Whiplash

by Thomas Curley CAS

 People are astonished that principal photography on Whiplash was only nineteen days and a $3.3M budget, so every day had to count. Add to this a first-time Director, Damien Chazelle, and a complex music intensive plot and the degree of difficulty increases. When the script and actors are top notch, then there is no room for compromise.

Pulling off the shoot took a lot of logistics and the AD team led by Nic Harvard was instrumental in making all of this work. I have worked with Nic several times in the past, so when I took his call to do Whiplash, I knew it would be a challenge, but he put me at ease.

I do not have a musical background. After finishing film school, I worked as a licensed Broadcast Engineer for television; my approach is both artistic and technical. Music is like a foreign language to me. After reading the script, I knew that the sound department would have our work cut out for us; we had to knock this out of the park.

I met with Director Damien Chazelle, and we spoke about the problems he had in shooting the short version, which won the Sundance Film Festival Short Prize in 2013 and how we would approach this for his ‘big screen version.’

Re-recording Mixers Craig Mann and Ben Wilkins as well as Music Editor Richard Henderson were already on board and working on prerecords of the drums, and the orchestra. We decided that it would not help to have a properly mic’d drum set and jazz band in the school environments, so doing live recording was out. The other major challenge would be the start-stop band practice scenes.

For these scenes, Miles Teller would wear a wire, and the boom would dance back and forth between J.K. Simmons and the drum kit. The rest of the music scenes were 95% playback. We recorded every playback take with the boom and faded the track down, rather than just stopping playback, so that any resonance, room tone and noises from the real instruments, were part of the production track. Additionally, Craig Mann recorded impulse responses on each set to get a precise model to apply reverb and the results were very convincing.

I improved my package for Whiplash and purchased a Schoeps CMIT 5U microphone, a Lectrosonics OctoPack, with four SR dual receivers and a Sound Devices CL-9 controller. I had previously owned a Yamaha 01V96 and a Sonosax SN-S eight-channel console. I gave them both up for a much more streamlined workflow with the CL-9. While it lacks some functions of a traditional analog console, the elegance of the system more than makes up for it. I like that it controls the mix track in the 788T without having to lose an iso track. It works off of the same power as the 788T, which is important to me, as I never know what our power source will be.

Even if my cart power and NP1 systems go down, I can still mix off the CL-9 with the internal 788T battery.

Our tech scouts revealed how we were going to pull off a nineteen-day shoot. Two weeks of our shoot were at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Los Angeles. The building proved amazing for the art department to build different sets on different floors. We had at least ten different sets in that building. All we had to do was hop in the elevator.

There was one spot where I knew there would be a huge problem, the Jazz Club, where Andrew reunites with Fletcher. The set was built in the lobby of the Orpheum Theatre. The back wall where the band would play did not exist, so the art department agreed to my request to build a double wall. The resulting air gap served to dampen the incessant bus traffic on Broadway. There was some bleed through, but it made the difference between rolling off the lows or sending the five-page scene to ADR.

By the end of the nineteen days, everyone on the crew knew they had worked on a really great film, no matter where it ended up. The level of professionalism and collaboration was exemplary. I felt like this was the set I dreamed of working on when I was driving from upstate New York to Los Angeles many years ago.

Whiplash turned out to be the gift that keeps on giving. I was thrilled to learn that it would open the Sundance Film Festival. I was on a mission to get into that screening. Just five minutes before the film started, I got the very last ticket and witnessed a standing-room-only crowd blow the roof off as the end credits rolled. What a rush.

A few weeks later, we were BAFTA and Academy Award nominees! I have never been so pampered in my life. We were thoroughly surprised to win a BAFTA, a unique and unequaled pleasure. This was was also a special honor for Ben Wilkins, who is from the UK. We were suddenly backstage, a whirlwind of press and then partying until the early morning.

Fast-forward to the Academy Awards. I couldn’t believe when the day came to walk the red carpet. I brought my dear mother, who couldn’t have been more proud. I spent most of the ceremony convincing myself that there was no way we could win. Statistically, no film this small had won the Academy Award for sound in thirty years. The amount of talent and money we were up against was intimidating too.

When they called our names, it was an overwhelming rush of pride and terror. I now had to gracefully walk to the stage in front of a 1.5 billion television audience! We were told that only one of us could speak, but when they didn’t play us off, I had to get a shout-out to my crew. It is still somewhat surreal to see these trophies in my living room. I got to check off several items from my bucket list, thanks to Whiplash. My life will never be the same. However, looking forward, I am excited about the great things I’ll be working on to keep challenging me much further.