Tag Archives: Mike Prestwood-Smith

Mixing sounds of fantasy and reality for Rocketman

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.

Mike Prestwood Smith

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
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.

Patriots Day

Augmenting Patriots Day‘s sound with archival audio

By Jennifer Walden

Fresh off the theatrical release of his dramatized disaster film Deepwater Horizon, director Peter Berg brings another current event to the big screen with Patriots Day. The film recounts the Boston Marathon bombing by combining Berg’s cinematic footage with FBI-supplied archival material from the actual bombing and investigation.

Once again, Berg chose to partner with Technicolor’s supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer Dror Mohar, who contributed to the soundtrack of Berg’s Deepwater Horizon (2016) and Lone Survivor (2013).  He earned an MPSE award nomination for sound editing on the latter.

According to Mohar, Berg’s intention for Patriots Day was not to make a film about tragedy and terrorism, but rather to tell the story of a community’s courage in the face of this disaster. “This was personal for Peter [Berg]. His conviction about not exploiting or sensationalizing any of it was in every choice he made,” says Mohar. “He was vigilant about the cinematic attributes never compromising the authenticity and integrity of the story of the events and the people who were there — the law enforcement, victims and civilians. Peter wanted to evolve and explore the sound continuously. My compass throughout was to create a soundtrack that was as immersive as it was genuine.”

From a sound design perspective, Mohar was conscious of keeping the qualities and character of the sounds in check — favoring raw, visceral sounds over treated or polished ones. He avoided oversized “Hollywood” treatments. For example, Mohar notes the Watertown shootout sequence. The lead-up to the firefight was inspired by a source audio recording of the Watertown shootout captured by a neighbor on a handheld camera.

“Two things grabbed my attention — the density of the firefight, which sounded like Chinese New Year, and the sound of wind chimes from a nearby home,” he explains. “Within what sounded like war and chaos, there was a sweet sound that referenced home, family, porch… This shootout is happening in a residential area, in the middle of everyday life. Throughout the film, I wanted to maintain the balance between emotional and visceral sounds. Working closely with picture editors Colby Parker Jr. and Gabriel Fleming, we experimented with sound design that aligned directly with the dramatic effect of the visuals versus designs that counteracted the drama and created an experience that was less comfortable but ultimately more emotional.”

Tension was another important aspect of the design. The bombing disrupted life, and not just the lives of those immediately or physically affected by the bombing. Mohar wanted the sound to express those wider implications. “When the city is hit, it affects everyone. Something in that time period is just not the same. I used a variety of recordings of calls to prayer and crowds of people from all over the world to create soundscapes that you could expect to hear in a city but not in Boston. I incorporated these in different times throughout the film. They aren’t in your face, but used subtly.”

Patriots DayThe Mix
On the mix, he and re-recording mixer Mike Prestwood-Smith chose a realistic approach to their sonic treatments.

Prestwood-Smith notes that for an event as recent and close to the heart as the Boston Marathon bombing, the goal was to have respect for the people who were involved — to make Patriots Day feel real and not sensationalized in any sense. “We wanted it to feel believable, like you are witnessing it, rather than entertaining people. We want to be entertaining, engaging and dramatic, but ultimately we don’t want this to feel gratuitous, as though we are using these events to our advantage. That’s a tight rope to tread, not just for sound but for everything, like the shooting and the performances. All of it.”

Mohar reinforces the idea of enabling the audience to feel the events of the bombing first-hand through sound. “When we experience an event that shocks us, like a car crash, or in this case, an act of terror, the way we experience time is different. You assess what’s right there in front of you and what is truly important. I wanted to leverage this characteristic in the soundtrack to represent what it would be like to be there in real time, objectively, and to create a singular experience.”

Archival Footage
Mohar and Prestwood-Smith had access to enormous amounts of archival material from the FBI, which was strategically used throughout the soundtrack. In the first two reels, up to and including the bombing, Prestwood-Smith explains that picture editors Fleming and Parker Jr. intercut between the dramatized footage and the archived footage “literally within seconds of each other. Whole scenes became a dance between the original footage and the footage that Peter shot. In many cases, you’re not aware of the difference between the two and I think that is a very clever and articulate thing they accomplished. The sound had to adhere to that and it had to make you feel like you were never really shifting from one thing to the other.”

It was not a simple task to transition from the Hollywood-quality sound of the dramatized footage to sound captured on iPhones and low-resolution cameras. Prestwood-Smith notes that he and Mohar were constantly evolving the qualities of the sounds and mix treatments so all elements would integrate seamlessly. “We needed to keep a balance between these very different sound sources and make them feel coherently part of one story rather than shifting too much between them all. That was probably the most complex part of the soundtrack.”

