Tag Archives: Damien Chazelle

The A-List: La La Land‘s Oscar-winning DP Linus Sandgren

By Iain Blair

Even though it didn’t actually win the Best Picture Oscar, La La Land was honored with five Academy Awards this year, including one for Best Cinematography for Linus Sandgren. This Swedish director of photography, known for his kinetic work with David O. Russell on American Hustle and Joy, collaborated closely with La La Land’s Oscar-winning director Damien Chazelle.

Shooting with anamorphic lenses and 35mm film on Panavision Millennium XL2s (with one 16mm sequence) — and capturing his first musical — Sandgren rose to the challenge set by Chazelle (“make it look magical rather than realistic”) by continually pushing the film’s technical and creative boundaries.

That approach is showcased in the bravura opening traffic jam sequence where the camera feels like one of the dancers and part of the choreography. Designed to look like one unbroken shot, it’s actually three, carefully rehearsed, then shot on the freeway ramp over a weekend and stitched together invisibly and seamlessly. For another tour-de-force sequence where stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone literally fly up into the stars of the Griffith Observatory planetarium, the team used wires and bluescreen on a set, as filming wasn’t allowed in the real location.

I recently talked to Sandgren about shooting the film, working with Chazelle (see our interview with the director), the digital workflow and the importance of post to him as a DP.

Is it fair to say that the camera functions almost like another character in this film?
Yes, our whole approach was to let the camera act as both a curious character, with very active movement, as well as a musical instrument, so we had to move the camera to the rhythm of the music. We also designed many scenes in three- to six-minute-long single takes that often included a Steadicam that had to step on or off a crane, and sometimes we needed to shoot the scene in a very limited timeframe of about 20 minutes.

Was the framing also quite demanding?
Damien wanted the film to be very anamorphic and do it in 35mm with the old scope format — before the standard became 2.40:1 — so we did it in 2.55:1 like the old CinemaScope. Then I talked to Panavision and they built some new ground glasses for us, which added to the magic we were trying to capture in the look.

Damien told me that you and colorist Natasha Leonnet actually set the template for the look and color palette even before the shoot?
Yes, we began with the tests. To me, it’s really important to try and establish the look in camera as much as possible, so that it’s as natural as possible in post and you don’t have to tweak too much later. So in the test, in order to get that “Technicolor look,” we explored introducing blues and cyans into the blacks, and we tested anything from push process (over-developing) and under-exposing, and pull process (under-develop) and over-exposing the film. The push process gave us more contrast and grain, while the pull process gave us a softer look and finer grain, which we thought was more pleasing.

How did you deal with the dailies?
We decided we were going to use Efilm’s Cinemascan dailies, which meant we scanned all the negative with an Arri scanner instead of the telecine version, and then in post we re-scanned the negative in 6K and downconverted it to 4K. All the tests were done with Natasha, but for the shoot itself, I used my dailies colorist, Matt Wallach from EC3 Lab, which is the location operation run by Efilm and Company 3 together. It’s the same workflow I used on Joy and also on the upcoming Battle of the Sexes. Each day of the shoot the film was sent to Fotokem, who under-developed it one stop, and then it was scanned at EC3.

Linus Sandgren with is Oscar at the Lionsgate Oscar party.

Where did you do the DI?
With Natasha at Efilm. She got all the settings from the EDL and we generally tried to stay with the dailies look, which we were all pretty happy with. We used some windows and worked on the blacks, and me and Damien had about three to four weeks working on the DI, but not every day. We’d go back and forth, and Natasha also did some work by herself. I’m really involved with the whole DI process, and I even ended up doing a last remote session with Natasha from Company 3’s place in London when I was there at the end of the DI.

Obviously, the shoot’s the main focus for any DP, but just how important is the whole post process for you?
It’s incredibly important, and I love the DI and post process. The most important thing for me is that the film’s look is already established before we start shooting, and therefore it’s very important to involve post production creatives in preproduction. I could never shoot a project where people say, “Don’t worry, we’ll fix the look in post.” I want to go into the DI knowing that we already have the look, and then we can work on fine-tuning it.

The A-List: The sound of La La Land

By Jennifer Walden

Director/writer Damien Chazelle’s musical La La Land has landed an incredible 14 Oscar nominations — not to mention fresh BAFTA wins for Best Film, Best Cinematography, Original Music and Best Leading Actress, in addition to many, many other accolades.

