Production engineer Victor Chaga explains how the RME Fireface UFX+, TotalMix FX and ARC USB remote helped to bring director Tom Hooper’s vision to life, during the film production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s popular musical
Leavesden, Hertfordshire, UK – Since the start of his film career back in 2011, engineer Victor Chaga has filled a number of roles in the musical departments of various Hollywood film studios, varying from Score Engineer, Score Producer, Programmer and Editor.
He’s since been involved with a string of big-name blockbusters, including working with composer Henry Jackman on the score for Captain America – Civil War, and as part of the musical team for last year’s Colette (Kiera Knightley, Dominic West). Other notable works include X-Men: First Class, Wreck-It Ralph, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and the video game Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End.
His latest role required him to create a unique recording and playback system, providing audio to a cast and crew of over 300 people, on the set of the upcoming movie adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Cats. A Universal Pictures and Working Title Films production, the film’s all-star cast includes Rebel Wilson, Idris Elba, Ian McKellan, Judi Dench, Taylor Swift and James Corden.
“I chose the Fireface UFX+ specifically for the project, and as an investment for the future,” Chaga says, “for the box’s versatility, and for its ability to handle most audio and I/O formats.”
For Cats, the film’s director Tom Hooper (Les Misérables, The King’s Speech) took the unusual decision to film much of the vocals and instruments live, with the idea being to capture the feel of a live theatre production (in comparison with looking like a traditional film). These recordings were then combined with previous takes, along with some other pre-recorded material.
“Usually in musicals you would record the music and the vocals in the studio, and then by the time you get to filming, everyone mimes to the playback of that material,” Chaga explains. “All the vocals for our film were recorded live, on set, as opposed to being pre-recorded. By having live musicians behind the camera, alongside the playback setup, we were able to provide our cast with the musical support they needed. We really wanted the actors to lead the musical performance, and not the other way around.”
“All the vocals for our film were recorded live, on set, as opposed to being pre-recorded…
… We really wanted the actors to lead the musical performance, and not the other way around.”
“An extensive amount of thought and planning has been put into the ability to support the actors musically, and at the same time making absolutely sure they are at no time constrained by the music,” Chaga continues. “This allows us to instantly adapt to the performance in front of the camera, and facilitate requests from actors and production.”
Chaga and his team developed a system that allowed them to seamlessly switch between the live musicians and pre-recorded multitrack stems, along with material recorded on set during previous takes. Working in tandem with production sound mixer Simon Hayes, who captured each performance, Chaga relayed playback audio to the entire cast and crew through in-ear monitors, employing each of the RME Fireface UFX+’s digital and analogue I/O options.
The RME ARC USB remote control and TotalMix FX software were then used for precise control over the process, with channels grouped together for quick control over the monitor feeds, using the jog wheel to control levels, and shortcut keys for tasks such as recalling / hiding the TotalMix FX window from view. “This allows us to instantly adapt to the performance in front of the camera and facilitate requests from actors and production,” says Chaga.
“I think it is quite an elegant solution,” Chaga says. “To have only the necessary controls available, while removing the ability to unintentionally change anything you wouldn’t want to. Overall, the setup has performed beautifully. It is extremely flexible and solid.”
“Overall, the setup has performed beautifully.
It is extremely flexible and solid.”
“Having the standalone features of the interface and the mixing and routing flexibility of TotalMix FX, outside of the DAW, means I can rely on the Fireface as a safety net,” Chaga explained. “If the DAW or the computer crashes, the UFX+ will still pass the live signal to our IEM mixer, Tom Barrow. That could be the difference between saving and ruining a take.”
Chaga also found the ability to lock the Fireface UFX+’s user interface extremely useful, along with saving the TotalMix FX setup as snapshots and workspaces.
“If there are any changes that need to be made, I have to go through an extra step to make them, and once the user interface is locked nothing can be nudged accidentally,” Chaga says. “Having the ability to save and recall snapshots/workspaces means I can trace our workflow all the way back to day one, should I need to. There’s no ambiguity.”
Looking towards post-production of Cats this summer, Chaga said he’s considered reducing the size of his rig for the sake of mobility. One thing is for certain though he says, “wherever I go, the UFX+ interface is coming with me.”
The highly anticipated film adaptation of Weber’s popular musical is set to wrap up shooting this month at Warner Bros. Studios, in Leavesden, Hertfordshire, UK, with a release date set for Dec. 20, 2019.
The musical stage-play — based on characters in T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats — premiered in 1981 and went on to become one of the longest-running shows in both Broadway and West End theatre history.