Sylvie’s Love: Jessie Anne Spence and Darren Maynard on the sound of the film

Sylvie's Love

Since Sylvie’s Love has been streaming on Amazon Prime Video, millions of viewers have fallen in love with the film, which brings to life the jazz scene in New York City during the 1950’s and 1960’s. But the making of the film has its own story.

Co-supervising sound editors Darren Maynard and Jessie Anne Spence are part of King Soundworks, the team that helped bring the sound of the movie to life. Both of them joined me for a chat about all the elements that went into that key aspect of the project, and the finer aspects of sound in film.

Brittany Frederick: Most people who watch a film aren’t familiar with sound editing or design, so can you explain your roles on Sylvie’s Love? Since each of you handled different aspects.

Jessie Anne Spence: I’m more of a dialogue person. Basically, what I do is clean up the recordings that come to me from set. Then I take out any distracting noises. For example, if there’s a generator in the background, I take out that low humming. If someone sets a loud cup down on a table over the actor’s line, I remove that as well. And if a line is unsalvageable, or if lines need to be added, we bring the actor into the studio—although that’s changed a bit nowadays [due to COVID-19]—to record replacement lines.  Then we pop those in place and match the surrounding dialogue.

So there’s a lot going on with dialogue. Effects is a whole different arena, so I’ll let Darren go off about that. It’s funny because my family members don’t really understand what I do. (laughs) I basically tell them that out of everything you see in a movie, the only thing that is original is some of the actors’ lines. We take all the sounds out and then put them back [in] on our own terms so we can control them a lot easier.

Darren Maynard: Just going forward from there, surprisingly a lot of people still think that most of the sounds are captured on set, including footsteps, or sound effects you may hear like backgrounds, doors and cars. A couple reasons why we do it all again is like what Jessie said—to have control of it in the edit and mix.  Also, often what happens with the location sound is microphones like a boom mic or lapel [mic] are set up to capture the dialogue as clean and clear as possible. The result is any production effects that get captured are off mic and typically not ideal quality.

The good thing with production effects (PFX) is that they’ll sometimes have a nice natural room sound from on set, so they work great for blending our sound effects in that are more full and detailed. The foley and sound effects teams will go through, recording all the feet, props, or extra textures, and laying all new sound effects from head to tail.

For foley, that’s literally looking at a screen, watching the characters and action, performing everything live and organically. If someone has a limp, the foley artist will get right into character and perform the limp, or might use heavier boots for the main character or hero. Foley is huge, because it puts back in all that texture and life you imagine is already there. It’s also extremely important at helping tell the story, through the character’s performance. Then you’ve got sound effects / sound design and backgrounds, which pretty much covers all the other sound spectrum besides music, whether it’s old rattly cars, scary doors, guns, dense forest winds, or background city traffic.  All those sounds and textures get cut in.

Sound design, as it’s more traditionally known, is about creating sounds that may not be real: ethereal tones, monster vocals, sci-fi / fantasy stuff, or even merging into “music” territories.  You’ve got all these layers that are ultimately working to tell the story and help create emotion. The final stage is the mix. The mix team goes through all the layers, weaving sounds around the dialogue, selecting what sounds should be featured at any given moment, working with the filmmakers and helping once again try to get the story and emotion across.

JAS: On Sylvie’s Love, you edited all those sounds together and then mixed them. It’s usually done by two different people, but you probably had a really great idea of what you were getting into by the time you got to the stage.

DM: I was able to start the process of pre-dubbing as I went along in the edit. Knowing roughly how it was going to end up really helped the final mix. Also knowing where all the sounds lived within the sound track made any fixes much faster. 

JAS: Usually when a mixer comes into a project, they’ve never seen it before. They don’t know what they’re getting into and they’re coming in completely fresh, which I guess in some ways is good. But I feel like it leaves for a lot of mucking about trying to figure out what’s where, and who’s who, and what’s what, but you came in with a pretty good knowledge of what was going on, which streamlined everything. So that was cool.

DM: We were fortunate to get a spotting session in with [star-producer] Nnamdi Asomugha and [director-writer] Eugene Ashe, which is when you go through the film, scene by scene and they share their ideas and concepts. That’s really helpful for the whole sound department. Basically you get an idea of where their head is at, what might be a music moment or a sound design moment. What might be a really intimate dialogue moment that they really don’t want to ADR if possible, or parts of the plot that need a little off-screen ADR.

Sylvie's Love
Darren Maynard. (Photo Credit: Will Thoren/Courtesy of Gidget PR.)

