Honoring Sound in Movies: the Oscars for Audio

On April 25th—two months later than originally planned due to COVID 19—film lovers will be glued to their seats to find out which of the nominees won the Oscars in the 93rd Academy Awards. The date is getting closer, the bets are on, and cinephiles are rushing to their favorite streaming platform to catch up with their viewing and prepare for the big night.

Awards range from the coveted Best Picture to Best Director and Best Actor / Actress and Best Foreign Film. But can you imagine a great movie without great sound? As George Lucas once said, sound is half of the moviegoing experience.

Filmmakers have always understood how sound and music adds to the story they are telling. From silent movies, enhanced by a live piano player, to today’s high tech and complex sound mixing and editing in this year’s favorite for Best Sound, Sound of Metal, sound in movies and at the Academy Awards has come a long way.

From this year, there are three instead of the previous four awards to celebrate great sound in movies: Best Original Score, Best Original Song, and Best Sound, which consolidates the previous Best Sound Mixing and Best Sound Editing categories, reducing the total numbers of categories to 23.

Sound at the Academy Awards

The first Academy Awards ceremony took place in May 1929 with only 13 categories, none of them for a musical category. This changed in 1935, when Music Scoring and Song were added to the awards honoring films released from the previous year. When the Special Effects category was divided into Sound Effects and Special Visual Effects in 1964, another award honoring sound in movies was added to the list.

As previously mentioned, currently there are three categories that specifically honor sound in film. These categories are:

  • Best Original Score: awarded to music written specifically to accompany a movie to convey emotion, mood and character in a way that dialogue alone can’t.
  • Best Original Song: granted to the songwriter of an individual song which helps tell the story with both music and lyrics.
  • Best Sound: given to the team that creates the best sound mixing, recording, sound design, and sound editing of a movie’s music.

Best Original Score

Musical scores are more than just a background to the rest of a film. Just take award-winning movie The Lost Weekend, a film noir production by Billy Wilder that originally featured a light, jazzy soundtrack. The audience’s reaction? Laughter during the movie’s most jarring moments. Wilder turned to Miklós Rózsa, a Hungarian-born film composer, who created tense melodies to transmit the main character’s anxiety. The rest is movie history.

So what makes a score outstanding? It’s more than just great music.The score helps to create the story and plays an essential role in the creation of the world we are watching on the big screen and how its characters react to what is happening. A great score translates feelings that go beyond words.

Previous winners: Hildur Guðnadóttir – Joker, Justin Hurwitz – La La Land, A. R. Rahman – Slumdog Millionaire

This year’s nominees: Terence Blanchart – Da 5 Bloods, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross – Mank, Emile Mosseri – Minari, James Newton Howard – News of the World, Trent Reznor / Atticus Ross / Jon Batiste – Soul.

Best Original Song

Songs use both sound and lyrics to tell a part of the story that is unfolding before our eyes. Original songs, written specifically for a film, highlight a specific moment or stress the whole message of the film. And of course, in musicals they function as a type of dialogue and are closely interwoven with the script.

Movie theme songs are often so catchy that they stay with you long after you leave the theater or turn off the TV.

Best Original Song is awarded to the creators of a song written for film, not the performers—unless they played a part in the writing of the music and lyrics.

Previous winners: Let It Go – Frozen, My Heart Will Go On – Titanic, Lose Yourself – 8 Mile

This year’s nominees: Fight for You – Judas and the Black Messiah, Hear My Voice – The Trial of the Chicago 7, Husavik – Eurovision Song Contest, Io si (seen) – The Life Ahead (La Vita Davanti a Se), Speak Now – One Night in Miami.

Best Sound

This new category honors the hard work that goes into sound editing—the art of creating, recording, and re-recording of all sound effects excluding the soundtrack, and mixing —the process of matching audio levels of all the sound in a film, from dialogue, to sound effects, to the musical score, in the most effective way possible to create one final soundtrack.

With the arrival of the digital age, sound editing and mixing have become more unified, working together closely in what we now call sound design. Sound design includes sound effects (SFX), mixing Foley sound design, dialogue, and music.

Sound design is a way to enhance the visual storytelling and give life to a film. It is highly creative and can be done electronically or the old fashioned way.

Previous winners: Ford v Ferrari (editing), 1917 (mixing), Bohemian Rhapsody (both mixing and editing)

This year’s nominees: Greyhound, Mank, News of the World, Soul, Sound of Metal

You can make film sound your profession

Are you interested in making film sound happen? SAE Institute offers a range of different audio programs that could help you to get prepared for the exciting yet demanding world of audio for movies. And who knows, maybe one day the Award goes to…