Is this real life? Or is this just fantasy? That’s what actor Rami Malek had audiences asking because his portrayal of Queen frontman Freddie Mercury in the 20th Century Fox film Bohemian Rhapsody was so convincing, that it was hard to believe that Malek wasn’t Mercury somehow reborn — especially when the character of Freddie was singing.
That’s because the singing (for the most part) was actually Freddie Mercury. Additional singing, particularly for the non-concert scenes, was performed by Freddie Mercury sound-alike Marc Martel. Putting those voices together and then making them come out of Malek’s mouth required more than ‘careful’ editing. According to co-supervising dialogue/ADR editor Nina Hartstone, it took brain surgery-style editing. And that’s just the singing!
To create the concerts in the film, supervising sound and music editor John Warhurst went to great lengths to capture Queen crowds that stomped and clapped in unison for “We Will Rock You” and sang along with Queen’s Live Aid set, which is essentially the jewel in this film’s crown.
Here, Warhurst and Hartstone — who completed Bohemian Rhapsody’s Oscar-nominated sound editing at Twickenham Film Studios — discuss how they crafted the massive Live Aid concert and how they re-created Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” session at Rockfield Farm. They also talk about capturing custom sounds, like concert crowds, old-fashioned recording equipment, and even a new guitar part from Queen guitarist Brian May.
S&P: Actor Rami Malek does sing in the film (so I’ve read) but he sounds so much like Freddie Mercury! How did you go from Rami’s singing into Freddie’s singing?
John Warhurst (JW): Much of the singing is Freddie Mercury, it seemed right to go with Freddie, to keep the spirit of him in the film.
When they were first putting together the script, every time they rewrote or changed it, that changed what vocals we might need and how we could edit them. Whenever we had a version of Freddie in multi-track format (with the vocal separate) we would use this.
When we filmed it, in order to get it to look like Rami [Malek] is singing with Freddie’s voice, we told Rami that he’d really have to sing these songs on set and sing with huge energy, like Freddie does. We asked Rami to give it 110%, as if he’s actually performing at Live Aid. That’s fine if you’re doing a setlist at Wembley that’s only 20 minutes long, but the reality is that we were shooting the Live Aid scenes for two weeks. So Rami basically had to sing at the top of his voice for two weeks, take after take.
We got to the end of the Live Aid shoot and you could hear Rami’s voice was absolutely shot. It was troubling because he had to go and shoot some dialogue scenes the next day. I was worried about whether he would be able to continue speaking after filming these Live Aid scenes.
From those Live Aid takes, we got a lot of Rami’s breaths and his movement and effort sounds. We added those into Freddie’s vocals and combined the two, and Nina did a lot of work on that…
Nina Hartstone (NH): I wanted it to look like Freddie’s vocal was coming out of Rami’s mouth. In order to do that, we ended up using a lot of Rami’s breaths he recorded while singing on set and also from recording sessions we did with him later. We got some breaths, efforts, lip smacks, and other tiny pieces that work in and out of Freddie’s vocal. Combining the two really tied it into the picture, and visually it feels like Freddie’s voice is coming from Rami.
S&P: What about the occasions where it’s a more intimate performance? For example, the scene outside the club when Freddie first meets his future bandmates, was that Rami singing?
JW: No, that was actually a Freddie sound-alike. Those kinds of scenes changed in the script — sometimes there were more, and sometimes less. We weren’t sure how we were going to pull those off. The most important thing was that whenever there is a singing voice it had to sound like Freddie. There are other scenes like that, where he’s singing “Happy Birthday” and when he sings “Love of My Life” while playing piano at the Rockfield Farm studio. We clearly didn’t have any recordings of Freddie Mercury doing things like that, as per the script. But we wanted it to sound the same. That was the important thing. So we reached out to a Freddie Mercury sound-alike, a singer named Marc Martel.
Now, we had Freddie, Rami, and Marc — three voices. One of the thoughts that worried us the most was that three different people were going to make up the lead character of the movie. We were quite nervous, and wondered if any other film has ever been made where the lead character is made up of three different people’s voices!
S&P: How about Queen’s practice session, right before the Live Aid concert? In that scene, Freddie is complaining about his vocal chords not sounding so great. Was that Freddie Mercury? Or Marc Martel? Or Rami?
