Performed on a set exactingly built to evoke the 1964 Walt Disney classic Mary Poppins and animated the old-fashioned way, Mary Poppins Returns plunges you back into an alternate universe that feels, acts and sounds very much like its inspiration. You might think you know where you’re headed, but nuanced wonders abound: a star turn by the ageless, ever-nimble Dick Van Dyke; nostalgic echoes and clever updates of the original film’s musical phrases and themes; a surprisingly modern and moving exploration of love and loss; and an excess of that all-too-rare commodity, hope. Visually, the new film explodes in saturated color on screen. And, because this is a Rob Marshall musical, the choreographed sonic pleasures rarely stop.
Supervising sound editor and sound designer Renée Tondelli, who has worked with Marshall on five of his films, says she was perpetually in awe of the way Marshall directed the film’s many layered components, from the musical centerpieces to the period soundscape. We talked to her about how she and the film’s co-supervising sound editor and sound designer Eugene Gearty articulated the magic realism inherent in Marshall’s long-awaited sequel and the “wonderful Lazy Susan of collaboration” that animated the entire project.
StudioDaily: When you officially got the job, what was your immediate reaction?
Renée Tondelli: For starters, it’s the return of Mary Poppins, so of course it was daunting! The original is one of my most favorite movies of all time. It’s also this precious jewel that we now were going to take another step with. All of us who came aboard were like, “[audible gulp] How on earth are we going to do this one?!” Having worked with Rob so often, he had spoken about it to me a few years back. Rob really is uber-focused and I’ve never met a director like him. It’s truly a gift to be able to work with him. He’s typically on a film for three years from soup to nuts beginning with the ideas, concepts and writing. Early on he works with writers, he rewrites things, he works with the composer to concept songs. He spent months with the writers, the songwriter Marc Shaiman and John DeLuca, the film’s choreographer, as well as his producing partner and partner in life, just going through a laundry list of what-ifs for Mary. And Emily also showed up periodically during those early days, taking a break from The Girl on a Train. The thing about P.L. Travers’s books, and there are eight of them, is they aren’t narrative. They are more a series of adventures. There had to be a narrative drawn through all these adventures, and that’s what they worked on for four months at the start.
Since you share supervising sound editor and sound designer credits, how did you and Eugene Gearty work together specifically?
I have to say, it was a wonderful experience and he is one of my favorite collaborators. Eugene and I started talking even before we began work on the film. We had gotten the script and went over a bunch of the concepts and ideas and addressed some of the inherent challenges, like how were we going to create this 1930s London soundscape to make it feel like it was actually from that time. His purview and mine are a little different. I tend to be focused on the center channel, so: dialogue and music lyrics, etc. And his background is more sound effects and design. But on this show, we really worked to create a new paradigm where it was a holistic approach to the soundscape. During this early period, we talked about ideas and shared things with each other. There are certain things I always do, specifically and especially on a Rob Marshall musical, because Rob is also a choreographer and he has these wonderful dance numbers. I traditionally take over the dance foley, and Eugene helped me. We were incredibly collaborative, and that was a little bit of a stretch for him, because he wasn’t used to doing it this way. His stage and studio is in South Carolina and I worked out of New York, but we spoke every single day and we were constantly feeding each other sound effects, segments and more.
What was Marshall’s vision for how you and Eugene approached the soundscape?
I personally feel like Mary Poppins is magical realism personified. She’s not a fantasy; she’s a real woman who has these amazing magical powers and rich imagination. Rob had a similar feeling, because his note to us was, “Look, it all has to be dipped in realism.” So that was our start point and it was just an ongoing process from there.
Sonically, pretty much every song in Mary Poppins Returns refers/riffs/reboots another song from the original. “Skip the Light Fantastic” has similar syncopation, urgency and timing as “Step in Time,” and the buoyant optimism — and physical action — of “Nowhere to Go But Up” echoes “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.” I also love how various musical phrases from the original songs thread through the new film in quiet, transitional moments. Structurally, did you approach the sound design and edit the way the songwriters did, as a layered conversation with those earlier musical melodies, rhythms and themes?
Yes, exactly. That’s very observant. You’d be surprised how many people don’t pay attention or even notice that. But that is part of Rob’s design: like the original, which we all watched as children, then watched with our children and saw different things as adults, this is not a movie you watch only once. It does give you different things, depending on your age, and there is so much to take in. You need multiple viewings to absorb everything. I’ve had people see it three times already and say, “Oh my god, I never noticed this in the lyrics until now,” or “I really like this particular song now because I got to absorb myself into it the second time I watched it.” The film is definitely a layered experience and it gets richer with each viewing.
