In Saving Mr. Banks, author P.L. Travers is wary of Walt Disney, animation and even the Los Angeles sunshine. But she’s particularly horrified by the idea of adding songs to the movie based on her Mary Poppins children’s books, and she isn’t shy about critiquing the tunes penned and enthusiastically played by the long-suffering Sherman brothers (played by B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman).
With music key to the movie’s plot, John Lee Hancock was a perfect choice for director, say the sound professionals who worked on the movie. “I wanted to work with John Lee because sound is as important to him as picture and story,” says Dialog/Music Re-Recording mixer David E. Fluhr, CAS. “Last year, when I saw the film for the first time with John and picture editor Mark Livolsi, I knew that this was going to be the perfect storm of collaboration.”
Early on, Hancock pinpointed the role that sound needed to play in integrating the movie’s two disparate time frames: 1906 rural Australia where the young P.L. Travers (Ginty) yearns for her father’s love and approval, and 1961 Los Angeles where the she stubbornly jousts with Disney and the Sherman brothers.
“My biggest fear concerned the intercut sequence between the rehearsal room where the Shermans were pitching “Fidelity Fiduciary Bank” and the Allora Fair where a young Ginty is force to face her father’s alcoholism and mortality,” Hancock says. “It is not merely a scene with flashbacks but instead a melding of time periods, where what’s happening in 1961 begins to influence events in 1906, even to the extent of Sherman Brothers lyrics ending up in the mouth of Travers Goff.”
To convincingly transition between the two eras, Hancock focused not just on the visuals but also on “blending the sounds of the periods to smooth the transitions and make it feel and sound like the background of P.L. Travers’ thoughts and memories.” He credits picture editor Mark Livolsi, who melded production sound, production live music, score and effects and composer Thomas Newman. “Third, and most importantly, we had to go the extra mile in the mix to make sure that it all blended seamlessly,” Hancock says, with a tip of the hat to Supervising Sound Editor/Designer Jon Johnson and Re-Recording Mixer Dave Fluhr and his crew.
Music supervisor Matt Sullivan agrees with Hancock that the “Federal Fiduciary Bank” sequence was “the biggest sound and musical challenge of the film.” “During the scene, there is a song (which is interrupted a few times), a band playing at the fair, the fair’s calliope and Tom Newman’s score,” he says. “All that music needed to be woven through the scene. Dave Fluhr was masterful at blending this cacophony of music.”
The job in that sequence – and the movie’s many sequences that blended the two time periods – began with production sound. Production Sound Mixer John Pritchett notes the logistic and technical issues both in Simi Valley (which doubled for the Australian location) and on the Disney lot. “Saving Mr. Banks is at its heart a movie about a musical so one must say that the sound mix, both production and post are, in fact, what a great part of the movie is all about,” he says. “Add to that, that the script is very heavily a dialogue-drive vehicle.”
Johnson brought in Sound Editor/Designer Yann Delpuech, who he had just worked with on another project, and the two collaborated on exchanging sounds and ideas. “Ultimately we kept meticulous detail of Mark Livolsi’s audio track and augmented a great deal of it,” he says. Delpuech describes his efforts to help transition between the two time periods via sound effects. In particular, he relates how sound effects helped make transitions in the sequence when Travers, in a music writing session, flashes back to the Allora Fair of her Australian childhood.
“Jon had recorded, in an exterior setting, the rowdy crowds used in a traumatic scene where young Travers wanders through the throngs of people at the fair,” says Delpuech. “Some of those recordsing worked really well as drunken voices for when she finds her dad mingling with other drunks at the fair; their rough banter echoing cruelly and transitioning back in her present time.”
Recorded children’s voices form another aural cue that helps the transition between the two eras. “When Travers rides the King Arthur carousel at Disneyland, we hear the cheers of the children, the carousel’s music and the mechanical sound effects,” Delpuech says. “It all morphs into eerie evocative sound design as we flashback to Travers’ childhood.”
The wind is another element established early on by a squeaking metal weathervane. “We incorporated winds into the sound design in keeping with the sound design wind themes of the 1964 Mary Poppins,” he says. Also recorded was an 1883 Canadian Pacific steam train that is used for the train that takes Travers and her family to the Australian countryside as well as to enhance the Disneyland steam train.
