What's Behind Oscar-Worthy Sound Editing? The best sound editing award at the Oscars may not be the sexiest category, but every filmmaker would say good sound is an essential part of a movie. Sound editor Lon Bender, who nabbed an Academy Award a decade ago for Braveheart is nominated this year for his work on Blood Diamond.

What's Behind Oscar-Worthy Sound Editing?

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This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.


And I'm Madeleine Brand.

Just a few miles away from our studios on a stretch of Hollywood Boulevard, the red carpet is already in place, along with tents, bleachers, police barricades, and satellite trucks - all there for this Sunday's Academy Awards ceremony.

CHADWICK: The rest of this week we'll be featuring a number of Oscar stories on the program. Tomorrow, Karen Grigsby Bates reports on "Days of Glory." It's nominated for Best Foreign Language Film. It tells the story of African troops who helped liberate France during the Second World War.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: When you actually look at the current history books and the ones that we grew up with, and the fact that these Muslim soldiers fought alongside Americans and the British to liberate France, has been completely nonexistent.

BRAND: We'll also profile one group converging en masse this weekend - limo drivers, more than 1,000 of them.

CHADWICK: And millions of us will be watching the Oscars on Sunday. Watching and listening, too.

(Soundbite of movie, "Blood Diamonds")

Mr. LEONARDO DICAPRIO (Actor): (As Danny Archer) Who do you think got you out of jail, huh? That makes us partners.

Mr. DJIMON HOUNSOU (Actor): (As Solomon Vandy) I am not your partner.

Mr. DICAPRIO: What if I helped you find your family?

Mr. HOUNSOU: What do you know of my family?

Mr. DICAPRIO: Relief agencies are useless. The hospitals are overwhelmed. There are other ways, (unintelligible).

Mr. HOUNSOU: Liar!

CHADWICK: Leonardo DiCaprio and Djimon Hounsou. Both Oscar nominated for their work in "Blood Diamond." The movie is set a decade ago in West Africa with rebels and mercenaries and a man hoping a diamond can save his family. The film has five nominations in all, two of them for sound. And one of those for this man.

Mr. LON BENDER (Sound editor, "Blood Diamond"): My name is Lon Bender and I am a film sound editor.

CHADWICK: Lon Bender has been making movies sound real for almost 30 years. He and his partner, Wylie Stateman, started a company called Soundeluxe, recording and mixing audio, matching what you hear to the action of the picture.

Mr. BENDER: We are storytellers at a very subconscious level - in the sound industry. We look at scenes that people are generally looking at the vastness of, and we look at the minutia. And my perspective on sound is that it evokes memory, always for all of us. I think back to when I was a kid and asleep in maybe an afternoon, having a nap, and I could hear a small airplane going overhead. Well, whenever I hear a small airplane today I get relaxed, because I feel like remembering how it felt.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: Lon Bender's love of sound was reflected in the growth of that company he helped start, Soundeluxe. Eventually, they had hundreds of people working for them. Lon became a manager. Later, they sold the company but both Lon and Wylie stayed on to pursue their craft. Lon is now doing about one film a year. And this is one of five nominated for the Sound Editing Oscar.

Mr. BENDER: When "Blood Diamond" came along I really engaged in the editing process more deeply than I had ever before.

CHADWICK: When you think about this place Sierra Leone, how do you know what that place sounds like in the morning and what does it sound like in the morning?

Mr. BENDER: Well, it's an interesting question, because on one hand you're trying to be a documentarian, as best you can, and you want things to be realistic, as best you can. However, we are storytellers first, I believe, in the dramatic aspect of the motion picture industry.

And as much as we go for realism - in terms of language or in terms of types of weapons or even in terms of birds that might be indigenous to a certain location - we often bend the truth as best we can to tell our story. Which is what Hollywood is all about. It's smoke and mirrors. And, you know, I don't know if you can have smoke and mirrors with sound, but you do, believe me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BENDER: And I would take a morning scene, like the beginning of the movie when the family is just waking up before any trouble happened, and there are a number of very gentle sounds that may or may not be indigenous to Sierra Leone, to be quite honest with you.

