By Vinnie Lione-Napoli
Arts & Entertainment Co-Editor
I’m sure the last Oscar categories you want to read anything about are the technical ones, but bear with me. I know what you’re thinking: no one knows or cares about who won Best Sound Editing five years ago. I personally forgot that “The Dark Knight” had won back then until about 30 seconds ago.
They may not be the more glamorous awards, but they do recognize the core components of what makes a film a film. Try to imagine your favorite movie this year with poor, choppy editing or visual effects from the dark corners of the 1990s.
The seven primary categories of Original Score, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Production Design, Cinematography, Visual Effects and Film Editing comprise the technical Oscars—–along with, to a much lesser extent, the categories for both Makeup and Costume Design—–that are all but glanced over by casual movie fans. While three categories for audio may seem menial, again, this side of the ceremony honors the true backbone of cinema.
The movies that rack up a lot of nominations here have also fared quite well in the past in terms of the more lucrative awards. For the past 22 years, the eventual Best Picture winner has always been in the running for Best Film Editing. That’s pretty bad news for “Her,” “Nebraska,” “Philomena” and “The Wolf of Wall Street.”
By this logic, you could almost say that “Brokeback Mountain” should’ve seen this coming. Ang Lee’s Western romance had somehow failed to garner a nod in the 2006 ceremony’s editing field. Later that evening, a visibly stunned Jack Nicholson opened the final envelope to reveal that “Crash,” the Best Film Editing winner, had won Best Picture in one of the most infamous Oscar upsets of all time.
This isn’t to say you should turn off the telecast and complain on Twitter about how your favorite movie lost out on Oscar glory when the editing winner is announced.
Three years ago, “The Social Network” beat out Best Picture winner “The King’s Speech” in this category, and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”—–a film not even nominated for the grand prize—-beat “The Artist” a year later.
Since 2008’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” there has been a decently clear frontrunner for the great majority of the technical categories. While this tale of a backwards-aging man missed out on a Sound Editing nod, the film did manage to snag recognition in the other six major fields as well as the makeup and costume categories.
Other than “Inception” missing Film Editing two years later, each and every ceremony since “Benjamin Button” has included at least one film that snuck into all seven big technical fields. Remember how dominant “Avatar” and “Life of Pi” were from a filmmaking standpoint?
Even the forgetful bunch of 2011 films included a powerhouse technical achievement with Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo.” With 11 total nominations, “Hugo” became the first film since 2003’s “Lord of the Rings” finale to win five major technical awards.
Notice anything odd about the five aforementioned technical marvels? None of them won Best Picture.
In fact, with the exception of the 2008 ceremony in which Best Picture winner “No Country for Old Men” tied with the equally excellent “There Will Be Blood” for the most technical nods, no film that led with these nominations has won the top prize since 2000’s “Gladiator.”
If you were wondering what the technical juggernaut of 2013 is, take a wild guess. What movie pushed every visual boundary possible, literally expanding the borders within which a film’s scope can encompass?
Whether or not you guessed “Gravity,” there’s no denying that this cinematic marvel has rightfully claimed its place in history. While “Wall-E” may have been the largely silent space opera, director Alfonso Cuaron’s latest flick is the largely silent space epic, catapulting the audience into a precarious life or death situation countless miles above the safety of Earth.
As biased as I sound towards “Gravity,” know that I would definitely vote for “Her” or “American Hustle” above it if I were an Academy member. But I can’t ignore how stunning this movie was. I’ve never felt more tangibly immersed in a movie theater as I did seeing “Gravity” in IMAX.
What concerns me, however, is the criticism directed towards the script. The very thing that could keep “Gravity” from winning Best Picture is the only thing I felt that the film didn’t really need to be considered great. The visuals were the champions here, especially during one of Cuaron’s trademark single shots, while the plot really only needed to provide support.
What we were given was simply the story of a rookie astronaut that needed to get home from space.
I appreciated and respected the lack of plot frills and embraced the abundance of awe-inspiring visual effects. Sandra Bullock’s mastery of her role only brought the film from great to amazing, turning an objectively, technologically stellar film into something a little more.
But fine, a handful of the other Best Picture nominees are arguably superior in the more celebrated, outwardly important aspects of film. That’s why “Gravity” should find solace in these back office technical categories. If the film can’t be the best, what’s wrong with being declared the best looking and sounding?
