The new critically-acclaimed film, Baby Driver, from TriStar Pictures (Sony Pictures Entertainment) and writer/director Edgar Wright, follows the story of Baby (actor Ansel Elgort), a young getaway driver who suffers from a medical condition known as tinnitus, which causes a constant ringing in his ears. To tune out the ringing, Baby listens to high volumes of music through earbuds. The film, which also stars Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm, was released in theaters this summer.
From the early stages of production (in fact, even while working on the script), Wright’s position on the film was that audiences experience it from Baby’s perspective. In other words, they hear what he hears (including the musical tracks he’s listening to in his earbuds). At the same time, the action around him plays out in perfect sync to the beats and rhythms of the tunes.
While both a challenge and an opportunity, sound designer, supervising sound editor and re-recording mixer Julian Slater stepped up to the task. Slater, who won a Motion Picture Sound Editors award for Mad Max: Fury Road (and was busy with the new Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle film for Sony Pictures at the time we spoke), worked with his team — FX editors Jeremy Price and Martin Cantwell and dialogue/ADR supervisor Dan Morgan — to create the audio landscape for the film. Sound effects guru/field recordist Watson Wu was busy capturing authentic car sounds — including engine roars, gear shifts and tire screeches.
“I doubt I will work on something that is this unique again,” says Slater. “The whole movie is orchestrated to whatever Baby is listening to at the moment. Gunfights are in time with the music. Car chases are cut in sync. Police sirens, barking dogs, speeding trains are at tempo. Much of it is pitched and syncopated so that the music and sound design work as one.”
Slater says that much of the car’s sounds were an amalgam of what Watson recorded, along with some other original car sounds, live recordings, sound libraries and such. “It was a real mixture,” he says.
CAPTURING RAW SOUNDS
For his part in the film, Wu (pictured below), a composer, sound designer and field recordist who specializes in creating audio content for video games, film TV and ads (including such AAA titles as Assassin’s Creed, Transformers, NCAA Football, Madden and The Need for Speed franchise), says that capturing genuine sounds is important when creating a believable, authentic experience for audiences. “My role in any project is to help make the experience a great one,” he says. “If someone watches a movie and sees a close up shot of a tire, and it’s spinning, I want to help create that effect that it’s spinning — I don’t want someone to go, ‘that sounds terrible.’”
To capture some of the film’s true car sounds — in many cases the exact same cars that were used in the film — Wu spent several days in May 2016, driving around as a passenger at an Atlanta speedway, recording the sounds of the film’s vehicles as a stunt driver handled the speeding cars.
“There were over 100 vehicles in this film,” says Wu. “And there are some scenes where they had to shut down a few highways in the Atlanta area to shoot them. They wanted somebody with experience to capture the sounds of burning rubber and crazy high RPMs for all these wild stunts. I had to find, from all the gear I own, something that would sit on my lap, a recorder/mixer that when we do drifting and donuts, it wouldn’t fall off and bounce all over the place. I basically had to use my left arm and almost headlock my recorder bag and with my right arm free, hold on to the handle so I didn’t flip around and interfere with the stunt driver. That’s what I was doing the entire time I was capturing the on board sounds — the sounds you hear from the driver and passenger perspectives.”
According to Wu, he had placed three mics in the engine compartment, one on the radio dashboard and two right next to the exhaust in the rear. “Those were the raw sounds that I uploaded and sent to Julian, so he and his team could remaster them and put them into picture.”
To accomplish this, Wu relied on a mix of a Sound Devices 788T-SSD recorder, a Sound Devices 442 field mixer, and a combination of DPA lavaliere, DPA 4017 shotgun, Sanken CUB-01 boundary, Audio-Technica BP4025 XY stereo, Sennheiser MD421 II and Rode M1 and lavalier mics.
Wu says one of his biggest challenges in capturing the raw sounds was the heat. “Those were super long days — 16 hour days — and Julian wanted clean sounding interiors. That meant, the windows were closed and the AC was turned off. In Atlanta, that’s brutal. But it’s worth it for the sound. You get good sound, you get a good feeling.”
A NOVEL SOUND
After Wu transferred his files to Slater — 24p, 96kHz polywave files via compact flash cards — Slater’s team went to work on remastering. “Watson sent something like 40 gigs worth of raw recordings,” says Slater. “We would cherry pick the best bits of each recording.”
It was then up to Slater and his team to pull off Wright’s unique audio “vision” for the film, which is introduced right within its opening moments when audiences see the studio logo.
“The sound from it transforms into a tinnitus ringing, which in turn becomes the braking sound of a car,” explains Slater. “It is in the same key as the first music cue ("Bellbottoms" by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion), so it all flows.”
Shortly following is a shot lasting more than three minutes, featuring Baby speeding down a downtown street to the sounds of “Harlem Shuffle,” by Bob and Earl. “Edgar shot the scene in time to the music,” Slater points out. “We added car alarms, jack hammers, traffic.”
According to Slater, when the audio crew first started on the film, “we tempo-mapped each piece of music and all the sounds we wanted to work with the music, which is something I’ve never done before. We also pitch-corrected and modulated the sound effect to make it work with the music. When you watch it, you’ll see all the car chases or police sirens are all working in sync with the music.”
Slater says that he would then play back a scene to determine whether or not it worked both musically and cinematically. “If we weren’t able to check both of these boxes, we would throw out the scene and start again.”
Slater (pictured below) completed the sound work at Goldcrest Films in London. There, he spent months finessing and fine-tuning the sound effects and the mix.
“There would be times when my sound crew and I would do a review of everything that we had done as we built the tracks, and quite frequently we would watch something and get goosebumps,” Slater says. “That doesn’t really happen all that often — to get frequent goosebumps every week because you believe that you are doing something that is so unique and special.”
Slater says he relied on much of the “typical” tools that studios use, including Pro Tools, Nugen Audio Halo Upmix, Atmos to mix it natively, Serato’s Pitch ‘n Time, XForm to time stretch and correct the sound design and Izotope RX on the dialogue and some music cues.
Slater says he wanted to ensure that what he was doing only supported the story and never distracted from it. “Things like playing the music from Baby’s perspective, his tinnitus and the syncopation — we were constantly self-checking ourselves to make sure it was only supporting. We had great characters, a great storyline, amazing performances, and our job as storytellers is to support all that’s going on on the screen. We didn’t want to overstep the mark and take the audience out of the story.”
The result is a unique and original film soundtrack. “The credit goes to Edgar Wright,” Slater stresses. “He had been developing this idea for years and he constructed the template that we followed. I’m extremely lucky to work with a filmmaker like Edgar who is committed to projects that are both bold and original!”