If you’re a movie fan, there’s a good chance you’ve already got an opinion about who should win an Oscar® for best picture, best actress, and maybe even best costume designer. But chances are, you’ve got no clue who should win in the sound categories.

It starts with a basic problem: most people don’t know the difference between sound editing and sound mixing. And many otherwise well-informed fans don’t know what makes for excellent movie sound.

To answer some of these questions, we went to a real expert: Erik Aadahl. He may not be a household name, but movie fans will know Aadahl, 37, by the powerful big-screen sounds he’s famously edited and mixed, from the visceral chaos of Argo’s Tehran airport to colossal Transformers exploding to life. He’s been nominated for Oscars for his work on Argo and Transformers: Dark of the Moon.

Oh, and he’s the man behind the roar for a little monster movie coming out this year called Godzilla.

For Aadahl, who talks about “hearing movies” rather than watching them, sound plays a critical and often unsung role. “The best sound jobs,” he says, “are the ones that are telling the story.” We sat down with him to talk about the sound contenders for the 2014 Oscars, held at the Dolby Theatre. (In a companion story, we got him to explain the different roles of sound mixers and sound editors.)

Here’s his take on the movies—and the sounds—up for gold this 86th Academy Awards® season.

Nominated for both sound mixing and sound editing

Captain Phillips: Chris Burdon, Mark Taylor, Mike Prestwood Smith, and Chris Munro

Aadahl: This could have been a dangerous film to make exclusively “Hollywood.” What the sound mixing team did here that was very brilliant was they made it sound like a documentary film. Captain Phillips felt like something they were actually recording while it was happening.

That might seem like it would be an easy thing to capture, but it actually might be harder than doing a flashy Hollywood-style approach, where the guns all sound like cannons. These guns sounded very real, and life on the ship sounded very real. The atmosphere around the cargo ship, all of the treatments they had for their radios and PA, is done to create a realism that really impressed me.

I also liked, in one of the climactic moments of the film, how quiet things got—that really makes you lean in. I think you can call that a neorealism approach to sound design.

Gravity: Skip Lievsay, Niv Adiri, Christopher Benstead, and Chris Munro

Aadahl: There’s just so much to say about Gravity, I’m not quite sure where to start.

Space is a vacuum, so you don’t actually hear anything being pushed through air. What you do hear are vibrations that come through your body and then rattle inside your inner ear. That was the sound approach for the film that was very effective: it was all done through low-end vibrations.

It’s very haunting when there’s a difference between an energy that you’re seeing and the types of sounds that you’re hearing—it was so fascinating seeing these great big space-destruction scenes, but all you’re really hearing are low-end vibrations and the rumbles of those sounds as they’re interacting with those actors in their space suits. If I called Captain Phillips neorealism, I might call Gravity hyperrealism. It was very effective.

Dolby Atmos could really be shown off. [Editor’s note: Dolby Atmos is the new cinema sound technology that allows filmmakers to place and move sounds anywhere in the theatre—even overhead.] You can hear radio communications coming from the ground floating all around us, tracking along with us on our space walk, going over and around and behind us in these big, seamless three-dimensional arcs. This puts you right in the middle of the experience, which is exactly what you want in a film, and what ideally you get with the sound.

You can see how a filmmaker like [director Alfonso] Cuarón, once he gets such an immersive and real mix, wouldn’t want to go backwards.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug: Christopher Boyes, Michael Hedges, Michael Semanick, and Tony Johnson

Aadahl: I’d say probably one of the biggest challenges on a film like this are the battles: you have a lot of fighting, a lot of whizzing arrows, clanking swords.

The editorial team and sound designer will create those sounds and craft them to the picture, and then bring them to the mixing stage. The rerecording mixers will then pan that arrow, so that if the arrow flies over your head, the mixers are the ones that will take it from the left side of the screen, and your head, to the right. The Hobbit was a fun film for Dolby Atmos in that way because you have a lot of opportunities for panning and creating that three-dimensional sound image.

I really love the scene where Smaug is first revealed, dormant in this chamber of vast wealth. I really love the sound of those avalanches of gold that Smaug created as he was moving around. I would point to that part of the film as something that really tickled me as a sound designer.

I would add another thing that I really liked about that sequence—it was quiet. Oftentimes in big flashy productions, where there’s action and a lot going on, there’s this fight to the top, where music is driving, sound effects are driving, and there’s this big wall of sonic thunder.

What I really loved about the scene was that it got really quiet and they had a very low noise floor, so, for me, it’s like pulling the curtain away and you can hear the really delicate detail. I always loved that thing of having a very dynamic track where you can get quiet and get the audience to lean in and not be pushed back by decibel level.

Lone Survivor: Andy Koyama, Beau Borders, and David Brownlow

Aadahl: The Lone Survivor track is another great example of putting you right in the middle of the action.

You’re hearing bullets whizz all around you, and realistic reflections of the guns popping and reverberating off the environment around them. It’s a very expressive use of battle sounds and battle sound design, and involves excellent sound mixing that was incredibly engaging.

Again, the danger of an action film like that is that you can get really exhausted by the end of it, if it isn’t done right. Lone Survivor was able to create these moments throughout that would refresh the ear and reset, kind of like the sorbet between courses in a meal. You reset your palette and you reset your ear with that kind of dynamic, where you can start to ease things out and catch a breath, and now you have somewhere to go again, you can climb back up to the peak, and it’s not just a series of peaks and peaks, which become a plateau.

Nominated for sound mixing alone

Inside Llewyn Davis: Skip Lievsay, Greg Orloff, and Peter F. Kurland

Aadahl: There’s such a great mix happening on Inside Llewyn Davis, and the film is obviously all about music.

It’s just an exquisitely done track, and what I love about the mix is that it doesn’t feel like any of the music performances are canned—it doesn’t feel like they were done on a rerecording stage with all of the modern tricks or the best modern microphones. It actually sounded like these characters were in a club in Greenwich Village.

The Coen brothers are great with sound. Some of my favorite moments in sound history have been Coen brothers films. Barton Fink has one of the best sound moments of all time, where John Turturro shows up at the hotel and rings the little hotel desk bell, and it just goes on and on and on forever.

It says everything. First, it says the awkwardness of the character. Second, it talks about the bizarreness of this new environment he’s walked into. It’s storytelling.

Nominated for sound editing alone

All Is Lost: Steve Boeddeker and Richard Hyms

Aadahl: I remember when I first heard All Is Lost, I thought, “Oh, this is such a breath of fresh air, this is so real.” That is kind of the purpose of the sound design, to really put you there in that space.

The film unfolds in what feels like real time—you’re on this boat and you’re hearing the lapping of the waves, you’re hearing the wind going through the mast, and you’re hearing Robert Redford clunking around and methodically solving problems as they’re presented to him. It’s the fantastic realism of that track that creates the experience that puts the audience right there and that put me right there.

If that film had had wall-to-wall music, for example, and dialogue, it would have been a totally different sound experience. I think the sparseness of it created something that was very unique and experiential.

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