JW: That was mostly Freddie but we got Marc to put in the hoarse vocal moments. So, again, it’s this combination of voices and that’s why it needed to be someone that sounded exactly like Freddie. We got Marc to add in the bits that we needed for that.
S&P: Were there any audio tools that helped you to combine these three voices?
NH: It was mostly brain surgery-style editing. It was going into the waveforms and getting the transitions to work — just editing in a great amount of detail.
We did use iZotope RX on occasion to get EQs to match. Those tools are great but first you need to get it working as an edit before you bring any other tools into it. It comes down to getting the editing to feel right.
S&P: What was the most challenging scene for vocal editing?
NH: I would say Live Aid was the most challenging in terms of the vocal editing. It’s a long scene and camera-wise, we’re focusing on Rami as Freddie for most of the time. It needed to feel absolutely like Freddie’s voice was coming out of Rami’s mouth, all through Live Aid. That was a very important scene to get right and we spent a lot of time getting to the point where it felt organic and not like a re-voice. It didn’t feel like ADR. It felt like that was what Rami was singing at the time.
S&P: How did you re-create the Live Aid concert so that it felt real but still worked in the context of a dramatic film?
JW: From the beginning, there was a lot of talk about how the film was going to end with Live Aid. You can go on YouTube and watch Queen’s Live Aid set. So what’s the difference between how we’re going to do it in the film compared to how it was presented in the original footage from Live Aid? We talked in terms of the visual effects about how you can create hyperreal immersion, to give the viewer the feeling that they’re actually at Live Aid. The key thing that we knew straightaway, even during the shooting of it, was that it’s all about the crowd. When you see a concert like that, the thing that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up the most is the sense of the huge amount of people all singing along to the songs. It’s a spectacle almost. So we knew the crowds are going to be a big element.
We had Queen supporting us throughout the process and they opened up their archive to us. They had a multitrack recording of Live Aid, which is a whole other story. So we knew we needed to get the crowd element right, to match up against the music, so that when you have shots that come from the crowd you would feel like you are in it.
What doesn’t exist in any library or in any recording are these huge crowds singing in time to the Live Aid set. During a second-unit day on-set, on one of the days they had 600 people in the crowd that they were filming with crane cameras for various close-up shots. We asked them if it would be possible to get some time with this crowd, to get them to sing. They said that between camera setups, we could take five or 10 minutes each time to record the crowd singing.
We were trying to work out the best way to do that because we wanted to play the music out of the huge PA that we had at Live Aid. But, obviously, if you play the music out of the PA then it will end up on the recordings. And that is what we didn’t want, to have the music be on the recording of the crowd. The crowd needed to be separate so we could have complete control of it in the final mix. We couldn’t give out 600 pairs of headphones, so the solution was to play the song one line at a time out of the PA and then have the crowd sing it back to us. It was inspired by the way Freddie Mercury does his “ay-oh” call-and-response with the crowd.
So we created a Pro Tools session with the lines of the song separated. The first one was, “All we hear is radio ga-ga…” Then, we’d pause for the crowd to repeat that back to us. Then, we’d play the next line, “All we hear is radio goo-goo…” Then the crowd would sing back that line. So we were able to record the crowd clean of any of the music by doing this call and response method.
We managed to do the whole Live Aid set a few times throughout the day between camera setups. We did an extra pass on “We Are the Champions” because we knew we’d want that to be the biggest moment.
We also got lucky with this big marketing campaign that Fox Movies came up with, which was called “PutMeInBohemian.com.” Basically, they got people to record themselves singing along with “Bohemian Rhapsody” into their smartphones, and those recordings were uploaded to a site somewhere. Fox promised people that if they recorded themselves singing along, then their voices would end up in the film. So they sent us tens of thousands of people singing “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which we added into the film, mixed down into the sound of the crowd.
We then did some smaller groups down at Shepperton…
NH: It was between 30 and 40 people, two different sessions and we switched around people so we got even more voices than we had people per session. We decided to record the voices outside, to make it feel more like Wembley Stadium. We booked out an exterior space at Shepperton studio, on a Saturday while it was quiet there (without all the productions going on at the facility). We lined up eight microphones, with an LCR at the front, a couple of microphones at the back, one set up at a distance, and then one on a boom so we could get some movement with it. We had eight headphones lined up with some monitors outside and we would bring people up in groups of eight. They put the headphones on and listened to the music and we’d run through Live Aid with them responding, either singing along or shouting. We recorded it all the way through. We did long runs because it helped to build the excitement throughout the recording, as people would have been on the day of the actual Live Aid concert.
