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Catherine Hodgson and Rob Walker
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Wednesday, 16th December 2020
Military Wives is currently showing on Amazon Prime, Google Play, Apple TV, Sky and itunes
At the heart of the film lies a powerful tale of women, who in the face of psychological adversity, unite in the shape of a choir. With music at its core, Military Wives had some quite unique film-making challenges. It was my job as production sound mixer to make the right creative decisions in order to fulfil director Peter Cattaneo’s vision. Half of our filming schedule would be days with full cast and singing. This is an account of the recording of those elements.
Choral recording has played a major part in my career, so I was delighted when I was asked to combine this experience with movie production sound mixing. At the outset, Peter told me “this film is not a musical, it should sound like a real choir singing in real spaces”. He would not be casting actors with a background in singing or musical theatre and wanted an authentic natural sound with the spontaneity of live performances, warts-and-all! The techniques for recording a choir in a music studio or concert hall are fairly straight forward and well established, but to achieve this on film set whilst dovetailing with all the other departments would be a challenge. The choices made at the recording stage would affect the whole sound of the film.
Audiences are psychologically astute to noticing tiny mismatches between what the eyes see, and what the ears hear. If something doesn’t feel right (even subconsciously), it can take an audience out of the moment and naturalness is lost. The desire for a natural sound gave us two aims:
‘Aim 1’: all the singing to be recorded live on set during the filming with no replacement in post.
‘Aim 2’: that each take in the edit would have use its actual sync sound. This meant that for a given choral performance, in order to make seamless edits, the sound from each shot/take would have to be sonically consistent in mic type, placement and stereo image. Once we’d set a mic position relative to the choir, that would be it for the whole scene! There would be no using booms for the tight shots and radios mics for the wides. Movie production crew have rarely encountered stereo main mics because their inherent problems when shooting such as image shifting whilst placed in different positions out of shot; or unnatural sounding side/rear room reflections picked up the hypercardioid or interference tube mics, needed for their directivity. I explained how we would have to work for singing scenes to our Director of Photography, Hubert Taczanowski and Assistant Director, Barry Keil, both of whom were incredibly understanding and worked with us to achieve our goals. Many of the needs of choral recording are quite unusual on a film set and we relied on good communication with the other departments and the cast.
As well as being excellent in technical ability, the sound team had to be extremely sensitive to the demands put on the cast during their days of standing and singing. If unused to it, a microphone can be daunting when asked to sing. It was vital that we had the confidence and trust of the actors, that the saw that we were taking them very seriously, and that we cared deeply about their performance. Our job would be very difficult without them on our side! Loveday Harding is one of UK’s most experienced first assistant sound. Her no-nonsense approach and joyful personality helps communication and cooperation with both cast and crew, invaluable when working with a 35 woman choir! Loveday would discuss beforehand where any tracks and cameras would be so that we could find a position for microphone stands. Once we had good sound takes, we could remove our mics and stands so that the cameras could shoot their wide shots. The choir could also have a bit of a break from the pressures of recording and could sing along to playback over the PA.
2nd Assistant Sound, Thayna McGlaughlin would be working with Loveday on the microphones (1st AS Nina Rice and Jen Annor, joining for additional photography). Lee Thompson assisted with foldback/monitoring IEMs and stand mics; 3rd Assistant Mark Harris with PA, induction loops and Assistant Directors ‘Voice of God’ PA set up; and Ben Gandy, Pro Tools playback (Ashley Sinani, additional photography). Each day, after the choir had rehearsed a song, the decision made as to what vocal parts and song sections would be performed. Ben prepared each playback guide track in liaison with orchestrator, Shane Rutherford-Jones. Sometimes Peter, or Choir Mistress, Jenny O’Grady would want to try something different and changes would be made to the playback track. To complete our sound team were 2nd unit mixers, Tom Williams and Giancarlo Dellapina and 1st AS, Gwendoline Sena.