Berg’s approach to perspective — showing the event from a reporter’s point of view as opposed to a spectator’s point of view — helped the sound team interweave the archival material and fictionalized material. For example, Prestwood-Smith reports the crowd sounds were 90 percent archival material, played from the perspective of different communication sources, like TV broadcasts, police radio transmissions and in-ear exchanges from production crews on the scene. “These real source sounds are mixed with the actors’ dialogue to create a thread that always keeps the story together as we alternate through archival and dramatized picture edits.”

While intercutting various source materials for the marathon and bombing sequences, Mohar and Prestwood-Smith worked shot by shot, determining for each whether to highlight an archival sound, carry the sound across from the previous shot or go with another specific sound altogether, regardless of whether it was one they created or one that was from the original captured audio.

“There would be archival footage with screaming on it that would go across to another shot and connect the archive footage to the dramatized, or sometimes not. We literally worked inch-by-inch to make it feel like it all belonged in one place,” explains Prestwood-Smith. “We did it very boldly. We embraced it rather than disguised it. Part of what makes the soundtrack so dynamic is that we allow each shot to speak in its genuine way. In the earlier reels, where there is more of the archival footage, the dynamics of it really shift dramatically.”

Patriots Day is not meant to be a clinical representation of the event. It is not a documentary. By dramatizing the Boston Marathon bombing, Berg delivers a human story on an emotional level. He uses music to help articulate the feeling of a scene and guide the audience through the story emotionally.

“On an emotional level, the music did an enormous amount of heavy lifting because so much of the sound work was really there to give the film a sense of captured reality and truth,” says Prestwood-Smith. “The music is one of the few things that allows the audience to see the film — the event — slightly differently. It adds more emotion where we want it to but without ever tipping the balance too far.”

The Score
Composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross had a definitive role for each cue. Their music helps the audience decompress for certain moments before being thrust right back into the action. “Their compositions were so intentional and so full of character and attitude. It’s not generic,” says Mohar. “Each cue feels like a call to action. The tracks have eyes and mouths and teeth. It’s very intentional. The music is not just an emotional element; it’s part of the sound design and sound overall. The sound and music work together to contribute equally to this film.”

The way that we go back and forth between the archival footage and the dramatized footage was the same way we went from designed audio to source audio, from music to musical, from sound effects to sound effective,” he continues. “On each scene, we decided to either blur the line between music and effects, between archival sound and designed sound, or to have a hard line between each.”

To complement the music, Mohar experimented with rhythmic patterns of sounds to reinforce the level of intensity of certain scenes. “I brought in mechanical keyboards of various types, ages and material, and recorded different typing rhythms on them. These sounds were used in many of the Black Falcon terminal scenes. I used softer sounding keyboards with slower tempos when I wanted the level of tension to be lower, and then accelerated them into faster tempos with harsher sounding keyboards as the drama in the terminal increased,” he says. “By using modest, organic sounds I could create a subliminal sense of tension. I treated the recordings with a combination of plug-ins, delays, reverbs and EQs to create sounds that were not assertive.”

Dialogue
In terms of dialogue, the challenge was to get the archive material and the dramatized material to live in the same space emotionally and technically, says Prestwood-Smith. “There were scenes where Mark Wahlberg’s character is asking for ambulances or giving specific orders and playing underneath that dialogue is real, archival footage of people who have just been hurt by these explosions talking on their phones. Getting those two things to feel integrated was a complex thing to do. The objective was to make the sound believable. ‘Is this something I can believe?’ That was the focus.”

Prestwood-Smith used a combination of Avid and FabFilter plug-ins for EQ and dynamics, and created reverbs using Exponential Audio’s PhoenixVerb and Audio Ease’s Altiverb.

Staying in The Box
From sound editorial through to the final mix, Mohar and Prestwood-Smith chose to keep the film in Pro Tools. Staying in the box offered the best workflow solution for Patriots Day. Mohar designed and mixed for the first phase of the film at his studio at Technicolor’s Tribeca West location in Los Angeles, a satellite of Technicolor at Paramount’s main sound facility while Prestwood-Smith worked out of his own mix room in London. The two collaborated remotely, sharing their work back and forth, continuously developing the mix to match the changing picture edit. “We were on a very accelerated schedule, and they were cutting the film all the way through mastering. Having everything in the box meant that we could constantly evolve the soundtrack,” says Prestwood-Smith.

7.1 Surround Mix
Mohar and Prestwood-Smith met up for the final 7.1 surround mix at 424 Post in Hollywood and mixed the immersive versions at Technicolor Hollywood.

While some mix teams prefer to split the soundtrack, with one mixer on music and dialogue and the other handling sound effects and Foley, Mohar and Prestwood-Smith have a much more fluid approach. There is no line drawn across the board; they share the tracks equally.

“Mike has great taste and instincts; he doesn’t operate like a mixer. He operates like a filmmaker and I look to him to make the final decisions and direct the shape of the soundtrack,” explain Mohar. “The best thing about working with Mike is that it’s truly collaborative, no part of the mix belonged to just one person. Anything was up for grabs and the sound as a whole belonged to the story. It makes the mix more unified, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”


Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based audio pro and writer.