For ‘Les Miserables’ Sound Mixing, a Challenge Dealing With Live Vocals

18-time Oscar nominee Andy Nelson is no stranger to sound mixing movie musicals

With sound-mixing nominations for both "Les Miserables" and "Lincoln," Andy Nelson is one of the two 2012 Oscar nominees who is competing against himself. (The other is film editor William Goldenberg, nominated for "Argo" and "Zero Dark Thirty.") 

Nelson worked on "Lincoln" first, then immersed himself in the particular challenges of "Les Miserables," in which almost every line of dialogue was sung and director Tom Hooper wanted all the performers to sing live on the set.

A three-decade veteran of the movie business and an 18-time Oscar nominee who has only won once, re-recording mixer Nelson told TheWrap that he embraced the idea of working with live vocals, even though it complicated his life.

How did you become involved in "Les Miz?"
Tom contacted me about a year and a half ago and invited me to join the crew. I think he came to meet me because I'd been involved in mixing a few different musicals over the years, like "Phantom of the Opera" and "Evita" and "Moulin Rouge." I told him that I was very supportive of the live recording, even though I knew it was going to be a ton of work and a huge challenge. But years ago I worked with Alan Parker on "The Commitments," and all the vocals on that were recorded live, and it made such a difference to the connective nature of the experience. And I felt that if Tom could do the same sort of thing to "Les Miz," it would be a unique experience for the audience.

Did you talk to him about the pitfalls, and the things he'd have to be particular careful with?
Obviously I don't deal with the live recording myself, because I'm the re-recording mixer for the final pass of the soundtrack. So having said, "I think it's a great idea," I could leave him to go off and make it.

But I talked to him about the fact that regular radio mikes and clip mikes that are used by actors on the set are generally buried under costumes. And obviously the boom microphone tries to get in as close to the shot as possible. But I knew that in this instance neither of those was  going to work, because the detriment to the sound when you bury a microphone under a costume is fine for dialogue — you can clean it up and push it through – but for the purity of trying to record a vocal it wouldn't work.

So the agreement was that the clip mikes would have to be positioned on the outside of the costumes. There would have to be ways of disguising them with cloth over them, but also there would have to be many times when they were painted out digitally in the post-production process. Also of course the actors had an earwig in one ear, so that would require some work to remove that digitally.

When you got the tracks, were they in good shape or were they compromised by the circumstances?
They were fantastic. Clearly, there are always compromises, a certain degradation that happens just by nature of a film set. But I was astounded by how great Simon Hays, the production recordist, had managed to record these tracks. It was extraordinary to hear just how brilliantly this stuff had been captured on the set.

How does your approach change when you're dealing with dialogue that's sung rather than spoken?
Basically, I treated it like I would any dramatic movie. I'd done "Lincoln" earlier in the year, where again 99 percent was live off the set. In some was, I treated "Les Miz" in a similar way. I prepped all the vocals the way I would in a regular dramatic movie, placing them on the screen, getting them to the level and the quality that I thought would work, and then I introduced the music to that. That is effectively what I do on regular dramatic movies, the difference being that this is all music, it's all singing, so the final balance of music levels against vocals became an interesting game where we had to try two or three songs in a row, go back, listen to it, go back and see how it was sounding.

What I tried to create was a sort of cradling effect. Every time the music was a little bit too strong it immediately took away from the rawness of the acting. So every time I tried to make it a little bit more beautiful or a little bit fuller or richer, it was going against the style of the film. which was to capture this real raw sound.

Was it tricky fitting in the sound effects that would normally play a bigger role?
We prepared the sound effects as you would a regular film, but we knew that once each song started, we would have to do a sleight of hand so that everything just sort of drifted away very gently and never intruded into the song. And then at the end of the song it would gradually reappear and connect you to the next song. Basically, you had an orchestra replacing what sound effects would normally do.

For instance, when Samantha Barks sings her "On My Own" song in the rain, we start the sequence with a very gentle piece of orchestration, and we painted in this beautiful stereo image of the rain very gently. But the moment she started, we were able to very quickly reduce that, because her natural recording had rain on it. We didn't want to double up on the sound effects at that point; we just wanted to go with the  natural sound we picked up on her microphone. And at the end we slowly reintroduced a little bit of the stereo rain to create the film illusion again before we go into the next sequences. Those were the delicate areas of working sound effects against music.

The nominations for "Lincoln" and "Les Miz" are the 17th and 18th you've received.
It's unbelievable.

Have you been up against yourself before?
Yes, I've had double nominations four times. The first time I actually won against myself, for "Saving Private Ryan" against "The Thin Red Line," the Terry Malick film. Then I had "Seabiscuit" and "The Last Samurai," and then a couple of years ago I had "Avatar" and "Star Trek."

[Laughs] I generally leave the Academy to decide where they're going to seat me, because I don't want to feel that I'm favoring any particular film. It's a lovely problem to have, but it makes it slightly awkward. So I always say, "Don't ask me. Just seat me where you like, and I'll turn up."