The collaborative audio approach to Kingsman: The Secret Service

A dislike of ADR encouraged production and post to work incredibly closely on the new Matthew Vaughn film, writes Jerry Ibbotsen…

It speaks volumes about the relationship between a director and his team when you learn that several key members have worked with him on all his feature films. Simon Hayes, production sound mixer, has recorded every single movie from producer and director Matthew Vaughn.

“Matthew Vaughn has a unique understanding of sound and how important it is for original performances to make it onto the screen so that the audience can connect with the characters,” says Hayes. It’s just the tip of the iceberg, as far as the amount of praise he can heap on the British director behind productions including Kick-Ass and Stardust. His latest film is action movie Kingsman: The Secret Service.

Due for release early next year, The Secret Service follows British spy agency MI5, which has decided that its Oxbridge-educated methodology of choosing operatives is old fashioned, so they find someone who’s a little bit more street wise and train him up. He’s brought into the fold and is placed with an experienced operative (Colin Firth) who teaches the new recruit how to be a proper gentleman agent.

The film is based on a graphic novel by Scottish comic writer Mark Millar, who collaborated on Kick-Ass with Jane Goldman and one Matthew Vaughn.

Celebrating Collaboration

From an audio perspective, The Secret Service demonstrates a strong collaborative approach, where the lines between production and post are not so much blurred as smashed with a sledgehammer. At the heart of it lies a dislike for one particular technique.

“Matthew found out early on in his career that he doesn’t like ADR, and in fact one of the reasons why Matthew and I have collaborated for so many years is that he will not ADR anything unless it’s a line change,” Hayes explains. “When you see someone’s lips moving in a Matthew Vaughn film, that is the recording that has been made on the day, on the set with the cameras running, not six months later in a voice booth.”

That’s a pretty bold boast. So how does Vaughn do this? “He has assembled a group of production sound and post-production sound technicians around him. They have been with him since the very beginning,” Hayes reveals. “They include Arthur Fenn and Robin Johnson, my two first assistants, who swing booms and rig radio mics. But it’s also the dialogue editor Danny Sheehan who has also done every single one of Matthew’s movies. Danny isn’t just a dialogue editor, he’s also a supervising sound editor but he cuts most of the dialogue himself – he’s a perfectionist like myself.”

“His colleague is Matt Colling who’s also been with Vaughn since the beginning. We did Lock, Stock together and have also done Layer Cake, Stardust, Kick-Ass… the list goes on.”

“So Matthew has assembled a sound team in production and post-production sound who understand how to deliver his vision of a movie which focuses 100% on live performances. They’re also a sound team who don’t see each other as different parts of the engine. We collaborate from the very beginning of a movie, when we start talking about the film, all the way to the end of post production. For example, I’m talking to the post-production sound team almost every day until they finish their final mix.”

Hayes normally goes into the final mix on a Vaughn movie, although he couldn’t do this with The Secret Service due to other commitments. But he did communicate a lot with the post-team while shooting. The aim is clear – to nail problems before they become serious issues.

“If I’m having trouble on a set I may send Danny test recordings to be sure that any issues are going to be useable for him afterwards,” Hayes continues. “For instance if I’m presented with a situation that needs a wind machine, we’ll discuss how we’re going to rig the wind machine with the special effects department. I’ll do test recordings and send them to Danny to make sure that what we’re going to present him in the production sound track is going to be useable. It’s so he’s not going to have to commit something to ADR afterwards.

“He’s able to say, ‘That wind machine is a little bit too broadband, is there any way of giving us something lower than we can get a notch into?’ We’re evaluating problems before they happen and making sure that when we present Matthew with a solution on the set that will give him what he needs visually and be able to retain the original performances of the actors. We know that what we are presenting him with will not lead him into an ADR booth.”

Emotional Engagement

So is this all about preserving the quality of the production dialogue? Hayes says it’s not about science or engineering. It’s about emotions.

“We all know that as human beings we’re constantly evaluating every single person we meet on a day-to-day basis to decide if we trust them or not. So cinema audiences are constantly looking at a performance and deciding whether they detect an acoustic in a voice or a vocal performance that doesn’t match what they see. They have a subconscious alarm bell that goes off, thinking ‘I’m not sure I connected with that.”

The dialogue is recorded to be as powerful and emotive as possible. For this, close miking is crucial.

“It’s not just about saying we want a film that isn’t ADR’d,” he adds. “We want a film that has the rich textural quality of sound that an action movie should have, so that you can build up the music and effects. You need to have the dialogue closely miked and sounding rich so you have enough signal to noise so you can push the music and effects afterwards – to get a world-class action movie soundtrack around those original recordings.”

“If you’re recording with loads of space and room acoustic, you’re backing the post-production mixer and director into a corner in the dub. If they want to start driving music and sound effects, they’ll need to turn to an ADR track which is more closely miked.”

Another technique Hayes uses, which involves liaison with the post-production team, is to strip away other Foley noise on-set.

