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‘Whiplash’ Sound Mixers on Making Music Fast & Cheap: ‘Fear Is a Great Motivator’

All that jazz is the topic of the third installment of TheWrap’s Ear on the Oscars series

It’s difficult enough to record a polished jazz tune. But recording a polished film scene playing to that tune requires a virtuoso touch.

Such was the challenge for re-recording mixers Craig Mann and Ben Wilkins and production sound mixer Thomas Curley, the Oscar-nominated sound team behind “Whiplash,” the surprise indie about a cutthroat music academy and those who teach and learn there.

The film, starring J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller, earned five Oscar nominations, including the first Academy Award nod for Mann (“Captain America: The First Avenger”), Wilkins (“Warrior”) and Curley (“The Spectacular Now”).

Also read: ‘American Sniper’ Sound Team: Why Chris Kyle’s Gun Didn’t Have to Be the ‘Biggest and Baddest’

How did you come upon “Whiplash?”
MANN: We had the short (film, which appeared at the Sundance Film Festival in 2013). So we knew the structure of what we wanted to do. The trick is that everybody knows what a drum or a saxophone sound like. It’s not like an alien spaceship or robot, where you can use any sound you want. So accuracy was going to be a big challenge for us.

What was the division of labor?
CURLEY: It was a brief shoot, so we had our hands full. Craig and Ben were editing in the studio, while I handled recording on the set itself. So I got to enjoy the music a little bit. But, in the time we had, you had to be on your toes every day.

How did you convince us a bunch of actors was a jazz ensemble?
WILKINS: Well, a lot of them were real musicians. And J.K. had a musical background. We were just talking about it: About 25 percent of the music was performed on set (by the actors). The rest of it was pre-recorded in a music studio and played back on set. We’d show up with loudspeakers and they’d mime along, similar to a music video.

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CURLEY: And the musicians were playing notes to the song, which we recorded. We wanted to capture the reverb, the draw on the strings, the moments that added to the realism.

In the movie, the musicians are wracked with tension about getting the songs right. Was it the same for you?
WILKINS: Fear is a great motivator. And there’s that kind of perverse thrill in accomplishing the impossible. But as we got into the (recording) rhythm, we could see the light at the end of the tunnel, that we may actually be able to pull this off.

MANN: I think a sane person might have backed off if you were to look at the process and be told, “And you have five weeks to do it.” But if when you look at the small budget, the compressed time frame and how broad the scope was, it was worth the risk.

Is Simmons as fearsome in person as he was in character?
CURLEY: He was always ready to go on set. Very professional. But he’s known for his sense of humor. He did “Juno,” even hosted a “Saturday Night Live.” But he was definitely enveloped in his character when it came time to shoot. We had to have throat drops ready so he could scream at the top of his lungs.

See video: Justin Bieber Pisses Off J.K. Simmons in Calvin Klein, ‘Whiplash’ Mashup (Video)

What role do you see sound playing here?
MANN: Some sound is abstract, some is representational, just as you hear it. We wanted to capture the accuracy, the tension. There’s no hiding from the sound. The three-person drum-off is my favorite scene because it has all of that: the music, the tension, the pacing. I think it really captured the tone of the movie.

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