As sound editors on Get Back, the trio of Martin Kwok, Brent Burge, and Emile de la Rey were fortunate to have worked together previously and for director Peter Jackson multiple times. Still, nothing could prepare them for sifting through 150 hours of audio and 60 hours of video to help the Lord of the Rings director deliver on his passion project of showing how the Beatles came together after nearly falling apart to create what would be their final album, Let It Be. The trio and I discuss the enormous challenges of syncing the sound to vision to develop a true narrative for viewers over the nearly eight-hour long docuseries. As you will learn here, it was the challenge of a lifetime.
Awards Daily: I suppose this is a bit like asking people if they like pizza or not, but were you all fans of the Beatles before this project?
Brent Burge: I have a brother who went to a Beatles gig here in New Zealand so I was brought up in a family that was very much Beatles based – it sent him off on his drumming career, so yeah.
Martin Kwok: I think it’s hard not to be a Beatles fan. I think there are bigger fans and that’s what we had the pleasure of working with in terms of Peter Jackson being someone who takes it to another level. Am I a superfan? No, I don’t have the knowledge that he has. But it’s one of those things that as a music fan, it’s very hard to deny how incredible their music was and I grew to appreciate the band even more through the show.
Brent Burge: There’s an interesting thing that I found in the show and that is that you would hear phrases or particular parts of a song and go wow, is that the take? And then something would happen in that take where you would suddenly go, no that’s not the take. And I don’t know why that would be. I think it was just that the Beatles wrote a lot of songs that, for me anyway, were just innate to what I knew of the music. Even though I hadn’t listened to the music for some time you would still be able to pick if it was a take or not that you knew and recognized on the records.
Awards Daily: I’m more of a Stones person, but I was ultimately fascinated by this process of how an album is made, how a band that’s crumbling avoids that enough to make a record. When you got all this footage, you have a hundred fifty hours of audio, sixty hours of video, and you have to make it all work together, did you know what you were getting into?
Martin Kwok:: I can tell you that from my perspective I didn’t. So, Brent and music editor Stephen Gallagher were the first onto the show. They were shown one of the days, day four, by Peter and (Editor) Jabez Olssen and their minds exploded. They started working on some of that material for about a month or so and then they pulled me in. I remember walking into it and just looking at them both sort of going what are we supposed to do with this? I mean, how do we actually work with this? The density of the mono nagra recording was so hard to fathom how a narrative could be succinctly put together. I did not see a way through it in terms of the initial set-up. And that’s very much what led to the slow but sure evolution of us stepping into the machine learning that Emile was an instrumental and huge part of clocking for us. So, on so many levels, I did not know what I was getting into.
The scale of the project, the amount of audio that was in there versus the amount of picture, and then the sheer complications of dealing with that audio was monumentally challenging. There was a time where we had a meeting with Apple TV, our first meeting in terms of the sound guys sitting down with them, and Jonathan Clyde, who’s been with Apple and the Beatles for many years, he just sort of leaned into the Zoom call and said “So have you guys found the silver bullet yet?” because he knew very well that the ability of extracting that dialogue from all that other extraneous noise or the band playing was a massive massive issue in terms of telling the story. That was when that responsibility really landed on us. That silver bullet was very much the machine learning that we refer to as MAL for “machine audio learning” but also as a nod to Mal Evans.
Emile de la Rey: Imagine just doing this interview that we’re all talking to each other at the same time and some of us are noodling on our instruments and then trying to get some audio out of that. (Laughs). That’s basically what we were dealing with, about a hundred fifty hours, condensed into Peter’s cut.
Martin Kwok: It was overwhelming. There was a lot of audio fatigue that would hit you at ten minute sequences and make you feel like you’d been listening and watching and trying to make sense of it for like half an hour. It was very tricky. The rebalancing of those elements through the machine learning was essential, in terms of not only making sense of Peter’s narrative but also the sound editorial process for dialogue as well as music and then the ability to pass it on to Brent and Mike Hedges at the mint and spatialize it. Without the machine learning, I’m sure we could have put something out, but we would never have been able to tell the story that Peter wanted to tell.
Brent Burge: I think Stephen and I, when Peter pulled us in to have a look at day four, which is pretty iconic moment really in your career when Peter Jackson asks you pop in just to have a look at something he’s putting together for a Beatles doc and you watch probably ninety minutes of what was the original version of the fab four, in the earlier cut. Then we spent a lot more time with Peter as he showed us other interviews that he had just to explain further how he was approaching the project. I think we had a better idea than Marty obviously after that meeting of what we were entering into.
What we didn’t realize was, as Marty also alluded to, the complexity of a single piece of mono nagra tape that we had to deal with. And the complexity of multiple cameras, two cameras recording, and the fact that the nagras had to be lined up. They weren’t shooting slates. The days that they were recording at Twickenham for example, this was all fly on the wall stuff that the crew was shooting as well as recording it. There was a massive amount of pre-work that was done at lining that material up. Thankfully a lot of it was done before we got to it and then Dan Best and Elliot Travers, who are the picture assistants, were still continuing to do that as more material was discovered and found and brought in. Then we were tasked with trying to effectively deinterlace a mono piece of tape into something that we could present as a mix.
