Last year's 94th Academy Awards was worried about time. The concern that the ceremony would run too long led to the public exclusion of eight awards. Instead of nationally televised recognition, the awards for original score, makeup and hairstyling, documentary short, film editing, production design, animated short, live action short and sound were all presented away from the main stage.

Many criticized the decision. The implication that short films were a "lesser" artistic form or that these technical awards — the stuff that arguably makes a movie a movie — are less than deserving of shared space with the admittedly marquee announcements, was insulting at worst and patronizing at best. It was a slap in the face to craftsmen and artists, and weirdly assumed the general viewing public would neither notice nor care that such integral pieces of the filmmaking process weren’t being recognized. That’s a wild assumption — a simple look at TikTok's demographics combined with even a passing knowledge of what the ByteDance-owned app actually is, would lead anyone to logically conclude that the youth are very particular about the editing process. Not including these categories during an honors ceremony is like thanking the landlord of your barbershop and not the actual person cutting your hair. The tonsorial arts, much like movie making, is a form of alchemy.

For the 2023 Oscars, the Academy is changing direction. "We are committed to having a show that celebrates the artisans, the arts and sciences and the collaborative nature of moviemaking," the recently appointed Academy CEO Bill Kramer told Variety last autumn.

But for those on the outside, there may still be an air of mystery to the technical and design awards. When I reflected on watching the Oscars when I was a kid, I realized the problem wasn’t that I didn’t care, I just didn’t know what to look for when watching movies. So many years later, I did the rational thing and asked some local professionals about these categories, to get their take on what we should be watching while we’re watching.

Princeton, Massachusetts-based writer, director and editor John Stimpson (whose recent credits include “A Cape Cod Christmas” and “A Playful Romance”) employs a metaphor of building a house when talking about making a movie. As with architects, designers, framers and carpenters collaborating on domiciles grand and modest, you're "layering all those elements together in the same way when you make a movie — from the script to the sets to the costumes, to the makeup, to the lighting and then the editorial piece of it."

Let's build a house.

The blueprint

The plan on which everything is based.

Writing (original screenplay) nominees

  • “The Banshees of Inisherin,” written by Martin McDonough
  • “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” written by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert
  • “The Fablemans,” written by Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner
  • “Tàr,” written by Todd Field
  • “Triangle of Sadness,” written by Ruben Östlund

Writing (adapted screenplay) nominees

  • “All Quiet on the Western Front,” screenplay by Edward Berger, Lesley Paterson and Ian Stokell
  • “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery,” written by Rian Johnson
  • “Living,” written by Kazuo Ishiguro
  • “Top Gun: Maverick,” screenplay by Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer and Christopher McQuarrie; story by Peter Craig and Justin Marks
  • “Women Talking,” screenplay by Sarah Polley

Screenplay awards are not technical awards, but it might be the best example of a role that is so straightforward in concept that its nuances can be lost. The screenplay contains the dialogue and crucial information about the setting of the film itself and the particulars of its various scenes, but it's more than a stack of paper to be memorized by various parties. Stimpson encourages the viewer to think about screenplays as the "blueprint" for what you're looking at.

“It's the idea, it's the dialogue, it's the visualizing of the scenes, and where and how the movie takes place and what the characters do," he said. "And then it's up to the director to interpret that, and they can do that in an infinite number of ways."

The foundation

The base of everything you see.

Production design nominees

  • “All Quiet on the Western Front,” production design by Christian M. Goldbeck; set decoration by Ernestine Hipper
  • “Avatar: The Way of the Water,” production design by Dylan Cole and Ben Procter; set decoration by Vanessa Cole
  • “Babylon,” production design by Florencia Martin; set decoration by Anthony Carlino
  • “Elvis,” production design by Catherine Martin and Karen Murphy; set decoration by Bev Dunn
  • “The Fabelmans,” production design by Rick Carter; set decoration by Karen O'Hara

Mise en scène ("setting on stage"; think of the related culinary term mise en place, but less food, more dialogue) is a concept that refers to the composition and arrangement of props, scenery, or whatever else you see on stage or screen.

If it's the photographers who are responsible for how you're seeing a film, it's the production designer responsible for what you're seeing. Everything in a shot has been placed there by choice; an entire world constructed in line with the director's vision. This is especially evident in a period piece, and its styles and architectures from some past. But production design is no less integral to a project if the film is set in present-day Galena than in 1st century BCE Gaul.

Along with processes like props and set construction, set decoration falls under this department's supervision.

"We create a flavor that we sort of use as an infrastructure," says Providence, Rhode Island–based set decorator Jennifer Engel, whose work has been featured on film and television shows including “Veep” and “Castle Rock.”

