These are probably the most difficult categories for your average everyday moviegoer to figure out, along with Editing. After all, when the post-production team is doing their very best work you aren't supposed to notice it! Things are supposed to look and sound seamless, real, authentic. No one wants to hear dialogue that seems out of sync with an actor's lips, and no one wants to hear explosions or music so loud that important dialogue becomes indiscernable. We notice the bad sound but not the good, so how do we evaluate a category like this?
I don't know, but I'm gonna do it anyway.
NOMINEES - SOUND EDITING
Life of Pi
Zero Dark Thirty
5. Zero Dark Thirty
There really wasn't anything bad here, it's just that at times I felt like the sounds I was "supposed to hear" didn't feel like they were naturally part of the scene I was watching. I can't explain or pinpoint it, there were just moments when I thought "that doesn't sound quite right."
Argo had really good sound actually, but if suffers from not having especially impressive sound. Everything fits into place and works, but it all seems like relatively simple recording.
Action movies are natural choices in sound categories because they typically have higher technical demands than the typical Oscar-bait dramas. Skyfall excels on nearly every level, and the sound is pristine. Explosions and gunshots, of course, but also atmospheres. Consider the background noises in the Macau casino, or the always busy yet somehow empty sounds of the underground MI:6. Not to mention this is a surprisingly dialogue-heavy action film, and all of those weighty conversations were also recorded well. This would be a worthy winner.
2. Django Unchained
I place Django higher than Skyfall for two reasons: first, because I don't remember ever noticing the sound sticking out anywhere, and second, because of the challenges of creating sound for a period piece. There were shootouts and dynamite and minutes-long scenes of nothing but dialogue, and wagons and horses and blood spattering the walls. And none of it ever seemed out of place. Plus the recording had to eliminate anything that sounded too distinctly modern - the gunshots had to be antebellum pistols, the wagon wheels had to creak with their age, and and anything remotely electric had to be eliminated. This film was impressive because I never noticed.
1. Life of Pi
Of all the films here, my bet is Life of Pi had the least amount of usable production sound (or sound recorded on set during filming). They shot much of the movie in boats on water and in green-screen studios. I suspect that roughly 95% of every sound you hear in the movie was recorded separately from the images you see. Flying fish, meercats, zebras, tigers, orangoutangs, and other animals not included, you're also dealing with thunderous storms, the wood and canvas of a lifeboat, a giant ship sinking, and even the slightest sound of still water lapping against Pi's raft. To face this kind of monumental recording challenge and pull it off, every bit of audio sounding authentic, is remarkable.
Should win: Life of Pi
Will win: Life of Pi (Possibly ZDK or Skyfall)
Should have been nominated: Wreck-It Ralph
NOMINEES - SOUND MIXING
(This category has a habit of nominating dialogue-heavy movies - like The Social Network or The King's Speech a few years ago - because mixing dialogue is both difficult and vital, but rarely rewards that work.)
Life of Pi
5. Les Miserables
Musicals frequently get nominated and frequently win this category because they combine the challenge of mixing dialogue/words with music/instrumentation on top of all the other sounds that go into fleshing out a scene. Les Mis get a lot of attention this year for recording the singing life on set, meaning the sound recordist/mixer did a lot of work on the ground making sure the recording itself was mixed well. It was a challenge, I'm sure, and for most of the film I think it usually worked out fine. Except not always. For about the first 10 minutes I was straining to hear and understand a single thing anyone was singing. The soloists sounded muffled because the chorus overtook them. It could have been my theater's speakers, but I was in a Regal theater's RPX set up so I doubt it. Eventually I got used to the audio and I could hear things most of the time, but the orchestral music was so overwhelming usually that I had to work just to follow the scenes at times. This might actually win the award (due to the attention paid to its recording-live technique), but I sincerely hope not.
Same problem as above, this is quality work, just not particularly unique or impressive. The opening scenes of the embassy takeover and the groups excursion to the bazaar are probably the standout moments when it comes to mixing. But there's a lot of dialogue that has to be mixed well so that the movie still make scenes sound authentic in various locations, which deserves more attention than it will probably get.
Technically there's not a thing wrong here, but in terms of sound work it's not really anything new or interesting. It's an action film with a better script than most, more dialogue than most, and executed with skill on a higher level than most. Like above, this would be a worthy winner, but not an especially interesting one.
This is probably the film most likely to get overlooked in this category - I wouldn't be surprised to learn it comes in 5th place. It's easy to think, "Lincoln? For sound?" But quieter movies are frequently more difficult to mix because the very slightest variation in the audio will draw the viewers attention, whereas in big action films, if an explosion is a bit too loud or a tad too soft, usually the car chase is already in another location before the audience has time to think about it. But think about the quiet emptiness of the cabinet meetings, where all you hear are words and clothing rustling. Or the scenes in Congress where everyone tries to shout over each other, but we always seem to hear exactly what the director and screenwriter want us to hear in order for the story to move forward. It is a quieter movie than its fellow nominees, yes, but the sound mixing is all the more impressive because of it.
1. Life of Pi
Same reasons as above, this is the movie that probably had the most work to do, and there's not a hair out of place. Of course, there's the sinking of the Tsimtsum, but I think the scene I remember being most impressed by is one where Pi is trying to train Richard Parker, who is stubbornly clawing at the seats in the life boat and, well, pouting. The claws, the wood splintering, a grown tiger growling and mewing like a kitten (but with gravitas), all set against a background of ocean water and breeze. The big scenes are probably what will win the Oscar for this film, but it's the quiet ones that earn it.
Should win: Life of Pi or Lincoln
Will win: Les Miserables because I think they'll want to give it more than just supporting actress for Hathaway, but depending on how much the Academy loves a given film come the big night, this could go to Argo, Skyfall, OR Life of Pi.
Should have been nominated: The Impossible