little material is taken from the set. As a general rule, around 60 to 70 per cent of the production dialogue—only dialogue—is used from the set. Everything else is replaced, from the dialogue to the cars to picking up and putting down a cup. All that is replaced to give it more clarity, depending on what you want the audience to focus on. So it's the level of detail and trickery we do to the audience to guide their attention. All those thousands of decisions are made on the mixing stage, creatively, about how to move the story forward for the director.
Does it bother you to think about people watching movies on their iPhones or, maybe in the future, tiny screens inside our eyelids?
Go to the theatre! Thousands upon thousands of people-hours go into preparing the presentation for that setting. The worst thing is piracy. Who knows what the quality is? It's a half-done product that doesn't reflect the director's vision.
This Year's Nominees: Bridge of Spies, The Danish Girl, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian, The Revenant
Our Resident Expert: Jack Fisk
You know him because: He's nominated this year for his work on The Revenant. Fisk has been at this since the '70s, collaborating regularly with David Lynch and Terrence Malick, and was nominated for an Oscar in 2007 for his work on There Will Be Blood. Highlights include: The Thin Red Line, Mulholland Drive, and Carrie, which starred his wife, Sissy Spacek.
How did you find the locations for The Revenant?
We started searching in British Columbia. But working with Emmanuel Lubezki, Chivo, our cinematographer, we shot everything backlit. You want to be shooting toward the sun in the afternoon. So that forced us out of British Columbia and into Alberta, because we wanted to see the mountains in the distance and give us a sense of depth. In Alberta the mountains are in the west. In British Columbia the mountains are in the east, and you'd have to wake up at 4:00AM No one wants to do that.
How much of what you needed was already there in the natural environment, and how much did you have to build?
We created caves. Other times, we'd move trees, some 50ft tall, and we built forests.
You built a forest?
We did that a couple times in this film. One was up in the snow, where we created a small forest in the middle of the snow for part of a shootout. The other instance where we moved a lot of trees was when Glass crawls into the carcass of the horse he gutted. We brought those trees in. And when we shot in Argentina, we had to bring trees down. It didn't take us long.
How do you make everything seem coherent when these shoots are so far-flung?
The trick is to find locations that work together on film. We had to plan a journey. In April 2015, it was too warm for snow—we couldn't even bring snow out of the mountains—so we started looking for locations in the southern hemisphere. Our scout found one in Patagonia, on the tip of Argentina, that had similar terrain, and the company moved down there to shoot the last scene of the film.
What do you wish people understood about how your job works?
I think that the biggest misconception about production design is that it's designing sets. It's in fact a much more holistic approach to filmmaking: You need to have a collaboration with the cameraman, the cinematographer. You also are involved in keeping the process going. The tools that I work with, more than hammer and nails, are character, history, aesthetics, and the story objectives. So you create a world however you have to: building sets, changing locations, painting trees, moving things. I would say the bottom line is: The job of a production designer is to create a world.
Since you are the person who selected all these locations, does it bother you that so much of the press for the movie has revolved around actors describing how brutal the conditions were? Are you in your head thinking like, "Wow, Leo, you're welcome for finding you the perfect river for your Oscar movie, sorry it was too cold for you"?
Well, many people are used to working on soundstages that are temperature-controlled and the ground outside them is flat, so it's just a matter of experience. I've worked outside a lot and I love the elements. It has worked in the film's favour 100% of the time. For The Revenant, the actors were cold, the environment was real, the stuff we built was very real or real-looking, so everything, I think, helped. Hey, we weren't suffering as much as the trappers suffered in 1823.
Who suffers more when the elements are rough: The actors or the crew?
The actors have it a lot worse than we do. Leo was in the water a lot. And he was crawling on wet snow, which is just the worst.
MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING
This Year's Nominees: Mad Max: Fury Road, The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window and Disappeared, The Revenant
Our resident Expert: Mark Coulier
You know him because: He won an Oscar last year for his work on The Grand Budapest Hotel. He also took home an Oscar and a BAFTA for transforming Meryl Streep into Margaret Thatcher for The Iron Lady and did the makeup for all seven Harry Potter films.