Choir Mic Techniques
Peter wanted the choir to begin the film sounding like an untrained group singing together for the first time. As the film progresses they improve, become more confident until they are good enough to sing in Royal Albert Hall. The singing scenes were shot in roughly chronical story order which allowed the actors to rehearse and really become more accomplished as time went by. The choir would only have two days of rehearsal before we started photography to help get used to the singing, the recording process, the covert earpieces and the mics. They were not told what they were to sing in the first scene so that it really would be an authentic unprepared moment.
I decided to use different recording techniques to compliment the sound of choir as it improved – story-telling through the medium of sound engeineering!
A mix favouring multiple spot mics works well for keeping individual voices distinct, therefore early in the story weight was given to close-up spots and the cast’s lavalieres. I used Schoeps CCM 41s which sound great on female voices. They are also my favoured interior dialogue mic which allowed us to boom between talking and singing without changing mic. The singers all wore a DPA4061s, the best sounding lavalier, which with good positioning and mixed with a room stereo pair sound superb. The trick to lavaliers clean enough to be used in the mix is to have as much free air around them, and as far away from any clothing rustle, as possible. Costume designer, Jill Taylor’s team were absolutely key to the success of these recordings and Loveday and Thayna worked together with them to get the best results. They began each day with fitting 11 singing main cast plus the singing support cast with their lavs. The costume dept. dressers allowed re-positioning mics to the outside of the clothes when the actors were obscured, for example those standing in the back row. To complete the set-up, a stereo pair placed in a relatively diffuse position would provide a natural sounding bed for the close mics.
Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Time after Time’ was used as transition song in which the choir go from ‘bad’ to ‘good’. From this point in the film the sound had to become more beautifully blended and polished. The actors now stood in formation on risers and our locations were chosen for their good natural acoustics. This helped the performance too. As a performer, it is more satisfying singing with nice reverb than to do it in an acoustically dry space. The recording technique now had to blend the singing, making the sound of a group as a whole, greater than the sum of the individual parts. The art of blending voices is aided by choosing stereo techniques that are non-coincident. For the main pair, I used Schoeps CCM22s ‘near cardioids’, in an ORTF arrangement (21 cm apart and an angle of 110° which is officially for cardioids, but also works great with CCM22s). These microphones are absolutely outstanding in respect of a neutral frequency response, low harmonic distortion and low noise floor and a natural off-axis sound. They sound similar to the renowned Schoeps MK2 omnis, but have the benefit of a front:rear signal ratio of over 5:1 which is great when you have a whole camera crew to the rear! They can be placed a little bit further back than an omnis which also helps with blending.
Main pairs on studio choral recordings are usually mounted on a stand behind the conductor. In a concert hall they are slung out of the audience’s eyeline and spot mics go on low profile stands. Neither of these rigs are practical on a film set, a central stand would be in vision and repositioning slings would be unacceptably slow for slight changes in the choir’s position. The sound team needed to be very nimble to work around camera, track and light changes. The solution was to mount the main pair on the end of a 5m boom which could rotate on a wind-up stand on wheels allowing the stand to move but the mics to keep the same relative position to the choir. The solo/spot mics would all be boomed by Loveday, Thayna, Nina and Jen.
In a traditional music mix for picture the level of an instrument/voice stays at the same level even if it has a close-up shot and the musical balance is preserved across shot changes. Peter wanted the option to be able to break this convention in order to tell the story: he might need raise the level of an individual character to get into their thoughts, or to draw attention to them either in a subtle or dramatic way. In order to do this, one of our booms would followed the close camera, or we could use the lavaliers.
In ear monitoring and foldback
Guide and click tracks were given to the singers via inductive covert earpieces which fit invisibly in the ear. These work in a similar way to hearing aid loops in public places and we rigged induction loops around each set.
Sharon Horgan’s character Lisa played a keyboard in many of the singing scenes, both solo and with the choir. Sharon, never having played keyboard previously, learnt some basic tunes and chords for the filming. The keyboard’s speakers were muted, its output went to my desk and back to her hidden earpiece. She could play and sing, but we’d have both sources independent. I could route it to our PA (for rehearsing a shot) or through the choir’s earpieces (during the performance). If the choir didn’t want to have the keyboard, Sharon had her own bespoke earpiece channel via a body worn loop under her costume linked by a Sennheiser G3 radio channel.
