By Jennifer Walden
Fox Searchlight’s biographical sports, drama Battle of the Sexes, delves into the personal lives of tennis players Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) and Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) during the time surrounding their famous televised tennis match in 1973, known as the Battle of the Sexes. Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris faithfully recreated the sports event using real-life tennis players Vince Spadea and Kaitlyn Christian as body doubles for Carell and Stone, and they used the original event commentary by announcer Howard Cosell to add an air of authenticity.
Oscar-nominated supervising sound editors Ai-Ling Lee (also sound designer/re-recording mixer) and Mildred Iatrou, from Fox Studios Post Production in LA, began their work during the director’s cut. Lee was on-site at Hula Post providing early sound support to film editor Pamela Martin, feeding her era-appropriate effects, like telephones, cars and cameras, and working on scenes that the directors wanted to tackle right away.
For director Dayton, the first priority scene was Billie Jean’s trip to a hair salon where she meets Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough). It’s the beginnings of a romantic relationship and Dayton wanted to explore the idea of ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response, mainly an aural experience that causes the skin on the scalp and neck to tingle in a pleasing way) to make the hair cut feel close and sensual. Lee explains that ASMR videos are popular on YouTube, and topping the list of experience triggers are hair dryers blowing, cutting hair and running fingers through hair. After studying numerous examples, Lee discovered “the main trick to ASMR is to have the sound source be very close to the mic and to use slow movements,” she says. “If it’s cutting hair, the scissors move very slow and deliberate, and they’re really close to the mic and you have close-up breathing.”
Lee applied those techniques to the recordings she made for the hair salon scene. Using a Sennheiser MKH 8040 and MKH 30 in an MS setup, Lee recorded the up-close sound of slowly cutting a wig’s hair. She also recorded several hair dryers slowly panning back and forth to find the right sound and speed that would trigger an ASMR feeling. “For the hairdryers, you don’t want an intense sound or something that’s too loud. The right sound is one that’s soothing. A lot of it comes down to just having quiet, close-up, sensual movement,” she says.
Recording the sounds was the easy part. Getting that experience to translate in a theater environment was the challenge because most ASMR videos are heard through headphones as a binaural, close experience. “In the end, I just took the mid-side recording and mixed it by slowly panning the sound across the front speakers and a little bit into the surrounds,” explains Lee. “Another trick to making that scene work was to slowly melt away the background sounds of the busy salon, so that it felt like it was just the two of them there.”
Updating the Commentary
As Lee was working on the ASMR sound experience, Iatrou was back at Fox Studios working on another important sequence — the final match. The directors wanted to have Howard Cosell’s original commentary play in the film but the only recording available was a mixed mono track of the broadcast, complete with cheering crowds and a marching band playing underneath.
“At first, the directors sent us the pieces that they wanted to use and we brightened it a little because it was very dull sounding. They also asked us if we could get rid of the music, which we were not able to do,” says Iatrou.
As a work-around, the directors asked Iatrou to record Cosell’s lines using a soundalike. “We did a huge search. Our ADR/group leader Johnny Gidcomb at Loop De Loop held auditions of people who could do Howard Cosell. We did around 50 auditions and sent those to the directors. Finally, we got one guy they really liked.”
They spent a day recording the Cosell soundalike, using the same make and model mic that was used by Cosell and nearly all newscasters of that period — the Electro-Voice 635A Apple. Even with the “new” Cosell and the proper mic, the directors felt it still wasn’t right. “They really wanted to use Howard Cosell,” says Iatrou. “We ended up using all Howard Cosell in the film except for a word or a few syllables here and there, which we cut in from the Cosell soundalike. During the mix, re-recording mixer Ron Bartlett (dialogue/music) had to do very severe noise reduction in the segments with the music underneath. Then we put other music on top to help mask the degree of noise reduction that we did.”
Another challenge to the Howard Cosell commentary was that he wasn’t alone. Rosie Casals was also a commentator at the event. In the film, Rosie is played by actress Natalie Morales. Iatrou recorded Morales performing Casals’ commentary using the Electro-Voice 635A Apple mic. She then used iZotope RX 6’s EQ Match feature to help her lines sound similar to Cosell’s. “For the final mix, Ron Bartlett put more time and energy into getting the EQ to match. It’s interesting because we didn’t want Rosie’s lines to be as distressed as Cosell’s. We had to find this balance between making it work with Howard Cosell’s material but also make it a tiny bit better.”
After cutting Rosie’s new lines with Cosell’s original commentary, Iatrou turned her attention to the ambience. She played through the original match’s 90-minute mixed mono track to find clear sections of crowds, murmuring and cheering to cut under Rosie’s lines, so they would have a natural transition into Cosell’s lines. “For example, if there was a swell of the cheer on Howard Cosell’s line then I’d have to find a similar cheer to extend the sound under the actress’s line to fill it in.”
To build up authentic crowd sounds for the recreated Battle of the Sexes match, Iatrou had the loop group perform call-outs that she and Lee heard in the original broadcast, like a woman yelling, “Come on Billie!” and a man shouting, “Come on Bobby baby!”
“The crowd is another big character in the match,” says Lee. “As the game went on, it felt like more of the women were cheering for Billie Jean and more of the men were cheering for Bobby Riggs. In the real broadcast, you hear one guy cheer for Bobby Riggs and then a woman would immediately cheer on Billie Jean. The guy would try to out cheer her and she would cheer back. It’s this whole secondary situation going on and we have that in the film because we wanted to make sure we were as authentic as possible.”
Lee also wanted the tennis rackets to sound authentic. She tracked down a wooden racket and an aluminum racket and had them restrung with a gut material at a local tennis store. She also had them strung with less tension than a modern racket. Then Lee and an assistant headed to an outdoor tennis court and recorded serves, bounces, net impacts, ball-bys and shoe squeaks using two mic setups — both with a Schoeps MK 41 and an MK 8 in an MS setup, paired with Sound Devices 702 and 722 recorders. “We miked it close and far so that it has some natural outdoor sound.”
Lee edited her recordings of tennis sounds and sporting event crowds with the production effects captured by sound mixer Lisa Pinero. “Lisa did a really good job of miking everything, and we were able to use some of the production crowd sounds, especially for the Margaret Court vs. Bobby Riggs match that happens before the final Battle of the Sexes match. In the final match, some of the tennis ball hits were layers of what I recorded and the production hits.”
Another key sonic element in the recreated Battle of the Sexes match was the Foley work by Dan O’Connell and John Cucci of One Step Up, located on the Fox Studios lot. During the match, Billie Jean’s strategy was to wear out the older and out-of-shape Bobby Riggs by making him run all over the court. “As the game went on, I wanted Bobby’s footsteps to feel heavier, with more thumps, as though he’s running out of steam trying to get the ball,” explains Lee. “Dan O’Connell did a good job of creating that heavy stomping foot, but with a slight wood resonance too. We topped that with shoe squeaks — some that Dan did and some that I recorded.”
The final Battle of the Sexes match was by far the most challenging scene to mix, says Lee. Re-recording mixers Bartlett and Doug Hemphill, as well as Lee, mixed the film in 7.1 surround at Formosa Group’s Hollywood location on Stage A using Avid S6 consoles. In the final match, they had Cosell’s original commentary blended with actress Morales commentary as Rosie Casals. There was music and layered crowds with call-outs. Production sound, field recordings, and Foley meshed to create the diegetic effects. “There were so many layers involved. Deciding how the sounds build and choosing what to play when — the crowds being tied to Howard Cosell, made it challenging to balance that sequence,” concludes Lee.
Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based audio engineer and writer.