By Steve Morrow CAS
Working on La La Land is an experience that I’ll never forget. Not only did the movie turn out splendidly, but we all enjoyed making it, too. From pre-production planning through shooting, it was a constant flow of fun technical challenges, which is my favorite kind of project.
In the first meeting, Director Damien Chazelle, myself and the Music Department got together to discuss what the vision was for the project. We figured out a plan for which vocals would be recorded live on set, how they wanted to blend live vocals and playback, and what needed to be straight vocal playback. We were able to keep the production sound team to four people; myself, Craig Dollinger on boom, Michael Kaleta as utility and Nick Baxter as our on-set Pro Tools Engineer.
A new idea was floated just before the start of filming that we should be prepared to record everything live, vocals, instruments and crowds. We gathered back to discuss every musical moment in the film and figure out how to best achieve what Damien had in mind. Prop Master Matthew Cavaliero joined the meetings to ensure we would have all the instruments needed, and ready for live recording. Counting this all up, I needed to record up to thirty-two channels of analog audio. How on Earth was I going to achieve that portably, reliably and affordably? Running two Sound Devices 970s with a Mackie 1604 gave me sixteen analog inputs. Now, how to get sixteen more channels. Ryan Coomer of Trew Audio was a huge help and suggested a RedNet2 Analog to Digital Converter, which would give me sixteen tracks of Dante Audio. I ended up using two Mackie 1604s on my cart to run all the channels and get me the needed thirty-two inputs.
It was exciting to get into work and put all of our plans into motion, each musical scene was like a new technical adventure.
The first scene up was the big movie opener, which required shutting down the freeway Express Lanes connecting the 110 to the 105. At midnight on a Friday, the freeway was shut down so Gino Hart and the transpo team could fill the road with cars to create our very own LA traffic jam. Our call was four a.m. to set up speakers and prep with the rest of the crew for a Saturday-morning rehearsal. There were one hundred and twenty cars, at least sixty dancers and one day of rehearsal for production to find and fix any issues over the next week. The following weekend, the roads were closed again, refilled with cars, this time to shoot.
This was all to be playback, and this normally simple task had become a big challenge on an overpass. The active set was a quarter-mile long, with nearly everything in frame and a ton of dancers at all times. With nothing for the sound to bounce off of and a center divide down the middle of the lanes, we were teamed up with the entire Electrical Department to help get the music to the dancers and bring this dream to life. Every other car had a speaker set behind the bumper on each side of the freeway. To keep on-screen actors in sync with the camera moves, Craig Dollinger pushed a cart with two speakers, a wireless receiver and a generator alongside the camera. We had a blast playing safely on the freeway. The opening shot appears as one long take, but it was actually three different shots masterfully blended together to achieve the look of one continuous one.
We had lots of fun working live recorded lines into playback scenes. In order to capture the essence of a live musical, we made sure to record all of the spoken lines and actor nuances whenever possible. We achieved this in several ways. Sometimes it was just dipping the playback down and catching the sighs or scripted lines with a boom and then popping the playback back up, and other times we’d do a full live vocal record with the music being heard through earwigs. It was all part of a choreographed dance.
Recording the instruments was the easiest part. In my experience, wireless microphones never sound quite right on musical instruments, so we ran hard-lines to every possible instrument. We also knew that at any moment, we could be asked to switch to live record, and we didn’t want to hold everyone up to accomplish this. Damien definitely has a very specific vision in mind, and truly believes that the crew he has can accomplish whatever he needs. We were constantly inspired to live up to that and needed to be ready at all times. Knowing what Damien wanted the scenes to feel like made it much easier for us. My team and I quickly figured out a shorthand for communicating the room acoustics for post by placing wireless mics around the set to create reference points that could later be used to apply convolution reverb. In communication with Marius De Vries, Executive Music Producer, I was able to ensure that we all had what we needed from the production side to help achieve the feeling that Damien was looking for.
Ryan Gosling spent months learning to play the piano for his role, so you could actually see him playing in each scene. In the piano scenes, we would hard-line two mics in stereo to match keys in post. Ryan is a fantastic piano player, however, they wanted to use the recorded studio tracks in the film. Every scene of him playing was shot as one long take, so any variation in his performance would potentially limit them in post. Having the live recorded piano in stereo, allowed them to shift the track as needed to match his playing on screen using the studio track.
One of my favorite scenes to record was the duet of “City of Stars” by Ryan and Emma in his apartment. They both sang this live, and in order to get the vocals clean, the piano was muted, and they sang to a playback track fed to them by earwigs. The same playback was also fed into the Comteks and the video assist feed so James Brown, Video Assist, could play back takes with the proper mix of piano and vocals.
Emma’s audition song was also sung live, in one long shot and had no prerecording at all. She was accompanied live by Justin Hurwitz, the Composer, on a digital piano played in the next room with the audio fed to her through an earwig. This allowed Emma to set the pace of her song instead of following a prerecorded track. Justin’s piano was also recorded in stereo on its own iso tracks to be used as reference later.
This film was an incredible challenge and immensely satisfying to make. Even though this was my fourth movie that incorporated music, it was the first true musical filled with live singing, dancing and musical instruments. The long sweeping shots throughout that creates so much of the movie’s magic, required a lot more preparation from our team than a usual show. We were almost always the first ones in and the last ones out. We had a large amount of equipment out and being used, as there was a lot of music that needed to be played back invisibly to actors and dancers, whether it was through earwigs or hidden speakers. I live for the challenges that production mixing provides and I am thrilled to have been a part of the making of this movie. For all of us on the sound team, it was an honor to be a part of a project filled with people pushing to create something unique in a way that hadn’t been done before.