‘Baby Driver’: Production Mixer Mary Ellis and Editor Paul Machliss Bring Sound and Picture into Perfect Sync


“Not much.”

That was production sound mixer Mary Ellis’ answer to the question, “Compared to the many other films you have worked on, what is similar about this film?”

Shot in Atlanta, Georgia, this film is not only unique in the methods used to make it, but also in the amount of collaboration used — required, actually — between the sound and picture departments. Since Sound & Picture emphasizes collaboration between departments, what better film to feature in this issue than Baby Driver. So we got the production sound department and editor together to tell us how it was done.

Other than the modern-day rarity of shooting on 35mm film, a significant difference about this production was that the editor, Paul Machliss, actually worked on the set. Not only did he edit on set, he was instrumental in making sure the various complex components of the scenes worked together as planned.

Editor Paul Machliss, sound mixer Mary Ellis, boom operator James Peterson, sound utility Thomas J. Doolittle, and playback engineer Alex Lowe on set

Usually a music track is added to a film, and it is dictated by the action and dialogue. With Baby Driver, it was just the opposite. The music was carefully chosen by the director, Edgar Wright, and was recorded and edited before production. It dictated the timing of everything else; not just singing along with a track (of which there was very little), as in a traditional musical, but everything else. Every nuance, every motion, every door, every pencil move, every footstep, every tire screech, every gunshot, every lighting strike… every detail is in step with the music. Some you notice consciously, others subconsciously, but at some point, you realize that the sound and picture are — intentionally — in perfect sync. But it’s more than technique for the sake of technique. This nearly impossible to achieve sync has a definite purpose, adding intensity to the story and emphasis to match the director’s vision.

“There are 32 songs in this film, but it’s not a musical, at least not in the traditional sense,” Mary Ellis explains. “The premise is that the lead character, Baby [Ansel Elgort], has intolerable tinnitus [ringing in the ears], which he deals with by constantly listening to music, mostly through ear buds. This music becomes the rhythm of his life and everything in it. The actors don’t sing or dance, but all of their actions and lines are choreographed — exactly — to the music.”

Director Edgar Wright with lead actors Lily James and Ansel Elgort on set

Baby Driver was full of new methods and challenges for editor Paul Machliss as well, noting that this was the first time his work was done on set during production, every day, for every scene. “Every action — every little thing — has been thought out and planned to be in sync with the music, and with rhythmic purpose,” Machliss says. “For this reason, the film can be watched multiple times, and new details will be appreciated each time. The first time is just to enjoy the movie, when it’s eventually noticed that even the finest detail is driven by the music, in both rhythm and substance. Each watching of the film after that, something new is noticed, which makes the film more appreciated each time. As the editor, this creates a special challenge of keeping the action, dialogue, and music synchronized, which requires thinking about all three at [exactly]  the same time.”

As an example of the complexity and challenges of this film, Ellis recalls the first day of production: “On day one we had a Steadicam one-er [a single uninterrupted take, no cuts]  lasting three minutes, 55 seconds. The lead actor is taken out of a building, walks down a city block, then around a corner, down another block, then a ‘360’ in a coffee shop, then back to the original building. At the same time, there were 60 background actors, all with specific actions such as hailing a taxi, a messenger on a bicycle, a near miss with a car, a street preacher, skaters, people arguing on the street, etc. All of these actions not only had to be in rhythm with the music track, they had to happen on specific beats in the music. All of the actors had to hear and be heard. Cars on the street were choreographed, and the camera operators, grips, crane operators, and other crew did their moves on specific music cues, so they had to hear the track, too. And on this scene it went on for nearly four minutes without stopping. Then we reset and did it again — 21 times.”

Walter Gasparovic, director Edgar Wright, DP Bill Pope, Sean Moe, boom operator James Peterson, and other crew on set

Boom operator James Peterson adds, “Booming with the Steadicam doing 360s in the street with moving traffic almost got me hit by two cars. So I worked it out with the AD [assistant director]  to be hidden in plain sight within the crowd during certain music cues. Since the action was almost exactly the same each time because it was in sync to the music, I knew where I could be at any point during the take.”

According to editor Machliss, “Of the 21 takes we shot of that scene, when it came to choosing the hero, take nine was the one used in the film.”

Keeping scenes like this in rhythm requires the actors and crew to hear the music, but in a way that doesn’t interfere with the dialogue and other sounds. That responsibility goes to the sound department — specifically to the Pro Tools playback engineer, Alex Lowe. As Mary Ellis explains: “We had six Phonak earwigs [tiny wireless audio receivers that hide inside the ear]  working all the time for the actors, and eight Comteks [wireless receivers with headphones]  for the camera ops, focus pullers, crane operators, etc., to time their actions with the music.”

Debora (Lily James) and Baby (Ansel Elgort) share a moment at the laundromat

But wait, there’s more: In addition to keeping the actors and crew movements in time with the music, there were also special effects such as lighting flashes that had to happen on cue, at exactly the same place, take after take. To accommodate this, Ellis and crew sent playback timecode from the music track to the dimmer board and other special effects devices.

Adding to the complexity for music playback was the occasional use of camera frame rates faster than the normal 24 frames per second (fps) rate to achieve a special effect. Lowe explains: “The camera would sometimes shoot 32fps or 36fps so that when the film was played back at the normal 24fps, the movement would be in slow motion with a smooth dream-like appearance, but still in sync with the music at normal speed. When using this technique, the music still had to be in sync with the slow motion image. To accomplish this, playback speed of the music must be increased by the same percentage as the film, so that when the film is slowed down to the normal 24fps, the actions are in sync with the original tempo of the music track. For example, when shooting at 36fps, which is 1.33x faster than 24fps, I would increase the 48kHz sampling frequency of the music playback track to 64kHz [48 x 1.33 = 64]. This way, when slowed down with the film, the music track is back to its original tempo and normal 48kHz sampling frequency, and in sync with the slow motion picture.”

With so much for the sound department to do, Ellis credits her “hometown advantage” with helping the department succeed. “Being an Atlanta local, I grew up in this industry with most of the crew on this show, so there is a lot of respectful assistance.”

Director Edgar Wright and editor Paul Machliss on set

From a production perspective, what stands out most about this film is the seemingly unprecedented amount of collaboration between the departments. Actors, sound, camera, editorial, special effects, music — all kept together by the director. While production sound departments are often left to fend for themselves, Ellis was happy that director Wright was very “sound friendly” and understood in great detail the special role that sound had in this film. Machliss adds, “Edgar genuinely cares about sound and understands the process. He will not shoot until the sound department is happy.”

Given the economic and time advantages of shooting digital video, Machliss explains why Baby Driver was shot on 35mm film. “It was an aesthetic choice made by Edgar. Everything he’s ever shot has been on film, and he will shoot film for as long as he can. We did comparison tests with digital cameras, and they were very good, but it had the same look as other modern films shot digitally, and we wanted a look that would set this film apart from the others. We would A/B [test]  digital against film, and every time we chose the look of film. Shooting on film absolutely made a difference. The sheen and grain of film give this show a look that harkens back to the anamorphic classics.”

And “a classic” is what Sound & Picture predicts Baby Driver will be.

As I predicted during the interview for this article last summer, Mary Ellis and the mixing team, and Paul Machliss and the editorial team have been nominated for Oscars and BAFTA Awards. Congrats on the well-deserved honors, and best of luck on your big nights!


Images courtesy of Sony Pictures

Behind the Scenes Gallery:

Production Stills Gallery: