To his colleagues in Hollywood’s sound community, Greg. P. Russell, a re-recording mixer, is a bona fide legend.
The 59-year-old, who made his name at Warner Bros. (1988-1995) and Sony (1995-2011) before moving to Paramount last year, has played an instrumental role — pun intended — in bringing to the big screen an astonishing number of aurally-outstanding blockbuster films. Moreover, he has received best sound mixing Oscar nominations for no fewer than 15 of them: Black Rain (1989); The Rock (1996); Con Air (1997); Armageddon (1998); The Mask of Zorro (1998); The Patriot (2000); Pearl Harbor (2001); Spider-Man (2002); Spider-Man 2 (2004); Memoirs of a Geisha (2005); Apocalypto (2006); Transformers (2007); Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009); Salt (2010), and the film for which he is nominated this year, Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011). That’s more than any other sound technician in history, save for one.
To the general public, though, Russell is known — if at all — as the guy who has put on a tux and headed over to the Academy Awards year after year, only to go home empty-handed … every single time.
It seems to me that Russell’s story perfectly illustrates the single most boneheaded thing about the Oscar voting process: the nominees for each category except for best picture are determined exclusively by the people who belong to the corresponding Academy branch (i.e. the members of the film editing branch, which is composed of film editors, pick the best film editing Oscar nominees); the winners of each category, however, are determined by the entire membership. In other words, each category’s nominees are chosen by people who are expert practitioners of the craft in question and intimately understand what it entails, but each category’s winners are chosen predominantly by people who have little or no familiarity with field that they are being asked to judge.
In what universe does it make sense for screenwriters, art directors, and makeup designers, among others, to determine the winner of best sound editing or best sound mixing, which the vast majority of them can’t even differentiate from each other? Not this one. But that’s why the films that end up being recognized in “below-the-line” categories tend to be plot/performance-driven, like most films that Academy members prefer, rather than effects-driven, like most of Russell’s films. (For many voters, it’s a matter of coattails: they simply vote for the film that they liked the most in every category in which they can.) And that’s why a guy like Russell, whose work is obviously revered by his peers, is still Oscar-less.
Last week, I visited Russell in his “new home,” the brand new Technicolor post-production facility on the Paramount lot, to try to get to know a little bit more about the man behind the undesirable stats. You can do the same by checking out the video of our conversation (above) or reading text excerpts of it (below).
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