Saturday, March 31, 2012

Introducing The Oscar Calendar And Weekly Watchlist for April 1 to 7, 2012

I am proud to announce two new features for this blog. The first is the Oscar Calendar. It is a project that I have been working on behind the scenes for a while, and am happy to finally present publicly. The Oscar Calendar is a comprehensive guide where you can find all the dates that an Oscar prognosticator needs, from precursor awards and industry guilds to critics groups and film festivals. I have also included film release dates (both US and a few international), and information about when Academy press announcements and eligibility lists for the technical and genre categories are likely to be delivered. For those who follow the animated short and live action short categories, the Academy’s approved qualifying film festivals are marked with the notation “(Shorts Qualifier)”. You can find the full Oscar Calendar HERE.

The second feature is my Weekly Watchlist. This is where I will say a little bit about the events coming up in the week ahead. A preview, if you will, of news items to watch.

The biggest news item that is likely to land on your radar is the April Fool’s Day ceremony for the Razzie Awards. Their choices always seem a little too mainstream for me (aren’t there any bad documentaries or indie films?), but at least I managed to skip most of them. As I said in my review of The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1, I think that the boys gang up on this series a bit too much. Look for Adam Sandler’s Jack And Jill to sweep a good many of the categories this year.

This week marks the start of the Istanbul International Film Festival and the Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival. Meanwhile, several film festivals are wrapping up this week, including the Hong Kong International Film Festival, New Directors New Films, Cleveland International Film Festival, Atlanta Film Festival, Ann Arbor Film Festival and the Out In Africa South African Gay & Lesbian Film Festival.

Those who follow the Oscar shorts races will note that Cleveland and Atlanta are qualifying festivals for both their narrative and animated short awards, and Ann Arbor has four short awards that all qualify.

As I look at the new releases for the coming week, I am not sure that any of them have what it takes to beat The Hunger Games at the box office. Oddly, one film being released has already won 11 Oscars! That’s right, Titanic is being re-released in 3D. The week’s newer fare includes the wide and limited release of American Reunion, Damsels In Distress, The Hunter, Take Me Home, We Have A Pope, We The Party, Comic Con: Episode IV- A Fans Hope, ATM, Detention, Keyhole, Purification, Surviving Progress, This Binary Universe and Iron Sky (in Europe).

For more on what is coming up in the world of movies, be sure to check out the full Oscar Calendar.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Sound Editing Versus Sound Mixing: An Oscar Guide

This past year, in the heat of awards season, I received several questions regarding the difference between Oscar’s sound editing and sound mixing categories. I tried to answer those as best I could in the moment, but realized that it would be useful to do a more thorough examination, if only so that I would be prepared to point readers to it when the question arises again next year. More importantly, since most of you reading this are interested in the Oscars, (instead of, for example, a career in the sound world), I want to give you a way to think about these categories that is useful for making predictions.

But first, let’s understand why there is so much confusion. It is often said that that film is a visual medium, and I suspect that part of the challenge lies in the fact that a large number of film lovers simply prefer to focus on the visuals. That challenge is often heightened by the fact that many sounds accompany intense visual moments, so an excellent sounding explosion has to compete with the visual effects being shown at the same time. Finally, even when we do really listen, we may find ourselves enmeshed in the dialogue of the screenwriter or the music of the composer, rather than the elements that fit into these categories.

For those of us who are Oscar watchers, the fact that so many films are nominated in both categories also contributes to the confusion. This past year Hugo, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, War Horse and Transformers: Dark Of The Moon were all nominated in both categories, which makes for a lot of overlap. Indeed, over the past 20 years, only 19 films have been nominated for Sound Editing but NOT for Sound Mixing (an average of one per year). And over the past 6 years (when both categories went to an equal number of 5 nominees), 22 films have been nominated in both categories, which accounts for 73% of the nominations. So it is easy to understand why the casual observer might be led to assume that the awards must be for the same thing.

Luckily, this can actually help the Oscar prognosticator, since films with good sound are often nominated in both categories, and the exceptions can be better understood by learning a few simple guidelines.

Some Basic Definitions

Sound Editing is the creation and recording of new sounds, and the work that goes into cleaning up and perfecting individual sound elements. If you have ever seen Monty Python And The Holy Grail, then you know that the movies don’t actually place a microphone on a horse’s feet and make it run. Someone creates that sound in the studio (in this case, using hollowed out coconuts). Think how expensive it would be if every time you saw a thunderstorm in the movies, the entire cast and crew had to first find a location with a thunderstorm, and then run the lines a dozen times so that the lightning and thunder perfectly matched up with the dialogue--And then had to do it all over again to get a closeup shot!

