Why The Oscars' Sound Mixing And Editing Awards Were Merged Into 'Best Sound'

With a penchant for baffling nominees and counter-intuitive production ideas, the Academy Awards ceremony is often as fun to pick apart as it is to celebrate. But as gimmicks come and go, one question always endures, arising at every Oscar party I've ever been to: what the heck is the difference between sound editing and sound mixing?

This question is at the core of a recent Academy decision that has combined the two sound categories into one award, simply titled "Best Sound." The change came in April 2020, when the team behind the Oscars decided to tweak some long-standing rules in order to streamline the award show. Along with doing away with DVD screeners, creating a quantifiable definition for the original score category, and temporarily suspending a theatrical release qualification, Variety reported that the Academy's sound branch chose to merge two long-standing categories into one.

What's the difference, anyway?

To understand the Academy's decision, it's imperative to understand the difference between the two categories that have been a part of the Oscars in one form or another for years. In simplest definitions, sound editing involves arranging all the sound captured during production, while sound mixing is a post-production process to create a dynamic sound by blending dialogue, music, sound effects, and silence.

Here's a comparison: if you were making a social media post, think of the editing as looking at your photos right after you've taken them to select the ones you'd like to use, cropping them, and arranging them. Mixing, meanwhile, would take place later on and would be more akin to adjusting composition elements to make sure all the photos look their best together for the final product. Both aspects are essential, but each requires a different skill set and the two don't always take place at the same time. Again, this is just an example, as sound design obviously requires a more specialized skill set than, say, posting on Instagram.

"Ford v. Ferrari" sound designer Donald Sylvester spoke with Variety right after the change was announced. "It seems natural to me that sound has evolved into one category," he said, adding that, "by nature, the editors mix, and the mixers edit." Other sound designers were not as receptive to the change, which some think diminishes the complexity of the multi-faceted sound design process. Heather Fink, who has worked in the sound departments for everything from "Euphoria" to "Daredevil," pointed out to Variety that "film crews get so little recognition as it is." She pointed out that sound design teams for projects like "Birdman" and "1917" "conceived of new methods of location sound recording to accommodate the unique challenges of those films."

Decoding the Academy's category design

Discussion surrounding the change has often cited instances of one film winning both sound categories as an indication that the categories are redundant, but that isn't always the case. As Nerdist reports, the awards for Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing have only gone to the same film eight times out of the last 20. Last year, the first since the new rule was adopted, "Sound of Metal" took home the first "Best Sound" award. Despite evidence that Academy voters can obviously tell the difference between the two sound categories and award films accordingly, it's true that most viewers at home may not know the difference. The Oscars is about recognizing the best of the best, but it still aims to put on a show. For those who aren't aware of the intricacies of the department, the second sound category is when the long night starts to drag.

Of course, everyone who works on a film deserves recognition, but the Oscars have always had an issue with category collapse. The Academy doesn't specifically recognize stunt work or casting, and the make-up category includes both traditional looks and massive prosthetic undertakings. It makes sense for sound workers to feel as if a form of recognition is being taken away by the merged sound categories — because it is — but sound was one of the only departments to have more than one category in the first place. Similarly, art direction and set decoration are both recognized under the umbrella category of "Best Production Design." The Academy frequently works to streamline and improve its process, but to date, the end result is still a ceremony that fails to publicly appreciate several entire crew departments.

Sound categories have changed before

This actually isn't the first time the sound categories have changed. In fact, they seem to be a frequent subject of refinement within the Academy. For a period, the category was simply called "Best Sound," as it is now, and there have even been years when it wasn't given out at all. In the '80s and '90s, one of two sound awards was called Sound Effects Editing, a title that can be found in a copy of a 1999 Academy press release. The release demonstrates that even back then, the group was trying to decide whether or not to merge the two sound categories into one — plus debating a stunt category that still hasn't come to fruition.

In the end, the Cinema Audio Society might sum it up best. The organization touched upon the complexity of the 2020 change with a statement to Variety:

"We understand this decision came about after careful debate and consideration by the sound branch. While points of concern exist, the Cinema Audio Society respects and supports efforts to unify recognition of both sound mixing and sound editorial as a highly aligned team of creatives that are integral to a film's success. Our overall hope is that this most recent evolution of the Academy will serve to elevate the importance of cinema sound to the public and underscore the importance of collaboration within the art of filmmaking."

Regardless of the Oscars' decisions surrounding the category, it's clear that sound is an integral component of any movie, one that requires careful crafting and detailed work. It's easy to throw on a movie and appreciate the visuals or performances, but some of the best movies of our lifetimes would be greatly diminished without the effect of powerful sound design. The next time you watch one of this year's nominees for "Best Sound" –which include "Dune," "No Time To Die," "Belfast," "The Power of the Dog," and "West Side Story" — make sure to listen close.