Tag Archives: Mary Poppins Returns

Editor Wyatt Smith talks Mary Poppins Returns, Marvel Universe

By Amy Leland

Wyatt Smith’s career as an editor is the kind that makes for a great story. His unintended path began with an unusual opportunity to work with Mariah Carey and a chance meeting with director Rob Marshall. He has since collaborated on big musicals and action films with Marshall, which opened the door to superhero movies. His latest project — in which he was reunited with Marshall — saw him editing a big musical with a title character who is, in her own Disney way, also a superhero.

Smith’s resume is impressive: Doctor Strange, Into the Woods, 300: Rise of an Empire, Thor: The Dark World, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. When I had a chance to talk with him about Mary Poppins Returns, I first had to ask him how his fascinating journey began.

Wyatt Smith at the Mary Poppins Returns premiere.

Can you talk about what led you to editing?
Some things just happen unexpectedly. Opportunities arise and you just have to hear the knock and not be afraid to open the door. When they were building the now-closed Sony Music Studios in New York City, I knew a lot about computers. Avid was first coming in, and there were all these video engineers who weren’t as savvy with Macs and things like that because they were used to linear, old-school tape editing. I worked in the maintenance department at the studio, servicing online editing suites, as well as setting up their first Avid Media Composer and giving people some tutorials on how to use that.

Then a very odd circumstance came up — they were working on a Mariah Carey concert video and needed an additional editor to work at her house at night (she was working during the day with another editor). My father is in the music business and had ties to Mariah — we had met before — so they thought it would be a comfortable situation. It came out of nowhere, and while I certainly knew, technically, how to edit, creatively I had no idea.

That was my first opportunity to edit, and I never went back to anything else. That was the day. That was it. I started to edit music videos and concerts and little music documentaries. Years and years later that led me to work with Rob Marshall on a music project.

The Tony Bennett American Classic special?
Exactly. I had known the Bennett family and worked with them since Tony Bennett’s “Unplugged.” When Rob was brought on to direct an NBC special celebrating Tony’s career, he wanted to bring his whole film team with him, but the TV network and the Bennett family wanted somebody who knew the music world, and that style of deadline, which is quite different from film.

I was brought in to interview with Rob, and we had a wonderful experience making that show. When it was done, he said, “Next time I make a film, I want you to come along.” To be completely honest, I didn’t believe him. I thought it was very kind of him, and he is a very nice man, but I was like, yeah, sure. In 2008, I think it was the Friday before they started shooting Nine, he called and said, “You gotta get to London.” I immediately quit my job and got on a plane.

I’m guessing the music world was a heavy influence on you, but were you drawn toward movies as well?
I have always been a movie junkie. At an early age, I saw a lot of the big epics, including David Lean’s films — Lawrence of Arabia, A Passage to India — which just transported me to another place and another culture. I loved that.

That was back in the early VHS days, and I had just about every Bond film that had been released. I watched them obsessively. In high school, my closest friend worked in a video rental store, so we constantly had movies. It was always a huge thing for me, but never in my life did I dream of pursuing it. The language of film was never anything I studied or thought about until I was kind of thrust into it.

What was it like coming into this film with Rob Marshall, after so many years of working with him? Do your collaborations now feel different from when you first started working together?
The most important part is trust. When I first met Rob, aside from just not having any confidence, I didn’t remotely know what I was doing. We all know that when you have your actors and your sets if something’s not quite right that’s the time to bring it up. But 12 years ago, the thought of me going to Rob and saying, “I don’t know if that really works, maybe you should grab a shot like…” I’d never, ever. But over the years we’ve developed that trust. I’m still very cautious with things like that, but I now know I can talk to him. And if he has a question, he’ll call me to set and say, “Quickly put this together,” or, “Stay here and watch this with me,” and he’ll explain to me exactly what he’s going for.

Then, once we reach post, unquestionably that relationship changes. We used to cut everything from scratch and start re-watching all the material and rebuilding the film again. Now we can work through existing cuts because I kind of know his intentions. It’s easier for me to see in the scene work what he’s going for, and that only comes from collaborating. Now I’m able to get the movie that’s in his head on screen a lot faster.

Mary Poppins Returns

You were working with complex animations and effects, and also combining those with elaborate choreography and live action. Was there more preplanning for this than you might normally have done?
I wasn’t really involved in the preplanning. I came in about a month before shooting to mostly to catch up with the schedules of the second unit, because I’m always going to work closely with them. I also went through all the storyboards and worked with visual effects and caught up on their look development. We did have a previz team, but we only really needed to previz two of the sequences in the film — the underwater bath time and the balloon sequence.

While previz gives you methodology, shot count, rough lenses and things, it’s missing the real emotion of the story because it is a video game and often cut like a music video. This is no disrespect to previz editors — they’re very good — but I always want to come in and do a pass before we start shooting because I find the timings are very different.

