The Sound of Speed
by Steve Morrow CAS
I was excited to re-live this historical drama about Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and Ken Miles (Christian Bale) who built a revolutionary race car for the Ford Motor Co. to compete against Enzo Ferrari at the 24 Hours Le Mans in 1966.
We loved working with all those wonderful cars; the hard part being that these vehicles were more than fifty years old. We also had a very tight schedule; it wasn’t one of those films where they had the luxury of time. The script had a large amount of story to tell that they just had to shoot no matter what.
There were a lot of days where we were at the mercy of the schedule, at the race track in the morning racing the cars around when the light was nice and low, and the image looked pretty. Then in the afternoon, we would shoot all the dialog around Pit Row.
That location was at the Agua Dulce Airfield in the desert. In the morning, it’s nice and calm, and then by the afternoon, there are 40- to 50-mile-an-hour winds, visually you can’t really tell the wind is blowing and it was also 110 degrees, so it was just hot and sweaty.
We had to be very careful in the way we radio miked the actors, making sure they were wind-protected, good sounding, but not buried, as they were just wearing T-shirts. Craig Dollinger is my Boom Operator and is terrific at radio miking the talent. We shot with two, three, and four cameras so the radio mics were the rule for the majority of the film. They were Lectrosonics SSM’s with Sanken Cos 11’s.
For any of the sequences in the race cars with Christian, Matt, and Tracy Letts, we were on the Biscuit Rig from Allan Padelford Camera Cars. This is a custom-built drivable process trailer with a very powerful (and noisy) GM 32 valve Northstar engine. We used DPA 60 series lavaliers here, miking both the actors and planting another in the vehicle, allowing us to capture the loud performance dialog and yelling as we traveled the track.
The camera was in the car so I dropped a bag rig with a Sound Devices 633, a couple of Lectrosonics 411 receivers on the seat beside the actor to be as close as possible to avoid any RF spray from the process trailer engine. We’d hit record and let it go as they drove. I piggybacked the audio into the microwave video transmitters so Director James Mangold and everyone else could hear the dialog in Pit Row.
In any scenes where Christian talks to a driver in another car next to him, we had another receiver into the 633, and once the driver was in the frame, maybe ten feet away from the camera, we had reception on his mic for his line. Early on in the schedule, filming the Shelby Cobras, we hard-lined a couple of lav mics for the engine and exhaust into the 633 so we could record the sound of the engine, the car racing around the track, and the actors’ dialog. That was our go-to standard. The picture race cars, the GT40, and the Ferrari did not have their original engines, so we knew that postproduction would later record the authentic cars.
My main cart has two Sound Devices 970’s as master and backup with the Midas 32R and two Lectrosonics Venue 2 receivers. There were several scenes with nine to ten cast, all wired and two boom microphones with the Sennheiser MKH 50 or the 416, a VOG setup for the Director and 1st AD.
The Le Mans Pit Row set in Agua Dulce was built on the airstrip. It was probably four hundred feet long and three stories tall. The race cars would go through the straightaway at about 110 to 120 miles an hour which made it a challenge, sound-wise, to record the dialog scenes, you just do your best and you don’t sweat what you can’t control.
There was no stage work at all; every set was a location. The Ford factory was a set in downtown Los Angeles, built at a warehouse where we had the factory line. Bales’ house was in Altadena. The first race track at the beginning of the film was at Willow Springs, a flat race track in the desert, where Ken Miles (Bale) throws a wrench at his car. The Ferrari factory was the power station up in Pasadena.
The LAX hangar was actually at Ontario Airport with all the planes coming in and taking off. There’s a great scene where Christian is talking to his son about the perfect lap as they sit on tarmac. “Do you see the perfect lap out there, do you feel it?” The sounds of the planes taking off and landing lend to the story, and we were able to actually get very useable tracks. They were not going to hold for sound for planes taking off or landing, because the sun had to be perfect.
The unveiling of the Ford Mustang where Shelby (Damon) makes the big presentation speech was also filmed at the Ontario Airport. It was extremely windy and the sun was in a hard spot for us to boom, so the wires on the cast saved the day.
Matt Damon and Christian Bale were having a good time, they got along great. Bale was the easiest and one of the nicest people I’ve ever worked with actor-wise. You could do anything you needed. On this one, everybody was having a fun time. James Mangold was happy telling a story that he really wanted to tell. It was just one of those fun movie experiences because it had such an epic feel while you were making it. Phedon Papamichael’s photography was incredible. My team and I enjoyed every dusty minute making it.