(Soundbite of movie, "Blood Diamond")

Mr. HOUNSOU: (As Solomon Vandy) (Speaking foreign language)

(Soundbite of animals)

Mr. HOUNSOU: (As Solomon Vandy) (Speaking foreign language)

Mr. ANOINTING LUKOLA (Actor): (As N'Yanda Vandy) English boys don't go to school everyday.

Mr. HOUNSOU: (As Solomon Vandy) (Speaking foreign language)

Mr. BENDER: There were sounds of gentle farm animals. There's the lapping of water. I think I've even got a pigeon or a dove floating around in there somewhere, but something to convey the calmness of the morning that's in our language. And, you know, we have a certain nomenclature that we as an audience are used to hearing for motion pictures. And we as the creators of that audio nomenclature have to work within it.

So we take great licenses. And I would say that proudly because that's our job. Our job is to convey a story. Our job is to enhance what the director's vision is for any given scene or sequence in an overall movie.

CHADWICK: In "Blood Diamond" there are these moments of just intense chaos. I don't even - I don't recall if there's music playing in that part of the film, but I recall the sound of the gunfire and these rockets zipping by and the trucks rushing and…

(Soundbite of movie, "Blood Diamond")

Unidentified Man #3: Follow me.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

Mr. BENDER: We evolved that scene a lot, actually. The beginning, a lot of those impacts were more on a certain frequency of sound. They were all sort of mid-rangey sound, and I really wanted the sequence to have a lot of variation to it so the audience would constantly be propelled to the next moment as the characters were being propelled through the scene.

So we went back, and we spent a lot of time getting impacts of things between metal and wood and dirt and flesh, for when they were hitting the humans, to have different frequency ranges. So there was always something different that it wasn't just a continuous sound in the same frequency range, and as your ear was responding to these different things, your interest would be piqued in a subtle level, very much like music with different notes that are playing at different frequencies.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

Mr. BENDER: I spent a number of hours listening to that sequence with my eyes closed, just listening to the impacts and hearing how they were working and how they were taking us through the scene, and then I would listen to the guns and how they were working.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

CHADWICK: Explain the difference between the award for sound and the award for sound editing.

Mr. BENDER: The award for sound represents the mixing process, which is once the sounds have been decided upon by the sound editor and have been synchronized to the picture, you go to a mixing environment where the mixers mix the levels and they mix the locations of the sounds in the theater, and they mix the music together and the dialogue together, and the final soundtrack is created in the sound-mixing space, and that's what the Best Sound award is for.

The Sound Editing award represents the job of a sound supervisor, who's responsible for selecting the sounds, interacting with the director and editor on their goals for the sounds in the early phases of the process, right after principal photography takes place. They're responsible for overseeing the crews that record the sounds in the field or get them from a library, and then synchronize those sounds with the picture. And then the sound supervisor is an integral part of the team in the sound-mixing process when the final mix takes place because they're familiar with where all the sounds are. And they help the mixers understand where all the detail is, and it's a collaborative effort that we use to make a full soundtrack for a motion picture.

CHADWICK: You're nominated for "Blood Diamond." You've won an Oscar before for "Braveheart." What will it mean if you win again? I mean, what happens the next day?

Mr. BENDER: For me to win another Academy Award would be a very exciting day, an exciting time. And I hope that whoever wins the Academy Award this year for sound editing is able to enjoy that process of putting sounds in and enjoying the way we affect people, even though they can't see what we do. If we've done our job well, no one knows we did anything. It all seems like it happened.

CHADWICK: Lon Bender, nominated for an Oscar this year for Sound Editing on "Blood Diamond." Lon, thank you and good luck.

Mr. BENDER: Alex, thanks very much for having me.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: More to come on DAY TO DAY.

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