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‘La La Land’: How the Sound Team Bridged Fantasy and Reality, And Made Oscar History

The first Oscar-nominated female sound editing team took inspiration from "Boogie Nights" and "Mean Streets" for Damien Chazelle's Oscar frontrunner.

"La La Land"

“La La Land”

Dale Robinette


In addition to all its accolades, “La La Land” already has made Oscar history. Among the film’s 14 nominations is one for sound editors Ai-Ling Lee and Mildred Iatrou Morgan — the first female duo to represent their category. Lee, also nominated for mixing, breaks through as the first Asian as well.

The sound team said Damien Chazelle’s musical valentine to Hollywood represented a creative breakthrough in how they used heightened naturalism to transition between reality and fantasy.

“From a sound perspective, Damien mentioned how Los Angeles is a big part of the character,” said Lee, who previously worked on “Deadpool” and “Tangled.” “He always liked to hear the bustling city or the sonic textures that are part of the landscape.”

She said “Boogie Nights” and “Mean Streets” served as cinematic sonic touchstones: the former for gritty authenticity, the latter for how it wove music into the environmental mix (such as the mariachi music coming from Ryan Gosling’s neighbor).

"La La Land"

“La La Land”

Photo Credit: Dale Robinette

That combination came together during the bravura opening on the downtown freeway interchange. “We were given the opportunity to start with a soundscape over an empty blue sky, introducing the audience to the movie through a traffic jam, so the city sounds and horns, together with the music coming from the cars, builds into a cacophony of sounds,” she said. “And through that, it transitions into the first musical number [‘Another Day of Sun’].”

For Morgan (“Fast and Furious,” “Hairspray”), who specializes in dialogue and ADR, the first challenge was cleaning up Emma Stone’s pivotal number, “Audition (The Fools Who Dream).”

“Because that was mostly recorded live, they needed help with the noise,” Morgan said. “There’s a part where, as the camera moves in, they broke apart the desk so the camera could move through the space. And  there was this really loud creaking, so it took me a couple of days to go through all the outtakes and find the words that she was singing that matched the tone perfectly and had no creaking on it.

“It was the first song that I heard from the movie,” she said. “I love what she was saying, too, because for anyone who comes to Los Angeles to pursue their dreams, it says it all in that song.”

“La La Land”

Summit Entertainment

The Oscar-nominated “City of Stars” is introduced first as a solo for Ryan Gosling on the pier, and then as a duet with Stone. For the pier, Lee added waves playing under the music and Foley footsteps.

Foley also made an assist in the romantic Griffith Park tap-dance number, “A Lovely Night.” Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers came to the rescue with a bit of Foley trickery.

“We needed to get the audience used to the sounds of the Foley, because the singing leads to the characters sitting on the bench and then starting to dance,” said Lee. “So, for the dancing footsteps, we had to replace them with dance Foley. The choreography was originally flat soul shoes, and Damien wanted to replace the sound of the steps with tap sounds like Fred and Ginger, and we played back ‘Top Hat’ to get a good sound reference.

“We tried out different shoes and floor surfaces. We finally got it right, even though they’re dancing on asphalt. We ended up having them perform the Foley on wooden floors. I cut them together, and it helped elevate the dance movement with realistic scuffs and scrapes.”

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