The Oner (Live Vocal Recording)
The toughest scene that we shot was the apartment scene, where Mina (who plays Katie) sings live on camera. This was a situation that took the most planning and consideration, and received the greatest concerns from everybody. When Mallorie (the director) first approached me about this scene, Les Miserables immediately came to mind. Our sound instructor, Doug Vaughn, had the same idea, and brought in some articles for us to get acquainted with on the process.
Mallorie at first wanted the scene to be a single camera shot (oner), and record live vocals to a backing track. We later had a discussion about this, where I approached her about having a live piano accompanist for this scene, like Les Miserables did: "I mean, if we're going to go this far, we might as well go all the way." The ballsy woman that she was, she blinked and said, "You're right. Let's do this."
Insert terrifying/invigorating moment here.
But of course, we had a backup plan. We recorded the vocals for this scene ahead of time like the others, and shot a couple of takes with the lip-synced version. The majority of the shots we got were live. I played an electric keyboard and sent one signal into the field recorder on a track, and then the other into wireless earpieces for Mina (who played Katie) and JJ (our co-cinematographer).
The interesting thing was really how much drama having the live vocals with accompaniment created. When we watched the playback/lip-synced versions, the scene appeared and sounded a bit robotic and inorganic, because the music was set to a click when recording. With the live versions, there was a sense of life and movement. The scene was meant to highlight a real emotional moment for the lead. The result was truly beautiful, flaws and all.
We also had several takes, so we were actually able to edit some of the vocal takes and pitch correct as necessary during post.
It was a bit tricky to get our studio performers to match the rubato (free tempo) performance. I initially had recorded the Midi and audio versions for each take in my own Pro Tools rig (routing below), so that I could Midi map later. However, when it came down to it, it simply made more sense to show our charming pianist, Mark De Clive Lowe, the visuals to follow along to (as well as the audio) during our recording session.
Sergio Ruelas, our engineer for the day, came up with a brilliant plan. We set my laptop up on the upright piano at Apogee Studios for Mark to be able to see, and Sergio logged into the Apogee server and was able to mirror the display showing the Pro Tools session from the control room. On that display, we had a video of the scene, and the waveforms for the vocals. With those visuals, Mark was able to (after just a few tries) get the timing for the scene. Incredible.
And just like how Mark followed along to Mina's performance, Hyunsoo Nam conducted the string session rubato to Mark's piano performance. Again, incredible.
(Midi) Keyboard ---> Pro Tools using Mini Grand plugin ---> headphone out to playback interface ---> split stereo signal ---> (1) one goes into production field recorder, with summed audio (with vocals) back to headphones for the soundies (including Katie, who were operating the field recorder), Mallorie and me, and (2) the other one goes to wireless device to earpieces for Mina and JJ.
Vocals ---> recorded with boom mic into field recorder
The biggest priority for the scene was definitely SOUND. We needed a dead quiet environment for clean audio recording, and so the team built an apartment set on one of the sound stages (paint, furniture, everything), and covered the floor with carpeting to deaden the sounds of Mina, JJ, Woo (Jarrett Woo, our boom operator), and whoever was handling the cables behind them, walking throughout the apartment while Mina sang, without the two boys bumping into each other. That's a lot of people walking, trying not be quiet AND not bump into each other.
Another of Woo's big challenges was to avoid boom shadows during the scene (a single one would kill the oner), while at the same time getting a clean, straightforward recording. With all the lights, there were a lot of spots to be worried about.
I was situated in the back of the set, and to be perfectly honest, you could somewhat hear the clicks of the keyboard in the vocal recordings as Mina got closer to where I was later on in the song. However, we luckily had a very nice weighted keys keyboard that was fairly quiet to begin with (courtesy of our talented co-producer, David Liu). I also put the sustain pedal on top of a fuzzy rug so that we wouldn't hear it on the concrete of the sound stage as I pressed down on it. But the biggest thing that helped was that, by the time Mina got to where I was seated, the instrumental music really picks up, so the clicking isn't audible in the overall performance.
The end result is all that matters!
I hope you enjoyed all the posts about MSR. It was a huge undertaking for all of us, and the fact that we actually pulled it off (as a student production) was a result of our commitment to working together as a team. And just a tiny bit of a miracle, too. From this half-year experience, I made some amazing friends and colleagues, and hope to work with them again. Cheers!