That infrastructure leans into a visual language that the audience can use to make sense of an artificial — albeit meticulously crafted — world. Think about it, we don't actually know these places, but we have to feel like we do. "To differentiate one house from another, we'll give it a different sense of style, just to create a vibe for the characters to live inside of," she explained. At the same time, we can watch without being confused about where they are.

There's another magical thing to keep in mind. And while rentals, purchasing and warehousing are a part of the job, imagine you're watching a scene and in the background you notice a pay phone.

"You thought it was a pay phone," Engel says, "but it's actually a printout of a photograph of a pay phone that they slapped onto the wall."

The framework

Supports for a fully realized fictional world.

Costume design nominees

  • “Babylon,” Mary Zophres
  • “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” Ruth Carter
  • “Elvis,” Catherine Martin
  • “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” Shirley Kurata
  • “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris,” Jenny Beavan

The way we dress ourselves comes with its own import and contributes to language in a decisive, but nonverbal, manner. That’s the matter a costume designer must think about during the course of production. "You're building a closet for them that makes sense for the words they have to say and the person that they're becoming on camera," says costume designer Deborah Newhall. "If it looks right and it sits right with an audience member, then you can hear the words better. You can hear their action, because you're convinced that this is the right look for them."

Living in Providence, Rhode Island, and working throughout the United States, Newhall also served as costume designer for the Merrimack Repartory Theatre in Lowell, Massachusetts. Her credits include "Proud Mary" and several episodes of American Experience's "The Abolitionists."

Although costume designers may get conflated as stylists, Newhall points out that those are two very different jobs. "[Styling] is really about picking beautiful clothes and putting together beautiful outfits for somebody," she says, "but it's not necessarily meeting the needs of the script and telling the story. It's a nuance that can even be lost on producers, she explained. "Sometimes the producer might get frustrated, go 'let's just bring in somebody who can shop in L.A. and get the actor dressed.' I say, 'Well, I have to OK this because it still has to suit the words that this person has to say, to match and look like she belongs in the story.'"

Creating this look for a character is a deeply collaborative process. While designers are researching looks, whether with search engines or old photography books, they are sharing their findings with other department heads like prop masters, set decorators, and hair and makeup specialists, to create a cohesive look for the characters.

That communication is key. Newhall turns to “I Care a Lot” as a prime example. When she first read the script she decided on dark suits to match the severity of Rosamund Pike's Marla Grayson. But when she shared her ideas with the director, she was met with confusion: “I Care a Lot” was comedic in nature. Newhall explained how that distinction opened up completely different design possibilities; she pivoted to bright colors — pops of yellow and red that would help convey that tone.

Makeup and hairstyling nominees

  • “All Quiet on the Western Front,” Heike Merker and Linda Eisenhamerová
  • “The Batman,” Naomi Donne, Mike Marino and Mike Fontaine
  • “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” Camille Friend and Joel Harlow
  • “Elvis,” Mark Coulier, Jason Baird and Aldo Signoretti
  • “The Whale,” Adrien Morot, Judy Chin and Annemarie Bradley

Clothes are only one part of the equation when it comes to creating a look for a character; it's only one part of the equation when you create a look for yourself. Hairstyling and makeup matter.

And when it comes to hair, timelessness matters too. Newport, Rhode Island-based hair stylist Frank Barbosa explained that it's important for hair to be approachable across time, so a millennial can watch a Bette Davis film and think "she had great hair" instead of the character getting stuck in the era the film was made.

"When I approach hair, I feel like the image will be approached generationally," said Barbosa, whose recent credits include "Boston Strangler," "Sex and the City 2" and "Finestkind."

Period pieces and charcters' whose hair actually signifies what they are going through is another story. Fantine from "Les Misérables," for example, has to sell her hair for money. Barbosa says hair stylists need to get into the mindset of the characters in order to depict their experiences visually. "We take on that character as well, not just the actor."

Cranston, Rhode Island-based makeup artist Liz Bernstrom says when it comes to developing a character, clothes alone can only convey so much. "If you just take a person in general and remove the face and remove the hair, you may have wardrobe, but the story is not complete."

Bernstrom, whose film credits include "Don't Look Up" and "Manchester by the Sea," notes some overlap between the worlds of fashion and film when it comes to hairstyling and makeup. But there is a crucial difference — in fashion, the art is textile-driven. In film, the character drives these choices. "The character is totally defined by makeup and wardrobe," she says. And like costume design, hair and makeup is crucial to nonverbal communication. "You can tell a story by what the trends were in a specific specific era."

