It takes a village to put any film together and that’s no exception when it comes to a Rob Marshall production. I sat down with sound designer/editor Renee Tondelli and re-recording mixer Michael Keller to talk about how they worked on the soundscape for Mary Poppins Returns.
Tondelli and Keller discuss how director Marshall wanted to base the film in reality, so creating the sounds of the film wasn’t about swooshes and wooshes, but rather magical moments that gave the film a natural organic sound. They talk about how meticulously numbers and sound design were woven together to keep the film’s sound design flawless.
Tondelli also discusses authenticity and how she flew to London to work with a group of 80 adults and children for the musical number, Royal Doulton Music Hall and how she used them to embody and capture the sounds of elephants and chickens.
Let’s start with your first memory of Mary Poppins
Renee: I remember being stunned by it. I’ve been a movie lover since I was a little girl and my father was a musician. He’d wake us up at 4am and say there was a great movie. I grew up in this black and white movie world. When I saw that, I saw it hundreds of times and I could sing every single lyric.
Michael: When I heard about this movie, I thought it was a remake until I met up with everyone and saw the first rough cut. I thought it was fantastic and such a big surprise. I saw the original a really long time ago.
You have a long-standing relationship with Rob Marshall. What did he say about the film?
Renee: We’d heard rumors and we were like, “Do it. You have to do it.” Then we said, “You have to have Emily.” We’d just done Into The Woods and that’s all he was ever considering. It was just crazy exciting and a little intimidating because it’s just so iconic.
Michael: What were we going to do this time?
His dance and musical background means he has a thorough prep process. How does that help you with your work and meeting his vision?
Renee: Hugely. He is one of the most focused and specific directors with the most amazing rhythmic sense of everything. Everything we do has a sense of timing to it. It’s amazing to work with him because we all work with different directors but he’s my absolute favorite. When you speak to him, he looks right at you and he explains to you exactly what he wants. You can walk away and say, “I’ve got it.” He’s not like a consumer director who asks, “What else do you have?” He’s not that guy. He’ll describe it to me, I go do it, and I give it to him and he’ll tell me to make changes. He’s very streamlined.
Michael: He can verbalize so easily. He’s so precise. Some people will say, “This scene is not working for me, but they can’t pinpoint the problem, but Rob knows how to.” Especially, on a musical where footsteps can be a pattern. Rob and Wyatt, Renne and Eugene will come up with the templates and they are finessed for months until it’s seamless.
Talk about the sound palette for this and how you put it all together.
Renee: I always take the film and ask what can I do differently on this film? It was such a growth process because it starts in the 1930s which is bleak and grim. Our initial soundscape was very black and white, very industrial, no chirping birds, no laughing children. It was a time of loss. There was a lot of that involved in our first introduction into the film. Once Mary arrives, things become more hopeful and brighter.
The one piece of suggestion that Rob gave was that it needed to be dipped in realism. To me, Mary Poppins is magical realism. It’s not fantasy. We couldn’t do any wooshes and magical sounds. We had to do everything based in reality that had magical moments to it.
Did you go out to find specific sounds such as those for Royal Doulton Music Hall?
Renee: We did. That was huge. When we first got that scene, it was just them and a carriage with pencil drawings on a green screen.
“Behind there, there’s going to be an elephant.” There were all these animated characters and because it was hand drawn, they came in very slowly. We would sometimes just get a drawing and that’s what that character would look like. We needed to populate this whole world. The England music halls are very raucous. Rob said, “I want a real music hall.” To get all these animals to speak, sing and talk and not be cartoony, I went to London and I hired about 75-80 actors, children included — who could sing and could actually embody an animal.
We did it over six days, at the time, the animation wasn’t fully flushed out, so I was doing a lot of wild things just in case. I needed to create a symphony of people. You needed the double-baritone elephant, the chicken and all these elements. We needed to create and put them into the music hall. They also had to sing along with Mary because they knew the songs Mary was singing. So, now they also had to sing in the embodiment of their animal. We created this giant music hall and we gave it to the mixers and they started placing everyone in the rafters. So, it was this wonderful Atmos experience that elevated the entire scene into the music hall.
Michael: Renee and Eugene Gearty create and sit for months and record and then it comes to us. We’ll mix it all together and see if it’s overwhelming and if it takes away from the music or if it enhances the music. That’s always the fine line to ensure it’s organic sound.
Renee: The number one rule was “Always hear the lines.”
Michael : “Hear the lyrics.”
Renee: More so than the dialogue. They’re all new songs so it was really important for Rob and us to make sure it was protected. Everything we did was really intricate to get that scene to work.
What about the sounds in Topsy Turvy’s world and that space?
Michael: We did different takes on that because first of all, it’s a large room. We put a big reverb on it like you’d have in this room, and we thought it was great. Again, you have to hear every single word because it’s such a wordy song. So, we removed the reverb. Every week, we were making it less and less to the point it was almost gone.
Eugene had the ideas to put in the choo-choo train. There were hundreds of clock ticks. It was fantastic and as you mix it, you convince yourself it’s great, but you’re losing track of the dialogue. When you’re working on something, you zone in on that. Then someone like Rob will come in with a fresh take and say, “What’s with all the clocks? I can’t hear the dialogue.”
