For a musical such as A Star is Born the collaboration between sound, music and mixing is critical. Sound designer, Alan Murray, production sound mixer, Steve Morrow, CAS, and re-recording mixers Tom Ozanich, MPSE, Dean Zupancic and Jason Ruder came together to share their contributions to the soundscape of actor Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut. Clips from the film exemplified the topics under discussion.
“Bradley always wanted the audience to feel you were there at the concert,” said Murray. “And lots of contrast. Excited crowds. Hard rock. And then isolation. Going back and forth so that you went into Jackson Maine’s (Bradley Cooper) private world, then exploded into the rock concerts.”
The band was pre-recorded with some parts being played live, but all the vocals were recorded live so that the audience would not be thrown out of the movie by feeling that the performers were lip-syncing. Old SM 58’s were chosen with monitors for playback. The hard part of recording in the concert venues was keeping the songs under wraps until the film premiered.
The challenge was getting the vocals clean and putting on a show that everyone in the band, the audience, as well as the cameras could react to. The instruments were usually muted with the playback coming from earwigs in the performers’ ears. The singers got sound checks every time they came on stage, so that playback levels could be set to their liking. Surround sound mics were placed in the audience for their cheering while shotgun mics were placed off to the sides to get the stage perspective of the audience reactions. The equipment set-up took three hours and included 61 tracks recorded on set for every concert piece, which provided postproduction with a multitude of choices.
“Authenticity was the main theme of the film,” noted Ozanich. “Trying to make everything feel real was always our goal and concern, and where he (Cooper) was at right from the get go.”
During mix playback, if Cooper was taken out by something that did not feel real, the mixers would stop, back up, discuss and decipher what took the director out of the moment. Then they would re-record that sequence. With the music recording it was also important to the filmmakers that the sound stayed true to every individual location whether it was a small dive bar, a massive concert venue, or an empty grocery store parking lot late at night.
“We tried to create our own reverbs and ambience for every single space we shot,” explained Ruder. “That included perspective cuts on every vocal. Gaga and Bradley were both very concerned about the authentic quality of every space and the environment on every vocal.”
The atmosphere created by the sound, or lack of sound, pulled the audience emotionally into the world of the characters. When Jackson leaves the high volume world of the concert and enters the car, he also enters the isolated world shaped by his tinnitus. The director used the dampened audio to draw the audience into the loneliness and isolation of Jack’s world when he is not on stage.
“Everything ebbs and flows in varying degrees of loudness,” stated Zupancic.
Even in the drag bar, ambience of the club and crowd reactions fade down to nothing for the isolated moment when Ally (Lady Gaga) and Jack first connect. The sound crew used the waves and differing density of the audio throughout the film to contrast the up and down emotional moments in the story.
The choice of microphones were among the on-set technical challenges. Originally Gaga wanted a cabled mic in the drag bar scene, but the route she takes during her performance made a cable impractical, so the singer had to be convinced to use a wireless mic that was made to look cheaper by taking away labels.
“The hardest part was allowing her to hear the music, so we set-up speakers throughout the bar that we could turn on and off as she went through. The audience could hear, and she could hear as a monitor speaker,” shared Morrow. “Then it was just a matter of getting the audience involved so it wasn’t just a dead room. We put a surround mic in the room. The challenge in that room was to make sure that we were able to record her different levels in a small room with a big performance.”
The soundtrack with recorded in Dolby Atmos in addition to standard stereo configurations. The ability to carefully position and separate audio tracks allowed by Atmos enhanced the immersive experience. Designed in all aspects to draw the audience emotionally into the story, the soundscape seamlessly supported the filmmakers’ goal of authenticity.