JW: We also recorded some individuals. We looked at the crowds as being three layers — the bigger crowd, the medium crowd, and then the individuals. So when we got to the final mix, no matter where you were in the crowd during the perspective changes, from the back of the crowd to being on stage, we’d have the appropriate crowd sound. If you see a guy yelling at the top of his lungs, we have a voice for that. We didn’t want the crowds to be cutty because that pulls you out of the concert experience. So the crowd sounds move more in waves. The waves rise up gently and settle back down gently. So whenever you arrive on the cut, it’s at the peak of the wave. Each of the shots have a variation of the large, medium, or close up crowd happening in a wave. The goal was to create this complete immersive, hyperreal experience of being at Live Aid.
NH: The individual voices we shot at Goldcrest in London.
Any person in the foreground of the scene, who catches your eye, we have a voice for those. Every time the camera dives down into a pocket in the crowd you get the detail of the people and so we have that detail in the sound.
JW: There were three different layers of singing crowds—the large crowd, the medium crowd, and the individual voices. We also had three layers of clapping crowds — the large clapping crowd, a medium one, and then individuals. And then we also had FX crowds, which is that wall of cheering, and again for that we have a large, medium, and individual. So you have these three elements, each with three sizes, moving around and within each other, around the actual music, and that creates the sound of this concert and it feels specific to the camera angles.
When the crowd claps along with the band, we tried various methods of layering up hand claps. But there’s something about artificially manufacturing those in Pro Tools, it very quickly feels wrong. It’s this hard sound and it just sounds artificial. Fortunately, we were able to get recordings from an actual Queen concert. Queen were on tour the summer that we were in post production. They had some dates at the O2 Arena in London. We managed to get two hours in there, before the concert started, so we could play all the songs in the movie through Queen’s PA. So we set up 22 mics in the roof of the O2 Arena and recorded the slap of the PA. That is what re-recording mixer Paul Massey used for the reverb of the concert scenes – effectively a worldized sound of the concert.
Another positive thing came out of that concert. I was chatting with Brian May about how hard it was to create a crowd doing these handclaps, and it’s a shame that we couldn’t record them. So Brian offered to do a little interlude with the audience at the O2 Arena, and he’d ask the 20,000 people there to do some single handclaps. We needed those for the concert scene at Madison Square Garden, while they’re doing “We Will Rock You.” We really wanted to get that BOOM-BOOM-CHA! right. So Brian had the crowd do some single hand claps and we recorded those with the 22 mics that we had in the roof. So that’s what you hear in the film, 20,000 people all clapping their hands in sync.
We used those handclaps in Live Aid as well. Then we have medium handclaps, also, and individual claps that stick out when the camera is in close.
The band were very supportive and helped us in any way they could. They have full-time engineers who work for them, who know their archive and who work in their studios for them. We were in touch with them throughout the entire duration of making this film. They were really helpful in every way throughout the process.
S&P: The recording sessions out at the Rockfield Farm studios, where the “Bohemian Rhapsody” sequence was shot, can you tell me about your process on that sequence from a post sound editorial standpoint?
JW: There are many pianos in the film and when you film those on set, the pianos are muted because you don’t want the piano sound on the dialogue tracks. But we asked them to put a microphone under the piano onset so that we could get the thump sound. This was sometimes a useful sound but also gave us a sync reference so we’d be able to recreate the piano after in post-production and have that as our sync reference.
We always knew there was going to be a day up at Abbey Road Studios when we could go and record all of the various pianos in the film — there was the upright in Freddie’s flat, an upright at his parents’ house, the slightly broken grand piano in the farmhouse on which he played “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and there was the studio piano in Rockfield Farm as well as others later in the film. So we knew we’d have this day booked at Abbey Road, and we knew that Abbey Road has this absolutely phenomenal amount of old tape machines and old studio equipment. It’s like they have a recording museum there.
So when we went there to record the pianos, we went there with a different set of mics so we could go around and record a lot of the tape machines — tapes speeding up and slowing down, the clicks of the buttons, and even the studio door opening and closing. We recorded a whole library of sounds to use for that “Bohemian Rhapsody” scene.
