If you aren’t sure what the difference is between sound mixing and sound editing, you’re not alone.
Even some directors “who’ve done incredible work without the structure of a studio release” don’t understand the process, says Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Sound Branch Governor Curt Behlmer. But despite the confusion most people only experience while filling out ballots in their Oscar pool, mixing and editing are two distinct skill sets.
In practical terms, a supervising sound editor and his/her crew assemble all sounds you hear in a film—from audio effects to background noise—with the exception of its score and on-set dialogue. Behlmer says that, early in the post-production process, the director and sound crew usually meet to discuss a film’s sound before the crew finds or creates the sounds and records them (or accesses them from a sound library). “Typically, a sound editorial crew will bring a lot of material to the mixing stage, particularly if it’s a complex project,” he explains. “At that point, the sound mixers will start going through the material and deciding what to use. It’s usually the last phase of post-production.”
Using a culinary analogy, Behlmer says the sound editor identifies and picks out (or creates from scratch) a film’s sonic ingredients while the sound mixer is the chef who uses those ingredients in cooking the dish.
With so much confusion about the differences between editing and mixing, a frequent overlap of the sound staff on many films (as in the case of Paul N.J. Ottosson, double-winner for The Hurt Locker) plus the argument that a project’s overall sound work should be viewed as a whole, there’s been discussion within AMPAS about whether mixing and editing should continue to be designated as separate Oscar categories.
“As the technology evolves, we do look at this and discuss it periodically,” Behlmer says. “Currently, the decision is to continue to do what we’re doing.” He adds that, while there have been intermittent discussions of how to modify the on-air show since the Governors Awards were cut from it five years ago, there’s now “no agenda to combine categories” due to the show’s length or any other reason.
“They’re still two separate awards [because] they still have separate requirements, responsibilities, roles and skill sets, and oftentimes, two separate groups of craftspeople doing those jobs,” Behlmer explains, adding that, while smaller projects like short films and documentaries may have only one person handling both mixing and editing duties, most features have separate crews for each.
This is particularly true with films that have an immersive sound format like Dolby Atmos or ones with 3D or IMAX versions, which may require different mixes. “Each one of these soundtracks can be another project, even though it’s the same picture,” he explains. Creating additional versions of a feature for home video, over-the-top services and other post-theatrical formats has created an even greater need for skilled manpower.
But with rapid advances in new digital technologies, we’ve seen more overlap between mixing and editing, and one wonders if the two will become simpler, less distinct crafts that smaller crews can accomplish—just as new software allows amateurs to produce music that sounds as polished as professional studio work. “I’ve been involved with post-production sound for thirty-plus years, and along the way, everybody always associated new technology with making things easier, faster and cheaper, but from my perspective that’s really never happened,” Behlmer remarks, laughing. If anything, it “continues to add complexity. It certainly hasn’t become easier.”
“You need very skilled people in each area to get these movies done,” he says, indicating that the 418 active Academy Sound Branch members will keep selecting five nominated projects for each of the two categories. “There’s a strong likelihood we’ll continue to recognize these crafts individually for the foreseeable future.”
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