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The Oscars' most confusing categories, explained

The Oscars are not actually this large. That would be hard to carry.
The Oscars are not actually this large. That would be hard to carry.
a katz /
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

One of the things that allows the Oscars to maintain their prominence as not just the preeminent film award but the preeminent entertainment award period is their relative paucity of trophies. The Oscars hand out awards in just 24 categories, all during their televised ceremony. Compared to, say, the Grammys' 83 prizes, the Oscars are relatively stingy — making each reward precious.

And yet it's not uncommon to have absolutely no idea what some of these awards mean. Sure, most of us know what it means to win an award for acting, and the term "Best Costume Design" is self-explanatory. But what's the difference between Sound Design and Sound Editing? How long is a short film? And just what does a director do anyway?

Read on, for we have answered your Oscar category questions.

So who wins Best Picture anyway?

Glamorous actors are the center of attention on Oscar night, but the biggest award of all is placed in the hands of producers who are typically obscure to the mass public. This is a throwback to the Academy's roots in the Hollywood of the late silent era, when producers were the most important figures in the film industry. (That description would largely hold — give or take a particularly prominent director — until the 1960s and '70s.)

Think of Gone with the Wind, for instance, which was long the film that had won the most Oscars. Directed by Victor Fleming (who actually replaced original director George Cukor), it was producer David O. Selznick who made adapting the novel into his passion project and got the biggest film of the era made, and it was Selznick who took home the Best Picture trophy (via his Selznick International Pictures company).

Today's films often have dozens of producers — occasionally just people who sign on to help secure funding, or help a movie get made — so the Academy has instituted a couple of regulations. To win, a producer must have a "producer" or "produced by" credit on the film, and only the three producers who have done the most work to make the film a reality (determined by the Academy) are nominated.

If you look at this year's ballot, however, you'll notice several films with four producers nominated — and American Sniper has five. The explanation here is that a team of two producers who are credited as a team and work closely together count as one producer, from the Academy's point of view. So, ultimately, three two-person teams could be nominated, thus allowing for a maximum of six nominees for a film.

So, um, what does a director do, anyway?

Don't be embarrassed! The answer to this question isn't necessarily intuitive, because the popular understanding of "director" is just "the person who's in charge on a movie set." And that's not wrong, but it also doesn't really dig into what a director does beyond bossing people around.

The simple answer for this is that in the '60s and '70s, the director replaced the producer as the most important person working on a film, in the understanding of the industry. (Many proponents of auteur theory would argue the director had always been the most important person working on a film, and it just took that long to catch up. But that's neither here nor there.) The director is responsible for the overall look, feel, and tone of a film. And assuming she has final cut, she's the ultimate decider, on everything from script notes to the edit that's released to theaters. (Yes, the studio will have some say in this, but the studio also doesn't get the Oscar.)

The thing that makes the job difficult to describe, ultimately, is that different directors handle the job in different ways. At a recent Q&A session I attended, Oscar-winning director William Friedkin argued the most important part of a director's job is getting the right cast and turning them loose. Robert Altman (director of MASH and Nashville, among others) assembled huge ensemble casts and allowed for ample room for improvisation and exploration. British director Mike Leigh (of the recent Mr. Turner) comes up with his scripts in conjunction with his actors, who improvise until the screenplay is arrived at, then begin the shoot.

But the most basic part of a director's job is making calls about what the film is going to look like. As a visual medium, the images are incredibly important to film, and the great directors have immediately recognizable, signature styles. Think of, say, the many times Steven Spielberg has shot characters staring at something in wonder, or the many times Martin Scorsese has employed bravura tracking shots that follow the character through his or her native environment.

What makes a screenplay original or adapted?

On its face, the answer to this is easy: adapted screenplays are based on other works, while original screenplays are based on the writer's own idea. In practice, it's (you guessed it) more complicated.

