Academy Awards: What do voters look for in a film?

Sandra Bullock in Gravity Image copyright AP
Image caption Freedman was awed by the opening shot of Gravity; Williams noted the filmmakers' fealty to the laws of physics in space

On Sunday night winners of the 86th Academy Awards will be announced in 24 categories. Two Oscar voters - a film director and a sound man - talk about how they pick the Best.

"Probably in the next few days, I'm going to take a day or two and just watch films," says Jerry Freedman, a director and voting member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, in an interview before final voting began on 14 February.

Like his more than 6,000 fellow voting Academy members in all branches of the film business, Freedman has been inundated with DVDs in recent months, sent by the Academy and by the studios that produced the 289 feature films eligible for the Best Picture Oscar this year.

Ultimately, more than 50 films received a nomination, some in only a single category (The Wind Rises, Animated Feature Film) and others for many more (12 Years a Slave, nine categories; Gravity, 10).

Russell Williams, a sound mixer who won Oscars for Glory and Dances with Wolves and is now distinguished artist-in-residence at American University, says he will not vote in a category if he has not seen all five nominees.

"Maybe the one that should have gotten my vote is the one I haven't seen," he says.

Freedman and Williams spoke to the BBC about what they look for - and listen for - when they're making their selections.

How do you watch all the films?

Image copyright Sony Pictures
Image caption The filmmakers of Captain Phillips, which was nominated in Sound Mixing and Sound Editing, created a world by immersing the viewers in the sounds of a giant ocean-going freighter, Williams says

Academy membership has its privileges: Free admission to cinemas across America, invitations to posh screenings, and stacks of DVDs and film scripts sent to their doors.

"I've been sitting and watching dozens of films," says Freedman. "I get them during the year, so even before nomination, I got all the big films, everything, you name it."

How were you chosen as a voter?

To be considered for Academy membership, you must work in the film business at "an unusually high level of quality and distinction", the Academy says.

Writers, producers and directors must have at least two eligible screen credits and actors at least three scripted roles behind them.

Prospective members must be sponsored by current members. An Oscar nomination gets you automatic consideration.

Every member can nominate up to 10 films for Best Picture.

For most other awards, only members of that branch of the Academy can nominate their colleagues. For example, only film directors can nominate movies for the Directing award.

There are five nominations per category, except for Best Picture, in which there are up to 10.

What do you watch - or listen - for?

Image copyright Fox Searchlight
Image caption Freedman called 12 Years a Slave a "game-changer"

"I want to go on a journey, I want to learn more about this world, I want to be caught up just like anybody else," Williams says.

"If I have time on the first viewing to start dissecting how the director did this and how the sound did that, then they've failed."

Freedman says, "I look for quality and originality, and how it moves me emotionally and as an artist.

"Certain films will come out and you'll say, 'This is a game-changer.'"

Voters will often watch films a second time or more in order to judge categories such as sound mixing and editing, make-up and hairstyling and cinematography.

What are the voting politics like?

Image copyright Russell Williams
Image caption Williams says if he is thinking about the sound the first time watching a film, the director has failed

The studios undertake intense publicity campaigns to push their films, buying prominent adverts in the trade press and the popular media, holding screenings, and distributing DVDs and film scripts.

"You get deluged with emails," Freedman says.

"They want you to think about them. If you know somebody who works for the film, all of a sudden you meet the producer of 12 Years a Slave. All of a sudden you have a personal connection."

But the nominees are limited in how directly they can contact voters and ask for their support - and failure to comply with the rules can lead to sanction.

This year the Academy rescinded the nomination in the Best Original Song category of a composer who it said had contacted members and asked them specifically to listen to his song.

The issue: on nominating and voting materials, songs are listed only by title and the name of the film, in order to discourage members from nominating songs based on their composers.

Bruce Boughton, composer of Alone Yet Not Alone in an independent Christian-themed film of the same title, is well-known within the rarefied world of Hollywood film music writers.

"Mr Broughton should have been more cautious about acting in a way that made it appear as if he were taking advantage of his position to exert undue influence," the Academy said in a statement.

Will the sex abuse allegations against Woody Allen - which he denies and for which he has never been prosecuted - affect Blue Jasmine's chances in the three categories in which it was nominated?

"I suspect there will be a lot of detractors," Freedman says. "But I don't know if that will affect how people vote about Cate Blanchett."

What makes an Oscar-winning acting performance?

"I look for someone that doesn't have a lot of artifice," says Freedman - and the film has to be one he genuinely enjoys.

"If a performance is great but the movie doesn't resonate, that will sometimes detract."

You wouldn't tell us your picks for this year but...

Image copyright Sony Pictures Classics
Image caption Will Cate Blanchett, nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role for Blue Jasmine, be penalised for the bad publicity surrounding filmmaker Woody Allen?

The world of Captain Phillips is created in large part by the sound - the radio chatter, the freighter's engineering plant, the sloshing of water on the lifeboat, says Williams.

"There's a lot of work to make it sound like what you would hear if you were in that space."

In Gravity the filmmakers tried to observe the laws of physics in space, he notes, and even the satellites explode around the heroine in silence.

"It's more terrifying to think that you could be ripped to shreds like that and not hear a thing," he says.

Freedman says: "12 Years a Slave is a game-changer, Gravity is game-changer."

He says he was blown away by the opening shot of Gravity, a nearly 15-minute view of Earth and the satellites surrounding it.

A shot of that length was impossible when films were still captured on celluloid, because a roll of film could only hold 10 minutes of footage.

"Once in a while something will grab you as a filmmaker," he says. "This is an incredible year. This is the best year in decades."

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Contributions from Glenn Osten Anderson

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