The sound and music editor and re-recording mixer behind Bohemian Rhapsody, John Warhurst and Paul Massey came to the project with ample experience on music-based films, and still needed time to get their footing, figuring out how this particular one could work.
Telling the remarkable true story of Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, the drama follows the band’s rise from humble beginnings through their iconic performance at Live Aid in 1985. Given the nature of the story at hand, Warhurst and Massey knew the project would be demanding. Mercury’s voice was singular, seemingly impossible to match, and the film would need the right star to channel his charisma.
The pic would eventually find its lead in Rami Malek, who is making his first run at Oscar this year, though there were more fundamental quandaries to confront, in terms of the film’s approach to sound.“There were many discussions, because obviously there are many ways to make a musical film,” Warhurst explains. “You can make it with everybody singing live on set, or you can go into the studio before and record the vocals down, and then play the vocals back on set, effectively miming to the songs. So, we weren’t sure exactly how we’d make the film.”
Oscar-nominated this year for their contributions to Bohemian Rhapsody—along with sound mixers Tim Cavagin and John Casili, and sound editor Nina Hartsone—the pair came to the project from similar backgrounds, and with a similar sense of anticipation. “Such an iconic band, such an iconic sound, dealing with music and mixing it in the theatrical environment,” Massey reflects. “It’s everything I dream of.” Both Warhust and Massey loved music and started their careers in that field; Massey fondly recalls recording live concerts for acts like Yes, Supertramp and The Police, and mixing them for TV. When they found their respective paths into film and television post-production, each of these artists held on to the passions that brought them to that point. They sought out projects where music was a critical factor, with Bohemianbeing the ultimate encapsulation of their diverse sets of skills.
Returning to their roots, Warhurst and Massey would use every tool in their arsenal to make the film lively, engaging and immersive, finding their greatest test in the Live Aid scenes that bookend the film.
How did you come to work on Bohemian Rhapsody? What kind of work needed to be done, as you took your first steps on the film?
John Warhurst: This project had been buzzing around London for years, with different actors attached, different directors attached. It kept changing, and they kept working on the script, and I kept hoping that one day I would be involved in it. On one of the versions of it, I did get a call and got involved; that version then stopped, and in 2016, I then got another call to say, “We found our Freddie Mercury.” I was very excited about that. They got Rami and knew he was the guy, and the script was really starting to take shape.
There were many themes in the film. Some of the themes, I knew that we would have, things from Queen’s recordings. But there were other parts of the script where there weren’t any Queen recordings, so we put together a test reel, with Rami singing and miming to Freddie, and it really turned out well. I think that was before they got the film green lit, and soon after that, we got the date to start shooting.
We then went into rehearsals with the band. Rami and the band were all working for weeks and weeks before trying to step out Live Aid with Polly [Bennett], [Malek’s] movement coach—and also, trying to learn to move like Freddie. The main thing I always said [about the film’s sound] is, I really want people to go see this film and not even think about it. We knew we wanted to get Freddie’s vocals into the film; God, he’s got such an amazing voice. To be able to sing like Freddie Mercury—huge range—you want to get that to really work, so we put Rami through his paces. He almost lost his voice shooting Live Aid, because he was singing at the top of his voice, take, after take, after take. I remember getting towards the end of the shoot of Live Aid and thinking, Christ, tomorrow he is doing dialogue scenes. I don’t think he’s going to have a voice left by the end of this shoot.
Paul Massey: This was something that I was absolutely dying to get on board with, and it was actually through John that I managed to get the first contact into Bohemian Rhapsody. We had worked together on a couple of films previously, when I had been in London, and he mentioned the film to me early on, when it was in its initial stages. It was truly just a perfect storm of project for me. I couldn’t ask for a better film to mix.
Warhurst: In the early stages of Bohemian Rhapsody, I realized the band were going to support the film so much. Being invited to their studio to have a look at the material that we could use in the film—standing and listening to “Bohemian Rhapsody” original multitracks, with the outtakes of Freddie that we actually ended up using in the film—I was just in a dream world, by that point.
How was Mercury’s voice brought to life for the film? I understand that the final product emerged from a combination of elements.
