How 'Baby Driver' Orchestrated a Car Chase Timed to a Musical Beat

Edgar Wright's musical action film earned Oscar noms for its film editing, sound editing and mixing, which together give the film its propulsive start to the tune of The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion's "Bellbottoms."
Courtesy of TriStar Pictures

The kinetic opening of Edgar Wright's Baby Driver, with The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion's "Bellbottoms" playing on its soundtrack, had to accomplish a lot: quickly introduce the characters; set up the geography of a bank heist and the car chase that follows; and tell the audience exactly what to expect — synchronicity of sound and picture, in service of a musical action film. That it did so successfully is reflected by its Oscar nominations for film editing, sound editing and sound mixing.

The sound design starts right at the beginning, at the sight of the Sony logo. "Its 'ping' was repitched so it goes into a tinnitus tone [since getaway driver Baby (Ansel Elgort) suffers from tinnitus] that stays constant," explains supervising sound editor, designer and rerecording mixer Julian Slater, "and we pitched that so the tinnitus is in the same key as composer Steven Price's strings. Out of the strings you hear the breaks squeal on a close-up of the car's wheel, which turns into the beginning of 'Bellbottoms."

Meanwhile, editors Paul Machliss and Jonathan Amos saw to the character intros. "Baby seems quiet" when the robbers pull up to the bank, but once they go inside, "he suddenly comes to life and is overtaken by the music track," Machliss says, adding that just as quickly, he snaps back into "professional mode" as the carefully choreographed chase begins.

When the crew filmed the segment on an Atlanta freeway, Wright, Machliss and other key sound contributors were strapped into an accompanying vehicle. And since all the music was cleared before shooting started, Machliss had every track — alongside previsualization animations of what each scene should look like — on his Avid editing system when he sat down to begin assembling footage.

Coordination was key. When Elgort's Baby drives alongside two similar red cars and then switches position under an overpass to give the slip to a helicopter in pursuit, the moment when he's unseen from above allowed for only nine to 10 bars of music. "We had to make sure we were out of the tunnel by the time the music got to that moment," Machliss notes. "The music was fixed, so you couldn't just make a shot longer or shorter."

This story first appeared in the Jan. 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.