The technical, below-the-line Oscar categories can make or break you ballot if you happen to be gambling ... er, playing along at home. How are you supposed to pick a winner for Best Sound Editing if you really don’t know what a sound editor does?

Great question, and Entertainment Weekly went in search of an answer. They interviewed this year’s nominees in the Sound Editing category – Erik Aadahl and Ethan Van der Ryn for Argo; Eugene Gearty for Life of Pi; Wylie Stateman for Django Unchained; and Paul N.J. Ottosson for Zero Dark Thirty--to learn more about their particular craft. (The site also dove into Sound Mixing and Film Editing, so look them up when you have a moment.)
“It’s the production sound mixer’s job to capture that dialogue on set as cleanly as possible to preserve the actor’s original performance,” Mandi Bierly writes in EW. “Post-production, the sound mixing team takes all the prepared sound elements mentioned above (there could be tens of thousands), plus the score (there were roughly 96 music tracks in Skyfall, for example), and affixes them to the screen and positions them in the theater while also setting their volume levels relative to each other.”

To better understand sound editing, each nominee explained how he approached challenging scenes in their nominated movies. Aadahl, in talking about the embassy raid that opens Argo, explains, “Our philosophy is to do everything from scratch, to use fresh ingredients … because there is no place to go to get those kinds of sounds and chants. [W]e had this incredible talent pool, and many of our voice talent had actually lived through and experienced the revolution, so it turned out to be a really emotional, cathartic experience. People were hugging and crying afterwards. I’ve never experienced anything like that on any film I’ve worked on.”

Stateman, who combed over swap meets and garage sales for Django Unchained props, says, “Old hand-forged chain sounds different than modern machine-made chain. And old leather is different than modern leather. … We recorded gunshots and echoes and all kinds of samples for design elements that had the acoustical fingerprint of those classic Western places, because that’s where that particular sound only lives, 100 miles off-road in these deep canyons on tribal land.”

It’s an interesting read, and a study of an Oscar category that many use as an excuse to run to the bathroom or hit the kitchen for more snacks. Not this year. Now you’ll know the reasoning behind these nominees, and possibly have a vested interest in then winner.

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