SFP: "Notorious"BIGGIE SMALLS LIVES IN HIP-HOP BIOPIC 2/01/2009 7:00 AM Eastern
Not to be confused with Alfred Hitchcock's classic 1946 romantic thriller of the same name, the just-released Notorious is the story of the hip-hop martyr known variously as the Notorious B.I.G., Biggie Smalls and (to his family and some friends) Christopher Wallace. His saga is certainly film-worthy: The Brooklyn-born Wallace became a hip-hop superstar in the mid-'90s, selling millions of records and helping put East Coast rap — and Bad Boy Records boss Sean “Puffy” Combs, who's an executive producer of Notorious and depicted in the film by an actor — on an equal footing with the dominating West Coast artists. Biggie married label-mate Faith Evans and seemed to have everything going for him, but he soon became embroiled in a fierce rivalry with various West Coast rappers and their posses — especially Tupac Shakur — and their public (and recorded) taunts and “disses” escalated to violence. Eventually, Shakur, and then Biggie, were gunned down in their prime, with accusations about who ordered the “hits” (each's camp blamed the other's) lingering to this day. Biggie was just 25 when he was cut down in 1997, and in the years since his legend has only grown — and so have his record sales. His prophetically titled Life After Death, released right after his murder, has sold more than 10 million copies.
Even with Biggie's popularity, it was no slam-dunk that Notorious would even get made. There has never been a major rap/hip-hop biopic (though the Eminem vehicle 8 Mile was inspired by a slice of his life), and it was not clear who the target audience would be: Is it a “black” film, aimed at that demographic, or does it have broader appeal? But according to the film's New York-based supervising sound editor and re-recording mixer, Lewis Goldstein, “Once it got into production and they started seeing dailies, I think they realized what a broad film it could be. The film looks amazing; the visual character of this film is astounding. The cinematography [by Michael Grady] and the direction [by George Tillman Jr.] make it look huge. It's quite an accomplishment.”
In the title role, Jamal Woolard has received across the board plaudits for his uncanny physical and temperamental resemblance to Biggie; what's more, he (and the other actors) did their performances live rather than lip-synching to playback.
“One of the music editors, Jamie Lowery, experimented quite a bit with trying to make Jamal's voice sound even more like Biggie, pitching him down a little bit and trying some comparison plug-ins to try and match Biggie's timbre,” Goldstein says. “But what we found is that it ended up slightly hindering Jamal's performances by taking some of the edge off, so we decided not to do that. Jamal is not Biggie, but his performances are still really great. Ninety-nine percent of what's in the movie is these people singing live. Occasionally, we had to go in and ADR a word here and there because it wasn't said correctly or it wasn't sung quite right, but we did that as little as possible. And when we did, we always got the same mic that was used in the live performance so we could match it perfectly.”
In the live music scenes, the actors mostly rapped/sang over a stereo playback track, and production mixer Mathew Price had eight to 10 live mics on the principals, as well as several booms on the audience. Goldstein says, “I got onto the project so late that a lot of the live performances were shot prior to me coming on the job, and Mathew did amazing work, but I would've liked to have had some additional mics on the audience because that's where a lot of the energy for those scenes comes from. It didn't end up being a problem, though, because we figured out a way to get what we wanted from the boom tracks.” The solution for Goldstein was to use bits and pieces of the 12 to 15 available takes and use mics from these different performances. “We did some really tight editing on them to build these audiences and then augment them with some sound effects,” he says. He was hampered somewhat by the amount of playback music in the boom takes, “so I had to go through a lot of EQ and noise reduction to try to get rid of as much of the playback from the boom channel as possible so I'd have these crowds clean.
“Having so many channels of crowd, I could really pan them around the 5.1 field and create a very large audience sound, which was great because on two of the primary songs, when Biggie is at his pinnacle — ‘Warning’ and ‘Juicy’ — there was a tremendous amount of crowd participation where the audience is singing with him, and since I had the boom track [takes], it sounds tremendous. Then we also did a little loop group recording with about 15 people to give even more definition to the crowd.”
Goldstein says that Woolard's performances were so tight and consistent from take to take that “later you could take all these different performances of the same song and cut in and out between them and they'd match incredibly well.” In fact, the only downside to the live performances was “these guys were putting out so hard into these wireless radio mics — and bouncing around the stage — that those recordings are a little crunchy. It's very compressed live singing, verging on distortion. My inclination was to try to clean everything up and smooth things out, but [director] George [Tillman] really didn't want that. He wanted it edgy because that's the way those performances sound in that world. That's another reason he didn't like most of the ADR we tried on the singing, too: It didn't have that same live energy. Everything in this movie was about energy for him.”
Goldstein has been involved with film sound for more than two decades, getting his start in New York right out of college working as a sound editor on commercials using the then-new New England Digital PostPro system. From there, he drove to L.A. and landed a position at the first big digital post house in town — EFX Systems — cutting dialog, FX and, within a couple of years, also supervising on myriad TV and film projects. “[EFX founder] George Johnsen had an amazing vision of the digital future but it would take quite a while for the film industry to come around,” Goldstein says. “He had so much financial investment in this with the NED PostPros and Synclaviers and [Sony] 3324 digital multitracks. There was a group of about eight of us who were doing almost all of our work on digital editing systems, which was rare back in the mid-'80s. I've stayed with digital technology ever since and gone through many different editing systems — from Synclavier to Otari to the Doremi Dawn system. I also had a hand in helping out [in the development of] the AudioVision, which was Avid's original audio editing device.”
