The LAMB Devours The Oscars 2017: Best Sound Editing

by Jay Cluitt · February 12, 2017 · Featured, LAMB Devours the Oscars · No Comments

Every day until the Oscars ceremony we’ll be highlighting a different category or movie here on the LAMB! Here’s a link to all the posts written so far:

For today’s piece, Richard Kirkham from Kirkham A Movie A Day discusses the nominees for Best Sound Editing.

The difference between the Awards for Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing are a bit fuzzy. If you are a tech head on these issues it may seem simple but for those who simply watch and listen to films, it is a language more esoteric and arcane than the language of contracts and courtrooms. This category however does contain the material that most film watchers would care about when it comes to the sound design of the film. Those elements would be ambient sounds, dialogue and foley. This would then include the sound effects that listeners think of in any action/science fiction based films. The names of Ben Burtt and Gary Rydstrom would probably be most familiar to the general public or at least film buffs. Burtt created the sounds for the Star Wars universe starting back in the 1970s and Rydstrom was the audio partner for James Cameron in his 90s period and has worked extensively with Steven Spielberg in the last few years.

This year’s nominees (with one exception) are from films that feature major effects scenes and action. From the battlegrounds of the South Pacific to the waters of the Hudson bay, sound editing has accounted for tension, drama, and mood in an interesting collection of films.


Sylvain Bellemare is the nominee for Arrival. This is a work that uses the sounds of silence in a number of places to build the tension of the story. As Amy Adams stands in front of the window of the spacecraft, waiting for the first appearance of the aliens, the moment is heightened when the relative quiet is broken by the tentacle like hand of the heptapod. The expansive plains of Montana are aurally tranquil until the military base becomes the focus of attention. All of the activity in the temporary workspaces of the military contain the sort of hubbub and noise that might be expected from hundreds of troops on site, while at the same time conveying a sense of dread or fear through a muted sound environment.

Deepwater Horizon

Two veteran sound professionals, Wylie Stateman and Renée Tondelli, are responsible for the nominated work in Deepwater Horizon. The story is set on board the doomed oil exploration rig, and the wind and ocean form a background for much of the early sound of the film. The humming sounds of mechanical equipment underlie all of the actors’ scenes on the vehicle, and the tipping point of the blowback which creates the explosion on board is signalled by a variety of sounds, none of which would be comforting if you were on that platform. Once the drilling process turns into a disaster, there is a cacophony of explosions, pipes bending and walls buckling, to chill the hearts of the men working on the rig. It is exactly the kind of showy sound sequence that should get nominated, but it also seems to be the type that gets overlooked when the award is actually given.

Hacksaw Ridge

First time nominees Robert Mackenzie and Andy Wright are also both nominated for the sound mixing award for Mel Gibson’s film resurrection, Hacksaw Ridge. While the film has a bucolic first half, with an extended set of scenes at a basic training facility, it is certainly the second half of the film that earned these two their recognition. An intense battle sequence which lasts twice as long as the fabled opening of Saving Private Ryan, is filled with bullets flying through the air, some striking human targets with a regrettable thud while others hit nearby hills, dunes, bunkers and such. The artillery shells explode everywhere and the sound of the advancing enemy as the hero trudges back and forth from the cliffside to deliver his wounded combats is also quite tense. Voices are muted and agony is stifled as Desmond Doss tries to battle the enemy without the use of weapons. This film combines pounding sounds of military weapons with the quiet noise of blood flowing out of the wounded.

La La Land

The one film among the five that does not feature dramatic visual effects in the form of explosions or aircraft disasters is the musical La La Land. It may be that the Academy was so swept up by this film that it was included in this unlikely category simply through steam rolling. That may not be fair but the movie is completely different in aural environment than any of the other nominees in this category. Something else that is distinctive, Ai-Ling Lee and Mildred Iatrou Morgan are the first female duo to be nominated here. Ai-Ling Lee is also nominated in the mixing category for the same film. In truth, there is a strong sound ambience in the film, but because the movie is filled with singing and dance sequences it might be hard to notice. The most memorable moment which does not feature a big production number involves the one woman show and the sparse audience that shows up for it. The nearly empty theater echoes a little with hope and disappointment as Mia struggles to compose herself and go on. The street scenes at night also create a magical sound shroud over the L.A. neighborhoods where the couple dances and the group of friends prances.


The most successful nominees in this group are collaborators Alan Robert Murray and Bub Asman. They are both two time winners, together, in this category for Letters from Iwo Jima and American SniperSully is their third nominated project with director Clint Eastwood. Theirs is the lone nomination for the current leader in the box office among this group. The highlight of that film is the recreation of the incredibly tense brief flight and emergency landing. In spite of the absence of any explosion, because as Captain Sullenberger has said, it was not a crash but an unplanned forced water landing, the action is loud and filled with engine noise, passenger panic and assorted aircraft noises. The stilted hearings with computer recreations and the actors silently listening in the hearing room in front of their microphones was also a notable moment of sonic design.

With only one category of nomination it seems unlikely that Sully will be the winner this year. That would mean that the winners this year will receive their first Academy Awards. All of them are admirable in some way or another. Only the experts in the branches understand how they choose in this category, but in the final vote, it is the whole Academy that chooses. If La La Land starts a sweep, that could be your winner.