This year's nominees for Original Screenplay, for instance, include Foxcatcher, a film that is based on a true story. And yet because the script was written from screenwriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman's original research, it counts as original. If it had been based on one primary source, as with The Imitation Game, based on a biography of Alan Turing, then it would be in the Adapted category. Why do this? Studios or producers often buy the rights to specific books or articles, then hire screenwriters to turn them into scripts.

Making things even more confusing is that the Adapted category is also where all sequels go by default. Before Sunset and Before Midnight both ended up here, because they were based on characters from Before Sunrise, as did Toy Story 3. Even though the stories and scenarios of all three films were completely original, the Academy counted them as adapted because the characters in them had appeared in prior films.

All of which brings us to Whiplash's nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. The Academy's decision to place it here is because director and writer Damien Chazelle made a short film from one of the script's scenes before making a feature. But even though the script for the feature version of Whiplash predates the short film version, the Academy still ruled that the feature is "based on" the short, landing it here.

Confused? So was the film's studio, Sony Pictures Classics, which only found out it was competing in Adapted when journalist Mark Harris did. (The Academy decides which screenplays go where in toss-up calls like this.)

Who decides whether an actor is lead or supporting?

This is the complete opposite of the screenplay categories. The Academy does not make hard rulings on who's lead and supporting. The actors and studios running their campaigns suggest where they would like to compete, but it's ultimately up to the voters, who can make up their own minds on category placement.

The Academy has all sorts of restrictions placed on actors — you can't be nominated if all of your dialogue was dubbed, you can't be nominated twice in the same category, etc. — but its regulations don't spell out any real differentiation between lead and supporting. Yes, it would have been ridiculous for Bradley Cooper to argue he was a supporting player in American Sniper, but Meryl Streep quite possibly could have gone lead or supporting for Into the Woods.

Where this really trips up the Oscars is in two particular cases. The first involves child performers, who are often slotted into supporting by default, even if they're the lead of a film. (The most recent example of this is Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit. She's the lead actress of that film but was nominated in supporting.) This campaign tactic doesn't always work, however. Keisha Castle-Hughes campaigned as supporting for Whale Rider in 2003, but the voters decided (accurately) to nominate her in lead.

The other instance comes when an actor has two roles they're winning acclaim for in a given year and doesn't want to split votes between them. (Remember: an actor can only be nominated once per category.) Thus, the studios involved usually agree to campaign one performance as lead and one as supporting. In 2008, for instance, Kate Winslet ran as lead for Revolutionary Road and supporting for The Reader. She ended up getting just one nomination, for The Reader, for which she was placed in lead, instead of supporting. She ended up winning, however, so probably she didn't mind.

Finally, if a performance receives votes in both lead and supporting (or if an actor receives multiple votes for multiple roles in the same category), the nomination goes to whichever category the actor qualifies in first.

Who wins the foreign film award?

The person you see giving the speech for the foreign film Oscar is almost always the film's director, and that's the person who will almost always take the prize home. But technically, the award goes to the film's country of origin.

Every country that's not the United States is allowed to choose one film from its local film industry to submit for Academy consideration, provided the film is not in English and was released in its country of origin between October 1 and September 30. (The foreign film calendar is slightly earlier than the Academy calendar.)

Thus, the United Kingdom is unlikely to win this award, but could if it submitted a film in Welsh. Indeed, Canada has won this award, for The Barbarian Invasions, a film in French.

Foreign films are eligible for all other Oscars, but only provided they meet the Oscars' general eligibility requirements (playing in at least one theater in Los Angeles Country for a week within the calendar year being awarded). If they don't, then nominated foreign films are ineligible for any further Oscars at future awards.

What is cinematography?

Technically (and to be incredibly pedantic about it), it's the ability to manipulate light to create images within film cameras. But functionally, the award is for much more than that.

A cinematographer is usually known as a "director of photography," and that name may be easier to immediately grasp. Within the industry, cinematography usually is understood to mean everything having to do with the camera — its movement, the images it captures, the light it receives, etc.

