The curious, delightful sights and sounds that heightened this year’s Oscar movies

These are the nuances that shaped the year’s best films.
These are the nuances that shaped the year’s best films.
Image: Paramount Pictures
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Arrival is a science fiction film, but it sure wasn’t shot like one. The Oscar-nominated movie about a linguist who communicates with aliens was shot and edited to look like a typical Tuesday, said colorist Joe Gawler, who graded the film.

“The stuff leading up to the ship was supposed to feel like a normal, nothing-special kind of day,” Gawler, senior colorist and partner at Harbor Picture Company, told Quartz. “The only thing special about that day is that the aliens showed up.” For Gawler, that meant using muted tones and a softer contrast to enhance the already-soft, underexposed camera work of Bradford Young, who earned a best cinematographer Oscar nod for the film.

The distinctive camera and post-production choices made by director Denis Villeneuve, Young, editor Joe Walker, and the rest of the team gave Arrival that poetic, ethereal feel that’s unlike most else in the science fiction genre.

It was one of the many nuances of sight and sound that made this year’s Best Picture nominees for the Academy Awards—Arrival, Fences, Hacksaw Ridge, Hell or High Water, Hidden Figures, La La Land, Lion, and Moonlight—shine.

The sights

While Arrival was inspired by the haunting suburban landscapes of photographer Todd Hido, and the muted, natural palettes of films like Army of Shadows, Moonlightanother Oscar contender, was shaped by the dreamy works of photographers like Henry Roy. Cinematographer James Laxton told Time that he and director Barry Jenkins discovered Roy’s work as college students at Florida State University, where the two met. “Roy was someone that I think shaped a lot of how Barry and I sort of approached the film at the very, very beginning,” Laxton said.

Laxton and Jenkins also looked to the portraits of African-American life captured by photographer Earlie Hudnall Jr. and the colors of Viviane Sassen to find the right the look for the film. The influence of Sassen’s 2013 “Almando blue” comes through especially in the artwork used to promote the movie.

Cinematographer Greig Fraser, meanwhile, challenged himself to see through the eyes of a five year old when filming Lion, another best cinematography nominee. The first part of the film, which tells the story of a young boy separated from his family in rural India, was shot from the main character’s three-foot-tall vantage point.

“All he could see are people’s belts and knees,” Fraser told Variety, of one scene in which the boy, Saroo, finds himself in a railway station during rush hour. “If you’ve ever experienced being in an Indian train station as the train pulls in, even as a six-foot adult, it’s incredibly scary. You just have people storming at you, bumping around you, without any regard to your safety.” That was the feeling Fraser wanted to capture in Lion.

Cinematographer Linus Sandgren, on the other hand, channeled Old Hollywood in Damien Chazelle’s La La Landwhich is favored to dominate the Oscars on Sunday. It was shot on widescreen 35mm film and without the use of any tricks (like blue-screen backdrops) to enhance the movie’s heightened, magical aesthetic.

“Damien wanted to make the movie the way they would have done it back in the 1950s for Singin’ in the Rain or A Star is Born,” Sandgren told Where to Watch. “If you brought a filmmaker from back then to now, they’d ask for the best camera and the widest screen, they’d shoot on film, and they’d capture the performances in camera without using blue screen. That was the attitude we brought to La La Land.”

The sounds

This year’s Oscar contenders also wielded the subtleties of sound to tell their stories.

In La La Land, sound editors Ai-Ling Lee and Mildred Iatrou Morgan—the first female team to be nominated in their category—used sound to transition between reality and fantasy in the modern-day musical, they told IndieWire. Take the opening sequence, for instance: Lee and Morgan built a “cacophony of sound” with noise from the city, horns, and music from car radios to introduce audiences to the movie through a traffic-jammed Los Angeles freeway. Then that city noise starts to blur into what becomes the first musical number, in which the characters get out of their cars and start dancing on their rooftops.

Arrival’s sound mixer Bernard Gariepy Strobl told the blog GoldDerby that he used a chaotic mix of communications sounds to create a sonic barrier between the aliens and the human crew sent to try to talk to them. That paved the way for Amy Adams’s character, linguist Louise Banks, to break through the din when she introduced herself personally to the aliens.

And, in Moonlightthe film’s otherworldly sonic identity comes from composer Nicholas Britell’s unique approach to chamber music. He remixed and slowed down classical instrumental tracks to create a deeper sense of sound in the film, in a style that was reportedly pioneered by hip hop’s DJ Screw. “When you slow the music down, the pitch goes down,” Britell told the New York Times (paywall). “And you actually get this audio texture, which is deepened and enriched and you hear more things in it. It sort of opens it up and stretches it out.” That formed the soundtrack to the protagonist’s coming of age tale.

The filmmaker’s nodded to a more traditional version of a “chopped and screwed” track with Jidenna’s “Classic Man” in this scene:

The sound team behind Hacksaw Ridge had one of the most tedious undertakings of all in editing and mixing the sound for Mel Gibson’s World War II drama. The soundtrack for the early battle scenes were made mostly of sound effects. To make it as realistic as possible, the team had to replace all of the original production sound from filming with authentic sounds of weaponry that would have been used during that period. The originals echoed too much like pop guns and firecrackers, sound editor Robert Mackenzie told IndieWire.

“It was brutal, so the job of the sound team was to be as explicit as possible,” Mackenzie said. “A lot of care and detail went into the whizzing of the bullets flying over the soldiers’ heads.”