There have been a LOT of musicals this year, so many that you may have already lost track of a few of them. For instance, Director Jon M. Chu’s movie based on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s early musical, In the Heights, was released way back in June, well before all the West Side Stories and tick, tick… BOOMs! It also has connections to both those other movie musicals, because they all take place in New York City. (Not to mention the fact that Miranda directed the latter.)
Unfortunately, In the Heights missed the Oscar shortlist for Sound, but if you’re a member of the Motion Picture Sound Editors (MPSE) or Cinema Audio Society (CAS), you may be aware that nominations have already started for the former and will soon for the latter. We hope that you’ll take the time to watch In the Heights and admire the sound editing and mixing work of Supervising Sound Editor and Re-Recording Mixer Lewis Goldstein.
A veteran of the movie sound editing and mixing field who has been working in the business since the ‘80s, Goldstein took on all the challenges thrown at him by some of the unconventional locations where In the Heights was filmed and recorded, which included a number in a public swimming pool and another inside the courtyard of an apartment complex. (If you’re a sound engineer or recorder, you can only imagine the amount of reflective surfaces and what they might do to the sound quality being captured.)
Below the Line actually spoke with Mr. Goldstein quite a bit earlier in the year for the following interview, which is a great showcase of what’s involved with being involved in the sound aspect of making movies, as he gives us a great overview of how he got his start, how he picks projects, and what was involved with making In the Heights sound so damn good.
Below the Line: I’m glad theaters have reopened so I could watch this movie in the best theatrical sound setting, although I would have loved to see/hear it in one of the Dolby Theaters because they really are the best. I’m not really sure I even saw it in a theater with Dolby Atmos, to be honest.
Lewis Goldstein: I‘m sure it was at least a 5:1 playback. If you thought it sounded great, that makes me happy.
BTL: Sure, and unfortunately, my only two alternatives at home are watching on my computer with earbuds or on my TV set, which isn’t really hooked up to a good stereo system.
Goldstein: That is kind of the bane of my existence at this point. I’m working on these projects, and a film, especially something of the scope of In the Heights, and especially now that everything’s getting released, including this film, it’s getting released theatrically and HBO Max simultaneously, we have to take that into account. That there is such a large audience that is going to be hearing this film, seeing it as well, on ear pods, on laptop speakers, so we really have to kind of take that into account. Nothing bothers me more than when I watch some big action movie on a TV, and they’re talking, it’s great, action scene goes off, it kind of blows you away, and you got to lower the [volume], and then they start talking again, and you can’t hear them, so you got to bring it up with the remote. Especially a film like In the Heights, which was really meant to be, and it was designed from a picture point of view and a sound point of view, to be played in a very large, very big speakers loud, and really have as much energy as possible. I had to put some real serious thought into how this was going to translate to a smaller environment and make sure it would sound good, and try to eliminate some of that up and down-ness for… we call it a near-field mix. A film like this, again, from beginning to end, was really designed for an amazing theatrical experience. And I think it is a fantastic theatrical experience.
BTL: You obviously have been doing this forever, but did you go to school for engineering and sound mixing or anything like that, or just learn by doing?
Goldstein: No, I actually really got in it from the technical side very early on and really getting involved with digital audio technology in a very early stage of that, around 1987-1988. I was quite young at that time, and I just wound up having an aptitude for this technology and some of the systems that were starting to emerge at that point. Slowly in New York, I just gained a large amount of experience using digital technology for the visual medium, and then one day, I just decided to pick up and drag my butt to L.A. and see what happens. I was lucky enough to land at a facility — I think it was 1987 or 88 — a place called EFX Systems, which was in Burbank at the time, which in some respects, was really the very beginning of digital audio for film and television. A bunch of people there were all having the same idea on how to do sound for film differently than the way everybody else was doing it at the time. I happened to be around a very amazing group of people that all had the same vision, and it was a struggle. The technology was in its infancy and trying to figure out how to utilize it, somewhat like the analog technology that was being used at the time, but also trying to change the workflow. And then, it just all kind of snowballed from there. I became more and more proficient at the technology and using the technology creatively, and how to really use this tool in a very creative way, and doing projects and design and sound for things that any other way, at least the traditional way, was just so much more cumbersome. It was a fight. You had an industry that was 99% of it doing it one way, and then this very teeny little group of people doing it a new way. So it was a challenge, but it was a fun challenge, and I pretty much have been doing it ever since. I pretty much have been doing it since I was 21 years old.
