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Director Josie Rourke Turned to Abbey Road Studios to Create the Final Sound Mix for ‘Mary Queen of Scots’

Mary queen of scots,” the period drama about the life of Mary Stuart, played by Saoirse Ronan, and that of her English cousin Queen Elizabeth I, portrayed by Margot Robbie, may mark Josie Rourke’s feature film directorial debut, but as the artistic director of London’s prestigious Donmar Warehouse, where she’s staged acclaimed and groundbreaking productions, she’s no stranger to dealing with sound and music.

“In theater, sound is so important,” she says. “One of a director’s most basic functions is telling whether an actor on stage can be heard. So we spend a lot of time thinking about acoustics, and then also how music functions in a scene. And while film is such a visual medium, I think music and sound are even more important in movies, and how you use them to help tell the story.”

Rourke says that her initial vision for the soundtrack was inspired by the music of composer Max Richter — “and specifically his famous Vivaldi ‘The Four Seasons Recomposed’ piece, which breaks down a famous work and reassembles it in a way that allows you to hear it afresh, and also links the past and present. And he’s also able to bring out deep, deep emotion from what is essentially minimalist music. That’s why I wanted him for this, and why he was perfect.”

Rourke also worked closely with a sound team that included sound designers Ian Wilson and Alastair Sirkett, and re-recording mixers Steve Single and Andrew Caller.

Wilson and Sirkett split their work between Scotland and England, “to help achieve an aural difference,” Wilson says.

“Al also handled the main battle as he had more time to focus on this with Chris Dickens, the editor, as it developed visually in the picture edit.”

For a temp mix, the team then used the new the Mix Stage at the Abbey Road Studios. Single and Wilson produced three temp mixes during the picture edit period, with Single using the Avid S6 console for dialogue and music, and Wilson using an Avid S3 for his effects. While preparing for each temp mix, the team worked in 7.1.2 Dolby Atmos Pro Tools sessions and folded down via Spanner to 5.1 in the tracks to feed the temp mixes. “This meant we were always carrying the temp mix adjustments and edit work forward towards the final mix,” adds Wilson.

For scheduling reasons, all the premixes were done at Pinewood Studios, near London, and the effects were mixed by resident Pinewood mixer Caller in the Dolby Atmos room.

The final mix at Abbey Road took three weeks. As Single recalls, one major challenge was “how to approach two very different styles of music in Atmos. Max Richter’s score perfectly suited the broad range of emotions and drama in the film, and drives the film, and in this sense Atmos is a perfect format for this music.”

But the historical source music, composed by William Lyons, presented a different challenge. “Trying to treat this music, which uses genuine period instruments, as we did the score just wasn’t realistic,” says Single. “We needed to be focused and guided by where the band or instrument lived in the scene and this meant ‘monoing’ many of the elements. Building on this, we used the ‘object’ option within Atmos.

For example, to marry John Rizzio’s violin to his movements throughout certain scenes we treated his violin recording as an ‘object,’ thus allowing it to follow his every move. This heightened the reality of all the source cues. Combining these two very different styles was both the most challenging and enjoyable aspect of the mix.”

“Working on the sound mix was one of the most creative experiences I’ve ever had,” Rourke says, citing a scene where Mary and Lord Darnley, a suitor, are walking outdoors. “We have Max’s score playing, and when they stop and Darnley moves in to kiss Mary, we also stopped the music and raised the natural sound — the wind in the grass, birds singing — and as he makes physical contact, we dropped everything away, as if every creature is holding its breath. It’s subtle but so powerful.”

(Pictured above: director Josie Rourke with actors Margot Robbie and Joe Alwyn)

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