Tech Support: What films headline this year’s race for Best Sound Editing?

Last February”s Academy Awards ceremony produced a nice handful of surprises, but none was more jaw-dropping than the wacky turn of events than when “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Skyfall” tied for the Best Sound Editing Oscar. I found the moment quite appropriate, actually, as not only were they both deserving victors (in different ways) but they demonstrated different sorts of films that tend to be honored in this category.

The category recognizes the manifestation and recording of film sound effects, which leads to frequent rewarding of action films and blockbusters. Best Picture contenders like “Zero Dark Thirty” with elements of war and action frequently do well here, while blockbusters – particularly of the more prestigious variety, like “Skyfall” – are also regularly rewarded.  It”s also not unusual to have films with a one-off nomination only in this category as the sound branch has two shots at nominating (between this and Best Sound Mixing) and can spread the love a bit more. Recent examples include “TRON: Legacy,” “Drive” and “Unstoppable.”

In the 2000s, animated features (particularly those from Pixar) could seemingly do no wrong here. Given the need to artificially create all the sounds in these films, it”s understandable they would resonate with the branch. We”ll see if any animated title can turn the trick this year.

Like most crafts category branches, the sound branch has its favorite contenders who regularly return. But it is neither particularly insular nor particularly averse to newcomers. In sum, being a veteran is an advantage. Having not been nominated before is not a serious disadvantage, however.

Like many crafts categories, “Gravity” is already way out in front here. Alfonso Cuarón”s latest feature has captivated critics and audiences, but moreover, sound is absolutely key to building the film”s story and mood. But the film doesn”t take inaccurate advantage of things like a runaway orbital debris storm whooshing through space, making as much of an impact with its absence of sound as its particular handling of how audio reverberates in certain sequences, to say nothing of a well-integrated score that is more about aural atmospherics than melody. The film could not have worked without its sound editorial. Glenn Freemantle (“Slumdog Millionaire”) seems poised for nomination #2 and, likely, win #1.

“All is Lost” is also a film with sparse dialogue (even more so than “Gravity”) and is enormously reliant on its sound effects. In my humble opinion, the film featured some of the best sound work in recent memory. Many of those sounds were artificially created and nicely integrated. The title looks likely to carry Robert Redford to his first acting nomination in four decades, but I”d be surprised if Richard Hymns (who has eight nominations and three wins to date) and Steve Boedekker are not among the final five in this category. Films with integral use of water also tend to do well in the sound categories.

Of course, “All is Lost” is not the only film with integral water-based sounds set on the Indian Ocean. “Captain Phillips” did the same in a tense, smart thriller – the sort of film that usually finds a home here. Box office success and a likely Best Picture nomination only help matters. Oliver Tarney would seem to have an outstanding shot at a first nomination.

Ron Howard”s “Rush” may have been a box office disappointment at the box office, but that doesn”t take away from the fact that it had very good reviews. I expect a strong Oscar push for, at the very least, Daniel Brühl and much of the below-the-line crew. The sounds of cars racing and crashing seems precisely the sort of action this branch would eat up. Frank Kruse has never been nominated before and he is hardly a sure thing this time around, but I nonetheless think he”s reasonably well placed.

One of the reasons “All is Lost,” “Captain Philips” and, to a lesser extent, “Rush” strike me as good bets for nominations (“Gravity being so far ahead it”s difficult to describe) is the very open state of the race beyond them. On the next tier, “Pacific Rim” seems the best placed of the summer blockbusters given its originality and this category”s natural inclination to robot-themed movies (to say nothing of yet more water). But why do I have a hunch that this film is heading to a nomination only in the Best Visual Effects category? Scott Martin Gershin is seeking his first nomination here.

On the note of summer blockbusters and robots (sort of), “Iron Man 3” jumps to mind. The first entry in this franchise scored here, but the sequel came up short, as did “The Avengers” last year. This time, three-time nominee Mark P. Stoeckinger takes over supervising sound editing duties. He has earned surprising nominations before for both “Face/Off” and “Unstoppable,” representing those films” sole nominations. We”ll see if that track record is built upon this year.

Stoeckinger”s other nomination came for “Star Trek,” the sequel of which, “Star Trek Into Darkness,” rolled into theaters this summer. This franchise has had a mixed record with Oscar and the title, though fine, was underwhelming compared to its predecessor. But the film was still respectable, and the sound editing was just as accomplished as the nominated work on “Star Trek.” Supervising sound editors were Matthew Wood (nominated for “WALL-E” and “There Will Be Blood”) and the legendary Ben Burtt. I”m not writing them off.

“Man of Steel” was another summer film that was supposed to light up the world. Again, it did just fine, but perhaps not quite as well as many were hoping/expecting. The work throughout, particularly on Krypton and in the action-packed finale, is filled with the sorts of effects that this category loves. So it has a real chance

Zombie movies may not be AMPAS” normal cup of tea, but “World War Z” got good reviews and respectable box office. Moreover, there is significant action noise (plus zombie noise!) that allows sound editors to show their talent. Ethan Van der Ryn is a five-time nominee/two-time winner. We”ll see if he can return again.

Gwendolyn Yates Whittle has been nominated in recent years for “Avatar” and “TRON: Legacy.” In “Oblivion,” she once again enters in the future with some impressive and unique work. I”m doubtful that this post-apocalyptic film will survive in many places, but one never knows.

While a blockbuster released pre-Fall is usually nominated, that is not invariably the case. So it”s also wise to look ahead to what we”re waiting for. “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” would seem to be leading the way in this respect, with the typical artificially created sounds of Middle Earth – this time joined by a dragon. Only “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” has managed to grab a nomination here among Peter Jackson”s journeys to Middle Earth, but last year”s “An Unexpected Journey” clearly had fans in the sound community given its Cinema Audio Society nomination.

An intriguing possibility among upcoming titles would be Mark Wahlberg-starrer “Lone Survivor.” With a military-based story not that dissimilar to “Zero Dark Thirty,” this could be a film where sound editors could really demonstrate their talent. An extended gun battle in the film could become a talking point in this regard. I”ll be watching with curiosity.

Sometimes titles which score across the board find a home here when they are simply racking up the nominations. Steve McQueen”s “12 Years a Slave” is unique in the fray of aural experiences in cinemas this year, but it makes effects connect when it conjures them. This may not seem a likely category for recognition, but I wouldn”t rule out Ryan Collins and Robert Jackson just yet.

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention some animated titles. “Monsters, Inc.” began a 10-year period when Pixar films could seemingly do no wrong in this category. It also gave Michael Silvers the first of his six Oscar nominations. Will “Monsters University” follow suit, bringing Silver nomination #7 and Tom Myers nomination #3? It doesn”t have the novelty of its predecessor but who knows? I also must say I”m intrigued by Disney”s “Frozen.” I can”t even explain why but the sounds of a winter wonderland could tickle the branch”s fancy.

Well, those are the leading contenders as I see them. Who do you see in the heart of the race?