BF: Sylvie’s Love is a period piece, which normally has some effect on how actors and directors prepare for a film. Does that have any impact on your jobs, since yours are more technical?

JAS: For me, not really. The only thing that you have to be careful of as a dialogue editor and ADR supervisor when working on period pieces is crafting new lines for talent. You don’t want them to be saying words like “groovy” or “awesome” in the 20’s. There’s different lingo for the different decades. You have to be able to have a list of those and know what will fly and what won’t. There’s a lot of lingo that people use these days that’s way too modern for a movie like Sylvie’s Love.

One thing we do whenever there’s a crowd shot on set is bring in what we call “loop group.” When they shoot those crowds on set, they keep the extras quiet, so we need to record them after the fact. Loop group comes in and it’s about six people, men and women. Let’s say there’s a scene in a coffee shop. We assign people roles and they just talk; they just fill the space. And so with that, we have to be careful [that] they’re actually speaking with the correct lingo of that time period. Sylvie’s Love was New York, so we did some New York accents, but nothing too crazy. We didn’t want it to distract, but we also made sure they were speaking in the language of the time. But for Darren, I feel like it’s much more drastic for period pieces.

DM: Sort of the same thing with the effects in a way. If you’re creating an ambience or environment outside, like in New York in those times, you don’t want to hear Teslas or electric cars. Older cars have that sort of choky, spluttery engine sound, nothing too high-revving. You have to pick the right kind of planes as well. Just making sure you have the right flavor of period vehicle and horns in the city helps a lot. 

Also of course there’s crowds, and in New York you’ve got a lot of them, so that sort of goes between loop group and sound effects, making sure you’ve got the right call-outs and people saying the right sort of words on the streets. The music was a huge player because it’s such a music-driven film. That era jazz scene is what drives a lot of the story too; the bars and parties with that style costume and set dressing play a big role in helping with the tone as well.

JAS: Eugene came up during that jazz time period. He grew up in Harlem and was really into the bands he featured in the movie. I think that was really cool that he got to pay homage to the people that he looked up to throughout his formative music years.

DM: The music’s awesome. The composer, Fabrice Lecomte, did a fantastic job.

BF: The catch-22 is that when you two do your jobs perfectly, people won’t notice because the sound is so seamless. So for Sylvie’s Love, do you two have points of pride that you want to call attention to?

DM: A lot of times I was keying off the music scenes, but it was a balance of foley, sound effects and production effects that were in there. It was a delicate mix with many intimate scenes. It can be a little more tricky doing these delicate films, because you’re not really hiding behind anything, so you’ve really got to get every sound dialed into the space. People are less likely to notice it, but that whole process was fun.

JAS: I feel like on this movie, most of the dialogue was recorded really well. For dialogue, at least with a quality project like this, there isn’t a big, overarching problem, but smaller challenges from scene to scene. I think the one thing that we really spent a lot of time with, and which is different than any other film or TV show I’ve worked on, is that Nnamdi and Eugene would come in and we would record all of the ADR [together]. We spent at least two days together in a tiny room, pre-COVID, and went through every single line. They were really invested in the film.

It’s funny. In the whole sound editing community, none of us are used to praise because if you don’t hear anything that’s distracting, it’s great. One of the compliments is, “Oh, I wasn’t taken out of the movie by your sound design monster noises.” Or “That was an ADR line in there? I didn’t even notice.” That’s a huge compliment. As an editor the less you’re noticed, the better. It’s all about your seamless edits, smooth transitions and matching ADR.

DM: There are times when you don’t get to start a film right from the get-go. But it’s really great when the director and/or writer have sound as part of the creative process from the beginning. If they bring you in early, that’s when you can really get involved as a key part in the storytelling. The sound can actually help a lot of the time. When those films come around, it’s at the end when your peers might notice some of that work.

Again, it’s probably less of the general public, but more of the industry folk that  may appreciate some of those details that you’ve only really been able to do because you were involved so early on. It’s not just the sound design; it’s actually shaping scenes around sound. It’s quite cool when that happens.

Some people hand it off to sound and we do our jobs well, so that’s fine, but it’s cool when people are actually interested in what we are contributing. We would go back and forth and pick the ADR out and then I’d cut it in. It was a lengthy process, but I think it came with some really authentic results. It was a great movie.

Sylvie’s Love is now streaming exclusively on Amazon Prime Video.

Article content is (c)2020-2021 Brittany Frederick and may not be excerpted or reproduced without express written permission by the author. Follow me on Twitter at @BFTVTwtr, on Instagram at @BFTVGram.