Collaboration between the production sound team and post sound team always improves the quality of the final soundtrack. Some supervising sound editors even show up on set to record their own location effects. But supervising sound editor/sound designer Udit Duseja has taken that to the next level by also being the production sound mixer on Netflix’s Yeh Ballet — a dramatic film that’s based on the true story of two teens from Mumbai who pursue their passion to dance despite economic struggles and opposition from family.
Here, Mumbai-based Duseja talks about capturing production effects (like dance movements and street-fair drumming), location ambience and particular crowds to serve as a strong base for additional sound added in post. He talks about the role of sound as a storytelling tool — how he used it to communicate the special characteristics of each location, and how it helped to connect the different places with parallel points in time.
Jennifer Walden (JW): You were involved from pre-production through the end of post? That’s remarkable! What were some challenges of working this way? Also, what were some advantages of working this way?
Udit Duseja (UD): From our very first meeting, director Sooni Taraporevala was certain that she wanted a single point of communication for the sound of this film. She wanted someone who could be on location and supervise the sound until the final deliverables.
Every job comes with its own set of challenges and so did this one. Mumbai is a busy, chaotic and noisy place; the director was adamant that I capture most of the dialogue on-set as she wanted to keep the authenticity of the performances intact. The way I made this happen was to be involved in all the preparation for the shoot: taking part in tech recce and scouting for each location; discussing my notes on the script; understanding DOPs shooting style; working with the production designer and costume department; and working with the ADs & line producers to make sure generators were not near the set and there was crowd control on locations. This collaboration was crucial, because getting good location sound is a joint effort and all departments need to be conscious of it.
The main advantage of being the sound designer on location is that you are able to predict and solve problems which will be difficult to resolve later in the postproduction. In other words, my postproduction brain was always switched on. Apart from recording clean dialogue, the few things I was always aware of were: overlaps, recording crowd, location Foley, and wild tracks.
For example, towards the end of the film, the dialogue in the car scene with Asif, Nishu, and Saul going to the airport was recorded as a wild track. I couldn’t get clean dialogue during the take because the car windows were down! The actors were great at recreating their exact same performances for sound with the windows up.
Another example is in the scene where Nishu goes to save Saul from the angry neighbours, who are all talking to him at once. Here, the crowd was miming during the main dialogue part and I did a quick second recording immediately after the final shot, to capture all the voices without losing the momentum of the scene. These tricks are simple but effective and can save a lot of time in post.
This process enabled post-production to become simple to navigate, as I knew the sound rushes very well. I could easily direct the sound editors as to where to find replacements of sound effects that I gathered during the shoot.
JW: So you were able to get production recordings for the dancing and movement sounds? Were these also covered in Foley?
UD: The dance studio was constructed in an abandoned factory that’s regularly used for film shoots; it’s located in the Mumbai suburbs. Before we started constructing and filming, I visited the site a few times with the art department and production crew to assess the space. The main dance hall was a large empty shell where I couldn’t even hear a person talking on the other side. I worked very closely with the production designer Shailaja Sharma and the cinematographer Kartik Vijay to work out how we could dampen the acoustics. After a few discussions, I suggested we suspend cotton mattresses across the ceiling and those were then covered with cloth to look natural. It worked out pretty well with the mirrors and the curtains in place. It was a true team effort.
After a day of filming, the floor started creaking and the space became sonically alive. While I was aiming to record clean dialogue without the creaks, we also wanted to make sure we didn’t lose the natural character of the space.
So it became essential to capture the feet and movement sounds on set; it would have been really hard to recreate them in post. I recorded rehearsal takes without camera for sound. I then asked the dancers if I could record varied takes, during their lunch break, to capture additional layers that I would use for designing body movements and falls. In post, the Foley movement sounds filled the gaps and supported the production recordings well. What could have been a problematic situation became a tool for enhancing the story.
I also managed to capture wild crowd recordings with the dancers moving in and out of the studio — different variations of walla and practicing movements. You can hear those recordings bleeding through the walls in the corridor scenes. The idea was to maintain the authenticity of the studio.
JW: Can you tell me about your overall design strategy on Yeh Ballet ?
UD: The beauty of adding sound to picture is that it represents the flow of time cinematically. Sound seamlessly connects different spaces and events, and helps to shape the sub-conscious narrative underlining a character’s emotions. In my early discussions with the director, we wanted to use sound to bridge spaces, showing Mumbai’s diversity and interconnecting socio-economic differences.