This category was first implemented in 1963 under the name “Best Sound Effects.”  Interestingly, that same year the Academy changed the name of the Visual Effects award to “Best Special Video Effects.” This connection in Oscar history can be helpful in keeping the sound categories distinct, since both the visual and audio impact is on creating something that didn’t (and sometimes couldn’t) exist before. However, just as visual effects can be used either to create fantasy locations or to create incredibly accurate and detailed depictions of our real world, sound editing is not limited to space monsters and explosions. They also handle mundane things like the sound of a door closing, make sure the actors’ dialogue tracks don’t contain outside noises, and record nature sounds and background noise so that the movie sounds like it was filmed on location instead of in a studio. The person who receives the Oscar for this category is the Supervising Sound Editor.

Sound Mixing, by contrast, refers to the way that sounds are “mixed” or layered upon each other. That thunder (which the sound editors created) needs to be loud enough that it doesn’t get drowned out by the musical score, but soft enough that you can still hear the dialogue. Maybe you are making a horror movie and you are coming up to the big scare. Is it better to have eerie music, or does silence make for a better build up? (Note that “silence” in film is often very noisy, and includes the wind blowing, the lights flickering, or just the barely audible sound of the actor’s breathing.) Sound Mixers are the ones who determine whether the music should end abruptly, or whether it should fade out (and if so, how quickly). And if you are watching a movie in surround-sound, it is the sound mixers who set it up so that the direction the gunfire is coming from matches up with what you see on the screen.

Up to four people can receive this award for any given film, and the people that receive it are the production mixer and up to three re-recording mixers. These individuals used to be called dubbing mixers, which can also help us to keep this category distinct, since dubbing is something that is done in post-production, as anyone who has seen a badly-dubbed Kung Fu movie can understand.

Clearly there is more to each of these jobs, and the pace of technology is changing the sound landscape immensely, with computers playing an essential role in both fields. However, these simple definitions give us enough information that we can now turn to your real question: What does it mean for the Oscars? While it is true that many films are nominated in both categories, there are some significant differences and trends that can help you to distinguish the two, particularly when we begin to analyze which films--and which genres of films--do better in one category over the other.

Sound Editing and the Oscars

When I am asked to give an example of Sound Editing (again, that is the creation of new sounds), the film that I immediately point to is Unstoppable. It didn’t win the sound editing Oscar, but it did receive its sole nomination in this category, and the created sounds are up front where everyone can hear them. Denzel Washington and Chris Pine are train conductors who deliver the action (and their dialogue) against a backdrop of chugging trains, squealing brakes, and screeching metal. You have train cars being unhitched, railway crossing signs, police sirens, gunfire, helicopters, whooshing air, broken glass, radio static and of course a train whistle or two. Oh, and there are also a few crashes and explosions thrown in for good measure. I invite you to close your eyes and just listen to the trailer for Unstoppable or better yet, listen to this anatomy of a scene from Unstoppable. As you are doing so, try to imagine all the individual sounds that had to be created.

War films have traditionally done well in this category. Just think of all the bullets in The Hurt Locker, Saving Private Ryan, Pearl Harbor, or Letters From Iwo Jima. Summer blockbusters, action pictures, science fiction and superheroes can often excel here as well, from The Dark Knight to Tron: Legacy to Iron Man to Transformers. Some people complain that the Oscars focus too much on stuffy biopics, but the sound editing nominations provide a refuge for kick-ass movies, including fan favorites like Fight Club and Drive, both of which received their only nominations here.

Animated films have also done disproportionately well in this category, which makes sense when you remember that all of their sound has to be created on a soundstage. Sometimes they cross over into both sound categories (as is the case Wall-E, Ratatouille, The Incredibles, Polar Express and Aladdin), but there are a significant number who have received only the Sound Editing nod, including Toy Story 3, UP, Monsters, Inc. and Finding Nemo. By contrast, the probability that an animated film will receive a sound mixing nomination but not one for sound editing is extremely rare: It has only happened once since the sound editing category was created in 1963. That was for Beauty And The Beast, which I would argue fits more clearly into my argument below about musicals.

