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Bohemian Rhapsody’s Oscar-winning sound team gives us the low down

Daniel Gumble sat down with sound editor Nina Hartstone and Queen’s long-time co-producer and engineer Justin Shirley Smith at London’s BVE show to find out how they brought to life the story of one of the world’s best loved artists through sound

Taking the box office by storm upon its release at the back end of 2018, Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody was hotly tipped to scoop a slew of major honours come awards season. Which it duly did, with much of the world’s focus centred squarely on the star turn of Rami Malek, earning him the Best Actor gong at both the BAFTAs and the Oscars. 

However, the film was also rattling up an impressive array of awards on account of its technical achievements. At the BAFTAs, the film emerged victorious in the Best Sound category, while at the Oscars it won the Best Film Editing, Best Sound Mixing, and Sound Editing awards. 

Central to the success of Bohemian Rhapsody, particularly in the audio department, was sound editor Nina Hartstone. From splicing Mercury’s vocals in the film’s musical moments with Malek’s performance, to recreating the atmosphere of Queen’s legendary Live Aid performance in 1985, Hartstone’s role was a challenging and complex one. 

Last month, at London’s BVE 2019 trade show, PSNEurope editor Daniel Gumble was invited to interview Hartstone and Queen’s long-term co-producer and sound engineer Justin Shirley-Smith – also crucial to the film’s technical achievements – onstage before a packed crowd of industry professionals to discuss their backgrounds, working methods, and what it takes to win an Oscar. Here are some of the highlights… 

Daniel Gumble: How did you both get involved with Bohemian Rhapsody

Nina Hartstone: John Warhurst (co-sound editor) contacted me early last year whilst the shoot was still under way, and explained that it would be a fairly complex job. Apart from doing dialogues and ADR crowds, which I normally do, I would also be taking on the vocals. We would be using Freddie’s vocals wherever we could, with Rami Malek speaking and acting, and then for a couple of small areas we’d have a Freddie Mercury voice alike, Marc Martel, doing the stuff we didn’t have any original material for. So, I had a lead character that had three voices, and John wanted someone who could make that work. 

Justin Shirley-Smith: I started talking to John about one of the early scripts in 2014, as he wanted to know what we had in the archives, and I oversee the whole Queen audio-visual archive. We delivered most of the multi-tracks and studio and live songs at that point. Since then, a few lead actors and directors were changed, and production stopped, but it got back on track in 2017. 

DG: How did you go about making the vocals work, Nina? 

NH: All of the acting and spoken words are Rami. For all of the concert footage and anything that we had Freddie for, we always wanted to use Freddie. It was just making sure that Freddie’s vocals were very tightly fitted to Rami’s mouth. Rami was always singing on set, so we had all of his breaths and lip smacks, all the little bits and pieces that actually help tie the performance into his mouth, and then we also recorded him at Abbey Road and the Gold Crest. It was about trying to find the sweet spot for every shot, to get it in sync, and have the picture exactly where it needed to be. 

DG: What was your process for selecting tracks from the archives? 

JSS: Live Aid and Rio were preset, we luckily had those recordings. Live Aid happened to be recorded by chance, and it’s amazing that we had the multi-track, otherwise it would’ve been a very different movie. But then there were certain things like ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ from Edinburgh in the ‘70s; we didn’t think that any of the official versions were the ultimate one, so we dug a bit deeper and found an amazing recording from 1977. That’s my favourite bit of the movie. We found a couple of other gems, like ‘Fat Bottom Girls’, which came from Paris and had never been released before. 

DG: Nina, talk us through your working process. 

NH: In terms of workflow, the first port of call is always to conform all the audio from the Avid. Our amazing film editor, John Ottman, is actually very musical; he did quite a lot of speeding within the Avid to help the pace and to make footsteps land in time with the music. That was one of the first challenges, to make sure that we were conforming all of the media, and getting all the individual mics that we recorded on set at a speed that matched the picture we received on the Avid. I went and shot ADR while the editor was working through the original material and outtakes to see what we did and didn’t have to shoot. 

The crowd was one of the very big numbers on this one. It’s not something you can really pull from a library, people singing all these Queen songs, apart from the stuff the guys supplied already, but that all needed re-recording. There were some big scenes on set that had 600 extras, with John Warhurst emulating Freddie’s call and response, playing the songs line by line so the audience could sing it back. 

DG: What were some of the biggest technical challenges you faced? 

NH: The three voices into one was something that required careful editing and hunting around, and Live Aid. It was tricky trying to make sure that, for every moment, wherever the camera is within the stadium, that it sounds like it would from that position. 

JSS: Paul Massey had suggested that we hire a venue, put a PA in it, play all the music through, and record it. So we thought we could do that at the O2 Arena where Queen and Adam Lambert had recently played. It was all set up for us, it was perfect. The only thing we had to do was change all of our stems so they didn’t have any delays and reverbs on them. We wanted to play it through dry, so we reprinted all of the stems and played them through in an empty arena. That is what Paul wanted, the natural ambience to be able to play with and pan around the room. We had to run all the songs through twice because of the two singers, you have to change the ambience to be able to go with the singer. 

DG: How did you feel when you watched the final version back? 

JSS: I thought it turned out really well, and Paul is a genius. His vision was to not make it too big in the beginning. So the first scene is when they’re playing ‘Doing Alright’ and ‘Keep Yourself Alive’ in small venues that don’t sound so big, then it gets gradually bigger, until at the stadium it’s massive. 

NH: We wanted to make Live Aid hyperreal. You can go online and watch Live Aid with the stereo mix and get the performance of Freddie, but we wanted people who watched the movie to feel like they were attending that concert, enjoying it from all these different perspectives, and it definitely builds right up to ‘Champions’. Every time we watched that bit, it was exciting. 

DG: What were some of your highlights from working on the film? 

NH: I’ve got to say, when Brian May first walked in the room! 

From a technical perspective, the rain scene was quite a tricky scene, we did ADR for all of it. All the way through, we were very anxious to try and keep as much of the original performance as possible, so there was a lot of detailed work, cutting in and out, using syllables of ADR to tidy things up, going through outtakes. With that scene it worked on both levels in the end – we managed to keep all the emotion from the original day, while actually making it clear enough that you could hear what was being said. 

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