The arc of Goldstein's career took him from L.A. back to New York in the mid-'90s, when he worked out of C5 with the likes of Skip Lievsay, Ron Bouchar and Phil Stockton. “That was an amazing time,” he says. “We were working on things like Men in Black, Coen Brothers films like Fargo and with many great New York directors; lots of really, really good films.” These days, Goldstein has his own Manhattan-based sound editorial shop, NYC Department of Sound, with a staff of editors, all of them fluent on the digital format of the day, Pro Tools. His work the past few years has included supervising and/or mixing on a variety of big and small projects posted in New York City, including Last Holiday, The Squid and the Whale, The Sentinel, The Visitor and another interesting recent music-biz film, Cadillac Records — the story of Chess Records — which he finished mixing right before Notorious.
“I've really only ever mixed in a virtual environment,” he comments. “Every film I've mixed has been Pro Tools-based. I come from an editing background, and moved from that into mixing. A lot of the jobs I have, because of budget and time frame, require a good amont of editorial during the mix process. And there is no better way than to have all of the sound source material in a system that is also the mix system. At the same time, a lot of lower-budget material in New York — the $5 million and down films, even the $15 million films — have more limited mix budgets. And with a system like an ICON or a Pro Tools-based mixing system, you're able to to get the job done incredibly efficiently.”
Goldstein says that originally on Notorious, “We were slated for a hybrid mix. I was going to do FX and backgrounds [on Pro Tools] and another mixer was going to be doing dialog and music on a [Neve] DFC, and we'd split it up that way. But we did a series of temp mixes with just me mixing in Pro Tools in this facility downtown called Goldcrest — a great Dolby-certified room where I do a lot of my mixing. We did most of the ADR there, too. And as we got closer and closer to the final mix of the film, there were a lot changes coming in and the schedule got pushed — we started adding voice-over, Danny Elfman came on as the composer and that took some time, and they were also doing picture changes. We started losing the time we were going to have at the [DFC studio with the other mixer], and since these smaller Pro Tools mixes I'd been doing were working out well, it was eventually decided to finish the movie that way, but in a bigger room.”
The mix studio he chose, Digital Cinema, in Midtown on the far West Side, was built many years ago for the late, Oscar-winning mixer Rick Dior. “It's probably the largest mix room on the East Coast,” Goldstein says, “and it's not used that often because the majority of mixers in New York are on staff at other facilities. But it's an amazing room; more of an L.A.-style room, with great acoustics and the physical volume. I mixed a chunk of Cadillac Records there, and also mixed a [forthcoming] film called New York, I Love You there.” Although Digital Cinema is equipped with a Neve DFC, “I have never turned it on,” he says. “I brought in a Digidesign C24 and I mixed the entire film that way. But I utilized the room for what it has to offer — a great space.”
Between the many music scenes and other action on the streets, in clubs, in prison, at parties, in houses and apartments and such, Notorious proved to be a complicated film to mix. “This film has a lot of sides to it, which made it a lot of fun and challenging,” Goldstein says. Much of it required a fairly straightforward and realistic approach, but there are also many interesting sound design moments that challenged Goldstein and his FX editor/designer Rusty Dunn to be out-of-the-box creative. Goldstein says, “There's some sound design that's almost like action-movie sound design, with fast swishes and all this motion, and then there are also party scenes that go into super-slo-mo, almost like music video scenarios, as well as flashback moments.
“I swear, I've never mixed more music ins and outs: overlapping with this, it's cross-fading, it's now source music taking place in a bar and it slowly becomes a score piece. In party scenes in Notorious, a piece of music would start out as score — it slams in and starts the scene — and over a period of time it becomes smaller, moves to the background, becomes like an underscore, it gets more of a tight room reverb, and all of sudden becomes a source cue. There are also some scenes where source and score are playing simultaneously and it was a real fine line determining which would be the dominant element in a scene. It would move back and forth between them depending on what needed to be emphasized emotionally.” Goldstein describes Elfman's score as “very different for him. A lot of it is sort of tonal, drone-y and ethereal. There are some more traditional orchestral things, too. But it's all very effective.
“It's a loud movie, one of the loudest I've ever worked on,” Goldstein says with a laugh. “The amount of subwoofer we put on — not just on the music, but also on sound effects, and these transitions between scenes, as well as several flashback moments that were low-frequency bys and swishes and impacts.”
He says that director Tillman had a lot of input into the sound and “knew exactly what he wanted. He was there every second. So was the picture editor, Dirk Westervelt. The amount of time those two put in was staggering. Dirk also had a great editorial department that early on did everything right as far as setting up the film in the Avid. It gave us great flexibilty throughout the process to constantly be getting OMF [Open Media Framework] updates. They had loaded all of the audio from the shoot into the Avid.
“And since all of the microphone channels were ingested at the same time in Pro Tools, David Briggs — the dialog editor — was able to switch easily between mics, even if the only channel cut in the Avid was the mixed track.”
The days and nights finishing Notorious were long and intense, but at the end of the day, Goldstein was elated by the experience: “It went through a dramatic evolution picture-wise, story-wise and sound-wise, always getting better and better, which is what you hope for. It was a very worthwhile endeavor from a movie point of view, a craft point of view and working with some great people.”