Film Sound: 'Whiplash'
Michael Goldman
Issue: November 1, 2014

Film Sound: 'Whiplash'

The surface challenge facing artists at the Technicolor Post Sound Facility, when director Damien Chazelle brought his feature-film debut, Whiplash, to the studio for audio post services, was time. Ben Wilkins and Craig Mann, co-supervising sound editors and re-recording mixers on the project, say their team was asked to perform all audio post work in less than two months near the end of 2013 in order to allow Whiplash to make a date with the Sundance Film Festival. But the nature of that challenge was significantly exacerbated by the fact that the movie is about a student’s obsession with a musical instrument — the drums — and, consequently, the level of nuance and sophistication required in the work went far beyond what might be considered typical for an indie-financed movie of this size, budget and timeline.

Indeed, “it was strange to take a musical instrument and make it a character,” explains Wilkins, who also performed sound design functions on the project. “That was definitely out of the ordinary. Just the degree of performance we have. I can’t think of many other films where the movie was about playing an instrument like that.”

A year after doing the work, during a conversation with Post at the Technicolor facility on the Paramount lot in Hollywood, Wilkins and Mann were quite gratified to look back at how well the efforts of their team in serving Chazelle’s creative vision had paid off. Whiplash ended up getting to Sundance on time and opening the festival, where it went on to capture both the Grand Jury and Audience Prize awards. Along the way, it earned distribution from Sony Pictures Classics, and now, critical acclaim and awards consideration in several categories. (The Sundance victory was particularly ironic, because a year earlier, the 18-minute film upon which the feature was based won the short film Jury Award at the festival.)

The fundamental problem their team had to solve for Chazelle was to find a way to take production recordings of actor Miles Teller playing the drums and replace them in some cases, and meld them together with, in other cases, pre-recorded drumming tracks, what Mann and Wilkins call “drum ADR” pieces, and even so-called “drum Foley” bits; and to do it so seamlessly that both visually and sonically, it appears to those watching the film that Teller is, in fact, attacking his drum kit with an unrelenting, but highly-realistic ferocity.  

“They had [recorded] Miles [on set], and the pre-records were done first, and they had that on the set while they were shooting,” Mann explains. “Miles played back to the music where [he was playing with] a complete band.” 

“As if he was lip-synching, or miming,” Wilkins adds. “Someone else had done the drumming, and he was playing along with it.”

“And when it is just Miles practicing, that was by and large production drumming or just production drumming augmented with drum ADR where it needed to be,” Mann continues. “Basically, how it started off was pre-record plus production. Whatever holes were left were augmented with drum ADR, which was recorded back at the music studio by the same drummer that did the pre-records.”

Craig Mann and Ben Wilkins

Mann adds that they came up with the term “drum ADR” while sitting in the editing room, analyzing on-set recordings and pre-records, and realizing there were still additional elements they would require to put the entire illusion together seamlessly. “I think we always had in the back of our heads that we wouldn’t always be able to get the same quality out of the production [recordings] as we got out of the pre-records, and that they would need to be augmented,” he adds. And then, the two men continued, they also had to sew certain types of Foley elements related to drumming into the mix — things like the throwing of drums or smashing a drum kit, or cymbals or sticks falling, and so on.  

So, ultimately they had reams of elements to edit and mix together. But another challenge was the fact that they had to make sure that all of those elements, when brought together with other elements, would sound exactly as if they were recorded in the same rooms where the scenes were shot when, in fact, they weren’t. Indeed, “one of Damien’s main concerns,” through the entire project, “was making sure that all the music fit the space correctly,” Mann emphasizes.

The solution for this challenge involved recording so-called impulse responses of the acoustical patterns of the rooms where the drumming scenes were filmed, which essentially revolves around a method of recording the sound of a room and eventually transforming those recordings into a 3D computer model of the acoustics and characteristics of that space. To hear Craig Mann’s description of how the impulse response process works, click HERE.

Of course, the movie incorporated dozens of other music-related elements, including other instruments for the band performances featured in the film. Ultimately, they ended up with 10 stems of musical instrument categories across some 60 channels enroute to the final 5.1 surround mix. Further, Wilkins and Mann used 11 different rooms at Technicolor’s audio facility at Paramount to prep, edit and build the final mix for Whiplash during the holiday season at the end of 2013.

“It was a challenge, for sure,” Wilkins says. “Translating that sort of ferocity, that sort of volume, that was a big challenge. This movie was right up there [in his career] as far as complexity goes.”

Click HERE to hear the extended audio conversation between Wilkins and Mann and Post contributor Michael Goldman.