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Sound - how is it judged Best?


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I too have a technical question, like moira's, but it involves a film's Sound.

 

Now it's pretty easy (for me), while watching an early sound era film to determine whether it has good sound quality or not (and I'm not talking about the cracks and pops one hears which may be due to the age of the print either): the actors' dialogue is easily heard, the background sounds are realistic without a hollow studio sound stage 'echo' (e.g. outdoor scenes don't sound like they were dubbed indoors), etc..

 

However, once this particular part of film-making was 'mastered', and excepting Special sound Effects (which got its own category in 1939), how did Academy voters decide which films deserved nominations and/or the Oscar? For that matter, with digital sound today, how is the winner of this award determined?

 

Is it something only professionals can understand, or can someone put in layman's terms how the Best Sound category is judged?

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Man, what a great question!

 

I know I often see a really terrific job of lip-synching or tap-synching in a musical and I appreciate it--but I bet the pros can tell you how realistically and well the surf crashes in, whether that kind of tree frog would actually be heard in New York State, etc.

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That is a good question, and one I've wondered about for years. As a layman, all I can say is that if you are subjected to a film where the sound quality/production is really bad, you know it!

 

For example, one of the things I really don't like about "Fiddler on the Roof" is that almost all of it is dubbed over, and it looks and sounds as if the dialog is being spoken by a group of ventriloquists. In a closet. With the door closed.

 

I often laugh at "The X-Files" on TV, where the Foley artists repeatedly make the sound of what seems like hobnail boots for doctors and nurses in hospital scenes. You can't get that kind of noise from soft-soled shoes, Foley Folk!

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However, once this particular part of film-making was 'mastered', and excepting Special sound Effects (which got its own category in 1939), how did Academy voters decide which films deserved nominations and/or the Oscar? For that matter, with digital sound today, how is the winner of this award determined?

 

There were, and are, no objective criteria imposed on the Academy voters. All the Academy requires is that films' technical quality meet the standard of "general excellence"; because nominations are voted on only by those employed in that category's field of expertise, it's presumed by the full Academy membership (who vote for the winner among those films nominated) that the films do meet those criteria. Obviously, the technicians bring their own personal biases to the nominating process; some will disqualify a film in which the eligible films' approaches are different from what the nomination voters would have done themselves; others will embrace innovation and admire those who dared take risks.

 

In the end, it's utterly subjective; no "scientific" standard can ever be applied, as though one were doing a double-blind test to determine the efficacy and safety of a new kind of birth-control pill.

 

 

I often laugh at "The X-Files" on TV, where the Foley artists repeatedly make the sound of what seems like hobnail boots for doctors and nurses in hospital scenes. You can't get that kind of noise from soft-soled shoes, Foley Folk!

 

THe problem with Foley is that there's too much of it, and it's generally mixed in at too high a level.

 

An example: though the Foley chosen for a common action -- such as footsteps -- may be the appropriate sound, and may be dubbed in at the same decibel level one hears in person, in real life we tend to ignore such sounds to the point of not even realizing we're hearing them. So, when we hear them in a film, where our senses are attuned differently than in real-life situations, the sounds inevitably draw attention to themselves, throwing the sensory landscape of the film out of balance.

 

Sound effects are like close-ups: they're meant to be punctuation, when a specific point needs to be made (and points are made, after all, through contrast) -- not simply to fill in silence, which is often the most powerful sound-effect of them all.

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