Oscars season always comes with intense buzz surrounding the “Big Six” awards — best actor and actress, best supporting actor and actress, best director and best picture. But moviemaking is a team venture, and it takes much more than good acting and directing to bring the best scripts to life on the big screen.

So it’s fitting that the academy gives out 24 awards every year in a wide array of categories.

But what, exactly, is cinematography? How do you tell if a film has stellar production design? Do you know the difference between sound editing and sound mixing? And what constitutes good makeup and hair?

To enhance your viewing experience during the 92nd Academy Awards on Sunday night, we consulted several Seattle-area film-industry professionals and asked them to explain some of the more technical Oscars categories that most people don’t understand.

Makeup and hairstyling | Production design | Cinematography | Sound editing and sound mixing

Makeup and hairstyling

2020 Oscars Nominees:

  • “Bombshell,” Kazu Hiro, Anne Morgan and Vivian Baker
  • Joker,” Nicki Ledermann and Kay Georgiou
  • Judy,” Jeremy Woodhead
  • “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil,” Paul Gooch, Arjen Tuiten and David White
  • 1917,” Naomi Donne, Tristan Versluis and Rebecca Cole

Our consultant: Akemi Hart, a Seattle-based makeup artist and hairstylist

Akemi Hart has worked in hair and makeup for more than 25 years. She started out doing basic styling in shopping malls. After getting her makeup-artist license, Hart worked for Seattle Opera for 10 years. She then got her start doing makeup and hairstyling in the TV and film industry for the short-lived “The Fugitive” TV series on CBS. Since then, she has worked on “Grey’s Anatomy,” the “50 Shades of Grey” trilogy and other films, television shows and commercials that shoot in the Pacific Northwest.


What, exactly, is makeup and hairstyling?

Hart describes the category as, “Bringing about a look that doesn’t take the audience away from the moment and the story that is told.” Makeup and hair can create something that either looks completely natural, or something more full-out, like facial prosthetics and headpieces used in movies like “Maleficent.” It can take months to plan, design and create a single look.

What are the hallmarks of good makeup/hairstyling that the average viewer should look for when watching a movie?

“For the average person, it’s easy to look at heavy makeup, like ‘Joker,’” said Hart. “But you can also go back and appreciate the subtle looks. Some people might watch movies and think, ‘Oh these people aren’t wearing any makeup,’ when in reality, a lot of time and effort goes into making it seem that way.” To a certain extent, good makeup and hairstyling should be something that you shouldn’t notice right away, Hart says, as it should immerse you further in the movie, not distract from it. 

Who do you think will win best makeup and hairstyling at this year’s Oscars?

“I have no idea. There is so much that goes into the nomination and choosing process, it’s hard to predict,” Hart said. She also noted that for more technical categories that voters may be less well-versed in, some subtleties may be missed. Regardless, Hart said, voters will choose what sticks out to them, and there’s value in that.

Who do you think SHOULD win? 

“Judy,” the transformation of Renée Zellweger into Judy Garland was very “of the moment.”

Is there a person/movie you think should have been nominated?

“Little Women”

— Amy Wong

Your guide to the 2020 Oscars

Production design

2020 Oscars Nominees:

  • The Irishman,” Bob Shaw and Regina Graves
  • “Jojo Rabbit,” Ra Vincent and Nora Sopková
  • “1917,” Dennis Gassner and Lee Sandales
  • Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” Barbara Ling and Nancy Haigh
  • Parasite,” Lee Ha-Jun and Cho Won Woo, Han Ga Ram, and Cho Hee

Our consultant: Lisa Hammond, president of the Women in Film Seattle chapter, is a production designer, set decorator and photo stylist for film and print.

Hammond is also a member of IATSE Local 48 (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts). She currently has several projects in the works, including a film that is part of the Vanishing Seattle film series. Hammond says she was drawn to production design because “I want every item in my world to have a use and a meaning. In film, everything serves a purpose, every aspect of a set design serves a purpose. Nothing’s there by accident, everything’s intentional. That’s how I am with my world. I want everything to be intentional, even if it’s an accident.”


What, exactly, is production design?

By designing the set and props for a film down to the details, production designers are responsible for creating a world that the audience and actors alike can get lost in.

“A production designer works hand in hand with the director and the cinematographer to create a look and feel for the film,” says Hammond. “The more we have the time, money and person power to create that world, the more inspired the actors become I think, and … if the audience dives into that performance. That’s the goal.”

What are the hallmarks of good production design that the average viewer should look for when watching a movie?