Doctor Strange

Take a film like Marvel’s Doctor Strange. So much of it had been prevized to figure out how to do it. When I came into the Doctor Strange previz cuts early on, they were exciting, psychedelic, wild and really imaginative, but I was losing actors. I found that something that was running at four minutes wasn’t representing any of the dialogue or the emotional content of the actors. So I asked them to give me stills of close-ups to cut them in. After putting in the dialogue, that four-minute sequence becomes seven minutes and you realize it’s too long. Before we go shoot it, how do we make it something that’s more manageable for the ultimate film?

Were you on set during most of the filming?
There were days where Rob would pull me onto set, and then days or weeks where I wouldn’t even see him. I did the traditional assembly process. Even the film I’m cutting right now, which has a very short schedule, four days after they were done shooting I had a cut of the film. It’s the only way for me to know that it’s working. It’s not a great cut, but I know that the movie’s all there. And, most importantly, I need to know, barring the last day of shooting, that I’ve seen every single frame of every take before they wrap. I need the confidence of knowing where it’s all going. I don’t want to discover any of that with a director in post.

On a project this complex, I imagine you must work with multiple assistants?
When I worked on the second Thor movie, The Dark World, I had a friend who was my first assistant, Meagan Costello. She has worked on many Marvel films. When Doctor Strange came up — I think it was almost a year before shooting that I got the call from the director saying I was in —within five seconds, I called Meagan because of her experience, her personality and her incredible skill set. Toward the end of Doctor Strange, when the schedule for Poppins was starting to lock in, she said, “I’ve always wanted to live in New York, and I’ve always wanted to work in a music hall.” I said, “We can make that happen.”

Thor: The Dark World

She is great at running the cutting room, taking care of all of my little, and many, prima donna bugaboos — how things are set up and working, technically, cutting in surround, having the right types of monitors, etc. What’s also important is having someone spiritually and emotionally connected into the film… someone I can talk to and trust.

We had two second assistant editors on Mary Poppins once we were in post — two in the US and two in London. It’s always interesting when you have two different teams. I try to keep as much consistency as I can, so we had Meagan all the way through London and New York. For second assistants in London, we had Gemma Bourne, Ben Renton and Tom Lane. Here in the states we had Alexander Johnson and Christa Haley. Christa is my first assistant on the film I’m currently doing for Focus Features, called Harriet.

On huge films like these, so much of the assistant editor’s time is dealing with the vast deliveries for the studio, the needs of a huge sound and music team as well as a lot of visual effects. In the end, we had about 1,300 hundred visual effect shots. That means a lot of turnovers, screenings and quality control so that nothing is ever coming in or going out without being meticulously watched and listened to.

The first assistant runs the cutting room and the stuff I shouldn’t be thinking about. It’s not stuff I would do well either. I want to be solely focusing on the edit, and when I’m lost in the movie, that’s the greatest thing. Having a strong editorial team allows me to be in a place where I’m not thinking about anything but the cut.

Mary Poppins Returns

That’s always good to hear. Most editors I talk to also care about making sure their assistants are getting opportunities.
When I started out, I had assistants in the room with me. It was very much film-style — the assistant was in the room helping me out with the director and the producers every day. If I had to run out of the room, the assistant could step in.

Unfortunately, the way the world has evolved, with digital post, the assistant editor and editor positions have diverged massively. The skill sets are very different. I don’t think I could do a first assistant editor’s job, but I know they could do my job. Also, the extra level of material keeps them very busy, so they’re not with me in the room. That makes for a much harder path, and that bothers me. I don’t quite know how to fix that yet, but I want to.

This industry started with apprentices, and it was very guild-like. Assistants were very hands on with the editor, so it was very natural to become an editor. Right now, that jump is a little tricky, and I wish I knew how to fix it.

Even if the assistants cut something together for you, it doesn’t necessarily evolve into them getting to work with a director or producer. With Poppins, there’s certainly a scene or two in the film that I asked Meagan to put together for that purpose. Rob works very closely in the cutting room each day, along with John DeLuca, our producer and choreographer. I was wondering if there would be that moment when maybe they’d split off, like, “Oh, go with Meagan and work on this, while I work on this with Rob.” But those opportunities never really arose. It’s hard to figure out how to get that door open.

Do you have any advice for editors who are just starting out?
I love the material I’m working on, and that’s the most important part. Even if something’s not for you, your job is not to make it what you want it to be. The job is to figure out who the audience is and how you make it great for them. There’s an audience for everything, you just have to tap into who that audience is.


Amy Leland is a film director and editor. Her short film, “Echoes”, is now available on Amazon Video. She also has a feature documentary in post, a feature screenplay in development, and a new doc in pre-production. She is an editor for CBS Sports Network and recently edited the feature “Sundown.” You can follow Amy on social media on Twitter at @amy-leland and Instagram at @la_directora.

Making audio pop for Disney’s Mary Poppins Returns

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.

Renée Tondelli

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.”

Sound editorial took place in New York at Sixteen 19, the facility where the picture was being edited. Sound mixing was also done in New York, at Warner Bros. Sound.

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.

The Conversation
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.”

The Bowl
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
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.”

The Wind
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