Before 2006, this category had up to three nominees, instead of the normal five. In the twenty years prior to that change, only 7 sound editing nominees were also nominated for best picture (12.5%), with 5 of them winning that prize (25% of the total, but 71% of best picture films that were nominated). As a result, an Oscar predictor could focus solely on merit during the nomination stage, knowing that the sound branch was likely to go their own way, while giving special attention to the best picture nominee in the few years that one was nominated here.

That advice may be changing, however, with the expansion of both the sound editing and best picture fields. From 2009 to 2011, the percentage of shared nominees jumped dramatically to 60%, with a best picture nominee also taking home the sound editing prize all three years.

Sound Mixing and the Oscars

One easy way to remember the difference between the two sound categories is to remember that Sound Mixing is where the Musicals go. (Notice that they both begin with “M”). Dreamgirls, Ray, Chicago, Cabaret, Fiddler On The Roof, Hello Dolly!, Oliver!, The Sound Of Music, My Fair Lady, West Side Story, South Pacific, The King And I, Oklahoma!, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Strike Up The Band, and San Francisco have all won the prize, while the list of nominees includes Moulin Rouge, Evita, A Chorus Line, Fame, A Star Is Born (1976), Funny Girl, Mary Poppins, Porgy and Bess, and Beauty And The Beast.

Significantly, none of the musicals listed above were even nominated in the sound editing category. Their accomplishment comes from the way the soundtracks “mix” together the music, lyrics, dialogue and (often) dance. The exception is Slumdog Millionaire, which was nominated in both categories, but only won for sound mixing, which confirms the point.

Historically, the sound mixing category has been perceived to be more closely related to the best picture race than the sound editing category has. Over the past 20 years, 39% of sound mixing nominees and 55% of sound mixing winners have also been nominated for best picture, a proportion which seemed huge compared to the sound editing statistics. The expanded best picture field brought the ratio up to 66%, a number that is similar to the newly expanded sound editing statistics.

But the real impact comes when we look at best picture winners. Over the past 20 years, 14 out of 20 (70%) best picture winners were also nominated for best sound mixing, while only 3 (15%) of those same best picture winners were nominated for sound editing. Statistically, a sound mixing nomination actually helps a film’s chances of winning best picture more than a best picture nomination helps its chances in the sound mixing race, with only 50% of the sound mixing winners also receiving a best picture nod over the same time period.

The perceived correlation between sound mixing and the best picture race may also come from the types of films that receive both nominations. The average audience member can easily understand why Inception, Jurassic Park or Saving Private Ryan would be up for sound awards, but they are probably relating more to the sound effects (or the volume) than to the careful mix of sound elements that this category actually recognizes. So try to remember that the sound branch experts do sometimes nominate quieter films with high profiles like The King’s Speech or Shakespeare In Love, and leave room for that possibility in your predictions.

Do Oscar Voters Know The Difference?

I have spent most of this article talking about the places where the categories diverge from one another, but for full disclosure I should remind you that many times the nominees, and even the winners, end up being the same. This makes sense, when you consider that a perfect sound effect may not matter if it doesn’t mix well with the score and dialogue, and that a perfectly mixed drama can fly under the radar if there is nothing flashy to make it stand out. Still, the correlation has led many to wonder whether the Academy can actually tell one category from another. We know that the nomination phase for the Oscars is decided by the individual branches, so of course the sound branch knows the difference between sound editing and sound mixing when they select their nominees. When it comes to picking the winner, however, there seems to be extra skepticism regarding how much other Academy members know about these categories.

A first look suggests that the Academy may know more than we give them credit for. In ten of the past twenty years (50% of the time), they have rewarded different films in the two different sound categories. Ray, Chicago and Dreamgirls fall into the musical analysis that I did above for sound mixing, and the choice to reward U-571 over Gladiator in the sound editing race suggests that they aren’t simply marking their entire ballots with best picture winners. They are, after all, in the business. Directors work with the sound professionals during filming and post-production, the actors have spoken into microphones before, the other members of the crew see the recording devices on the set, and all of them must have noticed that the final product sounds different than what they heard during filming.

