Working together on films including Wild and We Bought a Zoo, sound editors Ai-Ling Lee and Mildred Iatrou Morgan were among those making Oscar history on January 24, as the Academy unveiled the 2017 nominations. Helping Damien Chazelle’s original LA musical La La Land tie the all-time Oscar record of 14 nominations—held by Titanic and All About Eve—the pair became the first female team to ever be nominated in their category. (Lee, in fact, took two of those nominations in her first go at the Oscars, for sound editing and mixing.)
Speaking to Deadline, the sound editors discussed the division of labor they’ve struck in the sound department, and how it feels to see such a diverse crop of nominees below the line, as the clock ticks on toward the annual Oscars ceremony.
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How did it feel to see La La Land make history with 14 Oscar nominations, tying the all-time record held by Titanic and All About Eve?
Mildred Iatrou Morgan: When I was working on the film, I fell in love with it immediately, and just got completely emotionally involved in the process of it. The whole time, I was really hoping that it would find its audience. I wasn’t sure, because it’s a musical, and musicals often have trouble doing that, especially this musical, with all its references—not that it required someone to have a knowledge of film history, but it kind of adds a little extra when you do. So, I am so thrilled that it’s getting all this recognition and people are liking it. It really makes me incredibly happy.
Ai-Ling Lee: When we saw the first cut, when we first started on the movie back in January, even though it was a really rough cut, with rough, original music from Justin [Hurwitz], without any of the sound work done yet, we could really tell that everything was coming together, with all the bold choices of direction from Damien. I was really excited that we were starting to polish up and try to bring the movie one step further.
It’s such a personal film, with all this original music, as a musical—you hardly see that anymore. Knowing how long it took Damien and Justin to get this off the ground, everything just came together so well, and it just kept getting better as we worked on it. Same as with Milly, I was really hoping that most of the general audience would like it— being a musical, that’s a slight challenge—but I was really thrilled for everyone involved in the movie, when it got released at the Venice Film Festival with all the positive reviews, and stuff like that.
Having worked on musical productions before—Rock of Ages being one—what do you see as the unique opportunities and challenges in editing sound for a musical? And what lessons have you taken with you from the experience of working on these films?
Morgan: When Ai-Ling and I work together, my main focus is on the dialogue and the ADR. From that perspective, the challenge always is moving from regular old production dialogue to the singing, which almost always is recorded at a recording studio. So that’s what I was most concerned about, and somehow in this case, it worked really seamlessly.
In other movies, in order to make the transition, I would, in a recording studio, record the last few lines of dialogue before you go into the singing—with the same mics and everything. In this case, I did that, but I never had to use it. I think some of that is how well it was recorded on set by Steve Morrow. The music supervisors as well, they used the same mics in production as they did in the recording studio, so for every transition, we were able to go seamlessly from production to the singing.
Lee: When I first interviewed for the film, Damien had talked about wanting everything to sound very natural—similar for the dialogue—for the ambiences and sounds around it to be all sort of natural, so that when it goes into any musical moment, it goes so gradual that it kind of tricks the audience into thinking, “Oh, I’m still watching a movie.” And then they start singing and dancing, and it’s more of a seamless transition, too.
Also, being a musical, as far as the sounds and the foley, to help ground the moments—the musical moments—so it doesn’t feel like it’s just happening in the studio. For those, all those sounds have to be in perfect rhythm to the music—in pitch and tone, too, so it doesn’t clash with the music of the film.
For example, in the duet scene, when Mia and Sebastian were dancing, we couldn’t really use the production footsteps, because it has to play back, so we had [choreographer] Mandy Moore come in with her dancer to redo the dance feet. Then, at one point, we decided to switch it from flat sole sounds to tap shoe sounds, so we tried many different kinds of shoes and surfaces to get the classic Fred and Ginger sound, and also helped elevate their performance to play together with the music.
How much of the film’s singing was done live? How much was pre-recorded?
Morgan: In terms of the singing, there were several scenes where we used on-set singing—the live singing—most notably, in the audition song at the end, where Mia auditions for the movie, and it’s her big break. That one worked extremely well, because she’s talking, and her voice gets quieter and quieter, and then she starts singing. That whole beginning of the song was production—what was shot on the set, and was recorded on set—and then at some point in the middle, it goes from a couple of phrases into pre-recorded music, and then goes back to production. So that was one, and when she and Sebastian sing “City of Stars” at the piano, that was all recorded on set.