When you're working with someone like Wes Anderson, who has such a recognisable signature style, how does that influence your work?
It's really a case of sitting down and working through the characters and trying to ascertain the tone of the movie. I was familiar with Wes's work, I'm big fan, so it was apparent from the nature of this story and the way that he shoots, you have an idea of what kind of style the film is going to be. There were a couple of characters I was mainly involved with. One was Harvey Keitel's character, who is in prison. Wes wanted him to be completely bald, so we made a standard silicone ball cap. Harvey's character has a busted nose and a gold tooth, and he's a bit of a ruffian covered in prison tattoos. Then we did old-age makeup; we knew Tilda Swinton would be playing Madame Bee, this octogenarian lady who flirts with the concierge and is madly in love with Ralph Fiennes' character. We turned her into this larger-than-life, aristocratic old dear.
How do actors feel about the process of sitting for hair and makeup? Do they hate having to wear this stuff all day?
They don't like the process, generally, because it's quite arduous to go through. They've got to sit still for three or four hours while you glue stuff all over them. But generally speaking, the prosthetics are pretty light and wearable and comfortable, and once you get them on, actors forget that they're wearing them. I'm sure it's been the same throughout the ages: Especially with old-age and unique characters, if you're playing the Hunchback of Notre Dame, or the Elephant Man, or a 100-year-old man or woman, the makeup will be a help rather than a hindrance.
You've done a huge range of projects: Turning Meryl Streep into Margaret Thatcher for The Iron Lady, making Ralph Fiennes look like Voldemort, the heightened reality of The Grand Budapest Hotel. Do you have a favourite style?
If I did have to choose, it would be a fantastical character. They're a bit easier to do. Although there is a certain amount of masochistic pleasure in throwing yourself into the deep end with something like The Iron Lady,where you have to create such a well-known face on a well-known face. That is a difficult job. The Iron Lady was the toughest film I've ever done. We worked our asses off. Just the stress, the pressure, of getting that makeup right, because everybody knows what Thatcher looks like, and everyone loves to hate stuff. If you get it wrong, it's career suicide.
How has the makeup field evolved over time?
The technology has changed a lot. The way we make moulds, the silicones we use now are a lot more flesh-like. With every advance in technology, there's an advance in detail. We now have to comply with this high-definition detail, these extremely precise digital cameras that pick up everything. It can become a bit of a problem. Wig lace can be seen, so you have to use finer lace to the point where if you wear it ten times it has to be replaced. But you're still under the gun: You stick the makeup on in the morning, and sometimes they don't get to the close-up until the makeup's been worn for four hours. People are eating lunch with makeup on, wearing prosthetics in hot conditions. And we definitely have a lot less time now to create our characters than we used to. I quite often get called up on a Monday saying, "We're shooting in two weeks."
Do you worry about technology and CGI taking over, making your work obsolete or just too expensive to do on every movie?
It would be great to see our process remain, that we don't get lost in the digital world. I think it would be sad to see all that go. If you're working on a green screen and you spend all day staring at that wall, you lose the magic of creating things. I'd hate to see makeup and prosthetics go down the same route where, in 20 years, every character will be digitally aged. It would be cost-effective. But I think it would be a loss.
What do you think the average filmgoer doesn't understand about your job?
Everything! Even people who are really familiar with prosthetics don't understand the amount of work that goes into creating them. When you do a film and you lay out all the moulds from one set of characters that you've been working on, they cover the whole workshop floor. You've got the life cast, the mould of the life cast, the master plaster, everything broken down into separate components. It's a lot of work. On the other hand, you don't really want people to think about the amount of time that it takes. When they see Tilda in Grand Budapest Hotel, you don't want them to think, "Oh wow, she must have sat there for six hours." You want it to be seamless and unnoticed.
Published in Esquire US.