It might be set in the '20s, but Downton Abbey certainly isn't a silent movie! We talk to the team behind its state-of-the-art sound production.
Downton Abbey presses rewind on British history, revisiting the age of aristocratic intrigue and country-house politics. It's also a showcase for Britain's creative industries, especially in the sound department. The TV series was scored by composer John Lunn, with performances, recording and mixing all taking place in the UK; and when Julian Fellowes' period drama moved to the big screen, the producers saw no reason to change a winning formula.
Downton Abbey: The Movie thus features Lunn's music throughout. The score was recorded and mixed by Paul Golding, while re-recording and dubbing were handled by Nigel Heath and Brad Rees of London post-production company Hackenbacker, all of whom performed the same roles on the TV series. Appropriately, much of the work took place at another 'best of British' institution: Abbey Road Studios. Most of the music was tracked in Studio One and mixed in the Penthouse, and the final dubbing mix took place in the studio's new Mix Stage.
Familiarity for lovers of the TV series was important, but the new context allowed things to be a bit more expansive. On the music front, this meant using a larger orchestra and tracking in bigger spaces; on the mix front, it involved working in surround for Dolby Atmos release; and in terms of dialogue, it meant exploiting the greater dynamic range on offer in the cinema.
"On television, especially in these days, we're very conscious of helping lines that are delivered quietly, remembering that the audience at home aren't sitting in a darkened room with people being quiet around them," explains Nigel. "They're watching television in a domestic environment. The washing machine may be on. There's traffic outside the door. And so we mix with that in mind..
"In the movie world, you've got a little bit more room. People have paid some money to sit in a darkened room and watch and listen carefully, so I allowed more dynamic range in the dialogue. Shouts were shouted, whispers were whispered. They were still assisted, and it was still hopefully balanced nicely for the punter or for the viewer, but it is a slightly different style."
The first stage of Hackenbacker's work on the movie was to audition the on-set dialogue recordings. These were captured by Alexis Sawyer using both lavalier and boom mics, and 'cleaned up' before delivery to Hackenbacker. "He'll use Auto‑Align so that the phase is beautiful between the shotgun and the lavs, and then he'll clean up what he needs to do, removing clothing noise if he can," explains Nigel. "We prefer to use editing techniques, rather than a huge amount of plug-ins. And then, on the board, I would have a choice of shotgun, lavalier, or a combination of both — then you get the warmth of the boom and you get the clarity of the radio mic."
The next step is to decide which sections, if any, might need to be replaced in the studio. "I don't read the script, because I don't want to learn the words!" insists Nigel. "I like to watch a cut quietly for one time only — no pressing stop, no pressing rewind — and anything I find hard to hear, I'll make a little note of, be it clarity of delivery or maybe for technical reasons. Then we'll consider that for, firstly, alternative takes from the rushes. The last option is ADR."
In the event, the amount of ADR that was necessary on Downton was relatively small. There were two scenes where the dialogue needed to be replaced entirely; elsewhere, it was a matter of dropping in the odd line or sentence. "We'll take the line and use maybe half a second of it, just to assist with S's and T's and clarity, performance of the words," says Nigel. "So that we're not throwing away the original performance in front of the camera, we're just assisting it with sounds."
ADR is also recorded using both a boom mic and a lavalier, but beyond that, Nigel doesn't strive too hard to match the conditions under which the on-set dialogue was recorded. As he points out, "The difference between recording in a field and recording in a Soho studio is so vast anyway that the choice of a brand of microphone is, in my mind, irrelevant."
From Nigel's point of view as the person responsible for making the entire sound world of the film hang together, the dialogue is the cornerstone. Once that is in place, says Nigel, "We build sound effects around that, backgrounds and atmospheres and spot effects, and then we have Foley, which is recorded in our Foley stage in Marylebone [London]. Brad mixes the Foley on the movies that we do. I step away from that...