While deep into the standard 7.1 sound mix for “A Star Is Born,” Bradley Cooper was approached about doing a Dolby Atmos mix as well. But he was skeptical. After all, this wasn’t a Marvel superhero movie or a Disney/Pixar animated feature. This movie showcased Cooper performing live, intimate, musical performances with Lady Gaga.
Yet the first-time director and his mixing team experimented with Atmos and came away surprised at the way it isolated the vocals and instruments. Like Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma,” Atmos delivered a more nuanced and authentic soundscape.
“Atmos crept in at the last hour, but we didn’t think it was gonna work and we didn’t think it was necessary,” said Jason Ruder, the supervising music editor. “But we spent a week doing an Atmos delivery. We did a pass and Bradley came in and watched the first half of the film and it was like we had an allergic reaction until we got to ‘Shallow’ and realized that it gave it some more magic. So we explored it some more.
“We wanted the film to open [on Cooper performing the loud Southern rocker, ‘Black Eyes’] two-dimensional and raw, so we took a more subtle Atmos approach until we got to ‘Shallow,’ and then we opened it up more with Gaga coming on stage. And then it tapered off a bit as we got into the second half. So there’s an arc to the Atmos. It became a storytelling device and the vocals have a little more life to them.”
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What sold Cooper was the extra spacing it gave his vocal on “Black Eyes,” so you could hear him more distinctly through the loud music. On “Shallow,” the Atmos effect was even more dramatic on the vocal interplay between Cooper and Gaga during her breakout moment as Ally.
“Bradley just wanted everything to sound like you were there on stage with them, and we worked really hard and long hours on the mix stage trying to bring that to the screen,” said supervising sound editor Alan Robert Murray (two-time Oscar winner for Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper” and “Letters from Iwo Jima”). “But Atmos accented it better. The added speakers definitely puts more depth into the crowd. We were really careful not to move a lot of stuff around you. We were regulated to what was on screen and the way the camera angles were shot.”
Yet Murray even learned a few things about natural rhythm from Cooper. “He would comment about something that brought excitement but wasn’t realistic,” he added “And that we should go on a certain beat. And he taught me in a scene how things that balance with the dialog and things that should stay out of it. We did a lot of clearing scenes out with all noise to bring contrast to the film. In the opening concert it got very loud and then silent in the limo, to convey the isolation of quietness. He was big on contrasts in the soundtrack and he really studied the way the movie played and his instincts were right on.”
For Steven Morrow, the sound mixer, this was a far cry from “La La Land,” choosing to go live with the vocals for authenticity, and Atmos was at its best in changing volume for Gaga’s “Shallow” performance. “That was a hard song to mix because she’s quiet and then she belts it out, and you’re right in her face,” he said. “And Atmos put you in the center of it. You’re telling the audience that it’s going to overwhelm your senses.”
Morrow said Cooper was more involved in the mix than most other directors he’s worked with. The actor-turned director had a clear vision for the sound moving with the immersive camera work of cinematographer Matthew Libatique. “So if you were slightly closer to the drums, you’d hear them a little louder versus the electric guitar,” he said. “Or if you were passing the electric guitar, you’d hear that or the sound of the drummer hitting his sticks. That sounds more present than at any other part of the song.
“And Atmos was the right way to do the movie, to put the audience in that perspective, right there with Bradley and Gaga. If he wasn’t a believer before the film, he’s definitely a believer now.”