By Mel Lambert
Writer/director Edgar Wright’s latest outing is a major departure from his normal offering of dark comedies. Unlike his Three Flavours Cornetto film trilogy — Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and The World’s End — and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, TriStar Pictures’ Baby Driver has been best described as a romantic musical disguised as a car-chase thriller.
Wright’s regular pair of London-based picture editors, Paul Machliss, ACE, and Jonathan Amos, ACE, also brought a special brand of magic to the production. Machliss, who had worked with Wright on Scott Pilgrim, The World’s End and his TV series Spaced for Channel 4, recalls that, “very early on, Edgar decided that I should come along on the shoot in Atlanta to ensure that we had the material he’d already storyboarded in a series of complex animatics for the film [using animator Steve Markowski and editor Evan Schiff]. Jon Amos joined us when we returned to London for sound and picture post production, primarily handling the action sequences, at which he excels.”
Developed by Wright over the past two decades, Baby Driver tells the story of an eponymous getaway driver (Ansel Elgort), who uses earphones to drown out the “hum-in-the-drum” of tinnitus — the result of a childhood car accident — and to orchestrate his life to carefully chosen music. But now indebted to a sinister kingpin named Doc (Kevin Spacey), Baby becomes part of a seriously focused gang of bank robbers, including Buddy and Darling (Jon Hamm and Eiza González), Bats (Jamie Foxx) and Griff (Jon Bernthal). Debora, Baby’s love interest (Lily James), dreams of heading west “in a car I can’t afford, with a plan I don’t have.” Imagine, in a sense, Jim McBride’s Breathless rubbing metaphorical shoulders with Tony Scott’s True Romance.
The film also is indebted to Wright’s 2003 music video for Mint Royale’s Blue Song, during which UK comedian/actor Noel Fielding danced in a stationery getaway car. In that same vein, Baby Driver comprises a sequence of linked songs that tightly choreograph the action and underpin the dramatic arcs being played out, often keying off the songs’ lyrics.
The film’s opener, for example, features Elgort partly lipsyncing to “Bellbottoms,” by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, as the villains commit their first robbery. In subsequent scenes, our hero’s movements follow the opening bass riffs of The Damned’s “Neat Neat Neat,” then later to Golden Earring’s “Radar Love” before Queen’s “Brighton Rock” adds complex guitar cacophony to a key encounter scene.
Even the film’s opening titles are accompanied by Baby performing a casual coffee run in a continuous three-minute take to Bob & Earl’s “Harlem Shuffle” — a scene that reportedly took 28 takes on the first day of practical photography in Atlanta. And the percussion and horns of “Tequila” provide syncopation for a protracted gunfight. Fold in “Egyptian Reggae,” “Unsquare Dance,” and “Easy,” followed by “Debora,” and it’s easy to appreciate that Wright is using music as a key and underpinning component of this film. The director also brought in music video choreographer Ryan Heffington to achieve the timing precision he needed.
The swift action is reflected in a fast style of editing, including whip pans and crash zooms, with cuts that are tightly synchronized to the music. “Whereas the majority of Edgar’s previous TV series and films have been parodies, for Baby Driver he had a very different idea,” explains Machliss. Wright had accumulated a playlist of over 30 songs that would inspire various scenes in his script. “It’s something that’s very much a part of my previous films,” says director Wright, “and I thought of this idea of how to take that a stage further by having a character who listens to music the entire time.”
“Edgar had organized a table read of his script in the spring of 2012 in Los Angeles, at which he recorded all of the dialog,” says Machliss. “Taking that recording, some sound effects and the music tracks, I put together a 100-minute ‘radio play’ that was effectively the whole film in audio-only form that Edgar could then use as a selling tool to convince the studios that he had a viable idea. Remember, Baby Driver was a very different format for him and not what he is traditionally known for.”
Australia-native Machliss was on set to ensure that the gunshots, lighting effects, actors and camera movements, plus car hits, all happened to the beat of the accompanying music. “We were working with music that we could not alter or speed up or slow down,” he says. “We were challenged to make sure that each sequence fit in the time frame of the song, as well as following the cadence of the music.”