The basis of that whole scene is the original 1975 multitrack of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which was broken down into individual tracks. Again here, Brian May and Roger Taylor were so supportive. They gave us outtakes of “Bohemian Rhapsody” that never made it to the single. So from the original 1975 recordings we got to use the outtakes. For example, Freddie’s vocal in the farmhouse is one that didn’t make it onto the single. We all know the released single version of the song, but obviously there are other takes and it was a privilege to get to use them for this film.
So we built that scene using the sound effects we recorded at Abbey Road along with other sounds from on-set, and the multitrack from the original 1975 recording session.
Also, Brian May played us a new guitar solo for that scene. The guitar solo you hear is a new one that Brian played because it would seem a bit strange if he played the one from the single. Freddie is asking him to put his body into it, put his soul into it, and so he’s implying that it’s not quite there yet. Brian is still supposed to be working on it at that point. So Brian played us one that is similar but not quite there.
S&P: During that scene, Freddie and Brian are using the studio talkback to communicate. What was the vocal processing like on that dialogue?
NH: We laid it up as clean dialogue, except for when Brian (Gwilym Lee) speaks into his guitar pickup, to tell Freddie (Malek) to use the talkback button. For that, Brian recorded those sections for us through his amp and that is what we used in the film.
Paul (Massey) created all the talkback vocal processing for the dialogue, both what we hear in the studio with Brian and in the control room with Freddie. He got a really great sound going back and forth. It sounds clear enough so that you aren’t removed from the characters’ performances, because it is a beautiful scene. The acting was amazing and so it was important not to futz it too much otherwise you would lose contact with them. I was very happy with how Paul got that to work, with the cutting back and forth between the studio and the control room.
S&P: There was another recording session earlier in the film, where they are bouncing coins off the timpani and placing a tambourine and maraca on the piano strings and putting a bucket over the microphone. Were those sounds recorded in production, or did you re-create those sounds in post?
JW: Those were all created in post and we discussed many different ways of approaching that. For example, when he puts the coins on the drum we talked about using windchimes or sounds that weren’t quite as literal as coins, but rather had a musicality to them. When he drops the wooden block on the piano strings, we didn’t want it to sound like it was part of the track but it still had to work with the track. So all of those sounds were created in post production. The sounds were put together in a way that fits with the music but doesn’t sound like they are part of the music. Instead, the sounds had to feel like they were happening in the studio right there in front of you. It had to have a real feel to it, so you felt like you were in the studio with them and there wasn’t a sense of detachment — like when you’re watching a pop video. We wanted to use those sounds to help ground you to the room.
S&P: Why do you think Bohemian Rhapsody should win the Oscar for Best Sound Editing?
NH: It’s a film that has been popular all over the world and it is ultimately about sound. It’s about the music and the crowd and the dialogue/interaction between the band. We worked very hard in sound editorial. We had some quite unique challenges with trying to create our central character of Freddie using the voices of three different people — Freddie Mercury, Marc Martel, and Rami Malek. That was a really tricky thing to pull off. I think we’ve done our job because the audience isn’t questioning Rami’s performance of Freddie Mercury. We hopefully have given the audience a real and immersive experience of being at Live Aid. There are so many young people who feel like they could have been to Live Aid just from watching Bohemian Rhapsody. A great part of that is the sound editorial and the work that we presented to the mix stage. The film has touched so many people and that’s why we feel it is Oscar-worthy.
JW: Bohemian Rhapsody is a truly unique film where we had the opportunity to recreate one of the most iconic live music sets as the finale. We used every resource available and went into great detail to make it the best it could possibly be; we didn’t want to compromise on anything. For the studio sessions, we went to the nth degree, trying to make sure all the sounds were bespoke. All the crowds, we wanted them to be Queen crowds so we went through old Queen recordings to dig out crowds and then we created new crowds by recording hundreds and hundreds of people singing the songs and clapping along. With the support of the band we made sure the music was the best it could possibly be but reworked in a way not heard before. The thing that people around the world are responding to really well is how all of these sounds that have been created for the movie and put together help to create the emotional high that culminates in the end with the Live Aid concert. A large part of this is sound editorial and how the sound along with the music and performances work to create this which is why we feel it’s Oscar-worthy.
Images courtesy of 20th Century Fox