Obscure Oscar Categories Explained

The 2017 Oscars are getting underway very soon, and much of the buzz surrounding it involves the picks for the more well-known categories, like Best Picture and Best Actor. However, there are many other categories awarded at the Oscars that are not that well known by the general public, but hold high significance in the cinematic world. Such categories include Best Foreign Language Film, Best Production Design, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Sound Editing. What are these categories, why are they important cinematically, and why should you care?

Best Foreign Language Film

What is this category? The best non-English speaking film from each country outside of the United States is submitted for this category. Unlike other Oscar categories, the winner of this category is awarded to the country that submits the film to the Oscars, not the director or producer of the film.

How do films qualify for this category? The eligibility of certain foreign language films for this category has been controversial for a number of reasons: only one film per country can be submitted to the Academy, which severely limits the kinds of films that can be awarded; what qualifies as a “country” is controversial for many geographic regions, such as Palestine and Hong Kong; and most importantly, it isolates an entire world of good films from all of the other Oscars categories, such as Best Picture.

Why should I care? This category is important because it allows for a wide variety of films to be recognized for their cultural importance to a cine-literate public that may not have heard of them. Some important past winners of Best Foreign Language Film that have great cinematic significance include: 8 ½; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; The Motorcycle Diaries; and Pan’s Labyrinth.

Production design

What does this category mean? This refers to the design of the film sets that are used during shooting. These sets may be in a film studio, or on location.

What do production designers do? Production designers decide what the layout of a set should look like. This takes into account not only the physical ordering of props in a set, but also the thematic significance of such designs. So much can be conveyed in a film based solely on how the set is organized.

What is considered “good” production design? Exceptional production design properly immerses the audience into the film by subtly establishing and reinforcing certain themes, moods, and ideas presented in the film.

Why is this category important? Proficiency in production design conveys certain messages to the audience in ways that may not be as achievable through simple dialogue. For example, in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, careful choices had to be made in portraying the Muggle world with elements of period-era technology and design, along with the spirit and thrill of the wizarding world.

The last two categories--sound editing and sound mixing--are often confused with each other. However, they are two complete different steps taken to ensure that the sound in the final product is as clean and emotionally impactful as possible.

Sound editing

What is this category? Sound editing refers to the cleaning up of audio after its original taping. Contrary to popular belief, the sound picked up during filming is rarely the actual sound you hear in the theater. This is because most of the sound recorded during shooting is unusable on its own. The microphones used during filming are so sensitive that they often pick up undesired sounds, such as props running (fans, for example, to simulate wind), conversations behind the scenes, and unintended noise from the environment (like trucks driving past). Thus, extensive work has to be done to make sure that such sounds are not included in the film.

What do sound editors do? Sound editors perform the following tasks to clean up the audio: “[enhancing] the dialog, [adding] the foley, ADR (automated dialog replacement), walla (crowd noises), incidental sounds (paper rustling), atmosphere (wind, a distant tugboat) and sound effects (engines revving, gunshots).” (source) The audio utilized by the sound editors may come from their own audio library or from project-specific recordings that they make. Thus, much responsibility is placed on these sound editors to accurately simulate the environment that is being filmed. For example, in Jurassic Park, no one had ever heard a dinosaur’s screech before, so the sound editors had to create what they thought these noises would sound like by combining the screeches of various animals. The result is a sound that is associated with dinosaurs to this day.

What is considered “good” sound editing? Sound editing, along with sound mixing, works best when it is not noticed by the audience. The purpose of this department is to allow the audience to be immersed in the world of the film. When the expected sounds and audio effects are not present in a scene, such as in the trailer for the new Mummy film, it is immediately obvious to the viewer that they are watching a film.

Why should I care? No matter how pretty a film looks or how great the screenwriting is, a film will not be enjoyable if the wind and rain props are way louder than the spoken dialogue, or if you can hear commands from the director in the background during a quiet scene, for example. Thus, the success of a film is dependent largely on the sound editor’s ability to properly portray the environment being filmed.

Sound mixing

What is this category? Sound mixing refers to the manipulation of audio gathered by the sound editors along with film scores and sound effects to finalize the sounds heard in a film. Often, this step is supervised by the director and/or producer.

What is considered “good” sound mixing? Good sound mixing allows for the exploration of ideas that may not be expressed enough through the visuals. Like sound editing, sound mixing works best when it is not noticed by the audience.

Why should I care? When done right, sound mixing can establish a particular mood or communicate important themes in a film. An example of this success is utilization of sound in the opening shots of Inside Out: “'Inside Out' sound designer Ren Klyce notes that the animated movie starts with the birth of Joy, which requires one sound — for baby Riley’s first emotion. When other emotions arrive and start manufacturing memories, the sound gets more dense 'as the mixer decides the shaping, sculpting and dovetailing of different sounds to work together as one.'" These small details greatly enrich the experience of watching this film in ways that dialogue could not achieve.

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