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Just one Oscar category for sound? The pros are happy to share the acclaim

Ai-Ling Lee was nominated for both sound editing and mixing Oscars for "La La Land." A new Academy rule change consolidates the two categories into one for the 2021 awards: Achievement in Sound.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

They’ve long talked about it but now they’ve done it. The motion picture academy’s board of governors have consolidated the sound editing and sound mixing categories into one award: Achievement in Sound.

A random sampling of sound professionals who spoke to The Times on Tuesday didn’t seem fazed by the change.

“As the winner of what appears to be the last Oscar for sound editing on ‘Ford v Ferrari,’ I can honestly say that that honor was diminished when the mixers for the show were overlooked,” said 2020 winner Don Sylvester. “The sound designers, editors and mixers all worked as a team, and I defy anyone who didn’t work on the film to tell me what part of the sound they liked better: the editing or the mixing. Nobody can tell the difference. So the academy did the right thing.”

Michael Minkler, a three-time Oscar winner who, along with his son, Christian, was nominated for their work as re-recording mixers on “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood,” said, “The subject of combining the award has been discussed for 20 years, both inside the academy sound branch and outside. I’ve also been involved on those sound branch committees debating the issue. I will go on the record as saying that it is the right decision at the right time.”

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His son agrees. “As I do admire, appreciate and respect the creative differences of both disciplines, it is apparent to me that the line has been blurred between the two. I do agree with the consolidation of the awards. The collaboration between sound editor and sound mixer has never been more cohesive,” added Christian P. Minkler.

At its most elemental, the sound editor collects the film’s sounds, including dialogue and effects, while the mixer determines how the audience hears those sounds.

With movie theaters shut down due to the pandemic, the motion picture academy’s board voted Tuesday to temporarily suspend its long-held rule requiring a theatrical release for Oscar consideration

The proposal was set forth by the Sound Award Subcommittee of the Sound Branch Executive Committee of the academy in December after considering the idea for several years. In a Dec. 4., 2019, email to branch membership, governors Kevin Collier, Teri Dorman and Scott Millan made the case for consolidation by pointing out how frequently the two awards went to the same film (eight times in the 13 years the two categories existed). The email also pointed out that every one of those years, at least one film had been nominated in both categories, and in six of the 13 years, the same person had been nominated in both.

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The email also argued that, as technology has advanced, the overlap between the disciplines has grown considerably: “The lines that separated our responsibilities to the overall soundtrack of a motion picture are blurring.”

Three-time nominee Steve Boeddecker (“Black Panther”) said, “The two categories have become blurred and I do believe that consolidating them into one will, hopefully, settle this. I would, however, like to see more members of the team be able to be recognized in this one category.”

Leslie Shatz (“12 Years a Slave”; Oscar nominee for “The Mummy”) said he was more concerned with where sound is placed in the credits than the department receiving two Oscars. “Not sure why sound should get two Academy Awards. If you look at the nominations most of the time it’s the same person or people doing both jobs. Postproduction is now so dependent on computers and software that the division between all the various crafts is becoming more and more blurred. I’m embarrassed when the sound awards come on and there are two. I think that the regular moviegoer must be confused about why.”

Skip Lievsay, an eight-time Oscar nominee and a winner for his sound mixing on “Gravity,” said, “I’m in favor of the move. ... Above all, it looks like our branch has taken the initiative to consolidate our awards in hopes of making the sound awards easier for the public to understand and possibly make the awards show more enjoyable for all concerned. There are many technical concerns that can now be addressed by the nomination process. This will make the sound awards considerably more fair to sound editors and re-recording mixers.”

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