A Bluffer's Guide To The Oscars Technical Categories

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To some, the Academy Awards are divided into “the big ones” (Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, etc) and the ones where they stepped out to make tea. Not us, though, and not you. The artists and artisans on the other side of the camera – the crème de la crème of VFX artistry, sound and editing – may not be household names, but their achievements justly comprise half of the showpiece event. But how do they get there? And who votes for them? Well, if Best Sound Mixing makes you think of Grandmaster Flash and an “Oscar bake-off” conjures images of a cake made from the contents of Sesame Street’s bin, this handy guide should guide you through Sunday’s technical categories.

Iron Man 3

What is it? A catch-all term that includes practical (i.e. Gravity’s rigs) and visual effects (i.e. Gravity’s CG work)

Year introduced: 1938 (as ‘Special Effects’); 1977 (as ‘Visual Effects’)

2014 Nominees:

  • Gravity (Tim Webber, Chris Lawrence, Dave Shirk, Neil Corbould)
  • The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Joe Letteri, Eric Saindon, David Clayton, R. Christopher White)
  • Iron Man 3 (Christopher Townsend, Guy Williams, Erik Nash, Dan Sudick)
  • The Lone Ranger (Tim Alexander, Gary Brozenich, Edson Williams, John Frazier)
  • Star Trek Into Darkness (Roger Guyett, Patrick Tubach, Ben Grossmann, Burt Dalton)

How does the voting work?
First, the Academy’s Visual Effects Branch Executive Committee Contenders got together and picked ten films that weren’t Philomena. Then the respective VFX teams pitched their wares to the 323-strong Visual Effects branch of the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences (AMPAS), currently chaired by Raiders Of The Lost Ark veteran Craig Barron, in early January. Once their collective eyeballs had been popped by short sizzle reels and their brains engaged by five-minute pitches by Joe Letteri and his fellow VFX supes, a shortlist of five was settled upon. Elysium, Oblivion, Thor: The Dark World, Pacific Rim and World War Z were the unlucky few to miss the cut. The remaining five were put to the entire Academy, who had to cast their votes by February 25.

Gravity remains hotter than a piri-piri chicken re-entering Earth’s atmosphere, but Letteri and Weta Digital’s Smaug-heavy Hobbit pitch also won admirers at the bake-off.

Gravity (Glenn Freemantle)

What is it? The post-production art of blending different audio tracks (score, soundtrack, diegetic sound and dialogue) into something ear-pleasing for a movie’s final cut.

Year introduced: MGM’s The Big House was the first winner in 1929.

2014 Nominees

  • All Is Lost (Steve Boeddeker and Richard Hymns)
  • Captain Phillips (Oliver Tarney)
  • Gravity (Glenn Freemantle, pictured above)
  • The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Brent Burge and Chris Ward)
  • Lone Survivor (Wylie Stateman)

How does the voting work?
AMPAS’s sound branch picks the five-strong shortlist, but the entire membership votes for the winner. Nominees are entitled to “audition” 20 minutes of their movies at “Academy Standard sound level” to voters – if they can get them to turn up, which is a pretty big ‘if’ in this category. When it comes to the final Academy vote, it’s often a case of ‘pin the tail on the movie’ as members scratch their heads and take a wild guess.

As in the Best Sound Editing bracket, Gravity’s Glenn Freemantle is a hot favourite here. The film won for sound mixing at the influential Cinema Audio Society awards. Don’t rule out Captain Phillips’ first-timer Oliver Tarney, though.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Wh*at is it?* The sound editor’s job is to create a movie’s audio elements, from dialogue recorded on location to sound effects, foley and ADR recorded off set. These are all synched up and extraneous on-set noises are removed.

Year introduced: 1963. The first winner was Walter Elliott and It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Subsequent Oscars have gone to (among others) The Bourne Supremacy, The Dark Knight, The Hurt Locker, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Braveheart and Aliens.

2014 nominees

  • All Is Lost (Steve Boeddeker, Richard Hymns)
  • Captain Phillips (Oliver Tarney)
  • Gravity (Glenn Freemantle)
  • The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Brent Burge, Chris Ward)
  • Lone Survivor (Wylie Stateman)

How does the voting work?
If you thought the sound editing in Skyfall was exactly as good as Zero Dark Thirty’s, you have a better ear than us. Still, those two movies shared the 2013 Oscar, when the Academy members decided the pair were of equal merit. Like the Best Sound Mixing category, the 418-strong Academy Sound branch picks the shortlist of five, with the select five voted on by the entire Academy membership by Tuesday, February 25.

Gravity’s Freemantle, who had General Motors and NASA help him fill the vacuum of space with vibrations, is a clear favourite, not least because most Academy members haven’t the foggiest what’s involved and they like the movie anyway.