Awards Daily: To a degree, you’re competing with a film that already exists right? Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s Let It Be is something that’s out there and it’s taken from the same footage and you’re trying to separate yourself from that. I imagine that was part of the challenge too. You had a lot of footage but you also wanted to use the most choice bits.
Martin Kwok: That’s all determined by Peter and Jabez, what they were presenting in terms of the narrative. To a degree our responsibility was solely on the small challenge of the narrative that Peter wanted to present, that was basically pulled from each day. We had to create something that would be listenable and enjoyable to hear by the listener who watches. As a fly on the wall especially, which we felt was important.
Awards Daily: You still end up with a production that’s nearly eight hours long. It’s wrong to say that it’s wayward, but it shows the challenge of making something creative and the participants struggling to get along while they’re trying to do it. There’s a lot here that simply rolls out on its own, that has to be a little challenging when you’re used to making something that snaps. This doesn’t snap, it rolls.
Martin Kwok: I think that’s really one of the things that Peter and Jabez nailed within the way the picture edit came together in terms of sometimes giving that space, where the repetition of certain days or the being in the doldrums of trying to work through a song that’s not working and some days are better than others becomes evident. I think audiences are primed for it nowadays with regard to the way reality TV works. I think that’s one of the ways that they were able to affect popular culture through Get Back, because there was something familiar about the way it was working although it was never shot that way. The way they edited it actually worked in that manner and the way we were able to tell the story helped that. Sometimes that’s exactly what it was doing, it was going through a section where it was like well, they’re just not having a good time here.
That is where I think it’s a great job in terms of Peter being as much a historian as he is a filmmaker in this regard. What we tried to do was ensure that those twenty-one days that the band were together, remarkably, coming together on January 2nd with nothing really, a couple of ditties that they thought of “kind of got this one, let’s have a go” to actually having an album, in that amount of time. It was just remarkable to see. I’ve spoken to a bunch of people that were like “I wish I could see that first seventeen hour cut.”
Awards Daily: There’s a real effort by the band to get back to basics. But it’s hard to do when you become such studio hounds after a while.
Martin Kwok: They had to break their own mold and re-put it back together. As you were saying there were a lot of other things going on in their lives that complicated things for them. Lo and behold there happened to be Michael Lindsay-Hogg there with two sixteen mm cameras taped up so they hardly knew when they were being shot and nagras recording and various mics all the time. It was very much that sort of CCTV snooper sort of footage that the band were at times trying to work against because they were just like, “We’re just trying to do our thing here and this shit’s really happening” and that made for a really interesting standoff in terms of the drama sometimes.
Brent Burge:: Also getting back to playing as a live band, which was one of those things that was part of this whole premise, which I found really interesting as well. I don’t know what was going on back in 69/70 when a band was actually trying to do a live performance in the studio and have it captured by the engineer. I think Glyn Johns did a pretty extraordinary job even though there was a lot of howl around and George Martin was kind of instrumental in ironing some of that out. They actually ended up, as Marty was saying, going from nothing really when they turned up, to doing a rooftop performance playing live and really enjoying it.
Emile de la Rey: It’s such a treat to see some of these songs go from the little creative seed into a full-fledged track that we’re all so familiar with.
Awards Daily: I thought Don’t Let Me Down was the most enjoyable part of that. Just not quite finding it and eventually figuring out the song. I think The Long and Winding Road probably too – Especially when Billy Preston comes in and changes the whole dynamic of the recording.
Brent Burge: That was magical I thought when he turns up and suddenly the whole energy just changes in the room at that point. He is just such a presence.
Awards Daily: How exacting was this process and can you imagine doing anything harder than this?
Emile de la Rey: I guess part of answering that question would be that in order to do this properly, we had to develop new tools, so that’s definitely part of the answer to that question. It was such a challenge that we had to start crafting our own solutions to these problems.
Brent Burge: I’m sure Emile you probably had no idea when you walked into this that you were going to go from the journey of where you were to where you ended. Because Emile was instrumental in the whole machine learning process. So that was a major journey on Emile’s part and all of our parts really. It was definitely a challenge on a lot of fronts.
Emile de la Rey: In terms of the material we were working with, they’ve already mentioned that mostly it was this one piece of string, the mono nagra tape. They were trying to capture whatever they could in the room with whatever microphones were available to them, but often capturing quite a mixture. There might be a conversation in the corner, the band might be rehearsing at the time, there might be a crew working on the set that they’re building in the background and Peter’s interested in just that conversation in the corner of the room. That particular problem of honing in – in a way that sounds good – on just that conversation in the corner of the room, a true fly on the wall, certainly wasn’t achievable with the tools we had at the start of this project. As we developed these tools over the duration of the Get Back sound edit, it just became more and more possible, which in turn informed Peter to what else he could do with his storytelling.
Awards Daily: I can imagine the audio, recorded from a hidden mic in a flower vase, when John and Paul are talking about the treatment of George had to be a fascinating thing to listen to and implement.