That's how the last several awards (Gravity, Life of Pi, Hugo) have gone to impressive camera feats that, while beautiful, were created in computers. (This is to take nothing away from the cinematographers who created those images, simply to say that they're often not as "pure" as they might appear.) This year's award might very well go to Birdman, which is all about the restless movement of the camera and appears to take place in one long shot. (Clever edits mask the cuts.)

The cinematographer and director often work closely together to create the images you see, but the Oscar for cinematography is usually one meant to express a film's visual beauty or, occasionally, its movement and momentum. In the 1980s and '90s, the award went to films with beautiful exterior landscapes; now, it goes to the creation of painterly images within computer-assisted visual effects.

What does a film editor do?

This one is simple — the film editor takes all of the footage shot and assembles it into the movie you see. They determine the rhythm of scenes, when you see certain camera angles, and what stays in or gets cut. They, too, work closely with the director, but instead of doing so on set (as the cinematographer does), they're present throughout the post-production process. Many directors with long-trusted editors — like, say, Martin Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker — will have those editors assembling footage into rough cuts even while filming continues.

Ultimately, the decision of final cut rests with the director or studio executives (usually the latter), but the editor is the person with the technical know-how to make that final cut happen. And they often have ideas of their own to contribute to this process.

What is production design?

This used to be called "Best Art Direction — Set Decoration," and that second term should tip you off. This is an award given to the sets you see in movies.

The production designer (or art director) can be better understood as a "set designer" (even if she doesn't always build the actual sets herself), while the set decorator places props and other items upon those sets to make them come to life. The category was originally called "Best Interior Decoration," and that's another good hint as to what's being rewarded here.

What's the difference between sound mixing and sound editing?

The Academy, as mentioned, is extra-judicious in what it rewards. So why are there two seemingly interchangeable awards for sound design?

The answer is that they reward two completely different things, weird as that might seem. The award for sound mixing used to just be called Best Sound. It rewards the overall soundscape — or soundtrack — of the film. In short, everything you hear in the film has to be mixed together and set to certain levels, to the director's specifications, and that job falls to the sound mixers. The nomination for Interstellar here has proved somewhat controversial, because that film's dialogue was famously difficult to understand, due to the booming noise from other parts of the soundtrack.

Sound editing, meanwhile, used to be called "sound effects editing," and that's a good clue as to what this award is given for. All of the sound effects you hear in a film have to be created, of course, and this prize goes to the best created sound effects.

Who decides if something is an original song?

The award for original song (and original score) is just what it sounds like — music written for the film specifically, rather than for something else. For instance, Jennifer Lawrence's performance of "The Hanging Tree" from the latest Hunger Games movie was ineligible, because its lyrics were written by Suzanne Collins for the book series. The music was original, but that's not enough.

Original songs also have to be important to the film they appear in. They must appear within the movie itself, or as the first song over the closing credits. And that "important" clause often means that songs by prominent artists are nevertheless snubbed, because they don't play in a major montage or musical number within the film. Indeed, the recent trend in the category has been to move away from songs that play over the closing credits. (That said, ironically, this year's award will probably be won by "Glory" from Selma — the first song that plays over the film's closing credits.)

How short is a short film? And why do they still give short films Oscars?

We'll tackle the first question first, because it's the easiest. A short film is 40 minutes or less, including credits. The award used to be split up by how many reels of film it used, with awards for "short subject — one reel" and "short subject — two reel," but those were collapsed into the two awards (for animated and live-action shorts) we now have. (The Documentary Short Subject also has a running time of 40 minutes or less, but that award is administered by the documentary branch of the Academy.)

The three shorts categories are often the ones suggested for elimination when questions of how to reduce the running time of the overall show are suggested. (It's also been floated that the awards be given at a separate ceremony.) And to be sure, the fact that the Oscars have awards for shorts is somewhat archaic. The prizes stem from the days when going to the movies meant seeing a short or two before the main feature, something that rapidly died out with the advent of television.

But short films are still an important way for up-and-coming filmmakers to break into the industry. Indeed, there's a clause in the Academy's regulations for these prizes that allow for award-winning student films to compete. So long as this remains true, the short film awards are unlikely to go anywhere.