The Artists Behind the Sounds of the Year’s Best Movies

For the second year, the Dolby Institute and the SoundWorks Collection have collaborated to produce a series of podcast conversations with the artists nominated for Academy Awards for Best Achievement in Sound Editing and Best Achievement in Sound Mixing.

First off—why are there two Academy Award categories for sound and what’s the difference between the two? The two crafts, editing and mixing, are fundamentally different. Sound editors create sounds for the film, whether they be the vocalizations of the heptapods in Arrival or the strains of a groaning airplane making a water landing in Sully. Sound mixers blend and balance those sounds with the film’s dialog and music and place the sounds spatially around the cinema to immerse the audience in a desperate firefight in Libya in 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi or to communicate the lives of two young artists chasing their dreams in La La Land.

I had the pleasure last week to sit down and talk with some of the talented artists behind these films about their truly amazing work. You can listen to my conversations with them on Dolby.com or in your favorite podcast service: iTunesStitcher, and Soundcloud.

Here are some fun things I learned during those conversations:

Arrival (nominated for both Best Sound Editing & Best Sound Mixing)

Supervising Sound Editor Sylvain Bellemare and Mixer Bernard Gariépy Strobl worked with a multi-national crew in Paris, Montréal, Los Angeles, and New Zealand to pull off the challenging sound work on this complex film. What do the heptapods sound like when they move? What is their language? What kinds of sounds do their ships make? The team worked within a basic rule from director Denis Villeneuve: everything had to sound natural and organic, with no electronic sounds. Sylvain and his sound design team did a remarkable job creating all the sounds associated with the aliens, and Bernard did wonderful work integrating the sound design seamlessly into a beautiful, haunting score by Jóhann Jóhannsson so that you’re not ever really sure where the sound design ends and the music begins.

Deepwater Horizon (nominated for Best Sound Editing)

Supervising Sound Editor Renée Tondelli had to learn to speak “oilese,” the specialized lingo of the oil workers on the deep sea drilling rigs that is like another language. Much of the background conversation of these oil workers in the film was recorded by Renée with real oil workers on the film’s Louisiana locations and integrated seamlessly into the principal characters’ dialog to make the experience of the horrific explosion and fire on the rig seem totally real.

Hacksaw Ridge (nominated for both Best Sound Editing & Best Sound Mixing)

Robert Mackenzie

First time editing nominees Robert Mackenzie and Andy Wright started work on the film in Sydney, Australia, where they were joined by mixer Kevin O’Connell, up for his 21st Academy Award nomination for this picture. Essentially the second half of this film about a conscientious objector thrust into the bloodiest battle of World War II is comprised of three separate battle sequences. The first sequence used no musical score and is the most naturalistic, but director Mel Gibson then contrasted the approach by becoming increasingly stylized in battle scenes two and three until the culmination is almost operatic.

La La Land (nominated for both Best Sound Editing & Best Sound Mixing)

Mildred Iatrou Morgan and Ai-Ling Lee

In part one of this episode, we were joined by Production Sound Mixer Steve Morrow, who was responsible for recording all of the film’s production tracks on set. The biggest surprise for me was learning from Steve that most of the musical numbers in the film were actually sung live on-set by the actors, not pre-recorded. I was also surprised to learn how little of the film was shot on protected sound stages—even that amazing sequence when Emma Stone and her roommates are getting ready to go out to a party, with all the crazy fast cuts and complex choreography, was shot in a real apartment in Los Angeles. In part two, we were joined by Supervising Sound Editors Ai-Ling Lee (a double nominee for Sound Mixing as well) and Mildred Iatrou Morgan who shared a great story about obsessively researching the sound of tap steps in MGM movie musicals of the 30s and 40s to make this movie sound authentically true to its classic musical DNA.

Sully (nominated for Best Sound Editing)

Alan Murray first collaborated with Clint Eastwood on 1979’s Escape from Alcatraz. Thirty-eight years, and a combined two Academy Awards, and nine nominations later, they’ve worked together again on Sully. In this episode, Alan talked about his long collaboration with Eastwood, and about the importance the team felt to get all the details right about the “Miracle on the Hudson,” including the highlight of working on the film: spending forty-five minutes with Captain Sullenberger himself to get the first-hand details of what exactly it sounded like in the cockpit as the plane went into the water.

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (nominated for Best Sound Mixing)


Jeffrey Haboush, Gary Summers, Michael Bay, and Greg Russell

What a team! Mixers Greg Russell, Gary Summers, and Jeffrey Haboush have an astounding 32 Oscar nominations among them. In this episode, these gentlemen discuss their long collaboration with director Michael Bay (Russell first worked with Bay on 1996’s The Rock), and how they worked together to bring this incredible story of the siege of the diplomatic outpost at Benghazi to the screen. I felt fortunate to catch these guys in the calm before the storm—in a few weeks they will begin mixing Transformers: The Last Knight for a June release.