By Mel Lambert
“When a soundtrack is loud you can wing it, but for Fifty Shades of Grey everything had to be carefully balanced to match the different environments,” reported sound effects mixer Anna Behlmer who, with Terry Porter overseeing dialog and music, re-recorded the intricate soundtrack for director Sam Taylor-Johnson’s recent film of the best-selling novel by E. L. James.
“The film’s carefully crafted Foley, for example, created the sense of isolation on the 50th floor of the building that Christian Grey [played by Jamie Dornan] owned,” she continued. “My intention was to create an atmosphere for the scene that you cannot tell is there, but that you would miss if it went away.”
Behlmer was part of a four-member sound panel organized by the Motion Picture Sound Editors (MPSE) and moderated by Mix magazine editor Tom Kenny during the NAB Show’s Creative Master Series last week in Las Vegas.
Also on the panel, in addition to Behlmer’s co-mixer, were supervising sound editor Becky Sullivan, MPSE, and picture editor Debra Neil-Fisher, ACE. The film’s co-supervising sound editor Kelly Oxford was scheduled to appear but had to opt out at the last minute.
“In that early scene we were establishing differences between the two leads [Grey and Anastasia Steele, played by Dakota Johnson], and characteristics that would change subtly as the film evolved,” Neil-Fisher explained. “In the interview scene, Anastasia is ill at ease, while Grey is more confident, so we focused on the sight and sound of the pencil she dropped. We kept her mouth sounds, whereas Grey’s speech was more clean and distinct. We also retained a comedic sense in those scenes at a subtle level to underscore their initial interactions.”
“Yes,” agreed Sullivan, “in those scenes I opted for a clean sound design for Grey and a more clunky, awkward sound design for Steele.”
“I like to clean up dialog as much as I can to strip out any unwanted noise,” Porter added, “including footsteps that do not fit into the scene. That way we can mix the backgrounds and ambiences at a lower level and make the dialog more intelligible. Music also plays better when the dialog is clean.
“Becky gave me excellent dialog tracks but I used a lot of Pro Tools plug-ins on the stage [normally Technicolor at Paramount’s Theater 2, using an Avid System 5 console] to clean up everything,” as well as iZotope RX4’s spectral repair. “I even cleaned up production dialog tracks where we had ADR, because I might choose a production line here or there, and I’ll need them to match the clean ADR.”
“Production dialog is usually a better performance than ADR,” Nell-Fisher confirmed.
“I like to listen to the boom and lavalier dialog tracks and determine the correct mic to use for each scene and its perspectives,” Sullivan explained. “I’ll also prepare preliminary effects and backgrounds for the picture editors to help ‘sell’ the sequence to the director, including in those early scene elements, office backgrounds and selected hard effects” that can reinforce the dramatic action.
“But I always try and provide an appropriate background and not just a filler. I want the picture editors to get used to what we will be replaying on the stage,” the supervising sound editor emphasized.
Because of an accelerated post schedule, there were no temp mixes or previews for Fifty Shades of Grey. Instead, as Behlmer recalled, “I had eight days for effects pre-dubs while, if memory serves me, Terry [Porter] had 10 days for his dialog and music pre-dubs.”
Behlmer and Porter worked simultaneously on two stages at Technicolor in Hollywood, with Neil-Fisher and Sullivan moving between the two while monitoring progress. “We had two weeks for the final mix with time off for Christmas ,” Porter recalled. “That was a nice break, because we could return to the stage with a clear perspective.”
In terms of creative choices made during the mix for Fifty Shades of Grey, “the film will tell you what it needs,” Behlmer stated. Early in the film, “the picture says that it’ll be sparse and will focus on character transitions, so we honor those changes with the soundtrack detailing. Foley was the most time-consuming task with lots of subtle backgrounds.”
“We needed to walk a fine line with Foley,” Neil-Fisher added, “because it had to be realistic and not get in the way.”
Referring to a scene from Fifty Shades of Grey that involved a contract being signed between the two lead characters, “We had Foley available as soon as they exited the elevator, with shoe heels and clothing, plus paper, envelope and pencil sounds,” Sullivan continued. “We had two excellent Foley walkers— Alicia Stevenson and Dawn Lunsford — at Technicolor. The ‘Red Room’ [seen later in the film] had a leather floor and Foley sounds of riding crops and skin slapping. During the first scene in the room the sound is cold because [Anastasia] is afraid, but it then warms up as she become more trusting.”
“We had wall-to-wall music, so transitions between source music [including Beyoncé’s Crazy in Love] and Danny Elfman’s score had to be elegant,” Porter explained. “Again, clean dialog lets me play the source at lower levels with a far more emotional feel. Since source elements normally arrive as stereo tracks, I’ll up-convert them to 5.1-channel so that they blend seamlessly with the score stems, using EQ and dynamics processing on the source to help with transitions.”
Main image (courtesy of Mel Lambert) caption — L-R: MPSE treasurer Paul Rodriguez, Mix editor Tom Kenny, supervising sound editor/sound designer Becky Sullivan, picture editor Debra Neil-Fisher, sound-effects re-recording mixer Anna Behlmer and dialog/music re-recording mixer Terry Porter.