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Movie Maniac Ready to pick Oscar winners? Here's a primer

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, Jan. 19, 2014, at 7:58 a.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, June 25, 2014, at 2:16 p.m.

Oscar contest hopefuls, get ready. Now that nominations have been announced, you have some studying to do as you pick who you think will win an Academy Award. A trip to Hollywood is on the line.

To help you, I present this primer on Oscar categories. Good luck.

Oscar categories and what they are

• Best picture: Sure, we know what this is – the best movie of the year, duh but some people may not know why the award goes to the film’s producers.

It’s because they made the film happen. It wouldn’t exist were it not for them. I like to say that if a film were a car and the director is the one driving, then the producer is the one filling the gas tank.

•  Directing: The director’s overall vision is what we ultimately see on the screen. The director coaches actors and coaxes the performances he wants from them on the set. Every great performance has a great director behind it.

But the director doesn’t just work with the actors, he also oversees every other aspect of the film all the way through post-production.

• Costume design: The fashion side of the movies. The clothes that the characters wear in a movie are chosen by a costume designer, who designs an overall look for the film’s wardrobe. The Academy tends to honor period-piece films a lot.

• Cinematography: Described best by its dictionary definition: “The art or technique of movie photography.” Film may have many camera operators, but the award goes to the film’s director of photography (also known as a “D.P.”).

•  Film editing: The editor takes the film’s raw footage and shapes it into sequences that tell the story. The best editing sets the pace for the film and tells the story in a visually arresting or engaging way.

• Original score: This is an award for the film’s background music, not the number of popular hit songs it uses (such as in the “Step-Up” films).

• Original song: The songs that get nominated must have been expressly written for the films they are in. They can’t be existing songs.

• Production design: This is basically the overall look and inventiveness of a film’s set and props (it’s also known as art direction). Elaborate period pieces or sprawling epics do well here.

• Screenplay and adapted screenplay: The screenwriter doesn’t just write the dialogue of a film. The screenwriter invents the film in written form – every scene, every situation, whether there is speaking in those scenes or not. The screenplay is judged not only on what the characters say but also what they do – the screenwriters tell the story. If it’s an original script, they invent the universe that the film takes place in. If it’s an adapted screenplay, the writer turns a previously published work, such as a book or play, into movie form.

• Short films: Generally, anything under 30 minutes is considered a short film (although documentaries can run up to 40 minutes). The short films that get nominated for Oscars in the live-action, animation or documentary categories first had to be accepted and screened at Oscar-qualifying film festivals. Then Academy voters watch all of the hundreds of eligible films and narrow them down to a short list of contenders. It’s from that list that the eventual nominees are chosen.

• Sound editing: The sound categories are probably the hardest to distinguish. Sound editors prepare sound elements (such as dialogue) for eventual mixing, including the creation of sounds that don’t exist (such as R2D2’s noises in “Star Wars”). So usually a film that has a lot of crafted sounds will get nominated (action and sci-fi films tend to do well here).

• Sound mixing: This is awarded to the production sound mixers and re-recording mixers of the film and is the overall mix of all the audio elements, including musical score. It may not seem like it, but there is a definite artistry to it.

Reach Rod Pocowatchit at or rpocowatchit@wichitaeagle.com.

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