How did you get the many sonic layers just right?
You mentioned the little musical interludes from the Sherman brothers and they were amazing. We knew from the start that we wanted to have them in there because you can’t re-enter this world and not hear “Spoonful of Sugar” at some point! So to be able to lace those original themes into our movie. But overall, music in this movie was one of the most collaborative experiences in all departments. We all dipped into each other’s departments and were constantly helping each other. It was this wonderful Lazy Susan that we would spin around. Marc Shaiman, the composer, moved in at one point, and Rob and editorial were all there on one big collaborative floor in New York. In terms of the lyrics, it was really important to get the vocals correct, and we went back and forth between dialogue and pre-records and a little bit of ADR, as if we were perfecting this beautiful soup. The element had to be consistent and it had to be believable, and Jennifer Dunnington, our supervising music editor, was amazing and we worked together constantly. Because the animation was hand-drawn it took considerable time, but that also gave us more time with the soundscape. We basically only had pencil drawings to go on initially. When we started getting the animated sequences back from the Royal Doulton bowl adventure, for example, we saw the sparks and flames coming out of the engine here. The animators were wonderful in explaining to us what was going to happen, so a lot of what we did at first was just through our imaginations. Certain things we did right away, and some of those were dance number foley elements. There is absolutely no sound from the stage for those numbers that’s usable; we’re using pre-records and dialogue and that’s it. Everything had to be created from scratch. Because “Trip the Light Fantastic,” for example, features fifty lamplighters dancing this very layered choreography—probably five or six rows of dancers doing different things yet syncopated to the beat that creates its own rhythmic musical element—that meant syncing in and centering that song into that particular moment so you felt like they were really in a park, at dusk, dancing together. That song was the first thing we did, and pretty wonderful to complete.
So how did you keep track of all the cues?
The choreographers helped us decode it. Believe me, you think you can cover it just by looking at the scene visually, but you definitely cannot, because there are all sorts of things happening within the choreography that you can’t necessarily see. The co-choreographers knew all the steps, so they sat down with us and said, this is where the finger snaps are, this is where they slap their hats across their knees, and so on. They hired eight dancers and spent two days on a rehearsal stage in New York teaching them all the songs, then we brought them to c5 Sound, a foley stage in New York, and the foley team there built several floors for me. For “Trip the Light” they built a slate floor and really cemented it in with sand and brought in an Italian stone mason to give us a genuine slate park floor. We also brought in these big, thick pipes, called pig iron, which is basically crude iron. Because of all the times they were jumping on and off and back and forth the lamps and onto the slate surface, the dancer would kick these pipes when they were supposed to be on the lamps. They created these different little pitches, since each shoe sounded different and each part of the pipe sounded different. We then built it up in layers with those elements. We spent about six or seven days on the c5 stage doing just the dance foley.
How did you convey the “reality” of humans slipping into the fully animated decorative painting of a Royal Doulton bowl?
Right, it’s a complete fantasy. Here is an inanimate bowl that starts speaking, then spins wildly and they all arrive inside it. The way you can really sell that moment is through sound, so when they walk, you feel like they are walking on a ceramic bowl. You can hear the *ting, ting, ting* of their feet, and for each character we used different pitches and tones. We put in rubber mallet ring-offs from porcelain sinks and we also created all these impulse responses that we sent all the dialogue through so you really felt like you were inside that bowl with them. It was important to do this early so that Rob could sink into the scene while he was editing.
What sound did you use for the horse?
The horse pulling the carriage inside the bowl was one of the first pieces of animation that came in, actually. That was a tough one. We were trying to figure out how to do this so it sounded like a real Clydesdale horse that was strong enough to pull them all along but also delicate enough to be in a ceramic bowl in the first place. Eugene came up with the answer. He said, “I don’t know, maybe we should just use coconuts.” It’s so old-school. That’s what we originally used for foley, but now you typically use real horse hooves. But it was a brilliant idea. It became this bright, crisp element to the music and we never touched it again.
Did any of the actors surprise you with their vocal interpretations? We’ve heard Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda belt it out before, but not so for Emily Mortimer and and Ben Whishaw.
Emily Blunt, by the way, didn’t think she was a singer, either, before she started working with Rob [on Into the Woods] and she has an absolutely gorgeous voice. She, in my opinion, is a genius. In that early underwater sequence, Rob actually had her sing that song, with all its many words, twice as fast so we could slow it down in post. To project every line, be the right pitch and be in sync was a real accomplishment. When we slowed it down to normal, then, it had this sort of underwater, swimmy feel to it. That’s not easy and she did it so well. I haven’t asked Ben directly, but I think we all know him as more of a dramatic actor, and the conversational song he did about his late wife was so touching, and Rob knew it. Rob had him sing-talk it, so it went in and out between talking and singing and became this very delicate piece. In that case, it was very important that we kept all of the original performances from the production and the pre-records, and it took the dialogue and music mixer, Mike Prestwood Smith, and Jennifer Dunnington and Mike Hyam and I a lot of cooperative work to make that happen.