Martin Kwok: I think it is pretty much the piece de resistance for the audio team in terms of the machine learning that was achieved. It was one of those veils that was lifted. It was certainly the most dramatic resurrection of audio that was previously highly unlistenable, on many levels actually. But then was something that was able to be woven into the narrative in a pretty seamless manner. I think certainly the technology was the breakthrough there. And the way that we were able to use that at all, to be able to ensure that the audience was almost unaware of how bad that recording really was. There was a transcript of all of those days that Apple Corp and WingNut Films had been working on for many years and as the machine learning was introduced, we gained a greater insight into that transcript. We thought we were hearing one thing, but in fact this is what they said. So we were able to learn more about the actual historical truth of those moments as we got more and more detail out of the machine learning and further into the project. The flower pot recordings were absolutely phenomenal in that regard.
Awards Daily: I know you have all worked together before. I can only imagine that having done so was really helpful on a project this complex.
Martin Kwok: I think it always is. There’s a shorthand that goes on with the work that we do. I think Brent has pointed out on a few occasions how even though it was a very small crew, there was just the perfect combination of skill set between the individuals that we had across the board. I think everybody pulled their weight and then some to make sure that we could ensure that Peter’s narrative was delivered and not only that, but that the music sounded great for the viewers.
Awards Daily: There’s a lot of areas here where you have to sort the audio to the visual so that it represents the moment that is occurring. It may not be incredibly precise or exact in terms of real time, but it grasps the moment correctly. Like maybe you can’t match the sound to the mouth precisely but you are grasping the conversation that is going on in that moment. How tricky was that?
Martin Kwok: Really that was a trick. It was a great success in terms of creating that context both from the picture editorial side and from the sound editorial side. We needed to initially honor exactly what was happening because that was the roadmap for what the story was. And then we had to figure out how to use the machine learning to clear the road of stuff that was otherwise going to get in the way to make sure that that context stayed true. Even when the picture and sound were not matching, we were trying to ensure that it was as smooth as possible. We used a number of more traditional sound editorial tools and tricks, the way that we do edit sound, to try and cloak as much of that as possible whilst remaining centered on the narrative and the music.
Emile de la Rey: It was mainly because there was so much more audio than footage.
Awards Daily: The goal in large part if I’m understanding correctly is to match the context to the visual and the audio informs the context.
Brent Burge: The last thing we needed is to have an experience where the audience was taken out of that context in any way. That was a real challenge in terms of what Peter was presenting and especially in the edit, just trying to get that. Literally Marty would pull me into his room and say hey have a listen to this. This is what we’d be doing quite a lot, just to have a listen through and just to get a sense of if this sound and images was taking the viewer out of the room or out of the conversation that was happening. Especially in the mix. It was important for me not to hear where things had come from because it was really just effectively editors presenting me with something I could mix to make it smooth. It was amazing when I did go back and hear some of the original stuff that was put together. It was amazing what was done.
Awards Daily: This actually ends up being a very emotionally resonant piece of work, even if you’re not a huge fan of the Beatles. These are four friends who are falling apart or splitting in some regards. You have to capture the sense of them finding themselves as a band and also losing themselves as friends. Did you find that emotion in it?
Martin Kwok: I think it’s self-evident in the footage and what you got out of those days is that you were taken on a journey. You do feel for the various characters at various times as you would in any sort of dramatic narrative. The crazy thing is that this was not scripted. Some of these things that happened, they took you on that journey irregardless, because that’s just what happened on that day. The beauty of it being condensed into something that could be watched over three parts was where Jabez and Peter have done an amazing job of actually bringing all that raw context together to give you that journey. The sheer fact that you had Billy Preston turning up out of the blue, suddenly there’s a transformation there. I just remember watching the rooftop performance for the first time and the things coming out of the cops’ mouths, you couldn’t script this any better. This is too funny. I think real life really played its own hand in making sure that the drama and levity and everything else was there. After that it was the difficult task of taking that hundred fifty hours of audio, sixty hours of film and making sure it could fit inside three parts.
Emile de la Rey: From my little point of view, I just felt like I really got to know them over the process. It really brought them down to Earth, in a good way. You could really relate to these guys after a while.
Brent Burge: Exactly, all the foibles, especially the creative journey.
Martin Kwok: I think a lot of people in bands and any creative output have looked at it and sort of gone, “well, that’s me” I’ve had those discussions. I’ve had those standoffs and those breakthroughs and dealt with the fact that I’m not on form today. It did make them a lot more relatable to some people.
Brent Burge: And just seeing also the knowledge of each other and knowing each other so well and seeing how that journey went in terms of the music.
Awards Daily: I can only imagine with the difficulty of this project, the challenge of it the length of it, and all of the obvious struggles you went through creating it, that when you see it come out and get received so well you have to feel pretty proud of the result.
Martin Kwok: I think there’s an awful lot to be proud of, yeah. I think that’s one of the things that make us very keen collaborators and people that work with and for Peter as a filmmaker. He takes on some bold projects and some interesting challenges, and always allows us the scope to actually take the bar and just lift it. That’s something that’s always been a strong part of working for Peter.