The seven major technical categories I listed earlier comprise most of the key elements of what strengthens a film behind the scenes, such as visuals and audio.
If you take a look at the Best Original Score winner at this year’s Golden Globes, you’ll notice that “Gravity” lost to the maritime thematic equivalent, “All Is Lost.” But if you take an even closer look at the Oscar nominees for score, you’ll see that “All Is Lost” wasn’t even nominated.
But who said a win for “Gravity” is a sure thing? Relatively new film composer Steven Price is up against the legendary John Williams—-recipient of five Oscars and nominee of countless more—of “The Book Thief” as well as a six-time nominee, a 12-time nominee and none other than Arcade Fire, the latter of which scored “Her.”
In all honesty, I wouldn’t be surprised if “Gravity” didn’t take home Best Original Score, even though the movie arguably relied on background music the most in relation to its competitors. However, I do feel that films such as “Her” were more effective at letting the music establish a tone as opposed to letting the action do so.
Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing are a little more complicated. I know the two categories basically sound the same, but think of the former nominees as the people that collect the pieces and the latter as the people that put together the puzzle. The editors grab the appropriate sounds from the environment and the mixers plug them where they need to go and the extent to which they need them.
This year, you’ll see that four of the five films are the same in both fields, with “All Is Lost” receiving Sound Editing but not Sound Mixing and “Inside Llewyn Davis” receiving the inverse. Five of the last eight ceremonies have had the same movie win both, a sign that Academy members could be getting lazy with discerning the difference between the creation and arrangement of sound.
Expect both the action-packed “Captain Phillips” and war story “Lone Survivor” to put up a fight for the editing accolade and both “Gravity” and “Llewyn” to contend for the mixing one. The sounds of battle are feats to recreate in a studio, and “Gravity” necessitated careful attention to the deafening silence of space. “Les Miserables” winning Best Sound Mixing last year proves that films with musical components still stand a chance in this category, giving underdog “Llewyn” a glimmer of hope.
Best Production Design, known as Best Art Direction until last year’s ceremony, rewards the overall feel of the film’s setting. Last year, “Lincoln” was able to effectively take audiences back to the time of the titular president. Two years prior, “Alice in Wonderland” was able to whisk viewers to…well, Wonderland.
Best Cinematography, on the other hand, recognizes the actual camerawork of the film, right down to each individual shot or angle. Last year’s “Life of Pi” almost perfectly encapsulates exactly what comprises excellent cinematography, as made clear through every stunning shot of the ocean, whether during the sun-soaked day or the moonlit night.
Compared to the other five, I feel that these two categories are particularly stacked this year. While I feel that “Gravity” had wonderful set pieces, I feel that “American Hustle” and “12 Years a Slave” did a more thorough job fleshing out a world for the viewers to lose themselves in. That being said, the space drama will almost certainly blow its competition out of the water from a camerawork standpoint, despite my burning desire to see “Prisoners” win something.
Best Visual Effects are pretty self-explanatory, and as much as I would love to experience the laughter that would follow a win by “Iron Man 3,” I actually do find this to be the surest win for “Gravity.”
Finally, Best Film Editing focuses on the post-production of the movie and, as alluded to earlier, provides a solid indication for the overall quality of a film. This is why so many Best Picture winners come out of this nominee pool. When seven out of the last 11 of these winners also taking home the editing statue, filmmakers know this is just as huge of a nomination to score. That being said, I’m quite reluctant to make a prediction here, Due to slight pacing issues with “American Hustle,” I’ll have to, of course, go with “Gravity.”
I suppose I should briefly address makeup and costume design before I wrap up, so just know that “Dallas Buyers Club” will likely win the former by default because no one wants to live in a world where “Bad Grandpa” or “The Lone Ranger” wins an Oscar.
As for the costume design category, the Academy seems to scoff at most films set in the late 20th century—–a ridiculous four films about European royalty won in a row in the late 2000s—–which leads me to believe that either the lavish clothing of “The Great Gatsby” or the Southern outfits of “12 Years a Slave” will win.
I hope I’ve provided you with a newfound appreciation of the technical side of the Academy Awards. I promise next week will be more engaging, as I’ll focus on the animated movies, documentaries, short films and original song.
And just in case you forgot again, “The Dark Knight” won for Best Sound Editing five years ago.