There's also the responsibility of continuity. Movies aren't wholly teleological exercises, and scenes aren't necessarily shot in sequential order. Hair and makeup artists — which, despite the nature of the award, are two distinct jobs — also shoulder the responsibility for maintaining a level of consistency.

Bernstrom also noted how high-definition pictures have tweaked the nature of the work. Because we can see the actors more clearly, the departments in charge of these looks have to take this into consideration. "I'm speaking with the gaffer or the director of photography who's designing the lighting for the piece," she explained. "So I know how that's going to affect how my actors are going to look on film. It's changed everything from ingredient decks in products, to the lighting."

Another function of great hair and makeup is that it helps the actor do their job better. "Makeup, hair and wardrobe is basically a confidence booster for your actor," says Bernstrom. "It allows the actor to more than try on the character, but become the character."

The listing

Spotlighting what you most want to show.

Cinematography nominees

  • “All Quiet on the Western Front,” James Friend
  • “Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths,” Darius Khondji
  • “Elvis,” Mandy Walker
  • “Empire of Light,” Roger Deakins
  • “Tàr,” Florian Hoffmeister

You know those times when you watch a movie, and then it's over, and you find yourself talking to a friend, or yourself, and the only thing on your mind is how much of a pleasure the movie was to look at? That's thanks to the directors of photography/cinematographers, camera operators and assistant cameras. It's "just like a beautiful photograph, a beautiful painting," says Stimpson. "The lighting and the way that it's portrayed, and the way the actors are in that environment and how they look is critical to the whole thing. That's that's the magic of it, that it's bigger than real life. It's better than real life."

But, as Laurence Fishburne's Morpheus prompted us to question in the 1999 romantic thriller "The Matrix," we must ask "what is real?" Aside from the geometry of angles, continuity and composition of frame, important considerations for the D.P. include things like location, the environment and lighting. What follows is an interesting question: How much of cinematographic work can be attributed to computer-generated imagery?

"You think about something like 'Avatar [The Way of The Water'], something that is mostly computer-generated — can you still call that cinematography?" wonders Stimpson. "It's interesting — you think about what Pixar is doing. I mean, the way they mold the light in those 3D-generated images is amazing. And it's gorgeous, but it's all built in a computer."

One more thing. With the popular image of the director and their saintly attributes of a clapboard and camera, it can be easy to conflate these two roles. But keep in mind that the cinematographer's job is (often) to capture the image the director envisions. "The one thing that directors deal with that the director of photography is not responsible for is the actors," explained Stimpson. "What the actors do and the performance that the actors give, is really the responsibility of the director solely. That's the real delineation there."

Film editing nominees

  • “The Banshees of Inisherin,” Mikkel E.G. Nielsen
  • “Elvis,” Matt Villa and Jonathan Redmond
  • “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” Paul Rogers
  • “Tàr,” Monika Willi
  • “Top Gun: Maverick,” Eddie Hamilton

Editing is the coldest craft in the game: raw, clinical, surgical. Literally — early film editors were cutting the tape, rearranging it and splicing it together. It's weird though, because really good film editing often goes unnoticed (unless you're working on a Baz Luhrman film), yet the entire project will fall apart if competent editors aren't involved.

When thinking about editing, consider this simple question: how are these different shots and images arranged in the context of a movie? The way they flow, from one to the next, can make the film seem naturalistic in its narrative goals.

The title of Walter Murch's filmmaking book ”In the Blink of an Eye” refers to the idea that the blinks of our eyes function as "cuts" in the continuity in our day-to-day lives. If you're reading this on your computer but turn your head to someone walking into the room, chances are you blinked. That's a cut. Transferring the idea to the movies, each cut in a motion picture should occur when the audience would naturally blink. "That blink will occur where a cut could have happened,” he wrote “had the conversation been filmed."

It's an art that doesn't draw attention to itself, because it often can't. To consider the editing of a movie, Stimpson plays a silent game. "I'll be on a plane and I'll look between the seats and see whatever the person in front of me is watching," he said. "And I just find myself sucked in and watching without the sound. And when I do that, I watch for when and how the editors make cuts. When they're going from angle to angle, scene to scene, and when and how they make their choices and when they make their choices. It's a really interesting exercise — if you turn off the sound and just watch the picture, that's the magic of it.

The open house

What makes it real for the audience.