A production sound mix was provided for peter, script supervisor, operators, focuses and grips, and mix without keyboard and main pair for the sound assistants so that they could concentrate on the spot mics.
Shane had an off-screen keyboard routed into the actors’ earpieces to provide a live guide track or pitch cues. He had his own personal foldback mix of guide track, choir, his own keyboard plus the booms so he could hear what was going on set. Sometimes after a few takes, the choir would start to become too good! Peter’s secret weapon was to have a crunching off-key chord played through their earpieces in order to throw them out of tune!
The choir scenes were filmed in a variety of locations spread across Herts, Bucks, Berks and Yorks: a welfare centre, a drill hall, an exterior Market Square, a church, a disused railway tunnel, the ‘Albert Hall’ (set at pinewood) and a pub. Fortunately for us, the locations for the scenes with the choir singing well had great acoustics with complimentary reverberation, and the sets for the earlier scenes had drier acoustics which meant that no treatment of the rooms was necessary. We had a 3 week filming schedule for all the choir scenes so we’d need a highly mobile recording set-up. I used a cart based Aaton X3 Cantar with Cantaress controller. This gives me 24 tracks and 22 linear mix faders to accommodate the booms, choir mics, radio lavaliers and keyboard. The main stereo pair and solo/spot mics would go through RME Octamic preamps, a favourite of mine. They have incredibly low noise and harmonic distortion, perfect for a ‘natural’ sounding recording. The Pro Tools rig, on a second cart, was connected by DANTE (plus analogue backup). The playback audio channels could then be routed to the various foldback transmitters, either in the Cantar or in Pro Tools. Ben also had access to my channels should something needed to be edited on Pro Tools for playback. Having two small lightweight carts meant our technical set up times were incredibly quick, allowing me more creative time planning the microphone structure for a scene.
The Challenge of Balance
Some of the early numbers were sung in unison, but as the story progressed, the pieces became more demanding, with up to 5-part harmony (sopranos, mezzos, altos, contraltos, solo melody). Our choir were of mixed ability and pitch range which emerged as the filming progressed. We had no way of knowing what the relative strength of each vocal part would be. A professional choir and conductor will ‘self- balance’, making the job of the sound engineer in that respect fairly simple. Ours would not be like that! One solution for adjusting the balance between sections of the choir is to use spot mics enhance the parts that need more emphasis. Unfortunately, this wouldn’t work in our case for three reasons: they would get in shot; they may work against a blended sound required for some songs; and they would restrict the positioning of the actors in the picture. The only way we could create an even balance would be to add extra voices in post. This would then cause a further problem that the sound would no longer match the picture - the choir would sound larger than it looked. I’d need to find a way of recording a natural performance, without spots, but allowing rebalancing later. I came up with a novel solution. We would have a selection of ‘mute’ choir members, mouthing the words, visually making up the choir then when we added additional rebalancing voices in later it would match the picture. Altogether we would have a choir of up to 22 singing (11 cast, 5 trained support singers, 6 untrained support artists) plus up to 13 mute support artists.
Once the first picture edit had been cut, I teamed up with music editor Rodney Berling to assemble each choral piece. We had a degree of freedom on the wide shots to choose our favoured sound take but on the close ups we were careful to use the actual sync recording for that each take. This only worked because of we had kept the mics absolutely consistent from shot to shot during the filming. We made a small list of overdubs that we would need to need to add in order to re-balance the choir. Peter had a very clear vision of how he wanted each piece to sound which further informed our list of overdubs. We did 2 sessions, one with 4 untrained voices at my home studio and another with 8 trained voices at the Crypt Studios. Mathias Schwab completed the final mix at Post Republic
Our choir were absolutely brilliant. As in the story, their confidence grew day by day building up to a climatic Albert Hall performance. With the exception of only a couple of very small replacement lines, EVERY LINE of singing you hear in the final mix was recorded live on set during filming. This is a rare accomplishment. When watching the finished movie it is easy to overlook the huge amount of high-quality technical work and effort that our sound assistants put in. But it is through their dedication that ‘Military Wives’ has undoubtably achieved the authenticity of sound that Peter Cattaneo envisioned.