BTL: Was the move to California really to get more into movies and television?
Goldstein: Yeah, exactly. At the time, in New York, most of the work was commercial-based and advertising-based. I really wanted to be part of theatrical and TV, and, of course, at the time, L.A. was the place to be, so I literally stuffed as much as I could in my car and drove to L.A. It took years, and like I said, the thing about what I do and most people who do what I do, is all based on experience. The more you do, the easier it becomes, like anything else, but this is really such a very specific task that we do soundwise for TV, film, for visual TV that just having done it for so long at this point, I’ve kind of never looked back, and really, I’ve never done anything else and never thought about doing anything else. And every single day, I still like it.
BTL: I looked back at your filmography to see if you had done sound for many musicals, and you did a big one in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and you’ve also worked with John Carney.
Goldstein: I actually worked with John Carney today, believe it or not. We’re finishing up Modern Love, which is a series that he showruns for Amazon, which is actually the second season of that. We did the first season. I’m now finishing up the second season. John’s great — Begin Again really was just fantastic, and a lot of fun to do. He’s very talented. The episodes of Modern Love are just wonderful — he’s just a great director, and he just has such a musical ear. Musical and sound, and just the whole thing, and he’s able to see the big picture of projects and how everything works together, which is wonderful. He doesn’t obsess on little things, but really sees the big picture and really just always a pleasure to work with him. And literally, since he’s in Ireland, and I’m here, it was early this morning.
BTL: When do you get involved with a movie like In the Heights is it still in preproduction?
Goldstein: I probably got involved just as cameras did start rolling and went to set a couple of times to see what they were doing. So much of the film is live singing that we got involved early on to go where they were shooting to see the areas, the neighborhoods, and in some respects, kind of model what was going on, that wouldn’t necessarily get recorded while they were filming, because we wanted to accurately represent the neighborhood and stuff, as best as we can. Still fitting within what the story is, but early on we started working with them watching the film. We did a tremendous amount of, as they would have different cuts of the film, we’d watch the entire thing, and see how it was progressing, and see how the music was fitting in. It is just such a tremendous amount of music from top to bottom on this film.
It was important to really get a feel for it as early as possible and just how to manage it all. There’s a pretty decent crew of the picture editorial department, the music department as far as the music editors that were on the job. The discussions happen very, very early on how we were going to manage all of the prerecorded material, all the onset recorded material, all of the post-filming records that they would do with the actors. It was just a tremendous amount of material to keep track of and decide how it was going to be used. Jon Chu, the director, was really adamant about this feeling real, not like a music video. And I hope that’s the way it felt when you watched it.
BTL: Absolutely. Obviously, there’s always some pre-recording that needs to be done to have music for playback on set, but you don’t get involved in that at all?
Goldstein: No, we did a little bit. We weren’t involved with the recording, but we were involved with the discussions as far as how they were going to do the recording. We wanted any of the vocals recorded later on, for different reasons, to be using similar mics that we used on set, as well as high-quality microphones at the same time for soundtrack purposes, album purposes. It was always the trick of keeping our vocals and our actors connected with the songs, so things didn’t feel disembodied. So it was always between sound effects and backgrounds, and the vocals and the music, all keeping it very bedded together, so it felt as real as we could. There are times we don’t want it real, there are times we do want it real. There will always be those challenges during the mix to decide, like you picked up on, the whole thing about when they’re dancing on the building. That was probably one of the more musical-like moments. The voices started having more reverb on them and just a little bit more of a song. So many of the songs in the film are really telling a story, and all the lyrics and components of the song are very vital to the story that’s going on. We always wanted to make sure that these characters and our super-talented actors, it felt very bedded, it felt very real.
