by Vinny Alfano
Enter the magical world of Mary Poppins Returns and hear about the level of detail put into the sound by Oscar®-nominated sound designer and supervising sound editor, Renee Tondelli.
Over the course of her illustrious career Renee Tondelli has been nominated for an Oscar® for her work on Deepwater Horizon (2016) and received nearly a dozen nominations from BAFTA, AMPS, MPSE, and other esteemed organizations for her work on films like Into The Woods (2014), The Passion of the Christ (2004), and Memoirs of a Geisha (2005). We had the pleasure of having a very in depth discussion with Renee about her recent work on Mary Poppins Returns (2018), a sequel to the 1964 classic.
Warning: May contain spoilers.
There’s a kite that plays a very large roll in the introduction and in the ending of the film, could you talk a little bit about the sound of it?
How did you go about creating the tonal quality of the Parrot Cane’s voice?
The parrot itself was animatronic, with five guys working it behind the scene. One was in control of his eyes, one was the beak, one was his head, one was his neck, it was amazing what went into the build of this parrot. There was this animatronic motor on it that would run anytime the parrot was moving, so we had to be very cautious while working with it on-set. Simon Hayes, who is the most amazing production mixer did a sublime job capturing the cast’s dialogue without any intermixed motor noise.
"The biggest challenge is to make these songs come dramatically, effortlessly, and seamlessly out of the movie, out of the production. They are all climaxes to a particular scene, but you really have to serve that song. You can't just all of a sudden break into song because it would jar the audience."
There is a bit of an homage to the first one with the sound of the wind when Mary first enters. In the original, the nannies are blowing away, then there's one last nanny holding on desperately, finally she gets blown away and then Marry Poppins walks in. It was sort of the same in this movie with the children. There's several personalities of the wind because it plays such a big part in the film and Eugene did a remarkable job with that. There’s everything from layers and layers of wind and tiny little leaves to huge gale gusts and arctic winds when they're up on the tower and the kite gets blown into the Wilkin's bank office.
How did you go about balancing the dialogue and the singing voices of the cast?
Musicals are very complicated and difficult to make right, and there’s a lot of ways you can do them that don’t work well. The biggest challenge is to make these songs come dramatically, effortlessly, and seamlessly from the scene. They are all climaxes to a particular scene, but you really have to serve that song. You can't just all of a sudden break into song because it would jar the audience.
There was a tremendous amount of collaboration on the dialog between, myself and Jennifer Dunnington who is our uber-musical supervising editor. The two of us were constantly reworking the vocals and fixing things. I would do a pass on sync. She would do it. We would go back and forth, so there was a lot of weaving going on to make a song sound like it really did have happen in that scene.
Traditionally in musicals people drop out backgrounds and just keep foley in the song, but you really do hear the difference when you take out the backgrounds. It was a struggle for Eugene and I to make sure that the backgrounds actually sat in the scene, supported it, hugged it, and gave the feeling that that existed at that moment.
The reason why a lot of the dance numbers came out so great was because we used the co-choreographers Joey Pizzi and Tara Hughes, and a team of dancers to help with the foley for those scenes. We went to a rehearsal stage for two days, they taught all these dancers the steps to all the songs, we then went to C5 record. It was really wonderful to have them because there were seeing things going on that we could not see visually. Tara would say, "No, at this point they do a finger snap." We wouldn't have known that if we didn't have the choreographers there. It became this beautiful orchestra of foley that we were able to record, and it really did become a major rhythmic element of the song.
In Trip the Light Fantastic we used pig iron, which are these crude, big, thick, iron pipes, that we laid next to the stone floor where the dancers would jump off and on because it represented the lamppost. Every time a different dancer went on a different part... sometimes you would do them together... they would hit the pipe at a certain point, and it would have a different ring off that would be really beautiful. Because their shoes and the sound pressure of that particular footstep sounds different from person to person, we had this elegant, almost musical tone to the lampposts. Then they would jump back on and do their steps on the slate, on the stone floor, different material depending on the scene and what we were trying to accomplish.
The amazing thing about the dancers is that they don’t stop, they only do complete and entire takes. When Rob does his choreography it's in several layers, it’s not just a bunch of people doing, the same thing. You have probably five or six layers and rows of dancers, and each one is doing a different syncopated rhythm. Some might be doing hand claps and snaps and pats, and the other ones are doing shuffles while another row is doing tumblers. There might be another one spinning on a lamp, yet they all maintain a syncopated beat.
I really feel like Mary Poppins is magical realism, she’s a woman who happens to be very magical. The way we approached that was by dipping in and out of realism so to make sure it was always maintained in some fashion. Because everything is so intertwined (dialogue, sound effects, music), the lines had to be completely smudged between them so you never knew when one began and where one ended. But as far as the soundscape to it, we did a lot of that with foley and backgrounds.
When we got the music for the bowl scenes, the music editors said, "Oh, God. It's just that one tone, that one pitch is really clashing with the music.” so Jim Bruening went back in and pitched our impulse responses so that they worked beautifully with the music whenever it happened. You really felt like you were inside a bowl because that's one way to sell that set is that it sounds like they're in a bowl. The same thing with all the feet, we really spent a lot of time trying different shoes and surfaces. Andy Malcolm from Toronto, our team up there, did a lot of this for us. Every time someone walked, he would hit a porcelain sink with a mallet so it had a porcelain ring off, but it had the quality of a marble sound. Then, of course, each child had a different pitch, each person had a different pitch to their feet, and Eugene took those and did some wonderful reverbs and added that on top of it. After Eugene, Mike Keller, our amazing sound effects mixer, really took it and went into another level and expanded it. Everything was made of porcelain so even the steps of the carriage had the ring offs. The horse then had to be on porcelain, it was wonderful fun playing around with trying to make it how we wanted to make it sound.
Still from "A Cover Is Not The Book" musical sequence
We kept hearing from the animators, "Oh, there's gonna be a lot of animals in there." They're going to be walking down, they’re going to be surrounded by animals, then they get to this outside of a tent,” which we never saw. We never even saw what the tent looked like until way later. We started to get pencil drawings in for things, then we ended up going inside the music hall which was empty again, it was just a green screen with the main characters. We were told there were going to be all of these different animals in there and that they also are coming to hear Mary Poppins. Sort of everyone knows except for the kids and Mary Poppins is sort of, "Argh, Me? I couldn't possibly do… B-flat major." She knows and she's been there before, and everybody recognizes Mary Poppins. They also sing along with her song in the chorus. To get all these animals to be able to speak and not be cartoony and have all these wonderful British Isle accents and be in a music hall and be really rowdy and be able to sing along with Mary, I had to go to London.
What was your greatest asset on a large scale production like this?