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Capturing ‘A Star is Born’ Live at Coachella

The audio team of the recent remake of A Star is Born recounts the challenges of recording live vocals for the entire film, and filming live/mimed scenes onstage at Coachella and Glastonbury.

Culver City, CA (December 21, 2018)—Actor and first-time director Bradley Cooper’s remake of A Star is Born is a music-driven experience; the film opens and—bam—the audience is right there on stage as Cooper’s character and his band rip through “Black Eyes” in front of a festival crowd. The crowd is real and the vocals are live, but it was hard work and preparation, not movie magic, that ensured authenticity.

Lady Gaga, Cooper’s costar in the film, does everything live, reported production sound mixer Steve Morrow during a presentation in the Composer’s Lounge at a MIX Magazine event in mid-October. Morrow was joined on the couch by re-recording mixer Dean Zupanic and music mixer Nick Baxter. “She doesn’t lip sync,” he said, and when she signed on to the project, “she challenged Bradley to do the same thing.”

Some of those opening shots were filmed at Stagecoach Festival, others at Coachella, which is held on the same site, in Indio, CA, and at the UK at Glastonbury Festival. The challenge at all those events was that the movie crew and performers had only minutes to grab those shots while festival stage crews were changing over bands.

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“There’s about 15 or 20 minutes while they switch out the equipment. We got eight minutes of that before Willie Nelson went on [at Stagecoach],” said Morrow. The band in the movie had already recorded the songs, eight of which were written by Nelson’s son, Lukas Nelson, so the relevant tracks were patched to their monitors. All available mics—not just the vocals—were also captured to the production recorder.

“The vocals were always live, the band was occasionally live,” said Baxter. “We knew going in that if we did band and vocals live, when we got into the editing room it would be a hot mess, no matter how great the musicians were.”

Baxter handled on-set playback for La La Land and brought that experience to this production. “We had earpieces, so the band could play along and sing live,” he said.

“We had really good pre-records heading in, so we were concentrating on getting clean vocals. Luckily, the band onscreen is the band that played in the studio, so they knew the songs.”

At Stagecoach, he continued, “We had a mic on everything live, just in case something happened. And on the first sequence, we used live drums—because we didn’t have time to mute them. And they matched the audience mics and had some cool reflections.”

In any case, at each live shoot, he said, “We did impulse responses at every venue, which was a big part of getting it to feel live and place elements in the space afterwards. Coachella’s main stage was one of my favorites—the delay was so extreme.”

Kris Kristofferson, who starred in the previous version of the film, gave permission for Cooper to jump onstage before his set for some solo footage at Glastonbury. “We originally had 10 minutes to shoot and had three songs we wanted to do,” Morrow recalled. “Forty seconds before we went on, they said, ‘We’re running long; you have three minutes.’ We decided on the spot to just play 30 seconds of the part of each song we wanted in the film.”

The live shots were filmed 18 months before the film’s release, which meant there was a risk that someone would pull out a phone, record it and share it. “We didn’t amplify it for the crowds,” said Morrow, except for Cooper’s “Black Eyes” solo. “We broke out the guitar riff and amplified it. That pumped the crowd up.”

Morrow and Baxter typically captured 60 tracks during band shoots, which they delivered to Jason Ruder, the supervising music editor, who was also always on-set. “It’s invaluable to be on the set,” said Baxter. “When you know about the details that were captured, you can grab them and pull them into the mix. Maybe the bass was great from a live take, or there was a guitar moment that was awesome.”

Baxter delivered the music in 5.1 and 7.1 to the mix stage, he said. “It gives the re-recording mixers more freedom.”

The film is notable for its use of Dolby Atmos, but that wasn’t in the original plan. “The final mix started as a 7.1 and we were going to upmix it to Atmos,” said Zupanic. “We started the process of making it Atmos and Bradley was blown away by what Atmos could do, so we remixed the movie and downmixed it to 7.1.”

“The movie is shot from the stage as if you are part of the band,” Morrow noted. “You’re on this stage and the sound reflects that. It feels authentic and real. Putting the audience where the camera is really paid off with Atmos.”

Dolby Atmos also offers enhanced clarity for the music tracks, said Baxter. “The big advantages are that the surrounds are full-frequency and you can pull the music just off the screen, so it has its own speakers and isn’t fighting with the crowd or dialog in the way that it normally would [in 7.1].”

There were quiet moments too, such as Lady Gaga’s a capella performance in a pivotal parking lot scene. “On a film that doesn’t have a ton of money, you don’t shut down the street,” said Morrow. “You have traffic, and it’s a quiet, intimate scene, so you do the best you can. That’s why we had four mics for two people: two booms, two radio mics. The radio mic sounds great in a wide [shot], but for her singing, it needed to be boom—and your hand is on that gain knob.”

Unusually, Baxter’s work tailed off with the production. “The unique part for me was how little interaction there was with them in post production. Normally, there’s re-recording to fix stuff, but we had so much incredible material from set, we didn’t re-record any of their vocals.”

That was due in no small part to Cooper’s attention to every detail, said Zupanic. “The commitment came from the top down.”

“They make you feel like they want you there,” Morrow agreed. “You’re there for a reason, and it’s not just to make their movie. It’s a family of people making a movie together.”