Tech Support: ‘Avengers,’ ‘Les Mis’ and ‘Skyfall’ stir it up with others in Best Sound Mixing

Last year”s Best Picture winner highlighted one of the great innovations in cinematic history – the introduction of sound. As I noted in my cinematography column, it is the moving picture that, first and foremost, distinguishes cinema from other art forms. But in the absence of sound, our films feel incomplete. On this American Thanksgiving (even if I”m spending the day north of the border), I”m very grateful for our movie sound artists.

The category of Best Sound Mixing awards those who bring all elements of a movie”s aural experience – music, dialogue, effects – into a soup of sound. When done well, it exquisitely develops the atmosphere and brings the audience into the world on screen.

Up to three re-recording mixers are eligible for the prize (concerned with mixing in post-production) and the production sound mixer (who has the exceptionally important task of capturing and leveling the sound during filming). This is certainly a category where favorite artists tend to do very well as many, many sound re-recording mixers have seven-to-15 nominations over the course of their career, or even more.

Blockbusters and war films do very well in this category. Best Picture contenders are prevalent enough, as they can often get surprising nominations when other typical nominees don’t show up. There is one other sort of film – the musical – that does disproportionately well here, as the creation of a musical”s soundtrack is obviously incredibly important to the film”s success.

And the musical is where I”ll begin. Tom Hooper”s “Les Misérables” has the potential to earn a plethora of nominations across the crafts categories. Academy favorite Andy Nelson (17 nominations, including two for musicals) is working alongside yet-to-be nominated mixers Mark Paterson, Jonathan Allen and Simon Hayes. If the film is the Best Picture contender we all expect it to be, it will be nominated. Not only is it a musical but it is also a revolutionary film of sorts. Even if it is not a major Best Picture player, I expect it to be in the running.

If the Academy goes nutso for “Lincoln,” Nelson could find himself nominated for that film, too. Nelson, Ben Burtt, Gary Rydstrom  and Ron Judkins have 47 nominations (including two as directors of short films for Burtt and Rydstrom) and 12 competitive (plus two honorary) wins between them. That is simply astounding. Even so, in my opinion the film spends too much time away from the battlefield and in Congress to get into this category in a stacked year. But never say never. How many people saw the nomination in this category for “The King”s Speech” coming from this vantage point?

Christopher Nolan”s “Inception” won this award two years ago, for the same trio – Gary Rizzo, Lora Hirschberg and Ed Novick – who were nominated for “The Dark Knight.” “The Dark Knight Rises” brings back Novick and Rizzo. Hirschberg has moved on, but has been replaced by three-time Oscar winner Gregg Landaker. This is the sort of successful, prestigious blockbuster filled with action scenes and explosions that tends to find a home here. I wouldn”t call a spot assured — after all, criticism of the handling of Bane’s voice became a talking point — but it seems a solid bet.

That’s not the only major summer title I expect to score. The mammoth box office haul of “The Avengers” puts it in an even better position, in my opinion. With a crew anchored by Hirschberg and Oscar favorite Christopher Boyes, this strikes me as a safe bet.

I don”t want to rule out a third summer blockbuster – “The Amazing Spider-Man” – quite yet. Production sound mixer John Pritchett has two nominations, and re-recording mixers Paul Massey, Deb Adair and David Giammarco have six, between them. While the film didn”t really add anything new to the “Spider-Man” story in my opinion, it did respectable box office and the soundtrack as a whole was impressive. “Prometheus,” meanwhile, has superb production values across the board, and D.M. Hemphill has seven nominations including a win to his name. Though he and partner Ray Beckett have another horse in this race I”m coming to. Even if I wouldn”t rule either out, I suspect both these summer titles are a long way behind “The Avengers” and “The Dark Knight Rises” among summer contenders.

Of films already released, “Looper” is certainly a high-concept action movie that has received top-notch reviews from critics. Its sound is sorely deserving of a nomination. But sometimes “deserve’s got nothing to do with it.” The crew hasn”t received love from the branch to date and I don”t think this is the sort of film that can get a nomination here without more love overall. I”d be delighted to be proven wrong, though.

“The Impossible” also has, by all accounts, extraordinary sound work. I haven”t heard it yet. Like “Looper,” however, its crew has no experience with Oscar. “Slumdog Millionaire” is the last film to be nominated in this category with a crew of Oscar virgins. I doubt this film will match that feat but one never knows.

“Django Unchained” will provide us with a western-ish take on slave liberation. Or so it seems. One can never quite tell with Tarantino movies. Westerns do quite well in this category, actually. Tarantino”s last film also scored here: “Inglourious Basterds” brought three-time winner Michael Minkler back into the game, alongside production sound mixer Mark Ulano, who won this award for “Titanic.”

Kathryn Bigelow”s “Zero Dark Thirty” is another one of the relatively few unknowns still in the race. I”m not sure how much faith I have in this project. Call it a hunch. But if it can score anywhere outside its leading lady (assuming she lives up to expectations), it might be here. One would suspect the climax will require epic sound work. Paul N.J. Ottosson and Ray Beckett, who won Oscars for “The Hurt Locker,” are back this time.

“Flight” is set to return Denzel Washington to the Oscar race after more than a decade in the wilderness. The crash at the center of the movie could earn it a nomination on its own. Randy Thom is a sound legend and he”s not alone among Oscar nominees on this crew. Production sound mixer William B. Kaplan has earned seven nominations to date while re-recording mixers Dennis Sands and Dennis Leonard have four and one citations to date respectively. But… it’s one scene.

Ang Lee”s “Life of Pi” will be absolutely dependent on its crafts virtues for success. The sounds of the sea and the animals will have to complement extraordinary visual work if this film is to succeed. The fact that “Prometheus” duo Hemphill and Beckett are aboard this title as well is another reason Ridley Scott”s film is unlikely to show up among the final five. Production sound mixer Drew Kunin is a veteran seeking his first nomination, and may well get it.

Speaking of tricky adaptations, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is Peter Jackson”s return to Middle Earth. We”ll see how it”s received but all three “Lord of the Rings” films found a home here. Production sound mixer Tony Johnson has also earned two nominations to date. (Final credits on re-recording mixers are not available at this time.)

I”ll end by considering a film that is part of a series that, remarkably, has not been nominated in this category in over four decades: Bond. “Skyfall.” AMPAS favorites Scott Millan and Greg P. Russell are responsible for the sound mix on this film. Production sound mixer Stuart Wilson is also coming off his first nomination, for “War Horse.” Russell has been nominated enough to prove the kind of respect his peers have for him, so with this film”s reception, I could easily see the first Bond nomination in this category since 1971’s “Diamonds are Forever.” Maybe the golden anniversary of 007 on the big screen will finally give Russell the chance to get his golden boy?

There are the 14 contenders as I see them. Quite a few for late November. But I honestly don”t want to rule any of them out yet – by my reckoning, this is one of the most stacked crafts categories this year.