Oscar winner, UB grad thanks Media Study professors for important career lessons

Tom Curley, on the left, wearing a tux and holding an Oscar statue, along with Crain Mann and Ben Wilkins, who all won the Oscar for sound mixing in the film "Whiplash.".

Tom Curley, left, a 2001 graduate of the UB Department of Media Study, won an Oscar for sound mixing in the film "Whiplash." Credit: Jason Merritt / Getty Images

Release Date: February 27, 2015 This content is archived.

“When I read the script, my heart was pounding just turning the pages. On paper, it was that intense. I realized we were going to have a pretty good film if we could pull it off.”
Tom Curley

BUFFALO, N.Y. – Academy Award winner Tom Curley, BA ’01, knew coming to the University at Buffalo was the right choice for him shortly after transferring from a community college in upstate New York. Curley loves movies and he says he found the demanding, yet rewarding program he was looking for at UB.

“It was the passion of the professors and their dedication to the art of film that was so special,” says Curley, who with Craig Mann and Ben Wilkins won this year’s Academy Award for sound mixing in the film “Whiplash” starring Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons. “Right away, I learned this was a place of serious academia and that helped me focus my career ambitions.”

Curley runs through his UB experiences with the enthusiasm of a presenter reading the nominees’ names on Oscar night, but like the eventual award winner, the name Tony Conrad — SUNY Distinguished Professor in the Department of Media Study — stands out.

“He was definitely one of my favorite professors,” Curley says. “He’s whacky but in the best possible way. Tony made everything interesting and fun. He allowed us to explore the weird side of film and taught me so much more than I ever would have learned by watching more mainstream stuff.”

If Curley knew right away that UB was the right choice for him, he knew just as quickly that “Whiplash” was going to be something special.

“When I read the script, my heart was pounding just turning the pages. On paper, it was that intense,” he says. “I realized we were going to have a pretty good film if we could pull it off.”

But that wasn’t going to be easy. “Whiplash” wasn’t a big-budget picture and filming was finished in a breathless 19 days.

“Nick Harvard, the first assistant director, is the one who pulled the logistics together,” says Curley. “He developed the workflow, but the entire crew was amazing. I’ve never seen a collaborative effort like that in my career.”

As a production sound mixer, Curley is responsible for capturing all the audio on set, from the actors’ voices to ambient sound. But his association on this picture with Mann and Wilkins, who had post-production roles, was unique.

“Many times, post-production sound people haven’t even been hired while a film is being shot,” Curley says. “The foresight to have them there for pre-production was great.”

The trio of sound mixers had a particular challenge with “Whiplash,” a film that explores the relationship between a promising drummer and his conservatory experience with a demanding instructor.

Drums are loud. Really loud. Curley and his partners had to devise ways of capturing clean dialogue without losing the accuracy of the drumming.

“It added a couple of ‘must-haves’ to my list of things to accomplish, but we figured out how to get around it, including having the drummers play in some shots, but not actually hit the drums.”

In the meantime, the next thing Curley has to figure out is where to put his Oscar statue.

“I don’t have a proper fireplace, but it’s on my bookshelf for now,” he says.

Curley says he has planned a party, his first since winning the award. He knows friends will hold the statue and offer mock acceptance speeches, but he won’t stop them.

“I’ll let ’em play,” he says

Why not? After all, he works in the movies.

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