For actors and filmmakers nominated for an Academy Award®, the Oscars® ceremony brings moments of high tension as the presenters introduce their category, fumble with the envelope, and finally announce a winner. But for the sound crew that works the show at the Dolby Theatre—as Dolby’s Steve Venezia has for 12 years—the whole night is filled with tension, as he listens for glitchy microphones, too-long speeches, unpredictable hosts, and even the occasional profanity during one of the most watched live broadcasts in the world.
In short, stuff happens. And when it does, you have to possess hair-trigger reflexes and a huge reserve of poise.
Sound mixing is a process whose effects you don’t see but, without it, you would certainly notice. We’re talking about the crew responsible for making sure we can hear the host’s jokes, the orchestra’s notes, the performer’s songs, the winner’s speeches, and the crowd’s laughter. These are the folks who help create the visceral experience of the Oscars.
Venezia, Dolby Senior Director for Content Services, first began working on the Oscars telecast in 2002, when he helped ABC transition to 5.1-channel surround sound at what was then called the Kodak Theatre. When Dolby took over the theatre in 2013, it completely revamped the house, adding a new level of audio sophistication to the Academy Awards that is palpable to those in the theatre and at home on the couch. This new sound clarity achievable at the Dolby Theatre® means the Dolby team’s role is more vital than ever.
So what does Venezia do? He and his team assist the dozen or more sound mixers and technicians to make sure the sound is clean and clear as it travels from the theatre to the broadcast compound outside, to the nearby mixing truck, up to the satellite, across the country to the ABC broadcast center in New York, and from there all across the country to your home.
Numerous different sound teams are at work. The music mixer who mixes the show orchestra, the mixer for the microphones in the audience, and additional music mixers for bands that may be performing. All those feeds are sent to the show’s main production mixer, who’s tasked with creating the final mix for the television broadcast. And even that’s not everyone. Let’s just say it takes a village.
Movie clips that are played in the theatre (and there are many during an Oscars broadcast) are now delivered in film-quality 5.1-channel audio. This improvement generates more oohs and ahs from the audience, which get picked up by the numerous microphones throughout the theatre, mixed in, and transmitted to the viewer at home.
This will be the Dolby crew’s 13th year mixing the show in 5.1. “We’d talked about [showing movie clips in surround sound as well] for years,” said Venezia, “and did this for the first time in 2013. I think everyone would agree that it’s worked better than we would have thought.”
Yet it’s not all smooth sailing. Venezia shared a few of the common—and not so common—sound snafus the sound team must manage. With so many sound sources (host, performers, presenters, award winners, audience, orchestra) and so many microphones to manage, the sound technicians at the Oscars are like highly skilled line cooks during a dinner rush—they have a dozen things to do at any given time and sometimes only seconds to do it.
For starters, he says, the team must sniff out potential problems like odd feedback, a malfunctioning microphone, or a rogue audience member who’s louder than everybody else.
“You’ll occasionally have a microphone in the house that’s picking up this one person who’s clapping or screaming extra loud. The mixer listens through the various channel inputs to figure out which microphone it is so you can balance it properly with the others.
Sometimes it’s the winners themselves that the mixer must watch out for.
“Probably the biggest problem that happens—and there’s nothing much you can really do about it—is when someone accepts an award and feels the need to lean down and bang on the microphone to see if it’s working,” Venezia says.
The urge to test a mic before the biggest speech of your professional life is understandable, but it causes a real headache for the sound people whose job it is to prevent the audience from having their eardrums blown out.
Then you’ve got the hosts to keep an ear on.
Some hosts tend to stand in one place, while others are movers and shakers, going out into the crowd to shake hands or, for the dancing numbers, shake their booties. Think Billy Crystal and Hugh Jackman (and this year’s host, Ellen DeGeneres). With this type of host, mixers have to keep a hand on the mixing fader at all times, constantly adjusting the sound throughout the show, whether they’re lowering the sound on an overly effusive audience member or the sound of coins jingling in the host’s pocket.
“When you’re dealing with [a mobile host], it’s really all about teamwork.”
That’s because there are microphones everywhere—on the host’s tie or in their hair, in the orchestra, and out in the house to pick up the audience reaction. The various mixers have to keep their hands on their faders to ensure that they get enough volume so that the audience can hear, but not so much that they set off feedback or interfere with the broadcast mix. It’s a delicate dance.
And of course, it wouldn’t be the Oscars if there weren’t a winner or two who spent too long thanking people and needed to be nudged offstage with orchestra cues. If that fails, it’s the sound guys who give the winner the ultimate sign.
“The producer and director will make the call if they feel they need to encourage the person to move on.” If the winner ignores the swelling orchestra music, the mixers will eventually get the cue to cut the audio signal from the winner’s microphone.
Through elegant camera cutting, producers can reduce the awkwardness of the cutoff—at least for the home viewer. “If they do a nice cut in a dramatic pause in a speech, you don’t even realize at home that the person was going to keep speaking, it just seems very natural.” The show’s producers always want to be as respectful as possible.
Less elegant is when an excited winner lets out a word that could upset the FCC, but that’s a job for Standards and Practices, not the mixers. They enjoy a seven-second delay so they can monitor any potentially blue language, bleeping out a curse word.
It’s hard to predict how this year’s show will go, but the team will be ready for it all: a baritone belly-laugher in the crowd, a crowd-surfing Ellen, and the occasional tap-tap “Is this thing on?”