In a world of sound, Dolby is everywhere. It is integral to the sound we hear at a live concert, in the cinema, while streaming or listening to recorded music, or while viewing film or television in our own homes. And it is central to the broadcast of live TV, with its unpredictability and tape delay. But never has the experience of delivering sound for a live event on TV been more challenging than at the broadcast of the Oscars® in February, when the presenters mistakenly announced the wrong winner for the Oscar® for Best Picture.
For Paul Sandweiss, the audio director for the Oscars, the experience was unprecedented. Sandweiss captained the team responsible for mixing all the sound elements in the Dolby Theatre® for broadcast to hundreds of millions of viewers around the world in Dolby Audio™ 5.1 surround sound. “I personally have never seen anything like this happen,” Sandweiss says. And as one of the very best behind the board in the sound business, Sandweiss has seen and heard it all while mixing hundreds of events for broadcast, including the past six Super Bowl® halftime shows.
“And the Oscar for Best Picture goes to…”
To understand the situation Sandweiss and his team faced when Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway mistakenly awarded the Oscar for Best Picture to La La Land, it is worth knowing what they were doing when the mix-up occurred.
“We were just trying to get off of the air on time. We’re trying to focus, and everybody is trying to finish the show,” Sandweiss says. “Then, we received word from our lead stage manager that something needed to be fixed.” At that point, Sandweiss and his team of up to 50 sound experts and audio engineers were flying in the dark. “None of us knew what was going to happen,” he says. “We just knew we had to get it right.”
The stakes were high. As the premier awards show in global cinema, the Oscars are broadcast to an estimated 200 million people in more than 200 countries worldwide. The integrity of the telecast, and maybe of the awards, was in their hands.
Making it all look and sound easy
For Sandweiss, the predicament his team faced was classic for audio mixers of complex events like the Oscars: no one notices the excellent work you’re doing until something goes wrong.
“If the public saw what goes on backstage, I think they would be in shock,” Sandweiss says. “It’s surprising that more things don’t go wrong on live television. After all, we’re all human.” And that is especially true of the Oscars.
A “normal” Academy Awards® broadcast requires mixing the host and presenter’s speeches from the podium, the audience response, video packages, live and recorded music, and special effects, all in real time. It is a remarkable feat under any circumstances, let alone when, like this year’s epic flub, something goes awry. But that’s the sign of professionals doing what they’re trained to do. “It’s running on heavy adrenaline,” Sandweiss says. “But it’s fun. You’re working with the best directors, producers, talent, crew. But it’s still a little crazy. Everyone’s watching!”
If this year’s Oscars telecast demonstrated anything, it is how skilled and professional Sandweiss and his team, and the Dolby engineers who supported the broadcast, really are under intense pressure. The hundreds of millions of viewers glued to their TV sets never experienced even a moment of disconnection from the drama playing out in the confusion onstage. “Once the mistake was realized,” Sandweiss says, “I don’t think you could have done anything else that was more honest or more transparent.”
Thanks to Sandweiss, his team and Dolby, the global audience was right there, in the midst of the drama, listening to and hanging on every word. And along with the audience inside the Dolby Theatre, and the casts and crews of both La La Land and Moonlight, the TV audience was able to share the poignancy and love as La La Land’s co-producer Jordan Horowitz announced, “I’m going to be really proud to hand this [the Oscar] to my friends in Moonlight.”
For Sandweiss, and for hundreds of millions worldwide, it is a moment that will never be forgotten.
Facts and figures: the Oscars and Dolby