The story follows aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) who meets the talented-but-struggling jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) at a dinner club, where he’s just been fired from his gig of plinking out classic Christmas tunes for indifferent diners. Mia throws out a compliment as Sebastian approaches, but he just breezes right past, ignoring her completely. Their paths cross again at a Los Angeles pool party, and this time Mia makes a lasting impression on Sebastian. They eventually fall in love, but their life together is complicated by the realities of making their own dreams happen.

Sounds of the City
La La Land is a love story but it’s also a love letter to Los Angeles, says supervising sound editor Ai-Ling Lee, who shares an Oscar nomination for Best Sound Editing on the film with co-supervising sound editor Mildred Iatrou Morgan. One of Chazelle’s initial directives was to have the cityscape sound active and full of life. “He gave me film references, like Boogie Nights and Mean Streets, even though the latter was a New York film. He liked the amount of sound coming out from the city, but wanted a more romantic approach to the soundscape on La La Land. He likes the idea of the city always being bustling,” says Lee.

Mildred Iatrou Morgan and Ai-Ling Lee. Photo Credit: Jeffrey Harlacker

In addition to La La Land’s musical numbers, director Chazelle wanted to add musical moments throughout the film, some obvious, like the car radios in the opening traffic jam, and some more subtle. Lee explains, “You always hear music coming from different sources in the city, like music coming out of a car going by or mariachi music coming from down the hallway of Sebastian’s apartment building.” The culturally diverse incidental music, traffic sounds, helicopters, and local LA birds, like mourning doves, populate the city soundscape and create a distinct Los Angeles vibe.

For Lee’s sound editorial and sound design, she worked in a suite at EPS-Cineworks in Burbank — the same facility where the picture editor and composer were working. “Damien and Tom Cross [film editor] were cutting the picture there, and Justin Hurwitz the composer was right next door to them, and I was right across the hall from them. It was a very collaborative environment so it was easy to bring someone over to review a scene or sounds. I could pop over there to see them if I had any questions,” says Lee, who was able to design sound against the final music tracks. That was key to helping those two sound elements gel into one cohesive soundtrack.

Bursting Into Song
Director Chazelle’s other initial concern for sound was the music, particularly how the spoken dialogue would transitions into the studio recorded songs. That’s where supervising sound editor Morgan got to flex her dialogue editing muscles. “Milly [Morgan] knows this style of ADR, having worked on musicals before,” says Lee. “Damien wanted the dialogue to seamlessly transition into a musical moment. He didn’t want it to feel like suddenly we’re playing a pre-recorded song. He liked to have things sound more natural, with realistic grounded sounds, to help blend the music into the scene,” says Lee.

To achieve a smooth dialogue transition, Morgan recorded ADR for every line that led into a song to ensure she had a good transition between production dialogue and studio recorded dialogue, which would transition more cleanly into the studio-recorded music. “I cued that way for La La Land, but I ended up not having to use a lot of that. The studio recorded vocals and the production sound were beautifully recorded using the same mics in both cases. They were matching very well and I was able to go with the more emotional, natural sounding songs that were sung on-set in some cases,” says Morgan, who worked from her suite at 20th Century Fox studios along with ADR editor Galen Goodpaster.

Mia’s audition song, “The Fools Who Dream,” was one track that Morgan and the director were most concerned about. As Mia gives her impromptu audition she goes from speaking softly to suddenly singing, and then she starts singing louder. That would have been difficult to recreate in post because her performance on-set — captured by production mixer Steven Morrow — was so beautiful and emotional. The trouble was there were creaking noises on the track. Morgan explains, “As Mia starts singing, the camera moves in on her. It moves through the office and through the desk. It was a breakaway desk and they broke it apart so that the camera could move through it. That created all the creaking I heard on the track.”

Morgan was able to save the live performance by editing in clean ambience between words, and finding alternate takes that weren’t ruined by the creaking noise. She used Elastic Audio inside Pro Tools, as well as the Pro Tools TCE tool (time compression/expansion tool) to help tweak the alt takes into place. “I had to go through all of the outtakes, word by word, syllable by syllable, and find ones that fit in with the singing, and didn’t have creaks on them… and fit in terms of sync. It was very painstaking. It took me a couple of days to do it but it was a very rewarding result. That took a lot of time but it was so worth it because that was a really important moment in the movie,” says Morgan.