Renee: “What’s the dripping water?” And that’s the problem when you create sounds in your studio, they sound fantastic and then you bring them to the stage and they always have to be a marriage between sound effects and music. Always. Not even discussing the lyrics. Then you bring them there and then they’re either gone, they’re too loud, or they don’t work sonically because the music changes. Like what Michael was saying, the clocks were starting to sound like dripping water so we had to find which one it was.
Michael: People perceive it differently. I never perceived it as a drip, but when Renee and Rob heard it, they heard it as a drip. I said there was no drip. They had to point it out and you had to find it. As Renee says, everything needs to work around the music. You can design all day long, if you do it in a vacuum without the music playing, you’re wasting your time because you don’t know if it works or not.
The music is what it is. In action movies, you can work with temp music for as long as you can and then you get the real score. With this, you work in key with the music. You work in rhythm with it, or out of it. You can try a million different things. You can stack and double speed. Rob had great ideas with cane hits to make a percussion element.
Renee: In Trip the Light Fantastic, all of those dancers had to have Foley. We brought dancers on to the stage and we created all these different floors. There was a floor that sounded like a lamp when they jumped on that. There was another one for the tumbling, there was another one for when the bikes were coming down. Rob had it like an orchestra, they were four deep. There was someone in the foreground who was doing something different than what the guy in the background was doing. He was doing percussion with his hands or something and everyone was working in this syncopated rhythm. If you got one thing off, the whole thing went crazy and you had to find it.
They became the rhythmic percussion for the music in that scene. It was really important to keep that light and crisp.
Michael: They had real dancers. If you have 20 or 30 dancers, you stack that sound and it sounds like it did in the film.
How long did that take to do with the Foley and everything else with that number? Because that’s over eight minutes long.
Renee: It took five days on the Foley stage and doing all the moves. We had to do the fires and canes and the dialogue. The song was pretty intense. They were great with the lip-sync on that because they rehearsed.
The bikes were another element that needed to be recorded and done.
Michael: It took a while to do.
The sounds of London changes in the film as it goes on.
Renee: We added more people. 1930s London is not great sounding. It’s when the first Klaxon horn came in and everyone had that horn and it wasn’t that attractive sounding. We used those horns very specifically placed. We did a lot of industrial factories. There was a lot of work done in the backgrounds. They were really tailored according to the hope of the film. You didn’t really hear children laughing or chirping birds until the end of the film.
Michael: When Mary comes in, we give some hope.
You talk about the lip-synching. How did that come into play with everything you’re doing?
Renee: Rob rehearses them. When he’s shooting, he’ll do five takes all blasting the productions. But he wants all the actors to sing out as loud as they can and they do because nobody hears your voice. It gives you this confidence that you can actually do it. Then he’ll say, and now we’re going to do one without any music.
All of a sudden, you’re singing out there by yourself, but because you’ve done it so much they feel they can do it. It’s a bit tricky for us because Rob picks things according to performance. So, he’ll pick things that have playback on it and say, “I love what they did in that, but I love how she did it in production, and yet, I want to go back to an ADR line, and then a pre-record.” So, we’re lacing it in and out into this procedure. A lot of times we don’t even have a guide track because the music is being played so loud in the room. The trickiest part is to get it all in sync and to get the right performances that Rob wants. Sometimes, I’ll steal vowels and consonants from wherever I can and we micro-edit the track to get it.
Michael: It’s a huge puzzle of piecing it all together. We blend it all together with the Foley, sound design, and everything to glue it together.
Renee: If they’re quiet enough on set, I can hear the reverb in the room and feed that into a reverb program so when we put new things in such as the ADR or pre-records, I can filter in that resonance and it makes it easier to have that happen.
Michael: The task is to make it seamless. Some musicals have a big musical number and everything drops out and you have that number. Rob’s take is to make it organic and you don’t feel that transition. It’s super complicated.
Renee: It’s Foley, editing, background, reverb, and performances that are amazing.
How about the sound design for Dick Van Dyke’s reprise and the tap dancing in that number?
Renee: He brought his own dance shoes. They’re so soft and they don’t have anything on the bottom. I hired a dancer to come in and do it and there was one little off step that just didn’t work. We took it out.
Michael: Rob clocked it immediately. I accidentally placed the wrong one once and he said, “That’s not dancers.” I think that’s why it sounds real.
Did you have a favorite scene?
Renee: The porcelain bowl had everything. It had Foley, dancing, singing, background. It was so great because it was a created world from scratch.
Michael: For me, it was Light Fantastic with the flames, the bikes and that took a long time to get that piece together.
Renee: It was a remarkable crew. Traditionally, you go off and do your thing, but we were completely dipping in and out of each other’s world.
Isn’t that what makes a Rob Marshall film so great though, the full collaborative process and that’s how he works? And you see that and feel that when watching his movies.
Renee: People don’t work that way, but Rob does.
Michael: As she says, we all dipped into each other’s creativity. There was enough time, Rob was super respectful to ideas. We played around and experimented and every idea was heard.