Drummer or a fighter? ‘Whiplash’ battles ‘American Sniper’ for Sound Mixing Oscar

Best Sound Mixing can be one of the hardest races to predict, due in large part to its confusion with Best Sound Editing. Sound Mixing honors the balancing of the various production dialogue, ADR, foley and effects, and music tracks of a film into one cohesive whole. This award is generally given to both the production sound mixers and the re-recording mixers. The Cinema Audio Society rewards one film each year for its achievement in the field, and since 1993, the winner there has repeated at the Academy Awards 12 times:

1995: “Apollo 13”
1996: “The English Patient”
1997: “Titanic”
1998: “Saving Private Ryan”
1999: “The Matrix”
2000: “Gladiator”
2006: “Dreamgirls”
2008: “Slumdog Millionaire”
2009: “The Hurt Locker”
2011: “Hugo
2012: “Les Miserables
2013: “Gravity

This year, CAS honored “Birdman” over fellow Oscar-nominees “American Sniper,” “Interstellar,” and “Unbroken.” But the Oscar race is extremely competitive, with experts all over the place with their picks. Let’s take a closer look at the contenders:

Oscars Experts split on Sound Mixing between
Whiplash,’ ‘American Sniper,’ ‘Interstellar,’ ‘Birdman

John T. Reitz, Gregg Rudloff, Walt Martin, “American Sniper”
Re-recording Mixers John T. Reitz and Gregg Rudloff won this category 15 years ago for “The Matrix” (1999), and Rudloff won as well for his work on “Glory” (1989). Together, the two have received three additional nominations – “The Perfect Storm” (2000), “Flags of Our Fathers” (2006), and “Argo” (2012) – while Reitz also contended for “Days of Heaven” (1978). Sound Mixer Walt Martin, a previous nominee for “Flags of Our Fathers”, joins them here posthumously (he died upon completing work on the film).

Oftentimes, the awards for Sound Mixing and Sound Editing go hand-in-hand, which could work to their advantage since “Sniper” is the frontrunner to take the latter. Also, war films tend to do well in this category, what with the various guns, grunts, and bombs exploding on all sides of the frame. They currently hold second place with odds of 23/10.

Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montano, Thomas Varga, “Birdman”
Jon Taylor and Frank A. Montano both received two nominations this year, for their work as re-recording mixers on “Birdman” and “Unbroken.” These nods are the first for Taylor, while Montano has competed five previous times: for “Under Siege” (1992), “The Fugitive” (1993), “Clear and Present Danger” (1994), “Batman Forever” (1995), and “Wanted” (2008).

They’re joined by sound mixer Thomas Varga, nominated here for the first time. The three won the CAS Award, which should make them the frontrunners, yet they’re ranked in third place with odds of 6/1. While the film’s one-take illusion is very much dependent on a good sound mix, voters may overlook the subtle work involved here for flashier achievements.

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Gary Rizzo, Gregg Landaker, Mark Weingarten, “Interstellar”
Re-recording mixers Gary Rizzo and Gregg Landaker are both Oscar veterans: Rizzo won this category for his work on “Inception” (2010), and was nominated twice more – “The Incredibles” (2004) and “The Dark Knight” (2008) – while Landaker has three previous wins for “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980), “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1980), and “Speed” (1994), and four additional nominations for “JFK” (1991), “Waterworld” (1995), “Twister” (1996), and “U-571” (2000).

Sound mixer Mark Weingarten has some awards history as well, receiving nominations for his work on “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (2008) and “The Social Network” (2010). For a while, it seemed “Interstellar” would walk away with both sound prizes in a cakewalk, as oftentimes the film with the loudest mix (i.e. action films) wins. But Rizzo, Landaker and Weingarten are currently ranked in fourth place with odds of 12/1, their votes siphoned by the loudness of “American Sniper.”

Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montano, David Lee, “Unbroken”
As stated above, it’s a good year for re-recording mixers Jon Taylor and Frank A. Montano. They’re joined here by sound mixer David Lee, a previous winner in this category for “The Matrix” (1999). Unfortunately, their work on “Unbroken” has been overshadowed by another war movie with a higher awards profile – “American Sniper” – and the three are ranked in last place with odds of 100/1. Luckily for Taylor and Montano, they have another chance at winning for “Birdman”; as for Lee, it seems he’ll have to wait a little while longer for that second statuette.

Craig Mann, Ben Wilkins, Thomas Curley, “Whiplash
The frontrunners in this category are also, oddly enough, the one nominee omitted from the Cinema Audio Society’s list. That would be re-recording mixers Craig Mann and Ben Wilkins and sound mixer Thomas Curley, all receiving their first bids for “Whiplash.” The three create a complex soundscape for the film, and their work is crucial in the mixture of the drums within the jazz score that plays throughout. The three are currently ranked in first place with odds of 6/5, and while war epics and action extravaganzas do well in this category, films with a lot of music tend to do a little better.

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For those of you keeping score, the Best Picture winner has also won Sound Mixing 23 times:

1950: “All About Eve”
1953: “From Here to Eternity”
1959: “Ben-Hur”
1961: “West Side Story”
1962: “Lawrence of Arabia”
1964: “My Fair Lady”
1965: “The Sound of Music”
1967: “In the Heat of the Night”
1968: “Oliver!”
1970: “Patton”
1978: “The Deer Hunter”
1984: “Amadeus”
1985: “Out of Africa”
1986: “Platoon”
1987: “The Last Emperor”
1990: “Dances with Wolves”
1996: “The English Patient”
1997: “Titanic”
2000: “Gladiator”
2002: “Chicago”
2003: “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King”
2008: “Slumdog Millionaire”
2009: “The Hurt Locker”

So while this award does have a better track record of predicting the top prize than Sound Editing, a win here shouldn’t be looked at as a sign of things to come. Unless, of course, it goes to “Birdman,” which could signal an impending sweep.

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