It was the most anticipated set of shows in many years: Fifty sellout concerts at London’s O2 Arena marking the triumphant return of one of music’s most dynamic performers. A new studio album was in an early stage, and there were plans to shoot the last two O2 shows for a DVD. But as we all know, things didn’t quite work out as intended. When Michael Jackson died unexpectedly on June 25, all of those big plans went up in smoke and were replaced with…different plans, the centerpiece of which is a music documentary called Michael Jackson’s This Is It, compiled from tour rehearsals and contemporaneous interview footage. The film began a successful theatrical run in late October, and at press-time a DVD release of the film was expected in the near future. A companion two-CD set, also called This Is It, features the original studio versions of the songs in the film — in the order in which they appear in the movie — plus a poem by Jackson called “Earth Song” and one previously unreleased song, “This Is It,” co-written a number of years ago by Jackson and Paul Anka, and featuring backup vocals by Jackson’s brothers.
Putting together a feature-length documentary under the best conditions is a time-consuming and painstaking proposition, but in the case of This Is It, the filmmakers had to construct a movie largely out of elements that were not originally intended for release — on both the video and audio sides — and work at lightning speed to get it out in the fall. Even though the production was at the full-dress run-through stage at the Staples Center in L.A. when Jackson died, it had never been fully shot with multiple cameras and never completely recorded on multitrack, so when it was determined that a documentary would be made, the scramble was on to sort through untold hours of video and audio footage from multiple sources, from HD cam to simple handheld (video), and from multitrack Pro Tools to stereo camera audio.
It was a daunting task, and on the audio end, the initial cataloging of the audio elements and suggestions for the best audio sources to use in the film for a given song fell to tour audio supervisor Michael Prince and front-of-house mixer Bill Sheppell. Prince had worked for Jackson for nearly 15 years in a number of different audio capacities, from recording the superstar’s musical ideas in hotel rooms, studios or other places when he was out on the road or in L.A. or at the Neverland Ranch, to engineering and mixing his studio recordings and live shows. Sheppell is a revered live mixer who has worked often with Korn and, more germane to the Jackson camp, ran FOH for Prince’s 21-show run at the O2 in 2007.
“This film couldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for the fact that Bill Sheppell recorded some of the rehearsals,” Michael Prince says. “We were very fortunate that Bill was recording rehearsals multitrack to work on perfecting the mix when the band wasn’t there — to work on drum EQ, that sort of thing. He wasn’t capturing every rehearsal, just some of them, and some of the ones he captured in 2-track on his Pro Tools LE system just so he’d have a record of it and could see how things were progressing. Plus, we had to make recordings for the lighting director and for the programmers who were synching the lasers so they could get the length of the songs and the timing and the tempos.” In some cases, too, the only audio rolling was from cameras that were capturing onstage or backstage action for what at the time was to be a tour “making of” segment for the eventual concert DVD.
“There was an amazing amount of detective work required to put these songs together,” Prince continues. “Once the decision was made to make a movie, Bill Sheppell and I sat down in these little rooms at AEG [in L.A.] and started going through every hard drive of every day trying to figure out what days we had multitracks on, which days we had 2-tracks of, what songs we had in which format. We might only have the second half of ‘Startin’ Somethin” this day, and we have the first half of it from this other day. We also had to decide which multitrack sounded best of the band and use that as our bed track, and then we’d sometimes bring in guitar solos if there were closeups, or Michael’s vocal from different days and try to make the best of what we had. Sometimes the visuals are so much better on this day, and we’d say, ‘Well, we don’t have a vocal from that day; we didn’t record that.’ So we’d take the vocal from a previous day and match the EQ and level so it would fit sonically. Fortunately, rhythmically, MJ tended to sing things pretty much the same every day.”
Three members of the audio post crew (from left): re-recording mixer Paul Massey, tour audio supervisor Michael Prince and effects mixer David Giammarco
The fruits of Prince and Sheppell’s sleuthing, editing and mixing — with co-supervising music editors Scott Stambler and Ryan Rubin — were up to 64 tracks of material per song (some brought down from 90 by Sheppell), which were then delivered to Oscar-winning re-recording mixer Paul Massey who, with FX mixer Dave Giammarco, mixed the audio to picture in 5.1 on a Harrison MPC in Sony’s Cary Grant Theatre.
The mixers, too, were challenged by disparities in the audio material. “It is what it is,” Massey comments good-naturedly. “It’s not all beautiful multitrack audio. But it’s documentary, so one of the big mandates on this film was that there could be no ADR and no musical overdubs and such. Everything came from the rehearsals musically. There’s one song, ‘I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,’ which is this fantastic performance where Michael is singing with Judith Hill, one of the background singers. Well, there was no multitrack of it — we had a little bit of a 2-track front-of-house mix that Bill had done that was really just a guide, so he wasn’t closely monitoring it, and the rest is kind of camera 2-track and whatever ambient mics there may have been to pick up various parts of different rehearsals. But it’s still great because the performance is just awesome. In that situation, the performance — I hope — takes the audience away from the fact that it wasn’t a multitrack recording.”
Then there are songs like “Human Nature,” which starts out as 2-track camera audio but then moves to gloriously full multitrack as the picture changes from one rehearsal to another. “We’ve tried to even it all out with some EQ and compression,” Massey comments of the format variations. “I think people will understand what we were working with and appreciate it for what it is. I’m really proud of the end result, and I’m happy to have been involved. It’s a great tribute to Michael Jackson.”
Michael Prince agrees, but is perhaps a bit more wistful — after all, he worked closely with Jackson for so many years. “I’m blown away by what we were able to achieve, from an audio standpoint, with this film, but I’m also still really sorry that people never got to see and hear those concerts. They were really going to be amazing.”