Split winners of the past two decades:
Sound Editing Winner
Sound Mixing Winner
65th Oscar
Bram Stoker’s Dracula
The Last Of The Mohicans
68th Oscar
Apollo 13
69th Oscar
The Ghost And The Darkness
The English Patient
73rd Oscar
74th Oscar
Pearl Harbor
Black Hawk Down
75th Oscar
The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers
76th Oscar
Master And Commander: Far Side Of The World
The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King
77th Oscar
The Incredibles
79th Oscar
Letters From Iwo Jima
81st Oscar
The Dark Knight
Slumdog Millionaire

On the other hand, however, nine of those ten years saw at least one of the awards going to a film that wasn’t nominated in the other category. Is it simply a coincidence that the splits happen in years when the one of the strongest candidates isn’t eligible in the other poll? Or is it a sign that they would have voted a straight ticket if they were able to? It may be easy to recognize that Letters From Iwo Jima focuses more on sound editing and Dreamgirls focuses more on sound mixing when each of them is only eligible in their own distinct categories.

The tie-breaker for me is the 81st Oscars, when The Dark Knight and Slumdog Millionaire were both eligible in each category, and the Academy voted The Dark Knight for best sound editing and Slumdog Millionaire for best sound mixing. That feels like the “right” division of labor to me. I’m not suggesting that I think every single member of the Academy understands the distinction, but rather I think that enough of them do so that the two awards still have meaning.

And for the rest of them, we can always hope that they’ll check out this page before they cast their next ballot!

I’ll be working on my Sound Editing and Sound Mixing predictions over the next few days, so check back to see which films I think will make the cut.
Return to predictions by year 84th,  85th,  86th,  87th,  88th,  89th  

Friday, March 23, 2012

LAMB Acting School 101: Samantha Morton

Each month, The LAMB has a series where bloggers get together to write reviews of a particular actor’s work. Here at Never Too Early Movie Predictions, I look forward instead of backward, so I thought it might be fun to look ahead at what the actor of the month has coming up on her calendar for the next several years.

This month’s actress is two-time Oscar nominee Samantha Morton. She was nominated for her supporting role in Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown in 2000, and again for her lead role in In America in 2004. So let’s see if she has any future prospects for the golden statue, shall we?

You may not have known it, but Morton actually has a film playing in theaters right now. She plays a green, motion captured character named Sola in Disney’s John Carter. Here is the John Carter trailer, just in case you have been living on Mars for the past six months and haven’t heard about it yet.

Morton’s next film is David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis. The film stars Robert Pattinson as a multi-billionaire who takes a strange trip across Manhattan that involves sex, violence, financial ruin, and a heavy dose of commentary on the modern world. The film also features Juliette Binoche, Paul Giamatti and Jay Baruchel, and is almost certain to premiere as part of the Cannes Film Festival in May. For those who want a taste of what we have in store, here is the Cosmopolis Trailer.

Morton’s next lead role will be Decoding Annie Parker, a film about a cancer survivor and a genetic researcher named Mary-Claire King who discovered a gene linked to breast cancer. Morton will play the cancer survivor and Helen Hunt will play the geneticist. The film is directed by Steven Bernstein, with Aaron Paul, Corey Stoll, Maggie Grace, Rashida Jones, Dermot Mulroney, RIchard Schiff, Alice Eve and Bradley Whitford filling out the cast. You can sign up for updates on the Decoding Annie Parker Facebook page.

The Mulo is a horror film directed by Matthew Thompson, and features Morton playing opposite … herself! That’s right, Morton will play twin sisters, long estranged, who reunite when one of their children goes missing. The title refers to a spirit from Roma folklore, who may be the reason the child has gone missing, or may simply be a cover that is being used by a human child murderer. Website for The Mulo.

Finally, there is an Untitled Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze Project that is rumored to be “a satire about how world leaders gather to figure out all the seismic events that will take place in the world, from oil prices to wars that will be waged.” I’m a huge fan of Kaufman’s screenplays, as well as previous Kaufman/Jonze collaborations that include Adaptation and Being John Malkovich. Even more exciting is that the preliminary casting for this one couldn’t be more perfect, with Morton, Amy Adams, Carey Mulligan and Joaquin Phoenix all rumored to take part.

So faithful readers, do any of these sound like they could bring Samantha Morton some more awards love? Which films are you most looking forward to? Let me know in the comments section.

You can keep track of Samantha Morton’s Oscar chances on my Lead And Supporting Actress page.
Read what my fellow LAMBS have written about Samantha Morton HERE.
Search for other actors featured in LAMB Acting School 101 HERE.
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Thursday, March 22, 2012

85th Oscar Costume Design Updates (3/22/12)

Today’s updates come from the world of costume design. I have emphasized period pieces in this round of predictions, as the Academy tends to focus on those, but I did allow myself the luxury of a few fantasy and contemporary choices. Personally, I am hoping that Cloud Atlas surprises, as its story is set in six different time periods spanning the historical, contemporary and fantasy eras. Talk about one stop shopping!