BTL: I would think that the swimming pool scene was probably the hardest to get usable sound, just because there are so many reflections on that kind of set.
Goldstein: Yeah, that was a challenge, but at the same time, we started building that very, very early on, as far as the sound effect build and how the dialogue and where the dialogue was from. When was it set recordings? When was it pre-records, post-records? That was probably one of the bigger challenges, the song “Carnaval del Bario” in the courtyard. There’s so many pieces in there, and so much of it is from when they film that. With the whole film, the challenge was to try to make it transparent, that all of the vocals would be as consistent as possible, to feel real, to never break that illusion of moviemaking, and to really keep it very solid. Especially in the Atmos mixes, there’s a bunch of stuff that’s in the room and behind you and things, but really, so much of the songs, we kept a little bit more upfront, a little bit more with the picture with what was going on, again, to kind of keep things very bedded and congealed. So it was just feeling much more like this is real. When you started putting too many things in the surrounds, it just kind of took you out of what you were watching. So again, that was all kind of experimentation and playing with those tracks.
BTL: What’s the timeframe as far as when you get all the pieces or start putting together the pieces and mixing? Is this like weeks or months?
Goldstein: This one was years (laughs) because of the pandemic. We literally started the first day of mix on the film at the beginning of March of 2020. Literally, we got into it just a bunch of days before it was like, “Alright, stop.” And everything ceased at that point. We didn’t really pick up for like a year later until August of 20. Everything at that point became very separate. We actually finished mixing the film in LA at Warner Brothers on the lot. But we were very limited to how many people could be there, so a majority of the people that were necessary, were still in New York. We had to do a bunch of remote playbacks, and it was a challenge to do that film during a pandemic. Just because there were so many people involved, or needed to be involved and couldn’t be involved.
Typically, the build on a film of that size starts pretty early on, and we’ll start building it pretty early and doing early mixes on to film for them to really start getting an idea of how things are gonna fall together. It’s a pretty long process on that one, especially, to slowly be putting it together, and then, they have a chance of getting some additional vocals. We get a lot of these early passes without a lot of the final instrumentation, and the ensemble, the background vocals on that film are just staggering how huge they are. They were delivered as just individual tracks of people singing. While we were actually doing the postproduction mix, we were completely mixing the background vocals, and that pretty much goes for almost all the vocals in the film that they were delivered pretty raw to the mix stage. That was a considerable amount of time to kind of put that together, get them all to gel with all the different places that they were coming from. So that was a bit of a challenge.
BTL: I’ve heard so many stories from the pandemic of what went into making and finishing films, and it sounds like at least the final mix you got to do semi-normal.
Goldstein: It was just the amount of work that went into it. It was tiring, it was exhausting, and that’s the greatest thing about mixing, especially a film and one of that size, is just having everybody in that same environment at the same time just listening and making those critical decisions. It actually just took so much longer, because everybody was spread apart. One of the things I love the most about my job is being in a room with a bunch of people all listening and making decisions and collaborating and trying ideas, which the pandemic has kind of squashed.
BTL: Were Jon Chu and Lin in different places for the mix?
Goldstein: At that time, Lin was in New York and Jon was in L.A., so Jon was on the mix stage every single day. John Marquez, the other mixer, was there with me, so it was pretty much the three of us for a majority of the time.
BTL: I’m always interested in how some movies have separate re-recording mixers and supervising sound editors, but you do both duties on most of the movies you do. Is that a personal choice?
Goldstein: It’s just kind of the way my style and career has kind of evolved. I really started out as a sound editor, and then, from there progressed into a supervising sound editor. And then a lot of the projects I was doing, I just found it more conducive for me to mix as well, especially the TV stuff, which we do quite a bit of. But even theatrically, it just winds up better for me, at least, to kind of do double duty. It’s more work, but I think it gives me a little bit more control. Not that I’m a control freak… but I’m a control freak.
