Tag Archives: Rocketman

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.

Rocketman director Dexter Fletcher on Elton John musical

By Iain Blair

The past year has been huge for British director Dexter Fletcher. He was instrumental in getting Bohemian Rhapsody across the finish line when he was brought in to direct the latter part of the production after Bryan Singer was fired. The result? A $903 million global smash that Hollywood never saw coming.

L-R: Dexter Fletcher and Iain Blair

Now he’s back with Rocketman, another film about another legendary performer and musician, Elton John. But while the Freddie Mercury film was more of a conventional, family-friendly biopic that opted for a PG-13 rating and approach that sidestepped a lot of the darker elements of the singer’s life, Rocketman fully embraces its R-rating and dives headfirst into the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll circus that was Elton’s life at the time — hardly surprisingly, the gay sex scenes have already been censored in Russia.

Conceived as an epic musical fantasy about Elton’s breakthrough years, the film follows the transformation of shy piano prodigy Reginald Dwight into international superstar Elton John. It’s set to Elton’s most beloved songs — performed by star Taron Egerton — and tells the story of how a small-town boy became one of the most iconic figures in pop culture.

Rocketman also stars Jamie Bell as Elton’s longtime lyricist and writing partner, Bernie Taupin; Richard Madden as Elton’s first manager John Reid; and Bryce Dallas Howard as Elton’s mother Sheila Farebrother.

Fletcher started as a child actor, appearing in such films as Bugsy Malone, The Elephant Man and The Bounty before graduating to adult roles in film (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) and TV (Band of Brothers). He made his directing debut with 2012’s Wild Bill and has since made a diverse slate of films, including Eddie the Eagle.

I recently met up with him to talk about making the film and his workflow.

When you took this on, were you worried you’d now be seen as the go-to director for films about gay British glam rockers?
(Laughs) No, and I never set out to create this specific cinematic universe about gay British glam rockers. I don’t know how many more of them there are left that people want to see films about — maybe Marc Bolan. That would be the next obvious one.

Dexter Fletcher and Taron Egerton on the set of Rocketman.

What happened was that I was attached early on to direct Bohemian Rhapsody, but then Rocketman came up. While I was preparing that, Bohemian Rhapsody folks came back (after director Bryan Singer was fired during the shoot) and said they needed some help to get it done, so it was more of a coincidence, and Elton’s music is so different from Queen’s.

What sort of film did you set out to make?
Definitely an epic musical, and something that was different and imaginative. The first idea that came up was “based on a true fantasy,” and having done biopics before, like Eddie the Eagle, I know you can’t do them accurately. You simply can’t fit a life into two hours, and there’s always people who nitpick it and go, “He’s wearing the wrong shoes, and it missed this bit” and so on. A biopic isn’t a documentary, and you have to breathe creative life into it. The truth/fantasy element of this was far more important to me in telling Elton’s story than doing a by-the-numbers recreation of his career and life.

Casting was obviously crucial. What did Taron bring to the mix?
A great voice, a great performance, and Elton encouraged him to really make the performance his own. He kept saying, “Do your own thing, don’t just copy me. If they wanted just a copy of my music, they can just buy it. So make it original.”

Taron has this great innate ability of being vulnerable and confident at the same time, and that’s a great gift. He’s able to be very driven and focused and yet retain that inner vulnerability and able to show you both sides clashing, which I felt was very true of Elton.

So Elton gave you a pretty free hand?
Yeah, he did. He sat us down right at the start and said to Taron, “Don’t do an impression of me. No one wants that. Do you, honestly, and that’s what will convince an audience and draw them in.” He was right, and he was extremely giving and generous with us. He’s had this incredible life, and he’s putting it all out there on the big screen, which is pretty brave.

In Bohemian Rhapsody, Rami lipsynced, partly because Freddie Mercury famously had this amazing range that’s so hard to replicate. Taron sang all his vocals?
He did, every note. It was prerequisite for the role, and he wanted to anyway. A musical is very different from a biopic.