“We worked with the sound design elements and the music to make combinations that would work,” says Fluhr. “The goal was to transport the audience through time but not take them out of the moment with gimmicky effects or uneven passages.” One of Fluhr’s favorite sections is the “Fiduciary Bank” sequence, as Travers flashes back to her childhood. “The combination of dissolving music elements, singing, production dialog and sound effects turns into one of the more inspiring and powerful scenes in the film,” he says. “What a treat it was!”
With regard to the music performed by the Sherman brothers in the rehearsal room, the sound production also went for the highest degree of reality possible. “John Lee wanted the audience to feel as if they were inside the Disney rehearsal room, overhearing the legendary song-writing process,” says music supervisor Matt Sullivan. “We pre-recorded the tracks with that in mind, using different microphone techniques and an old piano that was in the Disney rehearsals back in the 1960s.”
“We had such fun with the musical numbers,” says Pritchett. “We had an acoustically good rehearsal space but the piano, a lovely short upright grand, was so loud that even with the soft pedal down, we couldn’t hear the vocals, much less the spoken words.” The fix – thanks to production designer Michael Corenblith – was to build a false back on the piano and put dampening inside. “The lines were definitely blurry between the hand-off between production sound and the songs performed in the practice room,” says Johnson.
The film was mixed on Disney’s historic Stage A, which was Disney’s main scoring stage at the time of Mary Poppins and was where the music for this beloved classic was recorded. “We knew that our production dialog track was superbly recorded by John Pritchett, which meant that we didn’t have to be concerned about needing a lot of ADR for technical reasons,” says Fluhr. ADR Mixer Doc Kane comments that they added one line that changed a performance, when Walt, urging Travers to sign the contract, says, “Here’s a pen.” “We were able to use ADR throughout the film to help refine the story, and not bog down in too much scrubbing of the tracks or replacing entire scenes of dialog,” says Fluhr.
The formula, says Fluhr, was to keep things as simple as possible. “We helped the story by staying out of the way,” agrees Sound Effects Re-Recording Mixer Greg King. “Handling sound effects and design, the biggest challenge was to be subtle. With film sound, we need to exaggerate to a great extent; it is a world of hyper-reality. On a film like Saving Mr. Banks, you have very little leeway before the audience starts to hear “sound effects” which can ruin the illusion of reality. The subtleties become enormous and have a profound impact on the storytelling.”
As a dialog-driven story, says Fluhr, the “team’s mission first and foremost was to preserve the actors’ performances.” “There were many wonderful choices made early on which helped us in the mix,” he says. “The pre-production planning was just right, offering me and Greg [King] the options of prerecorded materials and live performances to blend as needed.” With a score from Thomas Newman as well as production recordings and sound editorial, “it became much more of a creative endeavor and never a technical struggle,” Fluhr concludes.
Livolsi credits the “talents of production sound mixer John Pritchett, Jon Johnson and his team of sound editors, and the golden ears of Dave Fluhr and Greg King” with creating very smooth sound mix. “Dave, Greg and Jon brought the world of 1906 Australia to life in all its dusty, ambient glory and Dave wove together the strands of separate storylines and tonalities into one fluid whole, combining dialog and songs with Thomas Newman’s emotional and evocative score.”
That Saving Mr. Banks was partially shot and post-produced on the very lot where the events of the movie take place – the making of the 1964 Mary Poppins — resonated for everyone who worked behind the scenes. “Editing scenes that were shot a few feet from my office, with the knowledge that the original story also happened in the same spot was a wonderful feeling,” says picture editor Mark Livolsi. Richard Sherman attended several recording and mixing sessions, vivid memory for many who worked on the film. “His stories filled our lunch breaks with exciting anecdotes about he and his brother’s relationship with Walt Disney, and the composing the music in the film Mary Poppins,” says Music Scoring Mixer Tommy Vicari. “Having Dick Sherman within ear shot while shooting the music scenes made for some funny banter,” adds Sullivan. “We had great conversations which really helped set the scene for what really happened in that room.”
On the last day or principal photography, when the “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” song was shot for the Making Of video, Richard Sherman was on hand to play the piano, leading the crew and cast in four or five songs, ending with “Feed the Birds.” “We were all so glad to be there, and so sad to say goodbye,” says Pritchett.
Saving Mr. Banks has “a common thread of experience that will touch most everyone who sees the film,” concludes Fluhr. “It reminds me of why I got into film sound to begin with,” he says. “To help storytellers tell their tales. This one is a special experience that involves the deep heritage of the Walt Disney legacy that our Digital Studio Services team has inherited and so respects. This film will live on for generations to enjoy.”