The Sound of ‘Barbie’: Authentic, Artificial and Sparkly

TheWrap magazine: “Greta (Gerwig) would say things to us like, ‘Put a little sparkle on it,’ and at first I didn’t get what she was saying,” says re-recording mixer Kevin O’Connell

Barbie whispers
Warner Bros.

Greta Gerwig had a phrase for what she wanted from the “Barbie” sound team: authentically artificial. “Nothing is alive, but Greta wanted it to feel pleasant and inviting,” said re-recording mixer, sound designer and supervising sound editor Ai-Ling Lee. “We used non-literal sounds, like from commercials where the audience hears it and wants to have it.

“For example, Barbie would open the fridge, and we wanted it to feel like a refreshing cold air came out. So we’d add a woman exhaling, like the sound someone would make after they’d drunk a refreshing glass of cola. It’s almost like imagining the sounds a human would make if they were playing with these Barbies and Kens.”

The sound team also filled the movie with sonic Easter eggs, nods to early Disney or Hanna-Barbera cartoons and 1950s musicals like “Singin’ in the Rain.” But their job was an intricate one. “In a regular movie, you can get away with normal, everyday sounds,” sound designer and supervising sound editor Dan Kenyon said. “But in this movie, it had to be a little bit different, to give you a sense that you were in a different world.

“And on top of that, there’s so much really well-written dialogue and good score and pop songs. So it was challenging to create that stuff and get it to work with everything else on screen.”

Kevin O’Connell & Ai-Ling Lee, BARBIE
Kevin O’Connell and Ai-Ling Lee (Photo by Jeff Vespa)

Sometimes, that meant stripping out other sounds. In a climactic speech in which America Ferrera’s character describes the crippling expectations society places on women, “the level of quiet that we needed was below what the threshold would’ve been with the original dialogue recordings,” said re-recording mixer Kevin O’Connell, a 21-time Oscar nominee for sound who also worked on the other half of Barbenheimer, Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer.” “We had to use every tool in the trade to try to bring down and suppress the normal sounds of a soundstage without affecting the tone of her dialogue.”

By contrast, the sound crew got to have fun with Weird Barbie, the raggedy, broken doll played by Kate McKinnon. “It’s in the name: She’s weird,” Kenyon said. “She’s this overplayed-with, messed-up doll. So we were able to play with Foley (sound effects) a little bit more. When she’s walking, we gave her plastic creaks and squeaks. And when she falls and does the splits or when she jumps off her second story and cartwheels over, we were able to have more fun with those moments.”

And they pulled out all the stops during the extended battle scene between two armies of Kens. “Greta and Noah (co-writer Noah Baumbach) described the scene as ‘Saving Private Ryan’ but with toys,” Lee said. “If you just play the soundtrack, you’ll hear a battle, but it’s made up of Frisbees, tennis rackets, plastic arrows, squeaky dog toys, wimpy male screams and whining sounds. Anything to help amp up the humor. That’s the fun part of this movie, that we were able to use some of the campy stereotypical sounds that people normally shy away from.”

O’Connell agreed. “We’ve all worked on these types of complicated movies before, but they’re never as fun as they are when you’re working with Greta,” he said. “She would say things to us like, ‘Put a little sparkle on it,’ and at first I didn’t get what she was saying. But after a while I got it, and we were continually trying to find moments in the movie to add a little sparkle.”

This story is part of the “Barbie” cover story in the Below-the-Line issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read the rest of the “Barbie” below-the-line stories here.

Read more from the Below-the-Line issue here.  

Greta Gerwig and Barbie below-the-line team
Photo by Jeff Vespa for TheWrap


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