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Sound mixer Simon Hayes takes PSNEurope inside Mary Poppins Returns

Hayes recalls Poppins, gear and his path from working on commercials as a teenager to becoming one of the best production sound mixers in the business

From the mean streets of Guy Ritchie’s London to the magical whimsy of Mary Poppins Returns, Oscar winning production sound mixer Simon Hayes has applied his midas touch to some of the most iconic films of the past two decades. Here he tells PSNEurope editor Daniel Gumble about his incredible career to date and the task of bringing one of cinema’s best loved characters to life through sound…

When a hungry and ambitious Simon Hayes made his feature film debut as a production sound mixer on Guy Ritchie’s Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels at the age of just 27, he could never have predicted that some 20-odd years later he would be regarded as one of the most sought after figures in the world of musical cinema. His outstanding sound mixing work on Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables earned him an Oscar in 2013, while his CV boasts credits for some of the biggest releases in recent history. Among them are Snatch, Shaun Of The Dead, Mamma Mia!, Layer Cake and most recently, the highly-anticipated Mary Poppins Returns. What’s more, he is already working on a live action film adaptation of Cats and has a yet to be titled project with director Danny Boyle in the pipeline.

What first attracted you to sound?

My dad was a production sound mixer. He would bring back bits of broken sound equipment when I was about five years old and ask me to fix them. So instead of being given toys I was given bits of broken equipment. I left school at 16 and got a job as a runner in a commercials production company. I was gravitating towards being an assistant director, but at 19 I decided that route wasn’t for me and went to work with my old man. I did that for a year and then, because I’d made some contacts in commercials as a runner, I started getting offered work and began mixing commercials when I was about 20 years old. I then met a runner on a commercial and who was an aspiring director, making short films at the weekend. He asked if I would like to come and do a short film he was working on that weekend. That director was Guy Ritchie. So we made this short film The Hard Case in 1995, but he thought 10 minutes wasn’t enough and decided he wanted to write a longer version. Two years later, he phoned me back to say it was financed and asked if would I like to work on it. That was Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and that was how I got into feature films at 27 years old.

What was it like to work on such a huge hit as your debut feature film?

At that point there was an established British film industry of older technicians, but it wasn’t a busy industry, so it was extremely difficult to break into. There were a lot of technicians like myself across all departments who were enjoying quite busy careers in commercials and music videos but were desperately looking to get into film. With Lock Stock, we all arrived on set and the script was a real page turner, clearly something very special. I knew most of the HODs from commercials and music videos, and one thing that was tangible was that we had an ambitious and hungry cast and no one on that crew who was deadwood. Everyone was out to do the very best job they could and that definitely comes across in the movie.

Fortuitously, we were shooting with a DP, Tim Maurice-Jones, who was very supportive of sound. Guy is all about comedy dialogue and patter, and consequently, he didn’t want to do any ADR. Thankfully, the cameraman was very accommodating to what we needed to get good sound on the movie. So, it got around the industry that we hadn’t needed to do any ADR on Lock Stock and that was very helpful in getting me my second, third and fourth films.

So what came next?

I took every film I was offered. I stuck with Guy Ritchie and his producer Matthew Vaughn and we did Snatch and Mean Machine. Then a couple of fortuitous things happened for me. Matthew decided he wanted to direct and he’d been the producer whose budgets I’d saved due to not having to do ADR. He wanted to take me on to his first project, which was Layer Cake, and that was a step up in budget. The film started getting bigger and I’m now serving Matthew and Guy.

Also at that point, Eric Fellner and Tim Bevan had employed a very ambitious producer called Sarah Jane Wright who was looking after a company called Working Title 2, which was Working Title’s low budget films division. Suddenly I was asked to do Working title 2 films, one of which was Shaun Of The Dead. Then, because of my success with the lack of ADR on the Working Title 2 projects, I got a chance to interview for Bridget Jones: The Edge Of Reason, which was a Working Title, big budget film.

How did that differ from what you’d done before?

