“The production sound mixer on any show is responsible for preserving the actors’ original performances and making sure that the feelings and the emotions during a scene on set are carried all the way through from the production process into the post-production process,” says Les Misérables’ production mixer Simon Hayes, a first-time Oscar nominee. “If the production sound mixer has done a good job, and recorded so perfectly that background noise won’t become an issue, that is the performance you see on-screen in the cinema.”
With director Tom Hooper deciding to have his actors sing live on set — piano players played in their earpieces, allowing the actors to dictate tempo — Les Misérables is obviously a showcase for the crucial role the production sound mixer plays. Hayes points to the scene in which Eponine (Samantha Barks) is walking down Rue Plumet singing “On My Own” in the rain.
Hayes: It’s a very, very challenging job to be able to record her singing clearly enough so that you don’t hear the rain overpowering her voice, so that you don’t hear the footsteps of the Steadicam crew underneath her voice, so that you don’t even hear her own footsteps, and all you’re trying to do is hone in on just her voice and record it as cleanly and upfront as possible so that the background noises on the set don’t in any way stand between the audience and the emotional performance of the actress. Every single piece of set that you don’t see on camera, we cover with soundproof material so that you don’t hear the rain hitting the set. We carpet the whole walk so that you can’t hear their footsteps. And it’s also a case of getting the microphone absolutely as close to the edge of the frame as possible. So literally, the boom microphone that recorded that scene is touching the edge of frame for the whole of her whole walk, and knowing exactly from the size of the lens the Steadicam is using how close he can get. And what we’re trying to do is to get the microphone absolutely as close possible, because the closer we get the microphone to the performance, the more of an emotional connection there is for the theater audience.
Though Anne Hathaway was stationary for “I Dreamed a Dream,” it presented its own challenge:
Hayes: We all knew when we were recording “I Dreamed a Dream” that we were witnessing something extremely precious and extremely special. Annie was in an extremely emotional state while she was singing that song, and what we tried to do was give her absolute freedom to go with whatever performance she wanted to do. And we started shooting without a rehearsal, because Tom and Annie decided that rehearsing could possibly waste a take. So we went into that not knowing whether Annie was gonna go loud or soft, and in fact, what we found out was Annie was gonna go loud and soft, so we basically mic’d that in a way that would be as unobtrusive as possible for her but really be able to grab the emotional aspect of her performance. And we did that by using a radio mic on her chest and also a boom mic, again right on the edge of frame, and we found that the boom microphone was really was fantastic on the louder pieces and on the emotional moments in between the words — for the breaths — the radio mic was a really important part of it. So I was really pleased to be able to use both of those mics so that afterward, we could do a blend of the pair of them and give the choice to Tom Hooper, and Andy Nelson, the re-recording mixer [who shares Les Misérables’ nomination with Hayes and re-recording mixer Mark Paterson], as to which microphone they felt was most appropriate for each piece of the performance. The re-recording mixer was taking my vocal recordings and blending them with the music and deciding what the overall balance between vocal and music would be in the finished product.
Hathaway’s factory number “At the End of the Day” was challenging because it involved blending her voice with 25 other women’s, Hayes says. “We were trying to be sure that Annie’s came through and every word of hers could be heard, but also that the other girls were beautifully recorded as well. And so we were really like artists playing with a palette of colors.”
Argo’s production sound mixer, first-time nominee Jose Antonio Garcia also had an added challenge because he and director Ben Affleck decided to let actors overlap on dialogue. “When you’re shooting a single of an actor, off-camera people generally have to wait for them to deliver the line, so the dialogue on-screen is cuttable. Then there’s no actor on top of him that would force you to use that overlap. Ben and I discussed it, because once you allow that you are married to that overlap, and we basically mic’d everybody at all times,” Garcia says. “That gave the performance a higher level of realism.”
NEXT: The art of the final mix