by Richard Bullock CAS and Steven Morrow CAS
Being invited to join the team bringing a new iteration of The Color Purple to the screen, based on both the book and the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical no less, was an incredible honor. We know how important the original 1985 film is to so many people as well, it’s often the film they watch annually when getting together with family. The fact that this would also include twenty-six on-screen music moments and lots of incredible choreography, dancers, and musicians made it that much more exciting for us, plus the enthusiasm and passion that Director Blitz Bazawule brought to the project was infectious. On top of that, the cast was an absolute dream and a pleasure to work with every day.
Steven Morrow CAS: I was brought on quite early by Executive Producer Michael Beugg, who I’ve been working with since Little Miss Sunshine in 2005. Our credits together include La La Land, Babylon, and so many more.
I knew from the start that I had a schedule conflict with a project I promised to do much earlier. I had the idea that the best approach for the show was to bring on my friend and colleague, Richard Bullock, to do the show with me so Richard could take over the department head duties when I would need to leave about halfway through. Happily, everyone was on board with this approach and in retrospect, it was a very successful strategy. Having the two of us there from the start was a real luxury and provided the continuity that was necessary considering the scope of the job.
Richard Bullock CAS: When Steve proposed that we work on The Color Purple together, I was elated. I knew it would be an incredible and truly meaningful project, the kind that doesn’t come along very often. I was coming off a very busy schedule myself, which included a Western and a musical. Going straight into a project of this scope might not have been logistically possible if it weren’t for sharing it with Steve, who had been working in pre-production for many months at this point. I was thrilled and honored.
SM: Filming was to begin in early 2022 in Georgia, where The Color Purple is set. During prep, Blitz got all the actors together for a table read, which he asked me to record. That was a unique and thrilling experience, and a fun challenge. It was great to meet all the actors ahead of principal photography and get a feel for how they project and how the transitions from dialog to singing might play out. Not to mention at the end of the day, I was left with an audio recording of the entire film before we ever started. Pretty fun!
RB: Yes, I loved having that table-read recording during prep. It gave us real insight into the scope of the project, plus a familiarity with the songs, dialog, and tone, and it really got me excited to get started.
SM: Principal photography began on the beach at Jekyll Island, GA. This really set the bar for the location-related logistical challenges we would face, as well as the complex nature of the live singing, playback, and musical accompaniment that would be a regular workflow of The Color Purple. We began with young Celie and Nettie, played by Phylicia Pearl Mpasi and Halle Bailey, singing and running through the trees on the beach, eventually settling on an off-speed version that would give an ethereal effect at twenty-four frames. We decided to do this beach scene with earwig playback only, no loudspeakers. As the scene spread a long distance on the beach, we wanted to make sure the distance from the audio and the lip-sync didn’t change. If you get too far from the source, you could unintentionally add delay to the song. This was also a great opportunity to get good clean tracks of the ocean, as well as laughing and Foley from the actors, without having music all over the track. For all the earwigs in the film, we used our trusted Phonak Roger earwigs. I believe our largest earwig count for a scene was forty-one. In addition to the actors, we had a lot of dancers and a choir.
Also, whenever possible, we would use earwigs so we could capture a live singing performance at the beginning and end of a song, dropping out the speakers. This allowed editorial to have a more natural sounding intro and outro to each song, where the transition from dialog to singing would just flow.
Some songs we would record the vocals in their entirety on set. One of these was “I’m Here,” sung by Celie, played by Fantasia Barrino, who also played the role on Broadway. Due to the camera moves, we needed to do a hair mic for this. Fantasia was used to that from all her theater experience and the hair department was excited to help make that happen. Fantasia has such an amazing voice. The new Phonak Roger earwigs, with their clear and loud qualities, made it possible for her to hear the musical accompaniment playback.
RB: On day two, we were back on the beach, this time with Mister, played by Colman Domingo, on horseback serenading young Nettie while playing banjo. This was accomplished with Executive Music Producer Nick Baxter playing the banjo off camera, which we were feeding to Colman’s earwig. We were recording Colman singing live, as well as his dialog with Nettie of course. It worked great. Nick had recorded all the songs for the film in-studio before production began (mostly!) and was an invaluable member of the team. A member of IATSE Local 695, Nick also served as our Music Playback Operator, which was great. His intimate knowledge of the recordings and his relationship with the actors during those recordings made for an efficient shorthand when adjustments needed to be made on the fly. We would repeat this workflow later in the schedule at Mister’s house, with Colman playing banjo while talking with Nettie. We planted a mic inside the muted banjo Colman was playing, so Nick would have a precise record of when Colman was plucking the strings.