Reality Steps In
Not all on-set song performances could be used in the final track, so putting the pre-recorded songs in the space helped to make the transition into musical moments feel more realistic. Precisely crafted backgrounds, made with sounds that fit the tone of the impending song, gradually step aside as the music takes over. But not all of the real-world sounds go away completely. Foley helped to ground a song into the reality on screen by marrying it to the space. For example, Mia’s roommates invite her to a party in a song called “Someone in the Crowd.” Diegetic sounds, such as the hairdryer, the paper fan flicking open, occasional footsteps, and clothing rustles helped the pre-recorded song fit naturally into the scene. Additionally, Morgan notes that production mixer Morrow “did an excellent job of miking the actors with body mics and boom mics, even during the musical numbers that were sung to playback, like ‘Someone in the Crowd,’ just in case there was something to capture that we could use. There were a couple of little vocalizations that we were able to use in the number.”

Foley also played a significant role in the tap dance song “A Lovely Night.” Originally performed as a soft shoe dance number, director Chazelle decided to change it to a tap dance number in post. Lee reveals, “We couldn’t use the production sound since there was music playback in the scene for the actors to perform to. So, we had to fully recreate everything with the sound. Damien had a great idea to try to replace the soft shoe sound with tap shoes. It was an excellent idea because the tap sound plays so much better with the dance music than the soft shoe sound does.”

Lee enlisted Mandy Moore, the dance choreographer on the film, and several dancers to re-record the Foley on that scene. Working with Foley artist Dan O’Connell, of One Step Up located on The Jane Russell Foley Stage at 20th Century Fox Studios, they tried various weights of tap shoes on different floor surfaces before narrowing it down to the classic “Fred and Ginger” sound that Chazelle was looking for. “Even though they are dancing on asphalt, we ended up using a wooden floor surface on the Foley stage. Damien was very precise about playing up a step here and playing up a scuff there, because it plays better against the music. It was really important to have the taps done to the rhythm of the song as opposed to being in sync with the picture. It fools your brain. Once you have everything in rhythm with the music, the rest flows like butter,” says Lee. She cut the tap dance Foley to picture according to Chazelle’s tastes, and then invited Moore to listen to the mix to make sure that the tap dance routine was realistic from a dancer’s point of view.

Inside the Design
One of Lee’s favorite scenes to design was the opening sequence of the film, which starts with the sound of a traffic jam on a Los Angeles freeway. The sound begins in mono with a long horn honk over a black and white Cinemascope logo. As the picture widens and the logo transitions into color, Lee widens the horn honk into stereo and then into the surrounds. From that, the sound builds to a few horns and cars idling. Morgan recorded a radio announcer to establish the location as Los Angeles. The 1812 Overture plays through a car radio, and the sound becomes futzed as the camera pans to the next car in the traffic jam. With each car the camera passes the radio station changes. “This is Los Angeles and it is a mixed cultural city. Damien wanted to make sure there was a wide variety of music styles, so Justin [Hurwitz] gave me a bunch of different music choices, an eclectic selection to choose from,” says Lee. She added radio tuning sounds, car idling sounds, and Foley of tapping on the steering wheel to ground the scene in reality. “We made sure that the sound builds but doesn’t overpower the first musical number. The first trumpet hit comes through this traffic soundscape, and gradually the real city sounds give way to the first song, ‘Another Day of Sun.’”

One scene that stood out for Morgan was after Mia’s play, when she’s in her dressing room feeling sad that the theater was mostly empty for her performance. Not even Sebastian showed up. As she’s sitting there, we hear two men from the audience disparaging her and her play. Initially, Chazelle and his assistant recorded a scratch track for that off-stage exchange, but he asked Morgan to reshoot it with actors. “He wanted it to sound very naturalistic, so we spent some time finding just the right actors who didn’t sound like actors. They sound like regular people,” says Morgan.

She had the actors improvise their lines on why they hated the play, how superficial it was and how pretentious it was. Following some instruction from Chazelle, they cut the scene together. “We screened it and it was too mean, so we had to tone it back a little,” shares Morgan. “That was fun because I don’t always get to do that, to create an ADR scene from scratch. Damien is meticulous. He knows what he wants and he knows what he doesn’t want. But in this case, he didn’t know exactly what they should say. He had an idea. So I do my version and he gave me ideas and it went back and forth. That was a big challenge for me but a very enjoyable one.”

