By Jennifer Walden
As the song says, “It’s a jolly holiday with Mary.” And just in time for the holidays, there’s a new Mary Poppins musical to make the season bright. In theaters now, Disney’s Mary Poppins Returns is directed by Rob Marshall, who with Chicago, Nine and Into the Woods on his resume, has become the master of modern musicals.
In this sequel, Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) comes back to help the now-grown up Michael (Ben Whishaw) and Jane Banks (Emily Mortimer) by attending to Michael’s three children: Annabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathanael Saleh) and Georgie (Joel Dawson). It’s a much-needed reunion for the family as Michael is struggling with the loss of his wife.
Mary Poppins Returns is another family reunion of sorts. According to Renée Tondelli, who along with Eugene Gearty, supervised and co-designed the sound, director Marshall likes to use the same crews on all his films. “Rob creates families in each phase of the film, so we all have a shorthand with each other. It’s really the most wonderful experience you can have in a filmmaking process,” says Tondelli, who has worked with Marshall on five films, three of which were his musicals. “In the many years of working in this business, I have never worked with a more collaborative, wonderful, creative team than I have on Mary Poppins Returns. That goes for everyone involved, from the picture editor down to all of our assistants.”
In his musicals, Marshall weaves songs into scenes in a way that feels organic. The songs are coaxed from the emotional quotient of the story. That’s not only true for how the dialogue transitions into the singing, but also for how the music is derived from what’s happening in the scene. “Everything with Rob is incredibly rhythmic,” she says. “He has an impeccable sense of timing. Every breath, every footstep, every movement has a rhythmic cadence to it that relates to and works within the song. He does this with every artform in the production — with choreography, production design and sound design.”
From a sound perspective, Tondelli and her team worked to integrate the songs by blending the pre-recorded vocals with the production dialogue and the ADR. “We combined all of those in a micro editing process, often syllable by syllable, to create a very seamless approach so that you can’t really tell where they stop talking and start singing,” she says.
For example, near the beginning of the film, Michael is looking through the attic of their home on Cherry Tree Lane as he speaks to the spirit of his deceased wife, telling her how much he misses her in a song called “The Conversation.” Tondelli explains, “It’s a very delicate scene, and it’s a song that Michael was speaking/singing. We constantly cut between his pre-records and his production dialogue. It was an amazing collaboration between me, the supervising music editor Jennifer Dunnington and re-recording mixer Mike Prestwood Smith. We all worked together to create this delicate balance so you really feel that he is singing his song in that scene in that moment.”
Since Michael is moving around the attic as he’s performing the song, the environment affects the quality of the production sound. As he gets closer to the window, the sound bounces off the glass. “Mike [Prestwood Smith] really had his work cut out for him on that song. We were taking impulse responses from the end of the slates and feeding them into Audio Ease’s Altiverb to get the right room reverb on the pre-records. We did a lot of impulse responses and reverbs, and EQs to make that scene all flow, but it was worth it. It was so beautiful.”
They also captured impulse responses for another sequence, which takes place inside a ceramic bowl. The sequence begins with the three Banks children arguing over their mother’s bowl. They accidentally drop it and it breaks. Mary and Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda) notice the bowl’s painted scenery has changed. The horse-drawn carriage now has a broken wheel that must be fixed. Mary spins the bowl and a gust of wind pulls them into the ceramic bowl’s world, which is presented in 2D animation. According to Tondelli, the sequence was hand-drawn, frame by frame, as an homage to the original Mary Poppins. “They actually brought some animators out of retirement to work on this film,” she says.
Tondelli and co-supervising sound editor/co-sound designer Eugene Gearty placed mics inside porcelain bowls, in a porcelain sink, and near marble tiles, which they thumped with rubber mallets, broken pieces of ceramic and other materials. The resulting ring-out was used to create reverbs that were applied to every element in the ceramic bowl sequence, from the dialogue to the Foley. “Everything they said, every step they took had to have this ceramic feel to it, so as they are speaking and walking it sounds like it’s all happening inside a bowl,” Tondelli says.
She first started working on this hand-drawn animation sequence when it showed little more than the actors against a greenscreen with a few pencil drawings. “The fastest and easiest way to make a scene like that come alive is through sound. The horse, which was possibly the first thing that was drawn, is pullling the carriage. It dances in this syncopated rhythm with the music so it provides a rhythmic base. That was the first thing that we tackled.”
After the carriage is fixed, Mary and her troupe walk to the Royal Doulton Music Hall where, ultimately, Jack and Mary are going to perform. Traditionally, a music hall in London is very rowdy and boisterous. The audience is involved in the show and there’s an air of playfulness. “Rob said to me, ‘I want this to be an English music hall, Renée. You really have to make that happen.’ So I researched what music halls were like and how they sounded.”
Since the animation wasn’t complete, Tondelli consulted with the animators to find out who — or rather what — was going to be in the audience. “There were going to be giraffes dressed up in suits with hats and Indian elephants in beautiful saris, penguins on the stage dancing with Jack and Mary, flamingos, giant moose and rabbits, baby hippos and other animals. The only way I thought I could do this was to go to London and hire actors of all ages who could do animal voices.”
