In big-budget movies like the Pitch Perfect trilogy that are full of cast singing and dancing to sound-studio tracks, including close-ups with no obvious "lip-synching" breaks:

When the actors are performing a song-and-dance scene, what do they hear? Is there a final or at least "complete" song track piped in for them to synchronize to? Or do they hear something modified – e.g., preliminary soundtrack minus primary vocals, a simple beat track, or something different that facilitates synchronization of the choreography, singing, and post-production?

Also, on set: Do the actors lip-synch, vocalize, or is it up to them which to do in any given take?

  • This question may be closed as too broad. You are asking multiple questions (e.g. the additional question in your last paragraph). Also, saying "In big-budget movies" means that your question covers ALL musicals, rather than a specific film such as Pitch Perfect (the first one). That will lead to an answer that lists all techniques ever used throughout the history of film. You can probably tighten up your question to ask for the technique used in one film, or possibly the whole Pitch Perfect trilogy (which may have used different techniques under the 3 different directors). – BrettFromLA Sep 18 at 15:15
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    Probably a combination of all of them depending on the requirements. Certainly, as far as I am aware, they are listening to something. It's most likely that the final version will be done post-filming though. – Paulie_D Sep 18 at 15:15
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    @BrettFromLA – I just broke out the "add-on question" separately here. Since I don't know if there are practices common across the industry, the question was intentionally posed first in broader form to elicit any such answers. In case there are not common practices in the industry, I offer the Pitch Perfect film(s) to admit a good specific answer. – feetwet Sep 18 at 16:52
  • I'm not sure the 'add-on' really works as a separate question, tbh. It actually takes a false premise & runs with that. I thought it was fine in here. – Tetsujin Sep 18 at 17:22
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    I rolled back to the version with the 'extra question' because t's really part & parcel of the entire structure of how this is done. & to close-voters... this is answerable. In fact, it's been answered ;-) – Tetsujin Sep 18 at 19:03
up vote 17 down vote accepted

This might be a bit broad [but answerable in a broad sense], and I have no documentary evidence to back things up, but my qualification for this is I am a (retired) professional sound engineer, who now works in the movie industry...

Back in the old "Singin' in the Rain" days, the music would be completed first and the actor would lip-sync to a playback on set. This was very expensive in terms of film footage, but the only way, technically, they could realistically achieve something like lip-sync.

In later days, when they had multi-track audio recording [from the mid 60's roughly], then the options opened slightly... Until the mid 90's, the way to do this was to sing along to a version completed except for the very final vocal for the film recording, & then use an ADR-type technique of re-singing the vocal along to the final edit of the picture [actually projected on a screen in the sound studio] until they looked like they matched.
Audio tape is, of course, re-usable - so this technique was massively cheaper than filming it til it looked right.
The first professional vocal I ever had to do was done this way; I had to lip-sync to an already-completed cartoon 'singer'. That was about 1980/1.

Since the mid 90's, we've had software that can move a vocal to match another sound track - notably something called VocAlign Pro [other software is likely also available, but that's the one I know and have used for over 20 years.]
This gives you the option of re-aligning the audio of a later-recorded vocal track to the original recorded on the sound stage, so you will never see lip-sync issues. This technique is also used for dialog 'looping' (also known as ADR or dubbing).

Once you have that capability, it ceases to matter which you record first, as you can always go back and time-shift it later.

Practically, it can depend on the state of completeness of the actual song arrangements. The last musical I worked on, all that was set in stone was the song format - verse/chorus/verse etc - all the actual arrangements were still in rough outline. The structures themselves were of course recorded on digital sequencers, so the tempo was nailed solid and could be used as an absolute reference for any later overdubs. So the cast sang to piano/drum arrangements, and everything else will be overdubbed and re-recorded after filming is complete.

Regarding the 'add-on question' - it's better if the actor fully vocalises, i.e. sing it up loud rather than mumble along, as the visual facial/body characteristics will far better match the sound of the final performance.

  • Fascinating: Are there limits to how much can software stretch or compress a vocal track for alignment before it alters pitch? (Or would this make a good separate question on Sound Design?) – feetwet Sep 18 at 16:57
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    It will never alter pitch - but yes, beyond a 'short' timing change it will simply fail to track properly. You can manually chop at obvious gaps & present the software with a 'close guess' that it can work from. It's good but it can't do magic ;) Sound Design might be a good place to get into more detail - though tbh I know how to use it but I don't actually know 'how it does it'. – Tetsujin Sep 18 at 17:01
  • Regarding the last sentence – Jeremy Brett claimed for many years to have done his own singing as Freddie in My Fair Lady; last time I watched it, I cracked up at one point because there's no way he could make that face while singing that line. – Anton Sherwood Sep 19 at 22:59
  • @AntonSherwood - I don't know your specific reference, but until VocAlign, which first appeared in the mid 90's, the only ways to do this were to either complete the soundtrack first & have the actor repeat it ad-nauseum in front of the camera [very expensive] or to sing along to a version completed except for the very final vocal for the film recording, & then use an ADR-type technique of re-singing the vocal along to the final edit of the picture [actually protected on a screen in the sound studio] until they looked like they matched. – Tetsujin Sep 20 at 12:26
  • I tweaked my answer to include that 'mid-period' technique. – Tetsujin Sep 20 at 12:42

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