Tech Support: Will ‘Interstellar’s’ woes cost it Oscar attention in the sound mixing race?

Normally, by mid-November, we have a pretty good idea of many of the likely nominees in most of the crafts categories. But in this year's race for Best Sound Mixing, I see things as extremely open – there's not a single film that strikes me as assured of a spot and more than a dozen appear to have very good chances. That makes for an exciting race.

This category awards the overall mix of dialogue, music, effects and “everything else” into a film's soundtrack. This is different than sound editing, which recognizes the creation and editing of artificial sound effects. Being a leading Best Picture contender can certainly help a film's chances in mixing (seen in “The Social Network,” “The King's Speech” and “Moneyball” in recent years), as can being a war film, a musical or a respected (or even not-so-respected) blockbuster.

There are also certain mixers who score very regularly indeed. Though with a production sound mixer and up to three re-recording mixers being recognized for each nominee, there are plenty of first-timers nominated every year.  Unfortunately, politics among sound studios and rival teams can seep through in the sound branch, being reflected in who ends up nominated.

First up in this year's analysis, we have the war/prestige contenders. At the top, “Unbroken” will feature water and planes and the sounds of a POW existence. If the film manages to be any sort of major player at all, I'd say Frank A. Montaño is looking at his sixth nomination with colleague Jon Taylor looking at his first nod and production sound mixer David Lee finally returning after winning for “The Matrix” 15 years ago.

“The Imitation Game” will portray a few quick war scenes, though it is not a traditional “war movie.” In an open category, being at the front of the Best Picture race may help immensely. Stuart Hilliker, Martin Jensen and John Midgley will attempt to earn nods one, two and four respectively. Jensen and Midgley were nominated for “The King's Speech” a few years back.

“Fury” was a very solid, if not revolutionary, war movie. It won't be playing for major Oscars but its sound work was undeniably well done, and that may be enough for a prestigious war movie (see “Lone Survivor's” two nods last year). With a crew anchored by three-time Oscar winner Paul N.J. Ottosson, if the film survives anywhere, expect it to be here or Best Sound Editing.

And Clint Eastwood's latest, “American Sniper,” does not appear to be a true return to form, but is likely to be better received than many recent efforts. A war film from this director must be considered here (“Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters from Iwo Jima” scored three nods and a win in the sound categories). His usual team is on board and they are respected in the branch.  

Let's turn to musicals, and starting in an atypical place: “Whiplash.” While this film's sound crew are waiting for their first nominations, they just might get them for this crowd-pleaser that has superb sound work and editing. But how big a player can Sony Pictures Classics make a small October release that didn't set the box office on fire?

“Into the Woods” is a more typical musical nominee. The question I have is how good the film will be. If it's a major Best Picture player, it's practically assured a nomination. If it proves itself to be mediocre, then it will likely be a contender, but hardly assured of a spot. Mike Prestwood Smith earned his first nomination last year for “Captain Phillips” and will be looking to return.

“Into the Woods” isn't the only December musical worth watching out for. With the reimagining of “Annie” coming to us with sound work courtesy of Greg Orloff and Tod Maitland, who have seven nominations and a win between them, it's worth keeping an eye out, particularly if the film is a hit.

Orloff won this category for Taylor Hackford's “Ray,” which had a soundtrack not dissimilar from Tate Taylor's “Get on Up.” I suspect a Golden Globe nod for Chadwick Boseman will bring the film back to people's minds. But its greater asset lies in the fact that Scott Millan and Greg P. Russell, two extraordinarily respected sound mixers with over 20 nominations between them who put in a lot of work to soup up the existing performance tracks in the film, are responsible for the movie's mix.

Summer blockbusters used to be nominated frequently in this category, but I've noticed a trend in recent years where they haven't been cited to the extent we used to see. In any event, they always warrant consideration. And let's start, once again, with Russell and Millan, for Michael Bay's “Transformers: Age of Extinction.” While critics remain as harsh as ever on these films, every entry in the series to date has been nominated in this category. Though the franchise's luck will eventually run out, Millan and Russell must be considered serious contenders.

One of the reasons I'm keen on the chances of “Transformers” is the fact that other summer blockbusters don't have clear paths to nominations. “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is critically respected and near the front of the pack in the Best Visual Effects race. But its predecessor couldn't get traction outside of that category and it's not clear to me that there has been enough change in quality/love of the series to propel Andy Nelson and his crew to nominations.

“Godzilla” was a respected new take on the classic monster. Once again, however, it didn't set the world on fire so as to strike me as an “obvious” nominee among the summer blockbusters. It also seems to be more a feat of sound editorial than mixing. But Rick Kline and Gregg Landaker have 18 nominations between them – they could make it 20.

“Guardians of the Galaxy” is a possibility we should particularly consider given that it seems to have successfully launched a series. Could it find favor for that reason? It seems to have the makings of a nominee in terms of soundscape and box office. But it doesn't possess those characteristics with enough strength to make me feel confident in predicting it. Christopher Boyes, William B. Kaplan, Lora Hirschberg and Simon Hayes have 24 nominations and six wins between them. That doesn't hurt their chances.
Though it's not exactly a “summer” movie, I also feel “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” should be mentioned. Marvel hasn't had the success in this category one might have expected (indeed, none of the films have earned a nod) but I still want to consider two-time winner/eight-time nominee Tom Johnson and his crew.

The last category of contenders is the fantasy epics – some of them even biblical. One such example is Darren Aronofsky's “Noah,” which provided the sort of water, storm and animal sounds that frequently score in this category. The great Skip Lievsay, fresh off his first win for “Gravity,” joined a crew filled with Aronofsky regulars who likely came close to a nomination for “Black Swan.” They might score this time around.

But another biblical epic will soon appear. “Exodus: Gods and Kings” will feature not only water, but battle scenes and all the detail of the plagues. I think this film could be a massive miss or a crafts category behemoth. If the latter, Paul Massey, Mark Taylor et. al may well find themselves in the final five.

Then there is the film that represents the last chance to honor a franchise. “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” is the final (for now) of Peter Jackson's Middle Earth saga. Four of these films have been cited here (including, somewhat surprisingly, “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” last year). Christopher Boyes is responsible for this title as well. It's probably his best chance at a nod this year.

I'll end with a film that has stirred a lot of debate in terms of sound mixing as of late: Christopher Nolan's “Interstellar.” It has, on paper, all the makings of a nominee, if not a winner – science fiction, water, space. Gary Rizzo won for “Inception” and he's back on board with Gregg Landaker. But people have complained about not being able to understand the dialogue and that chatter isn't just in the populace, it's in the sound community, too. When the mix is being so widely criticized, that's a problem.

As noted at the outset, however, I view this category as very open indeed. There are many ways things could yet go. Who do you see making the final five?