Oscars 2018: War is hell, but it’s heaven for sound editors and sound mixers

Dunkirk” is the heavy favorite to win Oscars for Best Sound Editing (for Richard King and Alex Gibson) and Best Sound Mixing (for Gregg Landaker, Gary Rizzo and Mark Weingarten). These two fields are some of the most misunderstood at the Oscars, by audiences, by some voters and, admittedly, by some awards pundits like me. But because war movies like “Dunkirk” give audiences so much to hear — explosions, gunshots, jet engines, dialogue and dramatic music — they tend to win awards in these categories.

Sound mixers record and adjust the levels of different sound elements, while editors assemble those elements, from dialogue to sound effects to sounds they create themselves for the production. Or as our Oscarologist Tim Gray (LA Times) put it, “After the sound editor has assembled what the audience hears, the sound mixer determines how they hear it.” Sound experts within the motion picture academy decide who gets nominated at the Oscars, but then voting for winners opens up to the entire membership including actors, writers, costume designers and other elite film professionals who might not understand all the finer details of the craft. So it often pays to bet on the film with the most sound.

Dunkirk” drops the audience headfirst into the chaos of World War II on the beaches of France, in the air over the battlefield, and on the English Channel during a daring rescue mission and evacuation. Given that it requires such wide-ranging sound design and “Dunkirk” is also a Best Picture contender, it’s a strong bet in both races. Indeed, 20 out of 21 Expert journalists we’ve polled are betting on it to win Sound Editing, while 18 out of 21 are betting on it for Sound Mixing — including Tim Gray on both counts. Overall it leads the Sound Editing race with 2/11 odds, while it’s on top for Sound Mixing with 2/7 odds.

War movies have done well for themselves over the years in these categories. In the last 30 years 9 war movies have won Sound Editing: “Braveheart” (1995), “Saving Private Ryan” (1998), “U-571” (2000), “Pearl Harbor” (2001), “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” (2002), “Letters from Iwo Jima” (2006), “The Hurt Locker” (2009), “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012) and “American Sniper” (2014).

In that same time period eight war movies won Sound Mixing: “Glory” (1989), “The Last of the Mohicans” (1992), “The English Patient” (1996), “Saving Private Ryan” (1998), “Black Hawk Down” (2001), “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” (2003), “The Hurt Locker” (2009)  and “Hacksaw Ridge” (2016).

One might quibble over my inclusion of the “Lord of the Rings” films among the above winning war movies, but even though they’re fantasy films they boast as much battlefield action as any film set during a historical conflict. But “Dunkirk” is certainly more traditional in that regard. So do you agree with out consensus that it will follow in the footsteps of past war-torn winners?

Be sure to check out how our experts rank Oscar contenders in all 24 categories. Use the drop-down menus at the top of each page to see the other categories. Then take a look at the most up-to-date combined odds before you make your Oscar winner predictions. Don’t be afraid to jump in now since you can keep changing your predictions until just before winners are announced on March 4.

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