You took an imaginative visual approach to the story, especially with all the fantasy elements. How did you collaborate on the look with DP George Richmond, who has shot all your films, whose credits include Tomb Raider and the Kingsman franchise.
He’s got a great eye, and we looked at a lot of the great ‘70s musicals, like The Rose, All That Jazz and Stardust, and there’s this dusty, raw, grainy quality to them. I really wanted to get that feel and texture as this is a period piece and I didn’t want it to look too modern.

So we studied the camera moves and lighting, and it was the same with all the costumes by Julian Day. Elton’s outrageous outfits were the starting point, but we pushed it a little further. So it’s about emotion and how you felt more than just recreating a look or costume or a chronological retelling, and I elaborated as much as possible.

How tough was the shoot?
Fairly grueling. We shot mainly at Bray Studios, outside London, where they shot all the old Hammer Film Productions horror films, and then did some stuff in London.

Where did you post?
We did it at Hireworks in London, which is above this beautiful old cinema, right in the heart of London. It was really conducive for the editing and what we were creating. Then we did all the sound and the mixing round the corner at Goldcrest.

Do you like the post process?
I love it, and I love it more and more now. It’s this whole side of filmmaking that I never really appreciated as an actor, as I didn’t have much to do with it. But now I can’t wait to get in the edit, and I’m there every day, and I’m very involved with every aspect of post.

Talk about editing with Chris Dickens. What were the big editing challenges?
I’d never worked with him before, though we’d met for another project. He was on the set with us at Bray where he had edit rooms set up, so that was very convenient. He’d start assembling and I could just walk over and check on it all. We had a rough assembly just two weeks after we finished shooting, and as I said, I’m very involved.

We’d discuss stuff, especially all the big musical numbers. Those were the big challenges, as you have to make the music and visuals all work together, and you’re working to a playback track. You’re also very exposed when it comes to changing the tempo or rhythm of a scene. You can’t just cut a few words, as you’re locked into the track. And everyone knows the songs. Songs like “Your Song” and “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” were done totally live, so it was pretty complicated. But Chris is very experienced with all that, as he cut Slumdog Millionaire. That end musical number there is a total triumph of editing.

Talk about the importance of sound and music. I assume Elton was quite involved and listened to everything?
He was very interested, of course, but he let us all do our own thing. Giles Martin, son of Beatles’ producer George Martin, was in charge of the music. He’s an amazing producer in his own right, and he also has a long history with Elton, who stayed at his house when Giles was young. So there’s a very strong relationship there, and that was key in terms of dealing with Elton’s music legacy.

Giles was the custodian of all that and was instrumental in re-imagining all of Elton’s songs in the most interesting ways, and Elton would listen to them and love it. For instance, at first we thought “Crocodile Rock” wouldn’t fit, but we re-did it in this elevated, really hard rock way, and it worked out so well. We recorded at various places, including Abbey Road and Air Studios and, of course, we spent a lot of time and detail on all the music and sound. Just like with ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ if you don’t get that right, the film’s not going to work.

Visual effects play a big role. What was involved?
Cinesite in Montreal did them all, with a few by Atomic Arts, and we had a lot of artists and VFX guys working on them. We had so many, from fireworks to scenes with people floating and all the crowd scenes at stadiums, where we had to recreate fans in the ‘70s. So some of that stuff was fairly standard, but they did a brilliant job. I quite like working with VFX, as it allows you to do so much more with a period piece like this.

Where did you do the DI, and how important is it to you?
We did it at Goldcrest with colorist Rob Pizzey, and it’s very important to myself and my DP George Richmond. As I said, we wanted to get a very particular look and texture to it, and George and I worked closely on that from the very outset. Then in the DI, Rob and George worked very closely on it. In fact, George was shooting in Boston at the time, but he flew back to do it and finalize the look. I’m learning so much from him about the DI, and I give my notes and they make all the changes and adjustments. I love the DI.

Did the film turn out the way you hoped?
Absolutely. I’m really happy with it. In fact, it’s turned out better than I hoped.

What’s next?
I don’t have anything lined up. I’m out of work!


Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.