But there were some specific parameters that had to be met. Tondelli defines the world of Mary Poppins Returns as being “magical realism,” so the animals couldn’t sound too cartoony. They had to sound believably like animal versions of British citizens. Also, the actors had to be able to sing in their animal voices.
According to Tondelli, they recorded 15 actors at a time for a period of five days. “I would call out, ‘Who can do an orangutan?’ And then the actors would all do voices and we’d choose one. Then they would do the whole song and sing out and call out. We had all different accents — Cockney, Welsh and Scottish,” she says. “All the British Isles came together on this and, of course, they all loved Mary and knew all the songs so they sang along with her.”
On the Dolby Atmos mix, the music hall scene really comes alive. The audience’s voices are coming from the rafters and all around the walls and the music is reverberating into the space — which, by the way, no longer sounds like it’s in a ceramic bowl even though the music hall is in the ceramic bowl world. In addition to the animal voices, there are hooves and paws for the animals’ clapping. “We had to create the clapping in Foley because it wasn’t normal clapping,” explains Tondelli. “The music hall was possibly the most challenging, but also the funnest scene to do. We just loved it. All of us had a great time on it.”
The Foley elements in Mary Poppins Returns often had to be performed in perfect sync with the music. On the big dance numbers, like “Trip the Light Fantastic,” the Foley was an essential musical element since the dances were reconstructed sonically in post. “Everything for this scene was wiped away, even the vocals. We ended up using a lot of the records for this one and a lot less production sound,” says Tondelli.
In “Trip the Light Fantastic,” Jack is bringing the kids back home through the park, and they emerge from a tunnel to see nearly 50 lamplighters on lampposts. Marshall and John DeLuca (choreographer/producer/screen story writer) arranged the dance to happen in multiple layers, with each layer doing something different. “The background dancers were doing hand slaps and leg swipes, and another layer was stepping on and off of these slate surfaces. Every time the dancers would jump up on the lampposts, they’d hit it and each would ring out in a different pitch,” explains Tondelli.
All those complex rhythms were performed in Foley in time to the music. It’s a pretty tall order to ask of any Foley artist but Tondelli has the perfect solution for that dilemma. “I hire the co-choreographers (for this film, Joey Pizzi and Tara Hughes) or dancers that actually worked on the film to do the Foley. It’s something that I always do for Rob’s films. There’s such a difference in the performance,” she says.
Tondelli worked with the Foley team of Marko Costanzo and George Lara at c5 Sound in New York, who helped to build custom surfaces — like a slate-on-sand surface for the lamplighter dance — and arrange multi-surface layouts to optimally suit the Foley performer’s needs.
For instance, in the music hall sequence, the dance on stage incorporates books, so they needed three different surfaces: wood, leather and a papery-sounding surface set up in a logical, easily accessible way. “I wanted the dancer performing the Foley to go through the entire number while jumping off and on these different surfaces so you felt like it was a complete dance and not pieced together,” she says.
For the lamplighter dance, they had a big, thick pig iron pipe next to the slate floor so that the dancer performing the Foley could hit it every time the dancers on-screen jumped up on the lampposts. “So the performer would dance on the slate floor, then hit the pipe and then jump over to the wood floor. It was an amazingly syncopated rhythmic soundtrack,” says Tondelli.
“It was an orchestration, a beautiful sound orchestra, a Foley orchestra that we created and it had to be impeccably in sync. If there was a step out of place you’d hear it,” she continues. “It was really a process to keep it in sync through all the edit conforms and the changes in the movie. We had to be very careful doing the conforms and making the adjustments because even one small mistake and you would hear it.”
Wind plays a prominent role in the story. Mary Poppins descends into London on a gust of wind. Later, they’re transported into the ceramic bowl world via a whirlwind. “It’s everywhere, from a tiny leaf blowing across the sidewalk to the huge gale in the park,” attests Tondelli. “Each one of those winds has a personality that Eugene [Gearty] spent a lot of time working on. He did amazing work.”
As far as the on-set fans and wind machines wreaking havoc on the production dialogue, Tondelli says there were two huge saving graces. First was production sound mixer Simon Hayes, who did a great job of capturing the dialogue despite the practical effects obstacles. Second was dialogue editor Alexa Zimmerman, who was a master at iZotope RX. All told, about 85% of the production dialogue made it into the film.
“My goal — and my unspoken order from Rob — was to not replace anything that we didn’t have to. He’s so performance-oriented. He arduously goes over every single take to make sure it’s perfect,” says Tondelli, who also points out that Marshall isn’t afraid of using ADR. “He will pick words from a take and he doesn’t care if it’s coming from a pre-record and then back to ADR and then back to production. Whichever has the best performance is what wins. Our job then is to make all of that happen for him.”
Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based audio engineer and writer. You can follow her on Twitter @audiojeny