Audio: Mixing 'Into the Woods'
Mike Prestwood Smith & Michael Keller
Issue: December 1, 2014

Audio: Mixing 'Into the Woods'

Into The Woods is a complex and magical musical that puts a different twist on well-known and beloved fairy tale characters and stories. Bringing a Broadway musical to the screen is a huge task and sound and music do an enormous amount of the heavy lifting, both narratively and emotionally. 

Despite this magical world, Rob Marshall wanted to ensure the film sounded real and that the audience would relate and identify with the characters. This provided the mix and editorial team with a challenging and unique framework in which to create the soundtrack. It was our task to mix the film with sound supervision taken care of by Renee Tondelli and Blake Leyh, and music supervision by Mike Higham.

Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics are fast moving and loaded with meaning and importance; they are essentially dialogue that is sung. Mike Prestwood Smith’s focus was to make sure that above all else, the dialogue and vocals were crisp and real, and that the audience would be able to keep up with every word, even above the incredible score and intricate sound effects. 

Unlike many other musicals, Into The Woods provided the challenge of large set pieces laden with sound effects and creatures that needed their own attention to detail incorporated into the music work too.

One of the biggest tasks for Smith was to ensure the seamless and smooth transitions between recorded production dialogue, set singing, and vocal pre-records from a music studio that were recorded a year earlier. Other parts of the music had been newly recorded all from different studios. His task was to match that all together to make it sound even.

Mike Prestwood Smith and Michael Keller 

Rob Marshall spent a great deal of pre-production time in rehearsals to find each character’s voice and language. This was then followed by an intense period of vocal and music pre-recording for the actors to then mime to on set. With a musical of this scale, the music needed to be very developed before cameras rolled and Mike Higham recorded a small orchestra in Angel Studios, London, to accompany the vocal pre-records, which were done at British Grove Studios. 

This pre-recorded material provided the basis for all the final performances on-screen. Great care was taken by our production mixer John Casali to record the actors’ sync sound on the set. We used this in conjunction with the pre-recorded material. It’s this conjunction of pre-recorded sound, sync sound and sometimes post sync sound that ultimately makes up the final vocal performance that we see and hear on-screen, and it’s this conjunction that takes a great deal of mixing work to craft into one integrated performance.

Michael Keller’s biggest challenge weren’t the big, loud sound effects, but the Foley material — from footsteps to the smallest amount of dress movement — and to stitch it all together. The Foley was yet another intricate part that helped make it all believable.

As this is playing in the woods, sometimes the emotion is reflected in what the background sound is doing — from subtle to really loud. There’s a giant in the movie and obviously that is the big sound effects showpiece. It goes from very bold and aggressive to something super subtle. When the giant is gone and everybody understands there is a problem in the woods, it is artificially stale in the woods where there are only minimal backgrounds, it might just be a creepy bird and some spooky wood creaks, which worked much better than filling it all up with dense material all the time.

The key for this movie was to make it sound as real and organic as we could. And that’s what Blake Leyh did with the sound design. He went out into the forest and recorded five channel atmospheres. He sat in a swamp and recorded it. He even flew out to a ranch in Big Bear and they strapped microphones to a giant tree and started hacking it down to record the fall. He just didn’t want to go with the typical library of tree falling that we use, and he recorded it and it’s spectacular. It definitely made a big difference.

Rob and his editor Wyatt Smith spent months in the cutting room putting all the scenes together, and the music and sound played a huge role in the editing process, often dictating very clearly what the cut needed to be. The music and vocals had to constantly evolve as the edit evolved. Mike Higham was kept very busy manipulating and creating musical pieces throughout the process. We were brought on just after the director’s cut to complete a temp mix. This mix provided a very formative soundscape for the filmmakers to hone the edit and vocal performances. 

With the atmospheres, Foley and dialogue in good shape, it became easier to understand the film as a whole. The mix was kept virtual for the whole of the post process so it could evolve each time a review was needed and allowed the filmmakers to change takes and audio whenever they needed to without getting into a complex remix situation each time. 

As the edit developed, Renee Tondelli would work her own magic on production dialogue or record new dialogue and vocals with the actors as needed. It was a slow and intricate process. Renee would often use syllables from production dialogue and weave them with syllables from pre-recorded tracks in order to craft the clearest and most sync accurate performance. This would then be handed to music to pitch and do the final musical sync pass before hitting the mix stage.
The final mix took place in New York at the Warner Bros. mixing stage. All of the score was re-recorded at Air Studios in London and was in some cases combined with sections of pre-record score from Angel Studios.

Mike Prestwood Smith and Michael Keller are freelance re-recording mixers.