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‘Frank’: rocking out and (big) head banging

By Jennifer Walden

If someone told you the Oscar-nominated and very serious actor Michael Fassbender would one day play an eccentric musician who, in a left of center comedy, permanently dons a massive paper mache head, that would sound a bit crazy, right? Not crazy at all.

In fact, the Magnolia Pictures release Frank has been getting some seriously good buzz.

The premise of this film intrigued me, as you could imagine, so I reached out to the film’s audio post team at Ardmore Sound, located in Bray, Co. Wicklow, Ireland, to find out more about the sound behind the head. (Oh, and check out this video on Vimeo: The Film — Post Production Sound Featurette, you’ll be glad you did.)

As a sound person, the first thought that goes through my mind when I see an actor wearing a giant paper mache head is, ‘How the hell do you mic that?’ Fortunately Ardmore Sound was involved early on in the prepro process. They worked with director Lenny Abrahamson and sound mixer Neil O’Sullivan to figure out the best mic method and placement to capture clean, clear dialogue.

Niall Brady

Niall Brady

“They built a DPA lavaliere into the paper mache head and so we had a very good close mic for Michael Fassbender all the time,” explains Ardmore Sound’s supervising sound editor, Niall Brady. After testing out the built-in mic, O’Sullivan added baffling inside the head.

“The baffling created an acoustically treated environment so we didn’t have any mad-quick reflections bouncing off the inside of the head,” says sound designer/re-recording mixer Steve Fanagan. “The head ended up being a portable vocal booth.”

Initially the post sound team thought the paper mache head was going to be a huge problematic obstacle that would muffle the sound, but with the built-in lav and the baffling inside the head, Fassbender’s dialogue track was so clean it made the other production tracks sound dirty in comparison. “Everyone else is recorded with a boom or on hidden lavs, so it wasn’t as clean and clear as Michael’s dialogue. We ended up in a reverse situation of what we expected to happen,” says Fanagan.

To which Brady jokes, “We mixed a test scene with Michael’s dialogue against the other actors and the reaction was, ‘Well Michael sounds great, but we’re going to have to ADR everyone else.’”

Initially, Brady and his audio post team anticipated possibly having to do a significant amount of ADR with Fassbender, and assumed that they would easily be able to change lines of dialogue. But in reality, Fassbender needed less than 60 lines of ADR thanks to O’Sullivan’s mic technique and acoustic treatment. Also, without being able to use facial expressions, Fassbender’s physical performance communicated his emotions, so what he said was inherent to how he moved.

FRANK_Livesmall

During the ADR session, Fassbender wore the paper mache head, not only to get a perfect mic match, but also to help him replicate his physical on-camera performance. Fanagan says, “The ADR session was less about lipsync and more about syncing his body language. He was listening to what was there and trying to re-perform a cleaner, better version instead of trying to put some other lines of dialogue into those scenes, which we knew just wouldn’t work.”

From the beginning, the goal was to have the film sound like a real band rehearsing in their garage or performing live at a venue. The intention was to keep it from feeling too polished, or overly worked in post. Brady and Fanagan traveled to the main location where the film was shot, about an hour south of Dublin, and captured backgrounds and other field recordings to augment the production tracks.

Many of the instruments used in the film were still there, so Brady and Fanagan were able to get the sound of the switches, keys, knobs, and dials on the gear. They recorded room tones in a 5.0 format using a Sound Devices 788T 24-Bit/96kHz 8-track digital recorder, a pair of Schoeps CMIT 5u mics, a Schoeps M/S stereo set, a pair of DPA 4060 lavs and a Sennheiser MKH60.

Steve Fanagan

Steve Fanagan

“We have very neutral airs for each space at that location,” says Fanagan. “That was our ground zero start point for each scene. Then we added sounds on top of that so we always have ambience of the real space.”

Capturing Sounds
Brady and Fanagan assembled an extensive library of original sounds for Frank. In addition to Foley, and capturing field recordings of room tones, instruments and other objects from the filming location, they also mined the multi-track production recordings for usable sound effects. “The goal was to make it sound as close to reality as possible,” reports Brady. “That’s the sort of sound that really resonates with Lenny, the director.” “You never want to feel like something has been fabricated. It has to sound like it’s coming from the band or from the world around the band. If it ever didn’t feel genuine or of-the-moment then it was probably wrong.”

It’s A Real Band
Music plays a key role in the film. According to Fanagan, composer Stephen Rennicks and director Abrahamson spent roughly two years writing, work-shopping and developing the music before they put together a band in Dublin to help fill out the parts. Once they felt they were in a good place, they had the actors learn and rehearse the songs as a band. The actors developed the songs even further based on their own abilities. “It was a really organic process and it became a band sound,” says Fanagan. “The drummer in the film Carla Azar is actually Jack White’s session drummer in real life. She was the anchor for the rest of the band to play around but they all had an investment in the music.”

Niall Recording on locationsmall Steve recording on locationsmall

Niall and Steve recording sounds.

The band always plays live on set. Even Fassbender’s vocals are taken from the production tracks. Fanagan notes the production mix was complicated. Any scene with the band playing music also has dramatic content happening. According to Brady, sound mixer O’ Sullivan used a Sound Devices 788T to capture the traditional eight tracks of production audio, including a mixed music track. He also used a JoeCo BBR1 BlackBox recorder, a multi-track recorder that can record/playback up to 24 channels of 24-bit/96kHz audio in broadcast WAV format, to record the band. There was also an Avid Pro Tools rig as a safety backup. “There was a music mixer on-set to help capture the multi-track music recordings, and also to feed each of the actors their own cue mix if need be because they were basically recording an album while acting out the movie,” says Fanagan.

The Edit
During the edit, the music was cut in tandem with the picture. Editor Nathan Nugent not only cut the mixed music production track but he also had the ability to pull from the iso-tracks, and, for example, sub out guitar parts or drum fills. Once the cut was complete for that song, the tracks were delivered to the composer, who restored the original takes and re-edited the music.

Ken_Galvin

Ken Galvin

The tracks were then remixed and mastered at Asylum Studios, a music house in Dublin, and those stems were delivered to re-recording mixer Ken Galvin on the dub stage at Ardmore Sound for the final mix to picture.

Having the music stems allowed Galvin to spread the music into the surrounds at times. Fanagan notes Galvin paid special attention to spatializing the music, making it fit the space on screen, by adding reverb and room tones into the surrounds. “If you look at the music mix in the film, there is always some information panned into the surrounds,” he says. “Ken [Galvin] did a lot of work, particularly on the live performance scenes.”

The sound was edited and pre-mixed in Pro Tools 10, and the final 5.1 mix was on a Harrison MPC console on Ardmore Sound’s Dolby-licensed dub stage.

1 NOT BAD

Fanagan sums up his experience on Frank by saying, “This was a lovely film to work on for all the right reasons. We have a sound crew that works really well together. It was a huge challenge but incredibly enjoyable. It was a really lovely collaboration, from the director and his producers to the editor Nathan Nugent and the composer Stephen Rennicks, we all walked away feeling very lucky to have been involved in this film.”

Adds Brady, “It’s really great to feel like you’ve been given enough time to work on the sound, and that everyone’s been given enough space and time to be creative.”

Jennifer Walden is an audio engineer and freelance writer based in New Jersey.

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