Hammond says good production design depends on the film’s story. Sometimes it should be nearly undetectable and “there to support the [plot] in strictly a practical sense.” Sometimes it is highly stylized and can “be its own character in a story.” But detail is key.

“The more we can build out a world and keep it practical so that it actually functions, when the talent descends into their world, we’re giving them more tools to work with. They don’t have to pretend a plastic cup is a crystal goblet because it really is a crystal goblet, so they can hold it just right. Maybe, just maybe, we’ve inspired that talent.”

Who do you think will win best production design at this year’s Oscars?

“I haven’t seen ‘1917,‘ [but] … I wonder about the production design on that because it’s really all about ‘this is what the camera wants.’ It’s a giant film. It’s a giant trench-digging task with backhoes and then it has to be structurally safe. … It’s such a guys’ production design: ‘Let’s get some big tools and we’ll dig out a trench and then we’ll blow some stuff up and then we’ll do it again and again and again.’”

Who do you think SHOULD win?

“Jojo Rabbit” or “Parasite.”

Hammond marveled at how “Jojo Rabbit” had to create a balance between a childish fantasy world and a brutal reality.


“The lines become a little blurred. I think that was achieved by a fairly stylized approach to production design that was intentionally softened, that stylization was applied with a much lighter hand during scenes and chapters of the story that had dramatic import.”

In “Parasite,” Hammond says the presentation of the contrast between the wealthy family and the impoverished family is strongly supported by the production design.

“What they created are two worlds — the world of the super wealthy, the haves, and the have-nots. It’s a world of contrasts. Ironically, the world of the haves is cold and sterile and uninviting and impersonal. … The Kim family, they’re close-knit, they trust each other, they’re warm, they’re honest and they live in a roach-infested apartment dump.”

Is there a person/movie you think should have been nominated?

“Harriet,” “Uncut Gems,” “Dolemite is My Name,” “Us.”

— Crystal Paul


2020 Oscars Nominees:

  • “The Irishman,” Rodrigo Prieto
  • “Joker,” Lawrence Sher
  • “The Lighthouse,” Jarin Blaschke
  • “1917,” Roger Deakins
  • “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” Robert Richardson

Our consultants: Paul Mailman, a Seattle-based director of photography; Sebastien Scandiuzzi, veteran cinematographer.

Mailman has been shooting films since 1992, and has served as director of photography on a variety of documentary, commercial and narrative projects, including the new documentary “Nothing Fancy: Diana Kennedy.”

Scandiuzzi has worked as a cinematographer for almost 20 years on films including S.J. Chiro’s 2017 feature “Lane 1974.


What, exactly, is cinematography?

Mailman: It’s the art and science of motion-picture photography … the cinematographer is responsible for anything that has to do with the visual rendition of the movie … dealing with exposure, with lighting, with camera angles, with the motion of the camera … the cinematographer supervises the grip and electric departments, who are responsible for lighting, as well as people in the camera department, who are responsible for the actual mechanics of the image capture with cameras, lenses, data — that kind of information.

Scandiuzzi: Once the director and I agree on how to tell the story visually, I am responsible for choosing the type of camera, camera movement, lenses, composition and lighting. I also work closely with other department heads: art, hair and makeup, wardrobe, visual effects.

What are the hallmarks of good cinematography that the average viewer should look for when watching a movie?

Scandiuzzi: My job as a cinematographer is to craft a visual language that supports the script and, most importantly, the director’s vision. There is a misconception that good cinematography equals beautiful, stunning images, but if the cinematography doesn’t support the story, beautiful, stunning images can easily distract, pulling focus away from the story. A great script can survive bad cinematography; great cinematography can’t save a bad script.

Mailman: For the most part, good cinematography means that the visuals don’t distract from the storytelling. … Good cinematography usually should be invisible — you should feel it helping the story but not standing out.

Who do you think will win best cinematography at this year’s Oscars?

Mailman: I think out of the five nominees, it’s going to be Roger Deakins, “1917.” The three that I think are the strongest are [Deakins], Robert Richardson for “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” and Lawrence Sher for “Joker.”

Scandiuzzi: I am a big fan of Roger Deakins’ work … I do think “1917” will win best cinematography, [but] I don’t think filming “1917” as a “one-shot” was the right choice. While I was in awe of the technical achievement, I think the story could’ve been equally [successful], if not better, filmed conventionally. I think it’s a good example of putting cinematography above the story.


Who do you think SHOULD win?

Scandiuzzi: Jarin Blaschke for “The Lighthouse.”

