By Jennifer Walden
Paramount Pictures’ Rocketman is a musical fantasy about the early years of Elton John. The story is told through flashbacks, giving director Dexter Fletcher the freedom to bend reality. He blended memories and music to tell an emotional truth as opposed to delivering hard facts.
The story begins with Elton John (Taron Egerton) attending a group therapy session with other recovering addicts. Even as he’s sharing details of his life, he’s stretching the truth. “His recollection of the past is not reliable. He often fantasizes. He’ll say a truth that isn’t really the case, because when you flash back to his memory, it is not what he’s saying,” says BAFTA-winning re-recording mixer Mike Prestwood Smith, who handled the film’s dialogue and music. “So we’re constantly crossing the line of fantasy even in the reality sections.”
For Smith, finding the balance between fantasy and reality was what made Rocketman unique. There’s a sequence in which pre-teen Elton (Kit Connor) evolves into grown-up Elton to the tune of “Saturday’s Alright for Fighting.” It was a continuous shot, so the camera tracks pre-teen Elton playing the piano, who then then gets into a bar fight that spills into an alleyway that leads to a fairground where a huge choreographed dance number happens. Egerton (whose actual voice is featured) is singing the whole way, and there’s a full-on band under him, but specific effects from his surrounding environment poke through the mix. “We have to believe in this layer of reality that is gluing the whole thing together, but we never let that reality get in the way of enjoying the music.”
Smith helped the pre-recorded singing to feel in-situ by adding different reverbs — like Audio Ease’s AltiVerb, Exponential Audio’s PhoenixVerb and Avid’s ReVibe. He created custom reverbs from impulse responses taken from the rooms on set to ground the vocal in that space and help sell the reality of it.
For instance, when Elton is in the alleyway, Smith added a slap verb to Egerton’s voice to make it feel like it’s bouncing off the walls. “But once he gets into the main verses, we slowly move away from reality. There’s this flux between making the audience believe that this is happening and then suspending that belief for a bit so they can enjoy the song. It was a fine line and very subjective,” he says.
He and re-recording mixer/supervising sound editor Matthew Collinge spent a lot of time getting it to play just right. “We had to be very selective about the sound of reality,” says Smith. “The balance of that whole sequence was very complex. You can never do those scenes in one take.”
Another way Smith helped the pre-recorded vocals to sound realistic was by creating movement using subtle shifts in EQ. When Elton moves his head, Smith slightly EQ’d Egerton’s vocals to match. These EQ shifts “seem little, but collectively they have a big impact on selling that reality and making it feel like he’s actually performing live,” says Smith. “It’s one of those things that if you don’t know about it, then you just accept it as real. But getting it to sound that real is quite complicated.”
For example, there’s a scene in which Egerton is working out “Your Song,” and the camera cuts from upstairs to downstairs. “We are playing very real perspectives using reverb and EQ,” says Smith. Then, once Elton gets the song, he gives Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) a knowing look. The music gets fleshed out with a more complicated score, with strings and guitar. Next, Elton is recording the song in a studio. As he’s singing, he’s looking down and playing piano. Smith EQ’d all of that to add movement, so “it feels like that performance is happening at that time. But not one single sound of it is from that moment on set. There is a laugh from Bernie, a little giggle that he does, and that’s the only thing from the on-set performance. Everything else is manufactured.”
In addition to EQ and reverb, Smith used plugins from Helsinki-based sound company Oeksound to help the studio recordings to sound like production recordings. In particular, Oeksound’s Spiff plugin was useful for controlling transients “to get rid of that close-mic’d sound and make it feel more like it was captured on set,” Smith says. “Combining EQ and compression and adding reverb helped the vocals to sound like sync, but at the same time, I was careful not to take away too much from the quality of the recording. It’s always a fine line between those things.”
The most challenging transitions were going from dialogue into singing. Such was the case with quiet moments like “Your Song” and “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” In the latter, Elton quietly sings to his reflection in a mirror backstage. The music slowly builds up under his voice as he takes off down the hallway and by the time he hops into a cab outside it’s a full-on song. Part of what makes the fantasy feel real is that his singing feels like sync. The vocals had to sound impactful and engage the audience emotionally, but at the same time they had to sound believable — at least initially. “Once you’re into the track, you have the audience there. But getting in and out is hard. The filmmakers want the audience to believe what they’re seeing, that Taron was actually in the situations surrounded by a certain level of reality at any given point, even though it’s a fantasy,” says Smith.
The “Rocketman” song sequence is different though. Reality is secondary and the fantasy takes control, says Smith. “Elton happens to be having a drug overdose at that time, so his reality becomes incredibly subjective, and that gives us license to play it much more through the song and his vocal.”
During “Rocketman,” Elton is sinking to the bottom of a swimming pool, watching a younger version of himself play piano underwater. On the music side, Smith was able to spread the instruments around the Dolby Atmos surround field, placing guitar parts and effect-like orchestrations into speakers discretely and moving those elements into the ceiling and walls. The bubble sound effects and underwater atmosphere also add to the illusion of being submerged. “Atmos works really well when you have quiet, and you can place sounds in the sound field and really hear them. There’s a lot of movement musically in Rocketman and it’s wonderful to have that space to put all of these great elements into,” says Smith.
That sequence ends with Elton coming on stage at Dodger Stadium and hitting a baseball into the massive crowd. The whole audience — 100,000 people — sing the chorus with him. “The moment the crowd comes in is spine-tingling. You’re just so with him at that point, and the sound and the music are doing all of that work,” he explains.
The music was a key ingredient to the success of Rocketman. According to Smith, they were changing performances from Egerton and also orchestrations right through the post sound mix, making sure that each piece was the best it could be. “Taron [Egerton] was very involved; he was on the dub stage a lot. Once everything was up on the screen, he’d want to do certain lines again to get a better performance. So, he did pre-records, on-set performances and post recording as well,” notes Smith.
Smith needed to keep those tracks live through the mix to accommodate the changes, so he and Collinge chose Avid S6 control surfaces and mixed in-the-box as opposed to printing the tracks for a mix on a traditional large-format console. “To have locked down the music and vocals in any way would have been a disaster. I’ve always been a proponent of mixing inside Pro Tools mainly because workflow-wise, it’s very collaborative. On Rocketman, having the tracks constantly addressable — not just by me but for the music editors Cecile Tournesac and Andy Patterson as well — was vital. We were able to constantly tweak bits and pieces as we went along. I love the collaborative nature of making and mixing sound for film, and this workflow allows for that much more so than any other. I couldn’t imagine doing this any other way,” says Smith.
Smith and Collinge mixed in native Dolby Atmos at Goldcrest London in Theatre 1 and Theatre 2, and also at Warner Bros. De Lane Lea. “It was such a tight schedule that we had all three mixing stages going for the very end of it, because it got a bit crazy as these things do,” says Smith. “All the stages we mixed at had S6s, and I just brought the drives with me. At one point we were print mastering and creating M&Es on one stage and doing some fold-downs on a different stage, all with the same session. That made it so much more straightforward and foolproof.”
As for the fold-down from Atmos to 5.1, Smith says it was nearly seamless. The pre-recorded music tracks were mixed by music producer Giles Martin at Abbey Road. Smith pulled those tracks apart, spread them into the Atmos surround field and then folded them down to 5.1. “Ultimately, the mixing that Giles Martin did at Abbey Road was a great thing because it meant the fold-downs really had the best backbone possible. Also, the way that Dolby has been tweaking their fold-down processing, it’s become something special. The fold-downs were a lot easier than I thought they’d be,” concludes Smith.
Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based audio engineer and writer. Follow her on Twitter @audiojeney.