Visual effects nominees

  • “All Quiet on the Western Front,” Frank Petzold, Viktor Müller, Markus Frank and Kamil Jafar
  • “Avatar: The Way of the Water,” Joe Letteri, Richard Baneham, Eric Saindon and Daniel Barrett
  • “The Batman,” Dan Lemmon, Russell Earl, Anders Langlands and Dominic Tuohy
  • “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” Geoffrey Baumann, Craig Hammack, R. Christopher White and Dan Sudick
  • “Top Gun: Maverick,” Ryan Tudhope, Seth Hill, Bryan Litson and Scott R. Fisher

The 1993 Academy Award winner for best visual effects, “Jurassic Park,” supposedly contained just 63 such shots, a number dwarfed by recent entries to the franchise. But it's not just movies of great spectacle that now pile on the visual effects.

"A couple of decades ago, a normal movie would have maybe 20 or 30 visual effects shots," said Brian Drewes, founder of Boston-based visual effects studio ZERO. "Nowadays, a normal romantic comedy would have hundreds and hundreds of visual effects shots." But you'd never know. After all, that's why he chose the name ZERO: these effects are everywhere, and like many other components of a movie, they aren't trying to draw attention to themselves.

Reasons for increased use of visual effects include the technology becoming less expensive and more accessible, and because of the cost environmental challenges can impose during filming. Drewes invites us to imagine a shot, and in it, a shrub that looks wildly out of place — misplaced by someone on set, blown about by the wind. "If it took you 4 hours to get that shot, there's no way you're going to stop, reposition the shrub and then shoot it again," he said. "The day is short." It’s a “fix it in post” world. However, this is not a department of computers. The software is the tool for artists making a new world.

Drewes points out that in movies like those of the “Jurassic Park” and the “Fast and the Furious” franchises, visual effects are expected, so we don’t notice those “shrub moments”; with so many explosions we aren't thinking about how much of a frame includes digital pixels. That changes dramatically in a movie set in our tactile, familiar world — it's our world, and we'll know when something is amiss. "Those are the ones where you really do need to take great care with making sure that everything is done really well." said Drewes. "I would say those movies are the most challenging ones to do well." To further the point about effects that go unnoticed, he pointed me to ZERO's work on “Little Women” and their creation of an ice pond.

Sound nominees

  • “All Quiet on the Western Front,” Viktor Prášil, Frank Kruse, Markus Stemler, Lars Ginzel and Stefan Korte
  • “Avatar: The Way of the Water,”Julian Howarth, Gwendolyn Yates Whittle, Dick Bernstein, Christopher Boyes, Gary Summers and Michael Hedges
  • “The Batman,” Stuart Wilson, William Files, Douglas Murray and Andy Nelson
  • “Elvis,” David Lee, Wayne Pashley, Andy Nelson and Michael Keller
  • “Top Gun: Maverick,” Mark Weingarten, James H. Mather, Al Nelson, Chris Burdon and Mark Taylor

Ahead of the 2021 awards, the Academy decided to collapse the awards for sound mixing and sound editing into one award, despite those being two different jobs. So, when talking about the nebulous "sound" cloud, it might be helpful to remember what that distinction is. Basically, sound mixing refers to the creation of a track that houses everything you hear — stuff like dialogue, sound effects, music. Sound editing can be considered the creation, manipulation and recording of sound.

Imagine a scene featuring actors in the snow. When that film gets exported to other markets to be dubbed in other languages, the English language track needs to come out — and the sound of snow and coats is going with it. Enter the Foley artist, who has the crucial job of recreating those sounds for the film. But sound editing isn’t just required for foreign markets — sometimes microphones won’t pick up certain sounds that we’d otherwise expect to hear (we can see that door knob turning, afterall). Or maybe some dialogue needs to be rerecorded, and new sounds have to be inserted to replace the ones lost.

"They replace everything, whether it's a footstep, clothes rustle, a hand snap, a cup being placed on a table, a telephone being hung up — all those dumb little sounds that just are natural to what's going on during the rest of the scene that happened to overlap with the dialogue," said Stimpson. "It is so cool."

Foley is a special brand of wizardry — using metal sheets or rocks in a box for thunder, cornstarch for footsteps in the snow, or in the case of “Fight Club,” beating chicken carcasses with baseball bats to simulate a visceral beating of fists.

Mixers, on the other hand, are tasked with making sure you can actually make sense of everything that you're hearing — amplifying some sounds, tuning others down and generally averting a cacophonous mix of competing sonic agendas. The speakers on your computer and (likey) your TV are nowhere near comparable to those at your local theater. A good mixer will try to compensate for that by creating a track that will simulate all the elements you're missing out on — but it still isn't a substitute for the real thing.

"When we mix a film we do a full surround sound mix," said Stimpson of the process. "But we also supply a regular stereo mix that tries to simulate and bring out the elements in a simple stereo environment. But unfortunately, you're not going to be enveloped in the sound the way you would be in a theater. That experience is something that you just can't simulate at home. Unless you've got some high end screening room. But most people don't.”