The Mix
In addition to sound editing, Lee also mixed the final soundtrack with re-recording mixer Andy Nelson at Fox Studios in Los Angeles. She and Nelson share an Oscar nomination for Best Sound Mixing on La La Land. Lee says, “Andy and I had made a film together before, called Wild, directed by Jean-Marc Vallée. So it made sense for me to do both the sound design and to mix the effects. Andy mixed the music and dialogue. And Jason Ruder was the music editor.”

From design to mix, Chazelle’s goal was to have La La Land sound natural — as though it was completely natural for these people to burst into song as they went through their lives. “He wanted to make sure it sounded fluid. With all the work we did, we wanted to make the film sound natural. The sound editing isn’t in your face. When you watch the movie as a whole, it should feel seamless. The sound shouldn’t take you out of the experience and the music shouldn’t stand apart from the sound. The music shouldn’t sound like a studio recording,” concludes Lee. “That was what we were trying to achieve, this invisible interaction of music and sound that ultimately serves the experience.”


Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based audio engineer and writer.

The A-List: La La Land’s Oscar-winning director Damien Chazelle

By Iain Blair

Writer/director Damien Chazelle may only have three feature films on his short resume, but the 32-year-old is already viewed by Hollywood as an acclaimed auteur and major talent. His latest film, the retro-glamorous musical La La Land, is a follow-up to his 2014 release Whiplash. That film received five Oscar nominations — including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay for Chazelle — and three wins, including Best Supporting Actor for J.K. Simmons.

Now officially crowned as this year’s Oscar frontrunner, Lionsgate’s La La Land just scored a stunning total of 14 nominations (including Best Director), matching the record held by All About Eve and Titanic. It also recently scooped up seven Golden Globes, a record for a single movie, as well as a ton of other awards and nominations.

Damien Chazelle

Set in the present, but paying homage to the great Hollywood musicals of the ’40s and ’50s, La La Land tells the story of jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), who meets aspiring actress, playwright and fan of old movies Mia (Emma Stone). They initially ignore each other, they talk, they fight — but mainly they break out of the conventions of everyday life as they break into song and dance at the drop of a hat and take us on an exuberant journey through their love affair in a movie that’s also an ode to the glamour and emotion of cinema classics. It’s also a love letter to the Los Angeles of Technicolor dreams.

To bring La La Land to life, Chazelle collaborated with a creative team that included director of photography Linus Sandgren (known for his work with David O. Russell on American Hustle and Joy), choreographer Mandy Moore, composer Justin Hurwitz, lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and editor Tom Cross who cut Whiplash for him.

I recently talked to Chazelle about making the film and his workflow.

To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports that the musical is dead have been greatly exaggerated. You obviously love them.
I do, and I also don’t think they’re just escapist fantasies. They usually tell you something about their era, and the idea was to match the tropes of those great old movies — the Fred and Ginger musicals — with modern life and all its demands. I’m a huge fan of all those old musicals, and I drew my inspiration from a wide mix of all the MGM musicals, the Technicolor and CinemaScope ones especially, and then all the films of Jacques Demy. He’s the French New Wave director who made The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, The Young Girls of Rochefort and A Room in Town. But I was also inspired by ‘90s films about LA that really captured the grandeur of the city, like Robert Altman’s Short Cuts or Pulp Fiction.

It’s interesting that all your films are so music-driven.
I used to be a jazz drummer — or a wannabe — so a lot of it comes from that. Probably frustrated ambition (laughs).

Is it true that you never used a hand double for Ryan Gosling when he was playing piano?
Completely true. He could play a little bit of basic piano stuff, and he’s definitely musical, but he was adamant right from the start that he would learn all the pieces and play them himself — and he did. He practiced intensely for four months before the shoot, and by the time we shot he could play. There’s no cheating. They’re his hands, even on the close-ups. That’s how committed he was.

The dancing must have been equally demanding for both Ryan and Emma?
It was. They both had a little dance experience — him more than her, I think, but fairly minimal and in different styles than this. So they had to do a lot of rehearsal and training, and Mandy Moore is a great dance instructor as well as a choreographer, so she did both at the same time — training them and building the choreography out of that and what suited each actor and each character. It was all very organic and tailored specifically for them.