Almost 95% of music included in the first draft of Wright’s script made it into the final movie according to Machliss. “I laid up the relevant animatic as a video layer in my Avid Media Composer and then confirmed how each take worked against the choreographed timeline. This way I always had a reference to it as we were filming. It was a very useful guide to see if we were staying on track.”
Editing On Location
During the Atlanta shoot, Machliss used Apple ProRes digital files captured by an In2Core QTake video assist that was recording taps from the production’s 35mm cameras. “I connected to my Mac via Ethernet so I could create a network to the video assist’s storage. I had access to his QuickTime files the instant he stopped recording. I could use Avid’s AMA function to place the clip in the timeline without the need for transcoding. This allowed almost instantaneous feedback to Edgar as the sequence was built up.”
Paul Machliss on set.
While on location, Machliss used a 15-inch MacBook Pro, Avid Mojo DX and a JVC video monitor “which could double as a second screen for the Media Composer or show full-screen video output via the Mojo DX.” He also had a Wacom tablet, an 8TB Thunderbolt drive, a LaCie 500GB rugged drive — “which would shuttle my media between set and editorial” — and an APU “so that I wouldn’t lose power if the supply was shut down by the sparks!”
LA’s Fotokem handled film processing, with negative scanning by Efilm. DNX files were sent to Company 3 in Atlanta for picture editorial, “where we would also review rushes in 2K sent down the line from Efilm,” says Machliss. “All DI on-lining and grading took place at Molinare in London.” Bill Pope, ASC, was the film’s director of photography.
Picture and Sound Editorial in London
Instead of hiring out editorial suites at a commercial facility in London, Wright and his post teams opted for a different approach. Like an increasing number of London-based productions, they elected to rent an entire floor in an office building.
They located a suitable location on Berners Street, north of the Soho-based film community. As Machliss recalls: “That allowed us to have the picture editorial team in the same space as the sound crew,” which was headed up by Wright’s long-time collaborator Julian Slater, who served as sound designer, supervising sound editor and re-recording engineer on Baby Driver. “Having ready access to Julian and his team meant that we could collaborate very closely — as we had on Edgar’s other films — and share ideas on a regular basis,” as the 10-week Director’s Cut progressed.
British-born Slater then moved across Soho to Goldcrest Films for sound effects pre-dubs, while his co-mixer, Tim Cavagin, worked on dialog and Foley pre-mixes at Twickenham Studios. Print mastering of the Dolby Atmos soundtrack occurred in February 2017 at Goldcrest, with Slater handling music and SFX, while Cavagin oversaw dialog and Foley. “Following Edgar’s concept of threading together the highly choreographed songs with linking scenes, Jon and I began the cut in London against the pre-assembled material from Atlanta,” says Machliss.
To assist Machliss during his picture cut, the film’s sound designer had provided a series of audio stems for his Avid. “Julian [Slater] had been working on his sound effects and dialog elements since principal photography ended in Atlanta. He had prepared separate, color-coded left-center-right stems of the music, dialog and SFX elements he was working on. I laid these [high-quality tracks] into Media Composer so I could better appreciate the intricacies of Julian’s evolving soundtrack. It worked a lot better than a normal rough mix of production dialog, rough sound effects and guide music.”
“From its inception, this was a movie for which music and sound design worked together as a whole piece,” Slater recalls. “There is a large amount of syncopation of the diegetic sounds [implied by the film’s action] to the music track Baby is listening to. Sometimes it’s obvious because the action was filmed with that purpose in mind. For example, walking in tempo to the music track or guns being fired in tempo. But many times it’s more subtle, including police sirens or distant trains that have been pitched and timed to the music,” and hence blend into the overall musical journey. “We strived to always do this to support the story, and to never distract from it.”
Because of the lead character’s tinnitus, Slater worked with pitch changes to interweave elements of the film’s soundtrack. “Whenever Baby is not listening to music, his tinnitus is present to some degree. But it became apparent very soon in our design process that strident, high-pitched ‘whistle tones’ would not work for a sustained period of time. Working closely with composer Steven Price, we developed a varied set of methods to convey the tinnitus — it’s rarely the same sound twice. Much of the time, the tinnitus is pitched according to either the outgoing or incoming music track. This then enabled us to use more of it, yet at the same time be quite subtle.”