American Hustle (Michael Wilkinson)

What is it? The men and women without whom all movie stars would wander around stark naked in every movie. Despite this, they are deemed worthy of celebration and even an award at the Oscars.

Year introduced: The Best Costume Design gong – for a time basically redesignated the “Here You Go, Edith Head” award – was introduced in 1948. There were separate Oscars for colour and black-and-white films, due to the very different demands of costuming, say, a blacklit noir and a Technicolor epic, before the two were finally integrated in 1967. By the by, Edith Head won both in 1950 for All About Eve and Samson & Delilah, the big show-off.

2014 Nominees

  • 12 Years A Slave (Patricia Norris)
  • American Hustle (Michael Wilkinson, pictured above)
  • The Grandmaster (William Chang Suk Ping)
  • The Great Gatsby (Catherine Martin)
  • The Invisible Woman (Michael O'Connor)

How does the voting work?
All submissions are reviewed by AMPAS’s Costume Designers branch – 108-strong – and the shortlist is decided. Then the entire Academy votes on its favourite. To be eligible, the costumes need to have been “conceived” by the costume designer, although real-life inspirations and research are allowed to play into the nominee’s work. It’s been a very long time since anyone was disqualified for LaBeoufing their way into the category.

For obvious reasons the period-ier the better here, so Catherine Martin’s work on The Great Gatsby and beloved 12 Years A Slave costumer Patricia Norris are the bookies favourites. Then again, the bookies might be wearing ‘70s suits designed by American Hustle’s Michael Wilkinson. The recent Costume Designers Guild – a shindig with three separate categories – awarded 12 Years A Slave (period), Blue Jasmine (contemporary film) and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (fantasy), but as awards maven Scott Feinberg points out, that’s no indicator of Oscar glory.

Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa

What is it? AKA ‘The One Norbit Was Nominated For’, this category was a latecomer to the Academy Awards. It initially recognised great feats in make-up and prosthetics from giants like Rick Baker before expanding to include hair styling.

Year introduced: 1981. The Academy Award for Best Makeup was established when a lack of recognition for The Elephant Man’s incredible prosthetics sparked a major kerfuffle, with the ‘...And Hair’ part added in 2012. Prior to that there had been two special achievement awards for William Tuttle’s work on 7 Faces Of Dr. Lao (1964) and John Chambers on Planet Of The Apes (1968). Baker has won it seven times, including one for An American Werewolf In London, the first ever winner (he was one of those nominated for Norbit too).

2014 Nominees

  • Dallas Buyers Club (Adruitha Lee, Robin Mathews)
  • Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa (Stephen Prouty)
  • The Lone Ranger (Joel Harlow, Gloria Pasqua-Casny)

How does the voting work?
Think of a tennis grand slam, only one where all the players have Bjorn Borg hair. First, the 135 good folk of AMPAS’s Makeup Artist and Hairstylists Branch – or at least 15 of them, as a minimum – attend a special gathering to pick a pre-shortlist. Then the branch narrows the candidates down to a shortlist of three, before the entire AMPAS membership casts its vote.

Les Misérables is the current holder, but Oscar tipsters are pointing to a shift down in scale this year. Despite a makeup budget of $250 in total (or $650 less than the cost of an Oscar), Dallas Buyers Club has Best Picture cachet and goodwill with the wider Academy votership. And surely the voters will love that underdog success story, with Lee and Mathews taking their skeletal stars from an appearance the verge of death to one of recovering health and back several times in a day, and all on the tiniest budget imaginable.

The Great Gatsby

What is it? Recognition for the work that goes into designing the world of a movie, from establishing its specific aesthetic to overseeing sets and props. Also, a brilliant opportunity to use the phrase ‘mise-en-scène’.

Year introduced: First awarded in 1928 as ‘Best Interior Decoration’, this switched to the less Llewelyn-Bowen-y ‘Best Art Direction’ in 1947 and onto its current incarnation in 2012. Like Best Costume Design, there were separate awards for production design in colour and black-and-white movies. The award has been shared between set decorator and art director since then.

2014 Nominees

  • 12 Years a Slave (Adam Stockhausen, Alice Baker)
  • American Hustle (Judy Becker, Heather Loeffler)
  • Gravity (Andy Nicholson, Rosie Goodwin, Joanne Woollard)
  • The Great Gatsby (Catherine Martin, Beverley Dunn)
  • Her (K.K. Barrett, Gene Serdena)

How does the voting work?
Aspiring nominees go before the 262 members of the AMPAS Designers Branch hoping to score the (minimum) 44 votes that will win them a nomination.

Gravity is a fancied outsider, but the The Great Gatsby is the canny pick. It may have been unloved in most of the big categories, but Catherine Martin’s work is hugely respected and the film’s heightened sensibility is suitably attention grabbing, especially for any flower-lovers amongst Academy voters.