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They like the sound of Academy Award winner

Special to The Times

For their work on “The Last Samurai” and “Seabiscuit,” sound mixers Anna Behlmer and Andy Nelson are Oscar-nominated twice in the same category, but the two concede they face stiff competition.

“It’s tough,” Behlmer says. Nelson agrees, “We all know ‘Lord of the Rings’ is the giant.”

The pair has been nominated together five other times -- for “Braveheart,” “Evita,” “L.A. Confidential,” “The Thin Red Line” and “Moulin Rouge” -- without a win (although Nelson has four other nominations and won for 1998’s “Saving Private Ryan”).

“We just go for a good time,” Nelson says. “We keep our fingers crossed.”

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“He’s a much better sport than I am,” Behlmer says.

“I just enjoy the show and go, ‘Oh, well. God willing, we’ll be back another year,’ ” Nelson says. Behlmer laughs. “Yeah, easy for him to say. He has one!”

If most of the Academy Awards’ massive audience can’t tell the difference between the sound and sound editing categories, Behlmer and Nelson hope that the recent name change from “sound” to “sound mixing” will help clarify it to the lay Oscar viewer -- as well as the sometimes uncertain academy voter.

“I normally explain that we are the last creative process in the making of the film, which is blending all the sound together,” Nelson says. “The film is shot on location or in the studio and they then come back and edit the film together to tell the story. Then the composer comes in and writes the music, and then they throw it all to us.” Nelson works with the dialogue and music tracks while Behlmer works with the sound effects, which can mean sorting through hundreds of sounds for just one sequence in a historical war epic like “The Last Samurai.” By synthesizing the sound, “the soul of the film emerges,” Nelson says.

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Ten years ago, individual sound mixers worked separately on dialogue and music, but advances in technology streamlined the profession so that most now work in teams of two, although there are still a handful of three-person crews in Hollywood, including this year’s Oscar-nominated sound-mixing teams for “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.”

Both “Seabiscuit” and “The Last Samurai” were complex, Nelson says, “difficult in two different ways because ‘Seabiscuit’ was a lyrical film [in the] approach to the storytelling. ‘Samurai’ was more muscular.” The two point to the fog battle, in which the samurai are seen for the first time, as the toughest sequence to mix in “The Last Samurai.” “The conch shell, building and maintaining the tension, when to let it off and bring it back -- that was done with sound and score,” Behlmer says. “The samurai had to be first mysterious, then frightening.” Nelson adds, “It was probably the most worked-on scene in the whole picture.”

In “Seabiscuit,” they pick the David-versus-Goliath race between reigning champ War Admiral and upstart Seabiscuit as the most challenging sequence.

“Again, for dynamic reasons,” Nelson says. “The tension of the crowd building before the first bell of the race and then dropping off into silence and building again.” Behlmer says, “We did the end of that race several times,” quieting it down at certain points to increase the end effect. “If you peak too soon, then you won’t get the impact.” Nelson adds, “You kind of play with it until you go, ‘Wow.’ That’s where the magic is, opposed to the science of it.”

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London-born Nelson, 50, first learned about sound mixing working for the BBC. “It wasn’t something I necessarily searched out,” he says. “I started playing with tape recorders and music, particularly, picking up pieces of music from a library and trying them against visuals.” He later worked at England’s Shepperton Studios on films for Stanley Kubrick and Michael Apted, and with his first Oscar sound nod for 1988’s “Gorillas in the Mist,” he got offers from Hollywood and moved here.

Behlmer, who says she’s “10 years younger” than Nelson, grew up in Hollywood and was introduced to sound mixing by a sound engineer she once dated, working her way up from the film vaults to a film loader and recordist. The two have worked as a team for 10 years, ever since clicking on their first job together on Jim Sheridan’s “In the Name of the Father.”

The two have worked on more than 50 films together and have been based at the 20th Century Fox studio lot since 1997, although they work on films from all the major studios.

They spend six to eight weeks on a film and do about six films a year, scheduling jobs as far as a year and a half ahead.

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As sound re-recording mixers, they collaborate closely with the director, composer and sound editors (who prepare the sound for them to mix), but the one person they don’t usually interact with is the production sound mixer -- the person on location recording the dialogue -- with whom they share their sound-mixing Oscar nominations: Jeff Wexler on “The Last Samurai” and Tod A. Maitland on “Seabiscuit.”

“Jeff actually came to see us a couple of weeks ago because he’s delighted with the way the film turned out,” Nelson says. “It was the first time I met him. I love meeting these guys, but truly our worlds don’t collide very much.”

The sound-mixing community, Nelson says, is small and close-knit. “We all know each other,” adds Behlmer, who was the first woman nominated in the sound category. (Pud Cusack, for 1998’s “The Mask of Zorro,” is the only other woman nominated since.) Behlmer says there was quite a prejudice against women in sound in the days when she was breaking in -- “I actually had a picture editor, a much older man, just really openly say, ‘What is she doing here?’ ” -- but she doesn’t see that attitude anymore. “Now it’s difficult for anybody to break into this business,” Behlmer says, with so many graduates coming out of film schools and not enough opportunities.

And although there are now many female sound editors, there are still relatively few female sound mixers, which Behlmer and Nelson attribute to the long hours required.

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On “Seabiscuit,” Nelson says, “we were there from 9 a.m. till 11 p.m. pretty much seven days a week.” Because of the increasing pressure from studios to make release dates, “by the time we get our hands on it, it’s kind of, ‘OK, if we don’t work every weekend, we’ll never get this thing finished,’ ” he says.

Sound editors work long hours as well, but as freelancers they can take time off between jobs, not an option for sound mixers, who must keep expensive sound stages running to make a profit. Behlmer stresses, however, that she loves the job because “it’s really fun, when you’re working on a film that you love.” Adds Nelson, “It’s never tiring, it’s never boring, it’s always exciting.”

He recalls the first time he saw “Star Wars.” “I remember sitting there in the theater thinking, ‘Oh, my God, this place is going to fall down.’ I was in the middle of London, I was quite young, and the walls were [shaking]. I’d never experienced that before. That had a huge impact on me about how you can feel by manipulating sound on a movie.”


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