As Steve said, speaker placement during playback scenes was very important for sync. Sometimes this would require one of us to walk just off camera alongside the actor as they sang along with playback. The Director of Photography, Dan Laustsen, had a beautiful vision for The Color Purple and was fond of long dolly shots that used to be a common part of filmmaking but is becoming more and more rare. Those dolly shots sometimes made speaker placement a moving target, but that challenge just added to the fun.
SM: Working on a period movie generally provides some pretty great opportunities to record interesting sounds from vintage props or vehicles. We did quite a bit of this, putting plant mics, mostly DPA 4097 CORE, on the bumpers of passing cars or horses, or close miking squeaky screen doors. If at all possible, we do nothing to mitigate those sounds, but instead, get a good recording of them. It saves a lot of time recreating things in post, and it adds authenticity. We had a stellar team, and Boom Operator Charles German and Utility Sound Technician Kelly Lewis were always on the lookout for these opportunities. I like to think of our job as having an aspect of “mining” for sound. We gather absolute everything we can during production and then the editors have that material to choose from. Even if it just helps in determining what to Foley, it’s still valuable. Sometimes a car sound is wrong for the period, but the timing of the ignition or the mashing of gears can help the Foley team create the right thing. When possible, we would also deploy a stereo mic for atmosphere. We did that in the swamp where Harpo’s Juke Joint is located, as there were lots of interesting noisy bugs and great sounding birds and frogs.
RB: We actually went to the swamp a couple of times on the weekends to handle playback for rehearsals, which was really fun. It was nice to be on set but in a much more laid-back environment. We brought bagels for everyone, and enjoyed having a little more time to chat. There were several other locations where we came in just to provide playback for rehearsals. Everyone was very appreciative, and we got a sneak peek at scenes and the choreography, which helped us make a solid plan when it came time to film.
The swamp location definitely had its logistical challenges, too. During a night scene, Shug Avery, played by Taraji P. Henson, arrives on a small open boat, singing all the way into the dock before landing at the Juke Joint, where the song goes into full swing. We were able to hide a Mackie Thump Go speaker in the bottom of the boat for playback. It’s pretty loud for a battery-powered loudspeaker and gave us the proximity we needed to record Taraji for the first section of the song. We had lots of speakers hidden throughout the Juke Joint to handle playback for the rest of the scene, which took place both on location at the swamp and on stage later.
SM: We also had the Thumper working quite a bit. Invariably, the times it was called for were the locations that were the hardest to get to! One such location was a bare rock hillside at Stone Mountain Park, east of Atlanta. We were filming Workin’, where Harpo, played by Corey Hawkins, and his gang are driving spikes into the rock with sledgehammers. The Thumper was needed to keep them all in-sync, but getting it up there required a gator and a trailer and a lot of hands for the final one hundred yards. I’m certain we were the last department off that mountain at wrap that night, but the right tool for the job makes all the difference and the effort was worth it. Once again, we filmed it off-speed at forty-eight frames, so the rhythmic hitting of the spikes with the sledgehammers was quite a feat and sync was that much harder.
RB: We’ve all had experience filming in the rain, sometimes naturally occurring but often provided by SPFX. There is a scene out back at Mister’s house in the pouring rain that was a particular challenge. SPFX was providing a deluge of rain that would cover a large area, including the corrugated metal roof of the porch. Charles and Kelly put down yards and yards of hog’s hair on every surface possible, including covering the 4×4 floppies that were protecting the cameras. It made a huge difference and allowed us to get very clean recordings. We used DPA 4061 lavs and Kelly blew them out after every take. Charles was also remarkably able to boom that scene, which was a real lifesaver, as the dynamics were extreme with lots of yelling. It sounded great.
SM: We were often treated with live vocals from Fantasia as Celie. She has an incredible voice and always preferred to sing live, which is a real treat from a sound perspective. We used a DPA 6061 in her hair for the performance of The Color Purple song; usually actors will sing along to a playback track or lip-sync, but in this case, we had a pianist play live into her earwig so she could drive the performance, allowing for emotional timing. Later, that piano track would be covered by the full orchestrated music.
RB: We also successfully deployed forty-one earwigs for a shot when the entire town gets together on Main Street. We had critical dialog at the same time as our dance team had to keep dancing, so we handed out the small army of earwigs and we were able to get what we needed for the shot to work both musically and dramatically.
This was one of the most collaborative jobs I’ve ever done, and that is definitely something special. Having a great team, from the director to the producers to the DP to the sound and music departments that we worked with side by side all day, was such a privilege. We are all very proud of the work we did on The Color Purple, and thrilled to be there to support the incredible work of the cast.
SM: I couldn’t agree more. One of the things I love most about filmmaking is the collaboration, and a movie of this scale requires much more of it than the typical project. We had quite a little sound village set up around our carts every day, from mixing to playback to music producers and music supervisors and choreographers. Oftentimes, there was an electric piano or a guitar ready to be routed into earwigs. It was great fun.