Sometimes the Academy Awards are boring. From Makeup to Art Direction to the inevitable awkward segues to the previously filmed sci-tech awards, the ceremony can seem tedious. Nonetheless, amid the stifled yawns and quick trips to restock on snacks, some very significant honors are granted to the thousands of artists who work behind the scenes, quietly making sure we never notice they were there.
These award categories include Cinematography, Film Editing, Visual Effects, Sound Editing and Sound Mixing. While the techies rejoice, most viewers are left scratching their heads, not understanding why such a distinction needs to be awarded for something that goes unnoticed — purposely — by audiences across the nation and the world.
Let’s take this one step at a time and start with the visual categories. According to Dan Herbert, an assistant professor of screen arts and cultures, cinematography is a paramount aspect for the success of a film and requires the efforts of many.
“Cinematography is generally all of the preparation and technical work to get an image on celluloid,” he said. “So, working with lenses, working with light and working with the camera.”
Cinematographers for widely acclaimed films like “Inception,” a nominee for Best Cinematography this year, are responsible for the cohesion of otherwise infeasible films.
“ ‘Inception’ is really interesting because it’s a really complex narrative that uses a lot of computer-generated stuff, but Christopher Nolan and Wally Pfister, who’s his cinematographer, go for a very photo-realistic look in the film,” Herbert said. “Part of what’s impressive in terms of the cinematography is that it draws in the viewer … convinces the viewer that this is real because it looks photographically real, even though there are lots of special effects.”
“The Social Network” is more subtle about its cinematography. However, without the vital role cinematography plays, the film might not be as successful as it is.
“All of the images are so perfectly composed in terms of lighting and composition,” Herbert said. “I think that there are really interesting ways that the cinematography creates moods in that film that aren’t in the story itself. Cinematography really makes that movie.”
While cinematography happens as the film is being shot, visual effects are often added after shooting wraps by visual effects artists working with computers. A prime example can be found in Visual Effects nominee “Alice in Wonderland.” The Queen of Hearts’s head is enlarged, cartoonish and obviously computer-generated.
Though cinematographers are praised for their camera angles and lighting, and though visual effects artists may win awards for the larger-than-life images they create, the editors are the true masters of putting it all together — quietly cutting and pasting films into logical sequences and making sure there’s an underlying coherence to the film as a whole.
“Hollywood films usually try to have what’s called ‘invisible editing,’ ” Herbert said. “You actually don’t see it happening, which is tricky — because if you want to get an award for it, you also want to call attention to it.”
Editors are ultimately responsible, with the director’s approval, for much of the final product.
“(Editors) pick up the themes and kind of make them happen,” Herbert said. “It’s actually the editor who chooses the angles that actually end up in the final film, and so in some ways they can tell the story.”
But what about the way a movie sounds? The way “The Hurt Locker” — last year’s winner for Sound Editing and Sound Mixing — leaves audiences captivated by sounds of explosions amid a stark desert landscape? Though these categories might seem mystifying, according to Associate Prof. Jason Corey and chair of the Performing Arts Technology Department, the differences are simple.
“Sound editing is when you’re basically cutting between different takes,” Corey explained. “Sound mixing is more adjusting the volume basically of sound effects and dialogue and music.”
Say there are three takes of the same scene. A sound editor would find the best sound in a scene and put it together with the best-looking scene to achieve the best shot. Sound editing also includes noises like slamming doors and crunching gravel — effects created in a studio and then recorded using special equipment. Sometimes, even the voices of the actors are recorded in a studio and then spliced into the scenes.
Certain editors, called Foley artists, record sounds using everyday things, such as rusty chairs for squeaking, and are responsible for inserting these sounds at specific times during the film. These sounds can then be layered to create a more exaggerated effect.
Though equally important, sound mixing is often the last thing to happen before a film is considered complete.
“Sound mixing is just always making sure that we can hear the dialogue and always hear what’s being said,” Corey said.
Without a sound mixer with a strong grasp of the craft, many of the noises in films would be completely drowned out. It’s the sound mixers who will raise the volume of actors’ voices and make sure there is a balance with the background noise. Oftentimes though, sound mixers and editors never get any praise for their work.
“If it’s done really well, people don’t notice it, but it really adds a lot of impact to a film,” Corey said. “And when it’s not done well, people notice it. To be really good, it has to be transparent.”
Though both the audio and visual technical categories are known for being unnoticeable, it takes a noticeable artist and countless hours of work to create films that the masses enjoy.