Those who win an Oscar find their names changed forever. For the sound-effects editor, the makeup woman, and the film editor, a trip to the podium of the Kodak Theater means more than the recognition of their peers or greater career opportunities. It's a rare occasion for their work to be respected by the public - one time when they become more than a name scrolling up on the end credits of a movie. And their presence is a reminder that film is a collaborative process that relies on craftsmen as much as actors.
Sound-effects editor Bruce Stambler knows he's one of the "invisible" folks behind the movies, the kind that make people ask their TV screens on Oscar night, "Who is that guy and what does he do?" His response is quick and a bit testy. Imagine, if you can, a movie with no sound. He pauses while the request sinks in. "You can't do it," he says with a laugh. "Most people have never been to a no-sound movie, so they take the sound track or the effects completely for granted."
Sound editors create the entire sound plan for a movie, says Stambler. Foley artists, the crews who do fun stuff like slap lettuce and crush ice to simulate fight noises, take direction from him. And the sound mixers, or "rerecorders," take his final plan and mix it into the film. His job is critical. "Just try to imagine any of your favorite movies without sounds."
Stambler received an Oscar for sound effects editing in 1996 for his work on the African potboiler, "The Ghost and the Darkness." He has no doubt that the jury of his peers responded to his work with animals, especially the lions. "All the animals were animatronics," he says, "the way they move their mouths ... is not what real lions do, so that after recording real lions, it's very hard to manipulate the sounds to match the visual."Other sound editors would know this, he says. "If I were to guess, I'd say they loved the animal stuff, because everyone who does sound knows just how hard that is to do."
Choosing the best film sound effects is a bit of a sideshow. Stambler explains the annual ritual known as the "sound editing bake-off." Academy voters winnow the nominations down to seven films, from which the sound supervisors create 10-minute "sound reels." Then, he says with a laugh, "we have a bake-off." They run the sound reels one after the other, he says, in front of a packed audience, and the final vote takes place immediately. "Anyone can go," though only Academy members may vote. "It's very cool," he says, "you get to see, or hear, the cream of the crop."
The man behind the lion's roar says he was scared to death when he walked down the aisle to pick up his Oscar. "As I walked onto the stage," he says, "I was on complete autopilot."
Given how much Stambler's profession has grown and changed just in the past few years - with the demands of digital sound reproduction and increasingly sophisticated equipment - he says he's happy to see more than just his own work recognized. "Getting the Oscar," says Stambler, "raised the profile of the field itself." While the jobs have flowed freely, Stambler says it took him a couple of years to raise his rates, which he did in 1998, by some 15 percent. "But that's only because the cost of living has gone up."
More important than money, he says, has been the satisfaction of being acknowledged by his peers, and the relationships the accolade has helped cement. "The most awesome thing was that people, like directors I've worked with, call and congratulate you," Stambler says. "Michael Douglas called me," Stambler says, adding that he pulled a classic sound-guy move: "I still have the recording of his message."
Edited excerpts from "Oscar winners reflect on getting gold" by Gloria Goodale in Cristian Science Monitor February 27, 2004
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