How Top Sound Mixers Create Authentic, Heightened Audio to "Cradle the Viewer"

8:30 AM 12/13/2018

by Carolyn Giardina

Whether it was making audiences feel they had front-row seats at a Queen concert in 'Bohemian Rhapsody' or that they were riding along on a domestic worker's personal journey in 1970s Mexico in 'Roma,' getting the sound just right was essential to the storytelling.

Behind the Screen -Top Sound Mixers -H 2018
Disney Enterprises; Twentieth Century Fox; Courtesy of Alfonso CuarĂ³n
  • 'Bohemian Rhapsody'

    Bohemian Rhapsody concludes with Queen’s indelible Live Aid performance at London’s Wembley Stadium, and making it feel real started with the actual material from the July 1985 show. “We had all of the original 24-track recordings from the Queen archives,” explains the film’s rerecording mixer and music mixer, Paul Massey. “Any time we needed a sweetener of an original cymbal hit or something because perspective in the film was requiring us to get close up to the drum kits, we could go back into the archives.”

    Once he had an overall sound he liked for the songs, Massey adds, he ended up “basically going shot by shot and seeing what I could do to enhance the perspective for the audience.”

    Massey wanted to create “an acoustic stadium feel,” but not just through electronic means. When Queen (now fronted by Adam Lambert) played London’s O2 arena in July, “I managed to get two hours with no audience and played the songs through the Queen PA at full level. So I had an acoustic re-creation of what the PA would sound like in a very, very large environment.”

    For crowds, Massey combined the original audience recordings with extras from production. Plus, during the O2 performance, “[lead guitarist] Brian May stopped the concert at one point and said, ‘Who would like to be in the film?’ So we had 10,000 people doing a single clap and then another and another. We were able to then edit and assemble those to represent the people clapping along at Wembley.”

  • 'Roma'

    For the intimate Mexico-set drama based on his own childhood, writer-director Alfonso Cuaron wanted an immersive soundscape. Rerecording mixer Skip Lievsay (who won an Oscar for Cuaron’s Gravity) explains, “We began with our Atmos experience of Gravity and pushed out from there. Alfonso was interested in what Atmos could do for his very elegant family documentary.”

    Describing the work as the “audio equivalent of the beautiful 4K black-and-white images,” Lievsay adds that Cuaron conceived “a highly detailed track that moved with the actions onscreen. We were interested in the potential of a heightened soundscape that could cradle the viewer in an immersive environment that would allow a deeper and more satisfying experience. We wondered if very accurate panning of all sound events including dialogue could access this deeper soundscape. This was our experiment — very accurate panning of our highly realistic sounds.”

  • 'Mary Poppins Returns'

    “I think what makes Mary Poppins different in terms of approach is it’s literally every kind of movie rolled into one: an animation, a musical, a love story, even a bit of an action movie,” rerecording mixer Mike Prestwood Smith explains. The Disney sequel’s narrative is woven into the music and lyrics; therefore, transitions between dialogue and music were delicate. Vocal performances were both prerecorded and performed live on set, “and we wove in and out of those two things,” he explains. “So the task of getting that to feel like an authentic vocal performance that you never question is quite a complicated task.” The difficulty was compounded by the film’s fantasy elements. “You could be underwater one minute and flying in the sky the next,” he says. “In order to believe the fantasy, it has to feel integrated.”

    For example, when Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda sing “A Cover Is Not the Book” in the Royal Doulton Music Hall, the scene had to flip-flop between vocals and dialogue. “The dynamic between the music and Foley in particular is crucial to believing our singers are singing live while dancing with animals.”

    This story first appeared in a December stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.