This is one category where early releases can sometimes survive, so you can’t count out Colleen Atwood for Dark Shadows or a posthumous nomination for Eiko Ishioka in Mirror Mirror. On the other hand, The Artist won last year, proving that those late release best picture contenders shouldn’t be taken for granted either.

One word of warning: I have discovered that most men’s suits look pretty much the same to me, so my rankings for things like Lincoln, The Gangster Squad, Argo and The Master may need to be taken with a grain of salt.

1. Catherine Martin for The Great Gatsby (Predicted Winner) (previous rank 24)
2. Jacqueline Durran for Anna Karenina (previous rank 6)
3. Eiko Ishioka for Mirror Mirror (New)
4. Paco Delgado for Les Miserables (New)
5. Christian Gasc and Valerie Ranchoux for Farewell My Queen (Les Adieus A La Reine) (New)

6. Pierre-Yves Gayraud for Cloud Atlas (previous rank 1)
7. Colleen Atwood for Dark Shadows (previous rank 9)
8. Ann Maskrey and Richard Taylor for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (previous rank 42)
9. Untitled Yang Guifei Project (previous rank 5)
10. Joanna Johnston for Lincoln (previous rank 12)
11. Ruth Myers for Effie (previous rank 10)
12. Mary Zophres for Gangster Squad (New)
13. Kasia Walicka-Maimone for Moonrise Kingdom (previous rank 39)
14. Jacqueline West for Argo (New)
15. Jillian Kreiner for Savannah (previous rank 2)
16. Mark Bridges for The Master (New)
17. Arjun Bhasin for Life Of Pi (previous rank 3)
18. Steven Noble for Wuthering Heights (previously listed in 84th Oscar race, rank 25)
19. Peter Paul for Great Expectations (previous rank 28)
20. Odile Dicks-Mireaux for Bel Ami (previously listed in 84th Oscar race, rank 50)
21. Low Life (Untitled James Gray Project) (New)
22. Danny Glicker for On The Road (previously listed in 84th Oscar race, rank 30)
23. Milena Canonero for Macbett: The Caribbean Macbeth (previous rank 4)
24. Dinah Collin for Hyde Park On Hudson (previous rank 25)
25. Sharen Davis for Django Unchained (New)

26. Keith Madden for The Woman In Black (previous rank 43)
27. Manon Rasmussen for A Royal Affair (En Kongelig Affaere) (New)
28. Dangerous Liaisons (New)
29. Olga Michalowska for The Absinthe Drinkers (previous rank 27)
30. Colleen Atwood for Snow White And The Huntsman (New)
31. Margot Wilson for Wettest County (previous rank 29)
32. Terry Ryan for The Eye Of The Storm (previously listed in 84th Oscar race, rank 41)
33. Inside Llewyn Davis (New)
34. Judianna Makovsky for The Hunger Games (previous rank 50)
35. Carlo Poggiolli for The Raven (previous rank 40)
36. Winnie (previously listed in 84th Oscar race, rank 31)
37. Ruth E. Carter for Sparkle (previously listed in 87th Oscar race, rank 1)
38. William Chang for The Grandmasters (Yut Doi Jung Si) (previous rank 16)
39. Hemingway & Fuentes (previous rank 22)
40. Black Gold (previously listed in 84th Oscar race, rank 48)
41. Lindy Hemming for The Dark Knight Rises (previous rank 45)
42. Yee Chung-Man and Lai Hsuan-Wu for Flying Swords Of Dragon Gate (Long Men Fei Jia) (New)
43. Jake Collier for Iron Sky (New)
44. Penny Rose for 47 Ronin (previous rank 23)
45. Virginie Montel for Rust And Bone (De Rouille Et D’Os) (New)
46. Varvan Avdyushko and Carlo Poggiolli for Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (New)
47. Guo Pei for The Monkey King (Da Nao Tian Gong) (previous rank 33)
48. Sonia Grande for To Rome With Love (New)
49. Rita Ryack for Rock Of Ages (New)
50. Alexandra Byrne for The Avengers (previous rank 30)

As always, check the Tracker Pages in the upper right hand corner of this blog for the most updated predictions in all categories!   
See Costume Design predictions for other years HERE.
If you’re into costumes, you might also like Art Decoration and Makeup.
See predictions for other categories at the 85th Oscars HERE.
Switch to another year: 84th,  85th,  86th,  87th,  88th,  89th