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The Audio of ‘Chicago 7’ Was A Trial Itself

The audio team behind writer/director Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 faced numerous challenges, including 15 remote mics in some scenes.

Up to 15 microphones were used while filming the courtroom scenes, with actors wearing lavs and some period mics actively used on the stand.
Up to 15 microphones were used while filming the courtroom scenes, with actors wearing lavs and some period mics actively used on the stand. Niko Tavernise/Netflix

Hollywood, CA (April 5, 2021)—On its face, Netflix’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a drama about the violent anti-Vietnam war protests during the 1968 Democratic National Convention and the conspiracy charges leveled against some of the participants. However, for writer and director Aaron Sorkin, who completed filming in late 2019, the story’s resonance with the political climate in the U.S. was such that he pushed to release the movie before the 2020 presidential election.

Within weeks, COVID-19 sent Hollywood into lockdown. “No one at the time had a plan,” says sound designer/supervising sound editor Renee Tondelli, an Oscar nominee for 2016’s Deepwater Horizon. Faced with having to record ADR with the principal actors and extensive loop group on a shortened post schedule, “I said, how am I going to do this? Because I can’t have people on the stage.”

For re-recording mixer Julian Slater, a two-time Oscar nominee for 2017’s Baby Driver, working on Stage 6 at Warner Bros. Studios, it was business as usual—almost. “The mixing side of things didn’t change much,” says Slater, apart from a five-person occupancy limit on the stage, which included sound effects re-recording mixer Michael Babcock, picture editor Alan Baumgarten and Tondelli.

With actors holed up at home, Tondelli had each of them give her a virtual tour to find a suitable recording spot. She had the principals and the 15 loop actors each buy a Shure MV88 microphone, designed for iOS devices, then spent a couple of weeks coaching them through the recording process.

To cue the actors, Tondelli used Frankie, an interactive browser-based solution from Australian developer Cospective that serves synchronized video to 10 people at a time. “And they had to go on a Zoom call so we could see each other,” she adds.

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Eddie Redmayne recorded ADR in a cupboard at his home in England, says Tondelli. “We spent the entire day going through that scene,” she says, where his character reads the names of fallen soldiers as the crowd noise—which also had to be replaced—and music builds.

Slater, who was working for the first time with Sorkin, Baumgarten and Tondelli, says he was concerned about potential problems with the ADR tracks. “But Renee had done so much prep work that it sounded great.”

Plus, COVID-19 proved to be a boon for actors looping riot scenes outdoors. “The world had stopped, so it was heaven—no traffic, no sirens, no planes,” says Tondelli, although a neighbor called the cops on one actor when they heard him screaming.

In the riot scenes, says Slater, who was mixing the film as Black Lives Matter protests were happening nationwide, “Aaron was very keen on keeping the energy up. Those scenes are a mixture of a lot of things going on around us on and off screen.”

With a nod to composer Daniel Pemberton, he says, “You’ve also got the score giving a propulsive energy to the scene. I would give the music a kick up at a moment when you could appreciate it, then duck it under the dialog and reset. What you hear is the score stepping up and stepping up, yet at the same time it’s not overpowering. As audio storytellers or enhancers, our job is to reinforce what’s happening, but try not to distract from it.”

“It was really important for people to feel it, more than see or hear it. We can achieve that by taking away bits and pieces,” says Tondelli.

She reports that production mixer Thomas Varga built a new rig to handle the courtroom scenes that make up a lot of the picture. “He needed 15 mics, because the courtroom scene is huge. Aaron likes to be in the moment, and all of these people had to be recorded at the same time.”

Sorkin used a lot of wide shots, which meant Varga could rarely use more than two boom mics. The principal actors all wore lav mics, she says, but then he saw that the prop master had some vintage mics. Varga persuaded Sorkin to use them on set so they could double as plant mics. “Aaron really listens to the people that know what they’re doing,” she says.

Netflix •