Warhurst: Wherever we had Freddie, we always used Freddie, because it’s so hard to beat that voice, and we wanted people to enjoy the fact that it’s almost the spirit of Freddie in the film. On set, Rami would sing at the top of his voice. We were always recording Rami’s vocal down, every time we shot a scene, and from that, we would pull out elements of Rami—his breath in, and things like that—which helped us enormously in making you suspend the belief that he is Freddie Mercury. So, we were combining Rami and Freddie in that sense, and then we found a voice double of Freddie because there are scenes in the movie—for example, when he was writing “Love Of My Life” at the piano—where we don’t have that recording of Freddie Mercury. We don’t have a recording of Freddie singing “Happy Birthday” at his parents’ house, or singing “Doing All Right” in the car park, so that was where we had to dip into voice double.
Now, the way we created that was on set. Rami just sang that in his own voice; then, in post-production, we would get the voice double to match exactly the songs that Rami had done. We knew we wanted to stay true to Rami’s performance of Freddie, but we needed the voice to sound like the voice that you hear in the concerts, as well. So, we tried to make sure that it was seamless between the dialogue and all the elements of the scenes throughout the film.
Massey: Kudos to Rami’s performance. Obviously, it took a lot of work to match these three voices, but he took on the persona of Freddie so brilliantly that it made those seamless joins pull off.
While Queen’s music is enrapturing, you clearly couldn’t just place a track over a scene, and leave it at that. What work was done to bring added vitality and immediacy to the music?
Massey: We had access to all of their original material in multitrack form, so John was able to assemble all that material, and pass it on to me. The challenge was to recreate the iconic sound of Queen as a mix that you’d recognize, but also then to bring it into film, which means changing perspective on every shot. For instance, when we’re in the live sequences, we’re up close against Roger [Taylor]’s drum kit; we had to accentuate that, and make the viewer feel like they’re really there. But because I had all the individual elements in front of me, I could make that happen.
Warhurst: One of the things we all talked about was, what is the difference between what we’re filming, and someone just clicking on YouTube and watching clips of Live Aid? What can we bring to it that’s new? We discussed how it would be amazing to try to create a hyperreal version, so it would feel as though you are actually at Live Aid.
Massey: Very early on, John and I talked about wanting to get the acoustic sound of these large venues; the interior auditoriums, and obviously, Wembley Stadium. After many inquiries at various places, we found out that Queen was playing at the O2 [Arena] in London, which is a huge stadium, and we were able to get the Queen crew to mic the stadium with 22 different mics, pointed all around the arena. Then, John was able to play back all the songs that we needed for the film, in full length, through their PA, with no audience present, so we were able to get clean, stadium acoustic recordings. Then, John took all those recordings and conformed them with the music units—and as part of the final mix, I was able to use those recordings in various forms, panned around the room in Dolby Atmos to recreate the acoustic sound of the stadium, along with the typical electronic reverbs, slaps, delays and such. But I really wanted that real-world environment, and a huge part of that experience for Live Aid was those recordings that John was able to make with the Queen crew.
Warhurst: [We did] need a good, strong element of crowds, even during the shoot, so when we shot Live Aid, we had 600 people, which we recorded singing along, line by line. We did that multiple times, to layer them up. Then, we had another bit of good fortune, in that Fox decided to run this marketing campaign. In post-production, they created an app and asked people to sing along to “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and send their vocals in. We got sent tens of thousands of people singing, which we could also add into the film, so we were able to create these huge layers of crowds. Then, we also recorded smaller crowds, right down to individuals, down at Shepperton Studios, so that we had these multilayered crowds, and wherever you are in the concert with the camera angle, you feel the presence of the crowd around you.
Bohemian depicts musical performances of all scales, in all kinds of venues, as it charts Queen’s rise to fame. How did you work through this sonic arc?
Massey: I made a concerted effort in the mix to have the sound grow with the film, in terms of the quality of the sound and the specificity of getting close to certain instruments. When they’re in their early days, when they’re Smile inside the club, I wanted to make that a little out of balance, a little raw, a little less polished. Likewise, as they first get on tour, [with] “Fat Bottomed Girls,” and through that montage sequence, they’ve not quite got everything together yet. The more polished mixes, the larger-scale sound, the use of surround, and more use of sub happens as the film progresses, and the band gains popularity and their footing. So, there was a concerted effort to make that overall arc work, which took a long time. You can’t have them coming on really strong at the beginning of the film; then, there’s nowhere to go.