Mailman: I think it’s hard to make a judgment that this person’s artistic endeavor was so clearly better than the other five people that were nominated that they should win. I think that … they should nominate 10 projects for every category and they should hand out five awards, because I don’t know how you would choose.

You look at “Joker,” and it’s a totally, absolutely different kind of movie, and Lawrence Sher did stuff that was appropriate for the story without getting too far out in front of it, which is always a problem. … “Joker” was done on … a camera with a very large-format sensor, three times as big as most of the other cameras that were used to shoot films this year. … It was the same camera that was used for “The Revenant.” But they took this very rich image, and they beat it up … they degraded the image because that was what was appropriate for the story. That takes a lot of skill and a lot of guts. … But how do you compare those decisions to decisions that Roger Deakins [made for “1917”]?

Who should have been nominated?

Mailman: Darius Khondji for “Uncut Gems.” This film is gritty and shot on difficult sets and locations (i.e. small and ordinary), but with less of the visual pretense of “Joker.” Although Khondji has shot many striking films, he was nominated only once, in 1996 for “Evita.”

— Megan Burbank

Sound mixing and sound editing

2020 Oscars Nominees:

Sound mixing

  • “Ad Astra,” Gary Rydstrom, Tom Johnson and Mark Ulano
  • “Ford v Ferrari,” Paul Massey, David Giammarco and Steven A. Morrow
  • “Joker,” Tom Ozanich, Dean Zupancic and Tod Maitland
  • “1917,” Mark Taylor and Stuart Wilson
  • “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” Michael Minkler, Christian P. Minkler and Mark Ulano

Sound editing

  • “Ford v Ferrari,” Donald Sylvester
  • “Joker,” Alan Robert Murray
  • “1917,” Oliver Tarney and Rachael Tate
  • “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” Wylie Stateman
  • “Star Wars: The Rise of SkyWalker,” Matthew Wood and David Acord

Our consultants: Peter Barnes, CEO of Clatter&Din, a Seattle-based production company; Will Yen, Clatter&Din sound designer; Sam Gray, Clatter&Din senior sound designer.

The company has been in business for 25 years, and has worked on everything from radio and TV advertisements to film and music.

What, exactly, is the difference between sound mixing and editing?

Gray: In essence, sound editing is the collection and placement of all of the sounds from a project. It’s like a picture editor, you’re pulling in and out sound elements. Without editing, you just have sound from the set. Mixing is blending all the levels and tonality of the sounds: dialogue, sound effects and music.


Yen: It’s kind of like baking a cake. Sound editing is picking and choosing the ingredients and sound mixing is putting it in the oven.

What are the hallmarks of good sound mixing and editing that the average viewer should look for when watching a movie?

Gray: A film can sound really rough before it’s been mixed, so a lot of times, it’s about making it sound so perfect you feel like you’re there. If a movie draws your attention and holds you fully to the end, then it means the sound was good. Audio is an invisible art. If you want to see how a soundtrack works, listen to a scene without watching it. Take away the visual and you’ll start to understand what the soundtrack is doing.

Yen: Sometimes the absence of sound is what matters. The tension is elevated due to the lack of sound.

Who do you think will win best sound editing and best sound mixing at this year’s Oscars?

Barnes: Ford v Ferrari.” Cars racing by your face at high speed, a lot of left-to-right special movement and speed. I thought the audio work was fantastic, and much like a war movie, there was a lot to work with sound-wise.

Gray: I saw “Joker,” and what I thought was interesting was they had a lot of the music cues composed before they filmed, and they played the cues while they filmed certain scenes so the actor responded to the sound. It’s exciting because it’s not common. I really felt like the connection of the score to the action was top-notch.

Yen: “1917” was a brilliant, visceral picture.

Who do you think SHOULD win?

Gray: Technical awards are certainly less political than the big ones. The craftsmanship on these films is so high that there’s no way that any of the sound designers or mixers in the films would be undeserving.

Yen: They all deserve to win, but I would pick “1917.”

Barnes: I would predict “1917” or “Ford v Ferrari.”

Who should have been nominated?

Barnes: The academy usually gets the nominees [in these categories] right. … I’ve been paying attention to surround mixing and the transition from stereo to multichannel audio for over 20 years and thought Hollywood wasn’t taking advantage of the technology that was out there until recently. Over the last few years, I’ve noticed they’ve embraced the creativity of audio elements.

Gray: It’s an exciting time for sound technology and the experience for the audience is going to be better than ever in 2020.

— Yasmeen Wafai