“I am a massive fan of original dialogue; I am not a fan of recording natural Foley on a set,” he states. “You end up with footsteps and prop noise that can start to get in the way of building up the sound design and score. Whenever possible we will hang sound blankets in a room to get a drier acoustic. If we can’t see an actor’s feet in a shot, we will always have the whole room carpeted. If we see the floor in the wide we will have to go with the footsteps but otherwise the whole room will be carpeted.”

Hayes then relies on the talents of the sound design team to go to work, with as clean a slate as possible. And he believes the approach to recording production dialogue plays a key role.

“What that does for the audience is it gives them a huge confidence in the sound track as a whole. They recognise that the vocals are real and not re-recorded and it makes them feel the extremely well-designed sound effects are real too: which they aren’t.”

Microphone Choice

To reach this end result, where the post team are handed dialogue that is spot-on for the final mix, does he use booms or personal mics? Both, as it happens.

“We have multiple tracks on our Zaxcom Deva recorder so we don’t have to choose,” remarks Hayes. “A good production sound mixer now has to give his post-production sound team choices. With those choices, we need to give booms and radio mics. With Matthew’s support, we use two boom operators at the same time – one is doing one half of the characters, the other doing the rest. That means both booms can work tighter and get better, richer dialogue, and when we get in close to dialogue, the other boom can record the off-lines.”

The latter point is key for Hayes and the audio team, right through to post. “If there’s a syllable on a selected take with a car door slam or a dragged footstep on it, Danny Sheehan has a whole library of outtakes: completely on-mic off-lines,” he says. “That gives him a huge confidence not to have to commit a scene to ADR because of a couple of misdemeanours.”

“We also radio mic everyone on every scene. With 16 tracks on a Zaxcom Deva, why wouldn’t you? It gives the director more choice. As usual we relied on Lectrosonics to provide us with perfect radio mic performance when we had to rely on the radios. Of course the digital hybrid system gives us a level of transparency I have not encountered with other systems but where the venue receivers really shone on the movie was during the exterior central London location scenes. The middle of town is notoriously congested with radio traffic and the ability to scan each location using the Lectrosonics venue software and find clear frequencies was the only way to be able to run multiple radio mics without the channels interleaving with others in the narrow band of channel 38.”

Having worked with Matthew Vaughn on so many features and understanding his tastes and style, Hayes tries to keep one step ahead. “In my mix tracks, which is what the picture editor cuts with, that is what I think is best. But let’s say I think the booms sound lovely and natural, but afterwards Matthew wants an aggressive skate-rock sound design under it. He then has the ability to make that choice with the DPA and Lectrosonics radio mics.”

“Vaughn has a love of rich dialogues. He was the first director I worked with who asked me outright how I managed to record vocals with such a great bottom end. The answer to that is firstly because I use Schoeps mics, which have such an excellent low frequency response. However the really important point is that I am able to use them on the booms without having to EQ any of the bottom end or use low pass filters because of the Cinela microphone mounts we use. The Cinela’s have been a game changer and isolate so much vibration between the mic and the pole that the boom ops can work without having to temper their movements because of the fear of potential handling noise, and I don’t have to erode the dialogue quality of the Schoeps by having to use any filters or EQ.”

In the quest for as perfect (and flexible) production audio as possible, he was leant a helping hand by the overall artistic direction. Hayes’ previous project was Guardians of The Galaxy (see Audio Media November), which was shot on multiple cameras. That threw up specific challenges for close miking. But with The Secret Service, Vaughn and director of photography George Richmond went down a different route, as Hayes explains: “While all our other big recent action movies were multi-camera, Matthew and George decided that they wanted to make it look beautiful in an old school way by shooting one camera. This meant they could light the close-ups intricately. That gave us a real positive effect when recording – when you’re shooting one camera you can always have the boom on edge of frame.

“If you’re shooting a wide while someone else is shooting a close-up (in a multiple camera shoot) that commits a lot of performances to radio mics. But this film was a step back to movies like Layer Cake and Lock, Stock. The majority of the dialogue that made its way into this film wasn’t recorded on radio mics or even the Schoeps Super Scenic Gun mics that we use a lot on action films. We went really old school and 80% of the dialogue was recorded on a hyper-cardoid Schoeps CMC NK41 which really has a very beautiful sound.”

This approach – of production and post audio relying on each other and working together – clearly works for Vaughn and his team. Driven by a dislike for replacing actors’ dialogue, they’ve developed a way to circumvent the ADR studio. But would it work for everyone? Hayes thinks it already is.

“I think that in the past 10 years directors have started moving away from ADR. When we started making big action movies, directors were pushed into using it. But anyone who’s had to ADR a whole movie realises the performance suffers in the end.”

“I think directors have started supporting production sound teams a lot more and are expecting to have useable vocals, even in demanding environments. It means audio teams are getting more support in their quest for recording good production sound on set.”