Post: 'The King's Speech' and '127 Hours'

Jan 1, 2011 9:00 AM, By Blair Jackson



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Queen Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) and speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush, far right) help King George VI (Colin Firth) master elocution in The King’s Speech.

Queen Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) and speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush, far right) help King George VI (Colin Firth) master elocution in The King’s Speech.

The King’s Speech is one of the most critically acclaimed films of 2010, and seems all but assured of landing acting nominations for its leads—Colin Firth as the stuttering, ascendant King George VI and Geoffrey Rush as the brash speech therapist who takes on this most difficult patient—and it is certainly worthy to be lauded in other categories. This being essentially a talky palace drama, it is unlikely to be honored for the excellent sound job supervised by Lee Walpole, who is best known for his work on British television; that is also the world where director Tom Hooper comes from—he has helmed such historical dramas for television as Elizabeth I, Longford and the acclaimed John Adams series.

Walpole and the King’s Speech sound crew—including production mixer John Midgley and re-recording mixers Paul Hamblin and Martin Jensen—were tasked with sonically re-creating the world of both royals and “commoners” in 1930s England, and with putting across an intimate, deeply personal story. “Authenticity was the name of the game,” Walpole says from the London post house he co-owns, Boom Sound Studios. “Tom is a very sound-focused director and he wanted everything to sound as realistic as possible to really take you back to that time and to those places.”

One ultra-realistic touch was corralling the actual microphones that had been specially built for King George V and King George VI; the mics had been locked in storage at EMI for the past 70 years or so. “Alexandre Desplat, the composer, used them in recording some of his score and also for the inversions of Beethoven music re-recorded for the film,” Walpole says. “We also took all the dialog that was put through radios in the film and re-recorded it through those microphones—it gives an authentic sound you simply can’t achieve with a digital plug-in or speaker phone, or whatever people choose to use nowadays to simulate that old radio sound.”

Director Hooper, Walpole adds, “mainly used sync [production] sound on the film; he shuns ADR if at all possible. He was very keen to preserve the actors’ performances he got from the day. A lot of it was shot in these enormous rooms, but because he wanted to maintain clarity of speech, the sync sound was fairly tight. One of our briefs at the start of the film was to create a macro soundscape that would complement the tight close shots that Tom frequently uses in the film. So even though they were often in large spaces, we actually added more space in the form of reverb while keeping the dialog prominent.” The film was mixed on a Neve DFC at Boom.

“Foley played a huge role in the film,” Wal- pole adds. “So much of it takes place in these huge old rooms with wooden floors. It can feel quite artificial and effect-y when you match that on the Foley stage, so we shot our Foley live on location on Pro Tools. It gave the Foley real depth and also gave each room its own personality.”

Another challenge that required extremely subtle sound design was dealing with the Colin Firth character’s paralyzing speech difficulties. The very first scene of the film finds the then-prince struggling through an amplified speech at Empire Stadium, and throughout we see him in large and small settings grappling with his impediment.

“The film is about a man’s inability to speak,” Walpole offers, “so we focused on the noises Colin makes, his words catching in the back of his throat. We pushed them to a hyper level in the mix and then we upped the atmosphere or added noises, often preceding those moments to emphasize the awkwardness of the silence that would follow when he could not speak.

“In the Empire Stadium scene,” he continues, “we used the extreme echo to emphasize his awkwardness. We spent a fair bit of time layering up the voice with different delays and treating each stem differently so it’s surrounding you and coming from all directions. Some of them are straight feeds from the Tannoys [in the studio], some of them are reverb returns bouncing off the wall, which is what’s disorientating him and feeding all around the room. Hopefully, it does the same thing for you as a viewer as what Bertie [the prince] is feeling as the sound is washing back at him. We want you to feel uncomfortable, too.”

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