Meticulous Planning for Set Pieces and Car Chases
Picture editor Amos joined the project at the start of the Director’s Cut to handle the film’s set pieces. He says, “These set pieces were conceptually very different from the vast majority of action scenes in that they were literally built up around the music and then visualized. Meticulous development and planning went into these sequences before the shoot even began, which was decisive in making the action become musical. For example, the ‘Tequila’ gunfight started as a piece of music by Button Down Brass. It was then laced with gunfire and SFX pitched to the music, and in time with the drum hits — this was done at the script stage by Mark Nicholson (aka, Osymyso, a UK musician/DJ) who specializes in mashup/bastard pop and breakbeat.”
Storyboards then grew around this scripted sound collage, which became a precise shot list for the filmed sequences. “Guns were rigged to go off in time with the music; it was all a very deliberate thing,” adds Amos. “Clearly, there was a lot of editing still to be done, but this approach illustrates that there’s a huge difference between something that is shot and edited to music, and something that is built around the music.”
“All the car chases for Baby Driver were meticulously planned, and either prevised or storyboarded,” Amos explains. “This ensured that the action would always fit into the time slot permitted within the music. The first car chase [against the song ‘Bellbottoms’] is divided into 13 sections, to align to different progressions in the music. One of the challenges resulted from the decision to never edit the music, which meant that none of these could overrun. Stunts were tested and filmed by second unit director Darrin Prescott, and the footage passed back to editorial to test against the timing allowed in the animatic. If a stunt couldn’t be achieved in the time allowed, it was revised and tweaked until it worked. This detailed planning gave the perfect backbone to the sequences.”
Amos worked on the sequences sequentially, “using the animatic and Paul’s on-set assembly as reference,” and began to break down all the footage into rolls that aligned to specific passages of the music. “There was a vast amount of footage for all the set pieces, and things are not always shot in order. So generally I spent a lot of time breaking the material down very methodically. I then began to make selects and started to build the sequences from scratch, section by section. Once I completed a pass, I spent some time building up my sound layers. I find this helps evolve the cut, generating another level of picture ideas that further tighten the syncopation of sound and picture.”
Amos’ biggest challenge, despite all the planning, was finding ways to condense the material into its pre-determined time slot. “The real world never moves quite like animatics and boards. We had very specific points in every track where certain actions had to take place; we called these anchor points. When working on a section, we would often work backwards from the anchor point knowing, for instance, that we only had 20 seconds to tell a particular part of the story. Initially, it can seem quite restrictive, but the edits become so precise.
“The time restriction led to a level of kineticism and syncopation that became a defining feature of the movie. While the music may be the driving force of the action scenes, editorial choices were always rooted in the story and the characters. If you lose sight of the characters, the audience will disengage with the sequence, and you’ll lose all the tension you’ve worked so hard to create. Every shot choice was therefore very considered, and we worked incredibly hard to ensure we never wasted a frame, telling the story in the most compelling, rhythmic and entertaining way we could.”
“Once we had our cut,” Machliss summarizes, “we could return the tracks to Julian for re-conforming,” to accommodate edit changes. “It was an excellent way of working, with full-sounding edit mixes.”
Summing up his experience in Baby Driver, Machliss considers the film to be “the hardest job I’ve ever done, but the most fun I’ve ever had. Ultimately, our task was to create a film that on one level could be purely enjoyed as an exciting/dramatic piece of cinema, but, on repeated viewing, would reveal all the little elements ‘under the surface’ that interlock together — which makes the film unique. It’s a testament to Edgar’s singular vision and, in that regard, he is a tremendously exciting director to work with.”
Mel Lambert has been involved with production industries on both sides of the Atlantic for more years than he cares to remember. He is principal of Content Creators, a LA-based copywriting and editorial service, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is also a long-time member of the UK’s National Union of Journalists.