JW: How were you able to use sound to help tell this story? Can you share some examples or scenes where sound played a key role in the storytelling?
UD: The characters navigate through many contrasting locations: from ballet classrooms to b-boying by the sea, from a dense residential settlement to the posh basement studio. We wanted to give the audience a true sense of space, which helped to tell the story better. The opening of the film sets the contrasting soundscape-tone early on. The film opens to a piece from the Nutcracker which fades into impressionistic Mumbai ambient sounds, which then dissolves to the b-boying breakbeats (composed by The Salvage Audio Collective). The next scene is right on the streets at a traditional Mumbai event, Dahi Handi, where you see Asif dancing to the loud drumming (recorded on-location) in a more tribal way. This introduced diversity into the soundscape, preparing the audience for what comes next.
Each space was given a special sonic character, rather than just adding generic ambient sounds; the idea was to use sound to create a particular rhythm within the city’s soundscape.
Nishu and his family live in a mixed-religion neighbourhood. We used diegetic Konkani-language music, to give a sense of the Christian Konkani community neighbourhood. In the same place, you also hear the Azaan, an Islamic call for prayer. The idea was to make the audience experience the complex diversity of Mumbai and establish the geography.
Saul’s apartment was always contextualised by off-screen construction sounds, highlighted by piercing sounds of marble-cutting. Construction sounds are commonplace in contemporary Mumbai. Saul’s character was particularly high-strung, so the sonic environment we created aimed to communicate the stress he was feeling to the viewer.
There were also the ideas of connecting worlds, and connecting time.
For connecting worlds, we extended the opera music playing in Saul’s apartment into the next scene, where Asif is walking up the stairs of the fort to meet his gang; when he sees the gang leader walking down, the opera fades out to the sound of a police siren in the distance. This created an odd tension within the scene and connected the separate spaces. The sonic environment we created aimed to communicate the stress he was feeling to the viewer.
As an example of connecting time, when Nishu is furiously practicing jumping by himself in the dance studio, you can hear the sound of the horns of the upcoming angry neighbour scene a few seconds before the scene cuts. The pre-lap helps to connect the two events happening at the same time in different spaces, gluing the two scenes subconsciously for the viewer.
The connections of different kinds of spaces and scenarios were already baked into Sooni’s script, and Antra Lahiri’s editing allowed me to interpret and enhance these ideas.
JW: Yeh Ballet was mixed in Dolby Atmos. How you were able to take advantage of the Atmos surround field to help tell this story, and were there any specific scenes or moments where Atmos was particularly beneficial to the storytelling?
UD: The film was mixed in London with Roland Heap at Sound Disposition and then at Abbey Road Studios for the final Dolby Atmos Mix, where we shaped the larger picture, sharpening the sound with the director. Mixing in Dolby Atmos at Abbey Road was fantastic. I couldn’t have asked for a better room. The format was helpful in giving so much space for the soundscape to immerse the audience. The film does not have any major action sequences or helicopters flying overhead, but we created depth in scenes by designing detailed ambience beds by using 7.1.2 reverbs and slaps. The 3D reverbs also added a lot of scale to the dialogue and you felt the room, which allows the audience to engage in the scene more.
Keeping the theme of bridging spaces, we used the objects for the transition between scenes, like the rain montage. That felt pretty big. We also managed to create really good separation within the songs and the score too. The fold down of the theatrical Atmos mix to the nearfield mix (which was done at Sound Disposition) was also very interesting. It held together all the elements, tightly maintaining the separation and the immersion.
JW: What would you want other sound pros to know about your work on Yeh Ballet?
UD: My big takeaway from this experience is that it really helps to be involved in a film from the early stages, even if you are not recording on-set. As a supervisor, one should have a lot of discussions before the film starts especially with the director and the creative crew. It’s all in the preparation. Sound is a tool that helps form the “invisible architecture” of a story, and is integral to its telling.
Filmmaking requires a strong collaboration between many departments, as well as with the director. Sooni was a hugely collaborative and inclusive leader, which gave the different departments the ability to work creatively and freely, which is rare to find. During the filming, I worked daily with the crew. During post-production, I worked more specifically with editors, composers, and eventually with the mixer. I was based in the same studio as the composers, which enabled us to build the soundtrack together — music and sound were synchronised and intertwined throughout the process.