It happened around the time when we were moving from two tracks to multi-tracks, and I had been very well known for using two booms on everything and getting very clean boom dialogue. Also, on the films I’d been working on, the budget meant we would shoot on one camera. If you shoot a film with one camera you can get great boom sound, you’re always going to have sound quality that matches the camera perspective. When I moved on to Bridget Jones, we were going to use two or three cameras on everything, so you’re not always going to be on the edge of the close-up. You really have to commit to using radio mics as well as booms, which is a big step because radio mics are far more difficult to get sounding good. Now what we do on every film is use radio mics and booms because we have multiple tracks.

At that point, one of the things that held mixers back from radio micing and booming everything was the fact that we only had two tracks, so you had to make a commitment on the floor as to what your process was going to be. Now we’ve got multiple tracks, you don’t have to make that commitment, but when we were shooting Bridget Jones I couldn’t get my hands on a multi-track machine. So we had a non-linear Nagra V, which was a two-track machine, recording on to a hard disk rather than tape, and we ganged two of those together with Time Code and created four tracks. We were able to put a boom on track one and have three people on radio mics, or if required, mix a couple of people on to one of the tracks. The next big step came when I was offered a film called Copying Beethoven, which starred Ed Harris and was extremely technically challenging musically. Ed was going to spend a lot of time in front of the camera writing music, picking up a violin or playing things on a piano. He couldn’t play either instrument, but his character needed to be playing phrases, so we had to assign every single phrase of the piano and violin and play it into a hidden earpiece so that in the middle of his dialogue scenes, if he picked up a violin, literally as the bow hit the strings he would get the correct phrase in his ear to mime to. That presented an extreme technical challenge, which brought us into the world of musicals.

The film was, technically, a great success. It received mixed reviews but for us it was invaluable in our learning process. After that we got offered Mamma Mia! That was another level up and we had a lot of input from Benny and Bjorn about how we were going to record the musical parts and how we would blend the live recordings with the pre records. For instance, Meryl Streep sung two or three songs live on that set, and that gave me the confidence to tell Tom Hooper, when he asked me if it would be possible to record the whole of Les Miserables live, that it could be done.

How did you come to work on Mary Poppins Returns?

I’ve always been a huge fan of [director] Rob Marshall. He’s one of the most exciting directors in the world today and getting offered Mary Poppins was hugely exciting. He brings so much enthusiasm and support that it’s infectious. When you’re on a set with him everyone wants to do their best. We all knew it was a huge project to take on. Everyone loves Mary Poppins and we knew we had to do the best job possible to be considered in the same ballpark as the original. Not only was it a challenge for the spoken dialogue, but also the musical numbers. We did some really great live recordings and blended some of them into playback and back out to live when we needed to. For sound, it was a huge technical task. What was wonderful about it was the scale of Rob’s vision. He only wants the best and that’s what I want when I’m recording sound for a director. Rather than settling for something slightly sub par to save time, he was very happy to extend the time to support his heads of department.

How did it feel when it was finished?

We were very lucky; we had a music director called Mike Higham who was incredible to work with. We also had Mike Prestwood Smith who is one of the best re-recording mixers in the world. Also, the supervising sound editor Renee Tondelli collaborated with my team and I from the get go. It wasn’t a case of sound production handing over the sound to sound-post; there was collaboration before we even started shooting where we talked about the tonal qualities of what we wanted to record and how we would weave creatively in and out of live singing and playback to dance numbers. We also planned how we would go into the historic vehicles we have in the background on set, getting them recorded by putting mics inside the engines and on their exhausts so that every single background sound you hear is era-correct. That creates a soundscape that the audience believes. We tried to create a soundtrack par excellence.

Talk us through your preferred equipment.

There is only one type of lavalier mic we use and that’s DPA. We use 4071s on some voices, we use 4061s on others, but one thing’s for sure, we only use DPAs because they are transparent and natural. Other lavaliers sound like lavaliers, whereas DPA lavaliers sound like boom mics and sound open not compressed. Sound editors are able to edit them with booms more easily. We also use Audio Developments mixers and a Zaxcom Deva 24. I’m only interested in using the very best sound equipment. The prerequisite is that it’s got to sound great, coming from a company that really cares about the industry and the creative process.