Mixing the sounds of history for Marshall

By Jennifer Walden

Director Reginald Hudlin’s courtroom drama Marshall tells the story of Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) during his early career as a lawyer. The film centers on a case Marshall took in Connecticut in the early 1940s. He defended a black chauffeur named Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown) who was charged with attempted murder and sexual assault of his rich, white employer Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson).

At that time, racial discrimination and segregation were widespread even in the North, and Marshall helped to shed light on racial inequality by taking on Spell’s case and making sure he got a fair trial. It’s a landmark court case that is not only of huge historical consequence but is still relevant today.

Mixers Anna Behlmer and Craig Mann

Marshall is so significant right now with what’s happening in the world,” says Oscar-nominated re-recording mixer Anna Behlmer, who handled the effects on the film. “It’s not often that you get to work on a biographical film of someone who lived and breathed and did amazing things as far as freedom for minorities. Marshall began the NAACP and argued Brown vs. Dept. of Education for stopping the segregation of the schools. So, in that respect, I felt the weight and the significance of this film.”

Oscar-winning supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer Craig Mann handled the dialogue and music. Behlmer and Mann mixed Marshall in 5.1 surround on a Euphonix System 5 console on Stage 2 at Technicolor at Paramount in Hollywood.

In the film, crowds gather on the steps outside the courthouse — a mixture of supporters and opponents shouting their opinions on the case. When dealing with shouting crowds in a film, Mann likes to record the loop group for those scenes outside. “We recorded in Technicolor’s backlot, which gives a nice slap off all the buildings,” says Mann, who miked the group from two different perspectives to capture the feeling that they’re actually outside. For the close-mic rig, Mann used an L-C-R setup with two Schoeps CMC641s for left and right and a CMIT 5U for center, feeding into a TASCAM HSP-82 8-channel recorder.

“We used the CMIT 5U mic because that was the production boom mic and we knew we’d be intermingling our recordings with the production sound, because they recorded some sound on the courthouse stairs,” says Mann. “We matched that up so that it would anchor everything in the center.”

For the distant rig, Mann went with a Sanken CSS-5 set to record in stereo, feeding a Sound Devices 722. Since they were running two setups simultaneously, Mann says they beeped everyone with a bullhorn to get slate sync for the two rigs. Then to match the timing of the chanting with production sound, they had a playback rig with eight headphone feeds out to chosen leaders from the 20-person loop group. “The people wearing headphones could sync up to the production chanting and those without headphones followed along with the people who had them on.”

Inside the courtroom, the atmosphere is quiet and tense. Mann recorded the loop group (inside the studio this time) reacting as non-verbally as possible. “We wanted to use the people in the gallery as a tool for tension. We do all of that without being too heavy handed, or too hammy,” he says.

Sound Effects
On the effects side, the Foley — provided by Foley artist John Sievert and his team at JRS Productions in Toronto — was a key element in the courtroom scenes. Each chair creak and paper shuffle plays to help emphasize the drama. Behlmer references a quiet scene in which Thurgood is arguing with his other attorney defending the case, Sam Friedman (Josh Gad). “They weren’t arguing with their voices. Instead, they were shuffling papers and shoving things back and forth. The defendant even asks if everything is ok with them. Those sounds helped to convey what was going on without them speaking,” she says.

You can hear the chair creak as Judge Foster (James Cromwell) leans forward and raises an eyebrow and hear people in the gallery shifting in their seats as they listen to difficult testimony or shocking revelations. “Something as simple as people shifting on the bench to underscore how uncomfortable the moment was, those sounds go a long way when you do a film like this,” says Behlmer.

During the testimony, there are flashback sequences that illustrate each person’s perception of what happened during the events in question. The flashback effect is partially created through the picture (the flashbacks are colored differently) and partially through sound. Mann notes that early on, they made the decision to omit most of the sounds during the flashbacks so that the testimony wouldn’t be overshadowed.

“The spoken word was so important,” adds Behlmer. “It was all about clarity, and it was about silence and tension. There were revelations in the courtroom that made people gasp and then there were uncomfortable pauses. There was a delicacy with which this mix had to be done, especially with regards to Foley. When a film is really quiet and delicate and tense, then every little nuance is important.”

Away from the courthouse, the film has a bit of fun. There’s a jazz club scene in which Thurgood and his friends cut loose for the evening. A band and a singer perform on stage to a packed club. The crowd is lively. Men and women are talking and laughing and there’s the sound of glasses clinking. Behlmer mixed the crowds by following the camera movement to reinforce what’s on-screen.

Music
On the music side, Mann’s challenge was to get the brass — the trumpet and trombone — to sit in a space that didn’t interfere too much with the dialogue. On the other hand, Mann still wanted the music to feel exciting. “We had to get the track all jazz-clubbed up. It was about finding a reverb that was believable for the space. It was about putting the vocals and brass upfront and having the drums and bass be accompaniment.”

Having the stems helped Mann to not only mix the music against the dialogue but to also fit the music to the image on-screen. During the performance, the camera is close-up and sweeping along the band. Mann used the music stems to pan the instruments to match the scene. The shot cuts away from the performance to Thurgood and his friends at a table in the back of the club. Using the stems, Mann could duck out of the singer’s vocals and other louder elements to make way for the dialogue. “The music was very dynamic. We had to be careful that it didn’t interfere too much with the dialogue, but at the same time we wanted it to play.”

On the score, Mann used Exponential Audio’s R4 reverb to set the music back into the mix. “I set it back a bit farther than I normally would have just to give it some space, so that I didn’t have to turn it down for dialogue clarity. It got it to shine but it was a little distant compared to what it was intended to be.”

Behlmer and Mann feel the mix was pretty straightforward. Their biggest obstacle was the schedule. The film had to be mixed in just ten days. “I didn’t even have pre-dubs. It was just hang and go. I was hearing everything for the first time when I sat down to mix it — final mix it,” explains Behlmer.

With Mann working the music and dialogue faders, co-supervising sound editor Bruce Tanis was supplying Behlmer with elements she needed during the final mix. “I would say Bruce was my most valuable asset. He’s the MVP of Marshall for the effects side of the board,” she says.

On the dialogue side, Mann says his gear MVP was iZotope RX 6. With so many quiet moments, the dialogue was exposed. It played prominently, without music or busy backgrounds to help hide any flaws. And the director wanted to preserve the on-camera performances so ADR was not an option.

“We tried to use alts to work our way out of a few problems, and we were successful. But there were a few shots in the courtroom that began as tight shots on boom and then cuts wide, so the boom had to pull back and we had to jump onto the lavs there,” concludes Mann. “Having iZotope to help tie those together, so that the cut was imperceptible, was key.”


Jennifer Walden is a NJ-based audio engineer and writer. Follow her on Twitter @audiojeney.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *