Music video tricks juice ‘Dreamgirls’ numbers

Singers recorded 61 pieces before filming began

Twenty-five years after the launch of MTV, filmmakers still reference the musicvideo network like it’s a bad thing. Consider Virginia Katz, who’s been working in Bill Condon’s editing room since his first feature, 1988’s “Sister, Sister.”

When it came to editing “Dreamgirls,” Condon insisted on using Katz. “Bill and I have worked together for so long, I know what he doesn’t want,” she says. “Neither one of us wanted an MTV-style movie. It’s more in the vein of an old-fashioned musical.”

The storytelling in “Dreamgirls” may be classical, but the editing is intense, and the only way Condon could capture the performances he wanted was to use an old musicvideo trick called “playback”: The vocalists worked with producers Damon Thomas and Harvey Mason Jr., aka the Underdogs, to record 61 pieces of music before Condon shot a single frame.

“Bill knew the story inside and out, so he knew exactly what he was trying to accomplish with each song, what the character needed to be saying, what their tone and dynamics should be,” says Mason.

With the vocals locked, Condon could focus on the acting when it came time to shoot the musical numbers. And with four cameras running during each major performance, using playback helped thread every take — sometimes as much as 200 pieces of film — to the same track.

“It’s all planned out. Wherever Bill put the camera had a purpose,” Katz says. In the dailies for “Steppin’ to the Bad Side,” she spotted a move in which one of the dancers leaps off the stage and lands. “I knew right away that I wanted to play him going up and go wide and see him coming down,” she says.

But prerecorded audio also complicated Katz’s task. With single-camera dialogue scenes, Katz can shape the rhythm in the editing room. “There’s no doing that here,” she says. “Let’s say we wanted to lose five cuts. We had to pull them out in a way that musically made sense, but also so that there wasn’t a gap in the picture.”

Take the “One Night Only” disco number. Auds would never suspect, but there’s a chunk missing in which the girls do a dance with colored wands. Condon decided to cut it, so Katz worked with music editor Paul Rabjohns to shorten the number and cover up the ellipsis.

“Bill is meticulous,” she says. “Editorially, there’s nothing easy about cutting a movie like this.”

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