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At the Oscars: Who Stole the Show in Sound

The biggest names in Hollywood gathered Sunday night for the 89th annual Academy Awards. In case you missed it, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway mistakenly announced La La Land for Best Picture. The film’s producer and Northwestern graduate, Jordan Horowitz, graciously handed over the Oscar to its rightful winner, Moonlight.

However, the envelope mix-up wasn’t the only excitement of the evening. We caught up with Northwestern Professor and Department Chair David Tolchinsky to talk about some of the big winners in the night’s sound categories.

Best Original Score – La La Land

La La Land didn’t take home the biggest award of the night, but the film’s composer, Justin Hurwitz, did win Best Original Score.

“Any time a musical is produced and awarded, it’s great for people in the sound industry,” says Tolchinsky. “It puts sound at the forefront and proves that sound should be taken seriously.”

La La Land is a musical romantic comedy starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. It’s an ode to Old Hollywood, complete with live song and dance numbers. For Tolchinsky, La La Land’s popularity and critical acclaim have been particularly exciting because they have shed new light on the talents of those in the sound industry.

“What’s cool about the sound industry and problematic at the same time is if we do our jobs right, our work is invisible,” Tolchinsky says. “We use sound to elicit emotion, fear, joy, excitement and connection to characters without audience members realizing sound is partly responsible.”

With La La Land, audiences and critics had no choice but to notice.

“Musicals point to the sound artist, as if to shout, ‘Hey everybody, we’re here!’” Tolchinsky says.

There were a few non-sound-related factors that made La La Land’s Best Score win even more special for Tolchinsky. Hurwitz and the film’s writer and director, Damien Chazelle were college roommates. This is the pair’s third collaboration – other films include 2014’s Oscar-winning film, Whiplash.

“As a professor, I love to hear about filmmakers meeting as students. And as a filmmaker, I can tell you I’m still making films with people I met in school – most notably my spouse and fellow Northwestern film professor, Debra Tolchinsky. She asked me to do sound on one of her films.”

Best Original Score – Moonlight

Moonlight was also nominated for Best Score, and deservedly so. While La La Land’s score was more obvious and in your face, the subtlety of the Moonlight score impressed the professor.

“Moonlight in terms of sound is amazing. Even though it didn’t win any sound awards, it’s another film that shows what sound can do.”

Tolchinsky said that while Moonlight is an astounding film that deserves best picture, its soundtrack is also stunning. Poignant, understated music and subtle manipulation of the mother character’s dialogue reinforce the soundtrack’s effectiveness.

Best Sound Editing – Arrival

Even before Oscar season got underway, Tolchinsky was praising Arrival, Sunday’s winner for Best Sound Editing. Arrival’s ability to create a foreign, yet recognizable, alien language that was believable enough to captivate a human audience made it one of his top picks for the year.

“Out of all the soundtracks released this year, Arrival was an amazing and unusual one,” Tolchinsky says. “It deserved all of the awards it got. Arrival’s soundtrack uses mostly natural sound to convey alien language. It’s a great lesson for anyone going into sound. Some sounds convey a coldness, and others convey something organic and living.”

Best Sound Mixing – Hacksaw Ridge

Hacksaw Ridge sound mixer Kevin O’Connell took home his first Oscar for Sound Mixing Sunday night after being nominated 21 times. A nomination in this category is not unusual for war films, according to Tolchinsky.

“In terms of sound mixing, if a movie contains lots of explosions or gunfire, as well as music and dialogue, there’s a chance it will be nominated in this category because there are so many elements at play,” Tolchinsky says. “That’s why a lot of well-done war or action movies are nominated.”

Despite the accolades the film received on Sunday, Tolchinsky says he was struck by Hacksaw Ridge’s sound and its similarity to something you might hear in a horror movie.

“Every time you see a war movie or a battle movie, they create a take on war,” Tolchinsky says. “In Hacksaw Ridge, what struck me was they were seeing it as a horror film. They wanted us to feel like we were watching a zombie movie.”

Tolchinsky, who has taught classes in writing horror film, pointed to the contrasts between Hacksaw Ridge and Arrival. Both stories portrayed an ‘other’ – in Arrival, the creatures potentially invading planet Earth and in Hacksaw Ridge, the Japanese in World War II.

While the sound choices in Arrival conveyed a desire to understand, Hacksaw Ridge created a sense of fear and horror.

“Arrival is about welcoming creatures who look like monsters, whereas Hacksaw is about unknown characters who are evil and half-dead,” Tolchinsky says. “There is humanity where there should be horror and horror in a place where there might be humanity.”

Best Original Song – La La Land

La La Land also took home the award for Best Original Song for City of Stars. Though some didn’t know what to make of a feature-length romantic musical leading the pack all season long, Tolchinsky is intrigued by what its success might mean for those working in the sound industry.

“I enjoyed La La Land’s references, both sonic and visual, to older Hollywood films,” he says. “Musicals shine a spotlight on the sound industry and raise our profile.”