Inspired by Giacomo Puccini’s opera La BohÃ¨me, the original Broadway production of Rent, written by Jonathan Larson, was from start to finish songs and music commemorating the love lives, aspirations and travails of poor artists living in Manhattan’s East Village in the late ’80s and early ’90s.Keeping the integrity of the original musical stage production where singing is the dominant part of the narrative was one of the goals of director Chris Columbus. And that’s the challenge that was met by Academy Award-winning re-recording mixers Mike Minkler of Soundelux and Lora Hirschberg of Skywalker Sound.Not new to mixing musicals, Minkler, who won an Academy Award for best sound for the film version of the Broadway musical Chicago and was nominated for the film version of A Chorus Line, tells Below the Line, “Chris wanted a pure translation of the stage play. It was a fine line to walk between retaining the theatrical staging but also be a movie. Chris wanted the attention to be on the performer and what they were singing, which meant background sound and ambient noise were kept to a minimum. Without the distraction of real sound effects, the audience would focus on the face of the actor and hear the words and see the emotions of the people singing.”Minkler felt mixing Chicago was different because “in Chicago you went in and out of their world with regular talking and regular sound, then switched to the musical numbers.” In Rent, the singing was “wall to wall” and the story’s driving narrative.“All the songs were pre-recorded then played back through a live feed during production allowing the performers to lip synch with their original song,” Minkler adds. “Every syllable had to be lip-synched and mixed. That was a big task. We had to use a little sleight of hand to build moments that were flat studio recordings to a full body performance” to match the actor’s dynamic.Hirschberg, whose work on Finding Neverland had its own theatrical staging intricacies, and who has mixed such dialogue-filled films as The Prizewinner of Defiance Ohio and Adaptation, relates, “it’s interesting mixing dialogue and lyrics. We had to keep one consistent track. We mixed dialogue and vocals at the same level so the dialogue would feel more a part of the musical and not interfere with the song. There would be no sense of in and out between dialogue and song.”For Minkler the opening scene of the film was one of the most challenging. “The opening is staged as a stage play and the characters are introduced through the songs and music,” he says. Distinguishing characters, then transitioning between them had to be accomplished smoothly because the songs and music were crucial in setting up the characters and their narrative.For Hirschberg, “the scene in the subway was a challenge and one of my favorites because we had little moments to achieve, like the rhythm of the song timed with the rhythm and movement of the subway.”The film is set in one of the world’s noisiest cities. The sound of car traffic, subways, musical performances in the street, the burning of eviction notices was all carefully modulated and seamlessly integrated with the songs and music.Rent was shot primarily on stages at Treasure Island in San Francisco and the Sony Studios backlot in Culver City—with some exteriors on the streets of New York. This film offered a different kind of reality for mixing. While the job of the re-recording mixers is usually to integrate and embellish all sound and music to the precision of the audio narrative, “Chris wanted us to create the real sound effect, like street noise and fires burning,” says Hirschberg, but then it was only used if it added to the event. “We would put it [in], then he would decide if we needed to take it away or soften it,” she adds. The singing was always the predominant dialogue of the film and the focus was always on the voice and lyrics of the performers.Also challenging was the amount of foley work added. Hirschberg comments, “We had a lot of foley created by Sean England and edited by Luke Dunn-Gielmuda. In scenes like Angel’s dance number in the Santa Claus costume, her footsteps on the floor, taps on the tables and hits on the pipes were all created by the foley artist. For the scene in the restaurant when they were moving tables and chairs then dancing on the table, and the scene with the big tango dance number, the sounds were added later, then had to be mixed.”The film was mixed at Skywalker Sound in San Rafael, Calif. on a Euphonix System 5.Minkler won two Oscars, for best sound for Chicago and Black Hawk Down (shared with Myon Nettinga and Chris Munro) and has been nominated seven times for best sound for Cliffhanger, JFK, Born On The Fourth Of July, A Chorus Line, Tron, Altered States and The Electric Horseman. He has been busy this year with Kingdom Of Heaven, Domino and Flightplan.Hirschberg was nominated for an Emmy for Celloid Closet and for CAS Awards for Finding Neverland and The Horse Whisperer. She recently worked as the re-recording mixer on The Prizewinner Of Defiance Ohio, Stay, Tarnation and Straight-Jacket. She is currently working on the new John Cameron Mitchell film.
Written by Kathy Anderson