Lee: It was good that for the audition that her production singing was so well captured. It’s almost like a monologue, and having it live, it does feel more personable that way.
Morgan: The tricky part, in terms of that, was that when the camera moves, the furniture gets taken apart— like, the camera pans away. I didn’t know this until afterward, but there was all this noise on it which I had to clean up. That was the first thing I did on the show. The desk where the producers are sitting gets broken apart, and the camera moves forward and moves in on her—like, dollies in on her, or I bet it’s with steadicam. So I had to go to other tapes to replace the noise.
Lee: As far as the sound palettes go…From the initial interview with Damien, he mentioned a few movies for references—one is Boogie Nights, and the other one is Mean Streets. Basically, the idea is, because we have all these musical fantasy moments, sometimes he wants it to go into such a heightened fantasy moment that it becomes almost soundless. But to offset that, you need grounded, real sounds to help offset it.
Los Angeles being such a big character in the movie, we had to make sure the backgrounds and ambiences help reflect the tone of the city. But unlike Boogie Nights, he’s just referencing it as like, how much of the sounds around the city that you hear in the scene, but maybe not as gritty. As for Mean Streets, he liked the idea that the city’s always bustling—you may hear some music somewhere else in the city, like a car passing by, or a neighbor is playing their music somewhere else.
Fortunately, before we started on the movie, I’ve sometimes been recording sounds, wherever I go—I have this little portable recorder with me. So from that, we have amassed a bit of a library for Los Angeles—some sounds recorded in Venice, or Pasadena, or Hollywood, wherever. We used them in the movie. Also, since Mia [drives] a Prius, I also recorded some sounds of a friend’s Prius at the Fox Studios backlot.
But I’d say the biggest thing, as far as spending more time on it, would be the dance feet foley—some research to see if we could even track down where some of those MGM musicals were recorded, to see if we could still find a surface. Of course, unfortunately, they weren’t around anymore, so we had to try to get the right sound, for Damien to approve it. We would take clips like Top Hat to hear for the sounds.
Linus Sandgren’s camera captures a reality with a dreamy, magical quality to it. Did sound play a part in evoking this feeling, and this space that the film inhabits?
Lee: Yeah, a little bit. But for us, it helps make it more interesting, say, when the camera’s panning and moving around. Even though they’re on the same location, certain sounds could change a little, depending on where the camera is going.
In the opening of the movie, we were given the opportunity to start with a soundscape over an empty blue sky, and we needed to introduce the audience to the movie through a traffic jam in LA. Those city sounds—the horns and the cars idling, together with the radio music coming out of the cars—I had to work on that whole opening soundscape sequence. They were built into a cacophony of sounds. Each car [passes] by, and that would then build up and transition into the first musical number. For that scene alone, hopefully the sound can help the audience feel like they’re moving along with the camera.
Was that your most difficult scene to edit?
Lee: For me, yeah, because it’s the start of the movie—you want to make sure to get it right. Youv’e got to also time it out: with all the sonic info, does it get the idea across to the audience? And you have to also make sure it’s not too long. It has to be the right amount of time to get into the mode of the movie.
There’s a history of Oscar-nominated women in the sound crafts, but the two of you are the first female team ever to be nominated in your category. How does it feel to see such diversity reflected in the nominations this year, both above and below the line?
Morgan: It was great. I was so happy to see that, and I feel like we’re making progress. We have been making progress, I believe, over the last few decades, but sometimes I feel like we’re not going fast enough. I feel like we should have more women and more people from different ethnic backgrounds and different races in editing, especially sound editing. So it made me feel great to see that.
Lee: I would say the same for sound mixing, too. I’d like to see more of that. Over the years, I think I’m seeing more and more young women coming out from film school who are actually interested in sound—in mixing or sound design—so that’s a really good thing to see. So I’m really surprised, and I’m really happy that this is happening more often now, and that we are fortunate enough to be nominated for the sound editing. I think I read somewhere that one picture editor for Moonlight [Joi McMillon] is the first female African American [editing nominee], so all these are really great progress, and I hope we can get more diversity involved in the sound department.
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