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Sounding Off: ‘Rocketman,’ ‘Judy’ and ‘Ford v. Ferrari’ Sound Mixers Push Forward

Rocket Man Movie
Courtesy of Paramount Pictures / David Appleby

When sound is mixed for a film, a kind of alchemy happens. As one track is pushed forward, your attention moves with it. The best sound mixers also can balance loud environments, so you’re still able to hear dialogue and crucial story elements while being immersed in the visuals.

Films heavy on concert performances or musicals can prove tricky for a mixer. The ears of the audience can become fatigued if the volume is too intense or they’re not moved from one place to the next carefully.

In “Rocketman,” sound mixer Mike Prestwood Smith developed a way of moving back and forth from musical numbers, concert performances and some quiet moments between Elton John and his family. The sound for each scene had to work on its own but also lead into the next one without feeling jarring.

“The musical numbers are doing a lot of narrative work,” says Smith. “Those words [in the musical numbers] are sewn into the movie, so you can hear the things that are important to the story. Then you’ll go from the characters singing songs to speaking some words and then back into a song. Things have to feel coherent and integrate, and have to feel like it’s all belonging in one space. These transitions have to be seamless. When you go from delineated events, where you have some regular sort of drama, back into the music, and then back into drama again, the audience isn’t taken out of the story. With ‘Rocketman,’ it was a very complicated woven tapestry of music and lyrics, where you were constantly flip-flopping backwards and forwards. There are multiple transitional layers going on at any one time.”

Smith loved the vision director Dexter Fletcher had for the story and was awed by the performance of Taron Egerton. He wanted to be sure sound was used to bring it all together.
“Elton is still with us, so it’s rather intimidating because you do think about how he will feel about it, and his voice is iconic. So many people have heard his songs and love them,” says Smith. “So, that’s definitely in the back of your mind. You’re trying to make each performance integrated so that the vocal sounds don’t sound like they’re competing with the dialogue, because Elton’s story is about the performances and the things that happened between those performances. You want to be true to that. You’re preparing the audience for the transition before it happens, way ahead of where you think you might have to start stripping things back or building them up.”

Adrian Bell, production sound mixer on “Judy,” a biopic about the legendary Judy Garland, was focused on a  strategy to mix concert performances and dialogue so the story of the fallen icon would develop naturally.

“Working out a good relationship with the director and DP is paramount,” says Bell. “When we have a good chance of being able to capture live vocals on set, we need to negotiate what the various shots are from each of the cameras. That then enables us to position our microphones where we need them. Some of the songs can’t be recorded live. Some of the bigger dance numbers will have a lot of dancer footsteps on the recording. Or the band at the back of stage might not be able to be completely mimed. In location sound, we have to try to be realistic about what we can achieve on each day and discuss this with the director and the musical director.”

With the crew working together, Bell was able to capture a signature moment for the film that also reflected on Judy Garland’s career.  “One of the high points of recording ‘Judy’ was ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow,’” says Bell. “Once we had finished the recording on the Hackney Empire stage, you could cut the atmosphere with a knife. The hairs stood up on the back of your neck, and yes,
the odd tear ran down crew member’s cheeks.”

Paul Massey, who won the Academy Award for sound mixing on “Bohemian Rhapsody,” balanced the racing sequences and dialogue of “Ford v Ferrari” so that the story of the cars and the people could both move together. Helmer James Mangold told the story of two competitive characters set against the backdrop of the 24-hour Le Mans race in France in 1966.

“We had to go through the racing sequences where there was obviously a lot of information coming from the car, engines, tires and the crowd. We had to analyze how we’re then leading the audience in one particular moment,” says Massey. “We have to decide whether it will be music or if it should be the sheer adrenaline of the engines. Then we will first try to weave in and out of the other, so that we are constantly moving the attention for the audience by focusing their attention on different things at different times. That way, they’re getting the information about everything that’s going on in the scene.”

Although “Ford v Ferrari” was bound to be a movie with lots of loud sounds, Massey was interested in restraint so the audience wouldn’t get tired. “When you get into those louder sequences, the actual window that you have to put the dialogue in is quite small in terms of what the audience can handle,” says Massey. “We adhere to loudness limit. We try to not get louder because getting louder all time is not good for dialogue. For us, it’s more about what you’re taking out of the mix rather than what you’re adding into the mix in order to highlight certain moments. There were areas where I’d take drastic drops in the rhythm section, within the music, in order to get a line of dialogue through but the melody line would still continue. Hopefully, the audience wasn’t aware that I did that drastic drop underneath the dialogue. You’re trying to help the understand what the character is feeling.”