The big opening dance sequence with all the cars is such a tour-de-force. Just how tough was that to pull off?
It was very tough. I had an amazing crew, and once we’d found this overpass ramp we had to figure out exactly how to shoot it for real with all these cars of different colors and eras, so there was a ton of insane logistics to deal with. That was going on while Mandy was working on all the choreography, either in the studio or in parking lots, since we couldn’t rehearse that much on location. The last thing to add was the crane. I’d storyboarded the whole sequence and shot a lot of the rehearsals on my iPhone so we could study them and see how we wanted to move the camera with the crane.

There’s been a lot of talk about it being one long uncut sequence. Is it?
No. We designed it to look like one shot but it’s actually three, stitched together invisibly, and we shot it over a weekend.

Talk about working with Linus Sandgren, who used anamorphic lenses and 35mm film to get that glamour look.
We had a great relationship, as every time I had an idea he’d one-up it, and vice-versa. So he really embraced all the challenges and set the tone with his enthusiasm. There was a lot of back and forth before and during the shoot. We wanted the camera to feel like a dancer, to become part of the choreography, to be very energetic, and we had this great Steadicam guy, Ari Robbins. He did amazing work executing these very difficult, fluid shots. I wanted the film to be very anamorphic, and today, scope films are usually shot in 2.40 to 1, but Linus thought it would be interesting to shoot it in 2.52 to 1 to give it the extra scope of those classic films. We talked to Panavision about it, and they actually custom-fit some lenses for us.

Do you like post?
I love it, especially the editing. It’s my favorite part of the whole process.

Tell us about working with editor Tom Cross. Was he on the set?
He visited a couple of times, but I think it’s better when editors are not there so they are more objective when they first see the coverage. He starts cutting while I shoot, and then we start. I like to be in the editing room every day, and the big challenge on this was finding the right tone.

While Whiplash was all about punctuated editing so it reflected the tempos and rhythms of the drumming, La La Land is the polar opposite. It’s all about lush curves, and Whiplash is a movie about hard right angles. So on this, it was all about calibrating a lot of details. We had a mass of footage — a lot ended up on the cutting room floor — and while some is heightened fantasy, some is like a realist drama. So we had to find a way for both to coexist, and that involved everything from minute tweaks to total overhauls. We actually cut the whole opening number at one point, then later put it back and dropped other scenes around it. There’s probably no number we didn’t cut at some point, so we tried all possibilities, and it took a while to get the tone and pacing right.

Where did you do the post?
At EPS-Cineworks in Burbank; then on the Fox lot. Justin, the composer, was also there working on score cues next door, and we had our sound team with us for a bit, way before the mix, doing sound design, so it was very collaborative. It was like a mini-factory. Crafty Apes did all the VFX, such as the planetarium sequence and flying through space sequence, as well as the more invisible stuff throughout the film.

Obviously, all the music and sound was crucial?
Yes, and it helped that we had a lot of the score done before we shot. Justin was with us for the edit, and we’d do temp stuff for screenings and then tweak things. I had a great sound team led by Andy Nelson, who were phenomenal. Just like with the VFX, it had to somehow be small and intimate while also being huge and epic. It couldn’t be too glossy, so all the music was recorded acoustically and the vocals are all dry with very little reverb or compression, and we mixed in Atmos at Fox.

Where did you do the DI?
On the Fox lot with colorist Natasha Leonnet from EFilm. She did Whiplash for me and she’s very experienced. The DP and her set the template for the look and color palette even before the shoot, and then Linus and I’d go in for the DI and alternate on sessions. Our final session was literally 48 hours long non-stop — no sleep, no trips outdoors — as we were so under the wire to finish. But it all turned out great, and I’m very pleased with the look and the final film. It’s the film I wanted to make.

Oscar-winner Ben Wilkins on Whiplash’s audio mix, edit

This BAFTA- and Oscar-winner walks us through his process.

By Randi Altman

When I first spoke with Ben Wilkins, he was freshly back from the Oscar-nominee luncheon in Hollywood and about to head to his native England to attend the BAFTAs. Wilkins was nominated by both academies for his post sound work on Sony Picture Classics’ Whiplash, the Damien Chazelle-directed film about an aspiring jazz drummer and his brutal instructor.

Wilkins (@tonkasound) didn’t return to LA empty handed — he, along with fellow sound re- Continue reading