BTL: During my own engineering career, as I got more into digital computer recording, I found that you’re always kind of in “mix mode.”
Goldstein: You kind of hit the nail on the head. I’ve grown up in this business, on the systems, on the machines. I’ve been doing it that way for so long, as long as anybody, for the most part. And you’re right, as you’re cutting, as I’m doing my editorial work in these computer systems, I’m kind of mixing it. By the time it’s ready to go to the mix, I’ve kind of done so much of that work around that it’s like, “Alright, I’m just going to kind of carry it through.” I would say that was a big part of why I do it the way I do it.
BTL: Makes sense. You work so many shows and movies over the course of the year, how do you make decisions on what to do? Is some of it directors you’ve worked with before? Are there other projects you chase after that you definitely want to get involved with?
Goldstein: I mean, I do, for sure. A lot of the work we do is work with people that we’ve done a lot of work with, before, especially on a lot of the TV. We’ve been very, very lucky, and I think my entire career, I’ve had maybe two instances of not working with people that I liked.
BTL: Wow, that’s a pretty good record.
Goldstein: It doesn’t suck. It’s pretty good. When people come to me that I’ve worked with before, and they have a job, I’m gonna do it. It’s not always necessarily about which is gonna make me the most money or not. I do own my own facility here in New York, and a lot of the reason I did build this facility is so I can do the projects I want, even if they necessarily don’t have the most amount of money. It’s not about that. It’s about being able to do the jobs. We work on a bunch of documentaries and a bunch of smaller films, and some of those are my favorites, working on some of the smaller independent films. The facility has allowed us to be able to really kind of choose the films we want to do, and not always have to worry about what the budget is. Early on, when I was using other people’s facilities, and mixing in them. If I’m working on a small independent film, we needed like an extra day just to make it that much better, and they just didn’t have the money, and the facilities were just like, “Well, it’s gonna be over time. You’re gonna work two extra hours tonight, that’s gonna cost you this.” I finally was like, “Well, for the amount of money I’m using, and spending to rent other studios, I could build my own,” and then the only person I have to ask if I want to work an extra two hours on a job is me. So it’s worked out very, very well that way. I don’t even know how the jobs really kind of come anymore. Knock on wood, they just do.
BTL: What’s the name of your place, and where is it?
Goldstein: Parabolic, 21st and 5th. In the Heights, which took me to LA, wasn’t supposed to be in L.A. It was supposed to mix here, and the only thing that drove us there was the pandemic. I do it on occasion, I don’t do it a lot. Maybe every other year, I wind up doing something where I’m going to be there for a little bit, but really 95% of everything I do is here in New York. I really enjoy the work that we get, the work that is done here. We just actually finished a show called the Oslo for HBO. We just finished the mix on that, which was just a lot of fun and good people, and a really, really good movie. So yeah, New York has treated me very well. I’ve been very lucky.
BTL: Another movie you did the sound on is also coming out this month, Heidi Ewing’s I Carry You With Me.
Goldstein: Oh, Heidi’s film. Good movie. See, again, a film like that. That was just a small job, and Heidi, who is the director of it, I just love, and she’s just so talented. She made this just… it’s such a heartfelt great movie. So again, those are the kind of jobs that we get to do in New York and people we get to work with. And again, having my own studio, we were able to just try to make that movie as great as it possibly could be. That was a lot of fun, actually. It’s such a different scale, what we do between a movie like In the Heights and a movie like I Carry You With Me, both of which I think are fantastic films, both which were just a lot of fun to do, but such a different scale and scope.
In the Heights is back on HBO Max now, so you can watch it there, but it’s also available On Demand, on Blu-ray and DVD, as well.
All photos courtesy and copyright Warner Bros. Pictures.