When Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody hit the screens at the tail- end of 2018, the film’s leading man Rami Malek was quickly installed as favourite to scoop the top honours at the imminent Oscars and BAFTA Awards, and he was duly decorated with the Best Actor award on both sides of the pond.
Yet, while Malek and his portrayal of the iconic Queen frontman dominated the headlines, Bohemian Rhapsody was also notching up numerous accolades on account of its stellar sound production. At the BAFTAs, it won out in the Best Sound category, while at the Oscars it emerged victorious in the Best Film Editing, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Sound Editing awards.
Crucial to the film’s sonic triumphs was its sound editor Nina Hartstone, whose role comprised everything from splicing Mercury’s original vocals in the film’s musical moments with Malek’s performance to recreating the atmosphere of Queen’s legendary Live Aid performance in 1985. Here, she discusses the exciting rollercoaster of her illustrious career…
What sparked your interest in the industry?
My dad, Graham Hartstone, had an incredible career as a re-recording mixer at Pinewood Studios, so I felt like I grew up in the film industry. As a child, I remember playing in Pinewood gardens and climbing around props from films, like the cable car from one of the Bond movies. We saw a lot of movies growing up and I took an interest in the work behind the camera. When I was 15 years old, I was lucky enough to do work experience on the first Batman film, directed by Tim Burton. I was in the art department and I loved every second of it – seeing all the drawings behind the creation of Gotham City on the backlot and watching the Batmobile drive onto the set. My interest in filmmaking was definitely sparked after that.
What was your first job?
My first paid job was during university as a floor runner on a low budget feature called Shadowchaser in 1991. It gave me a whole new insight into filmmaking – we were shooting in difficult locations, there were lots of stunts and pyrotechnics, and I really enjoyed the camaraderie that exists in a film crew. Despite the temptation to abandon my studies and dive into film work, I continued with my university career and graduated with a degree in Visual and Performed Arts in 1992.
After completing my studies, I was introduced to Graham Harris, a supervising sound editor who was working in the cutting rooms at Pinewood Studios on a film called Cyborg Cop. Graham took me on as a trainee and I learnt an awful lot about the process of sound post-production and sound editorial on 35mm film. He was a great boss and a fantastic teacher.
Within a couple of years, digital audio workstations were being introduced, so I spent my spare time trying to learn how to operate them. In 1994, I was extremely lucky to begin working as an assistant with the brilliant Eddy Joseph and his first-rate team. I continued working with Eddy for several years and in 1999, he gave me the opportunity to step up from being an assistant and have a go at ADR editing, which I really enjoyed and I never looked back.
What is a typical day at work like for you?
These days, my average day at work is not particularly average! I feel incredibly lucky that I get a wide variety of challenges on every production and that I’m always learning new things. As a co-supervising sound editor, I oversee the sound editorial on the film alongside another sound supervisor. Specialising in dialogue, ADR and vocals, I spend a lot of time listening through all the mics that have been recorded on set and assessing our ADR and crowd recording requirements. Each day can be very different to the next, involving focused editorial time, creative recording time or collaborating with the director, editor and rest of the sound team and coming up with innovative ways to realise the director’s vision for the film using sound. The one consistent element is that the days are usually quite long and very busy.
What has been your favourite project to date?
Unquestionably, it has to be Bohemian Rhapsody, but probably not for the reasons you might be thinking. Of course, it was an amazing experience to enjoy the accolades the sound team received, but it was my favourite project long before awards season. It felt like a dream come true to have the opportunity to work on this movie with Queen.
Throughout post-production, the collaborative efforts of the talented cast and crew allowed us to create a great sounding film. The post-production team worked so well together; we truly did become the ‘Bo Rhap’ family. I also had the great privilege and pleasure of editing the vocals – working with the voice of Freddie Mercury made me feel unbelievably fortunate.
What’s the most ambitious project you’ve worked on?
I feel like I’ve worked on a few ambitious projects – it’s quite hard to narrow it down to one. At the time, Robert Altman’s Gosford Park (2001) was incredibly ambitious. It was the first movie I had worked on which had 16 tracks of dialogue recorded on set (by Peter Glossop).
The dialogue was all ad-libbed, which presented me with lots of challenges to keep the ensemble dialogue continuous and natural across the cuts. It was intricate and complicated, but so satisfying when I made it work. Another great challenge was Everest. We had to record a lot of ADR on that film due to wind machines and other on-set issues. Baltasar Kormákur was the director and he allowed me a lot of freedom to use new and different techniques in the ADR theatre, in order to achieve credible dialogue recordings. Of course, weaving together three different voices for the main protagonist in Bohemian Rhapsody was no small challenge either.
How did it feel to win the Oscar for ‘Bo-Rhap’?
As I said previously, Bohemian Rhapsody was an absolute joy to work on. Of course, we did some long days, but it all felt so incredibly worth it. Bohemian Rhapsody was one of those rare movies where the emotion was there for me with every viewing, which is a testament to both the exceptionally talented cast and the committed and gifted crew on the show, not to mention the fantastic music of Queen. The added task of working on the vocals gave me new, unique challenges, but in all films, the result you want is to suspend disbelief. My work should be invisible when you watch the movie, so in that sense, there is an absolute common thread amongst my sound work on all movies. Winning the Oscar was the icing on the cake and I felt so delighted for the recognition our work received.
How do you balance work and life?
Balancing work in the film industry with life is not easy. I have three children but am extremely fortunate to have an amazingly supportive husband and extended family, without which I could not do this job. My work hours are often unpredictable and long, so we tend to work on a very short-term basis. Finding my way back into work after the birth of each child has only been possible because of my access to flexible childcare.
Taking time off inevitably stalled my career somewhat at the time, but I was always lucky enough to find my way back in. I think it’s really important to allow parents flexibility with their working days and try and think of ways to improve the work/life balance for everyone in the industry. As a freelancer, the benefit of this kind of work is that when I am not on a project, I can throw myself into other areas of my life.
What are the biggest challenges of the industry?
When I started out, there weren’t many females in the cutting rooms. In fact, there were some sound supervisors who refused to employ women because they “would be a distraction”. I managed to navigate a path and thankfully, times are definitely moving on, but we are nowhere near parity yet in the sound workforce. I’m very keen to encourage more women to work in the traditionally male-dominated area of sound in film. It’s important for them to see there are women working in the sound department and that it isn’t out of their reach.
What excites you most on a project?
I have always been drawn to particularly imaginative thinkers, such as David Cronenberg and Tim Burton. I grew up captivated by films like Star Wars but also loved musicals such as Singing in the Rain and The Sound of Music. These days, I love any movie with a great script and compelling performances. The sound-track of a movie is a vital tool in the storytelling and I am always inspired by my peers who have created amazing sound work – there is a lot of impressive talent out there.
This past year, I particularly enjoyed Spider-man: Into the Spider-Verse. Animation films have such great opportunities for creativity in sound.
Daniel Gumble also interviewed Nina Hartstone and Queen’s long-time co-producer and engineer Justin Shirley Smith at London’s BVE show to find out about their work on the film, which you can find here.