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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.

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