Then there’s Dick Van Dyke, in a class all by himself.
I laughed with Rob and said, “Dick is trying to put on an old man voice. Here is this 93-year-old man who doesn’t think of himself as old in any way trying to play what he thinks of as an old man. We got such a giggle out of that because he does this sort of old-man warble before he throws away his cane and jumps on the desk for his scene-stealing moment. He has more hair this time around, too.
This is an intentionally traditional and nostalgic score and sound design, but how did modern technology, such as specific plug-ins, get you there?
One thing that was really valuable, we really wanted to protect and keep the original performances. But as you can imagine, there was a lot of other noise on set: big wind machines, the five guys and a gyro motor controlling the animatronic talking umbrella and other things that made it technically a challenge for us to do that. My brilliant dialogue editor Alexa Zimmerman and I went at it with iZotope RX. It’s this perfect dialogue tool that is almost like Photoshop for sound. You can actually isolate certain sounds and remove them altogether and clean it up a lot. The fact that we had Simon Hayes, our production mixer, who gave us really good sound to start with, was also very lucky. We used Altiverb for the reverb in the bowl, and Eugene uses another set of tools on his rig, so there is great a bit that we did to maintain that traditional soundtrack.
What was your biggest challenge, from start to finish?
I think the continual challenge was always the integration of the music and the drama, the hand-off, really, between where the dialogue would end and the singing would begin. In a film like this that has to be completely seamless, and Rob has a real sense of rhythm and detail and performance. It’s really important to him, as it is to everyone who watches a musical, that you don’t just signal that a song is coming. You don’t just drop it in and move on. Everything had to be a seamless experience for us. And we worked on that a lot. New music would come in, new score would come in, where we were putting our effects to the temp score. It was the original score but a temp version of it. They went back and did reorchestrations. Another challenging thing is you create all these elements and sounds and then you bring them to the stage and show everyone your present, and then you discover that certain sounds don’t work because the music obliterates it or we obliterate the music, so we’d have to adjust it. It was a constant work in progress to blend all these elements together. Definitely the bowl was something we fiddled with a lot. Eugene and I probably did the most testing of different responses and experiments before we actually found the right particular set of sounds for those scenes. Then when we did, there were four or five different reverbs that all had a low pitch, a high pitch, a ring-off, etc. When we played that with our final music and all the dialogue was being fed through there, it had a discordant sound with the music. So we had to then pitch it so it worked with the music. Workflows like that were constantly evolving.
There’s also quite a lot going on sonically in the fully animated Music Hall scene inside the bowl.
The Music Hall, for me personally, was a real joy to work on because I literally only had the main characters and green-screen. The scene then became populated with all these rowdy and boisterous animals who were having fun in the audience. I went to London and spent five or six days recording probably about 70 different actors who could sing but who also, more importantly, could embody an animal. We needed deep voices for a moose, and a reedy voice for a flamingo, and so on. It was quite a parade of talent, all in character and in pitch and not cartoony at all, and we used it to populate the entire auditorium. They sing the chorus of a song back to Mary Poppins at one point. That part was really fun to create it and mix it and so much fun to watch it.
Was it ever too much of a good thing?
Actually, I did make Mary’s number a bit bawdier, so Rob had me tone it down a bit. He said to me, “Renée, it’s a Disney film. We can’t have that.” I loved the first pass of our Music Hall scene because it was big and crazy and it had such a great give-and-take. But ultimately we had to be able to hear the lyrics, because they are sung very quickly and they are brand new. So we had to scale back quite a bit. Some of the animal voice talent were doing Welsh accents, some were doing Scottish and some were doing Irish. It was probably the most fun I’ve had on a stage recording voices and they were all amazing. I wanted to use every single bit but Rob was right.
What is it like to work on a Rob Marshall musical day to day?
It is sublime. There’s just no one like him. There’s no one else who is as aware of every single element that goes into a film like this, from every breath to every footstep and every musical instrument. He really knows what he wants, he is clear about asking for it and he’s kind. That’s a very rare combination, trust me. Rob just doesn’t show up midstream on anything on his films. He’s there from day one to the very last drop. He really gives birth to these creations and I’ve never seen anything like it. He creates a family on set and in post, and it shows.
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