Alas, I was supposed to have a cameo in Pitch
Perfect, but I had a European concert tour booked a
year before the movie was green-lighted, so I was
performing in Munich instead of acting as a judge in
the big final scene.
Fast forward to Pitch Perfect 2: Liz and Max wanted to find a cameo for me somewhere in the movie, and when asking me if I can speak any foreign languages, I reply that I learned French in school but I don't really look or sound particularly French. On the other hand, I could probably pass as a German, accent and all.
So, with some help from Flula, today on camera I'll be saying:
"Meine Damen und Herren, bereiten sie augen und ohren auf die beste a cappella-gruppe der welt vor: Das Sound Machine!"
(Ladies and gentlemen, prepare your eyes and ears for the best a cappella group in the world: Das Sound Machine!)
Between his scenes in the movie The Breakup, A
Mighty Wind and Pitch Perfect you might think it a
coincidence that John Michael Higgins finds himself
in roles revolving around vocal music/a cappella,
but it turns out he is the single most informed a
cappella vocalist and arranger I've met in
He was the music director ("pitch") of the Amherst Zumbyes for 3 years in the mid-80s, one of New England's great male collegiate groups, and through his theatrical instincts changed their sound and performing style in many ways. Example: if you've seen the group in the past 30 years you might notice there's always a guy in the group wearing a banana suit (which they never acknowledge: "what banana suit?").
Moreover, he did all the vocal arranging for "A Mighty Wind." He has an extensive record collection and knowledge of vocal arranging, and it's great fun to chat about the sonorities of the Anita Kerr singers, the difficulties in performing a Puerling Singers Unlimited arrangement live, the nature of changes in vocal music from the Mills Brothers and MelTones through present day.
Couldn't be a nicer guy, or more generally interested in a cappella, past and present. In fact, he spoke at length about the House Jacks, live and recorded, and could often be found chatting behind the scenes (with Penn Masala, DSM, etc.), very generous with his time.
Speaking of Pitch Perfect players who know a
cappella, the newest member of the Tone Hangers is
comedian/author John Hodgman, perhaps best known
recently for his work on The Daily Show (he was also
"PC" in the legendary Mac vs PC commercials).
Trading emails with him about his upcoming appearance in the Riff Off, he emailed back: "I was a DJ at WMFO during some of your Tufts years, and you know I spun some bubs platters." Mind blown!
WMFO, the Tufts radio station, was across the hall from the Bubs room where we rehearsed 3 times a week, so I undoubtedly passed him in the hall some 25 years ago, and now we're making an a cappella movie together.
Words cannot describe the energy in the room for
the Riff Off.
First, we had the Green Bay Packers, who arrived the day before the shoot for a brief rehearsal and then we shoved them right into the recording booth, with fingers crossed... and they destroyed all expectations. They sang every single note coming out of their mouths in the movie, and they tracked it all quite quickly. Plus we laughed throughout the entire process.
Secondly, we had some of the best comedians in the world, ala the Tone Hangers. They too arrived Monday morning, jumped right into the studio just before Tuesday's shoot, and were pure hilarity.
Thirdly we had the one and only David Cross as Emcee. Every take was different, fresh, extra improv. I had to keep from laughing, as he gave his assistant a different name each take ("Mordecai, I told you not to make this gong so heavy, I have that twitter injury...")
Add in all of the Bellas, DSM and Treblemakers, plus extras dressed up like swanky party patrons, plus the entire film crew, all crammed into a haunted house. Oh, did I forget to mention the haunted house?
That's right, we were in 13th Gate, a giant old warehouse/building that has been repurposed as an annual Halloween haunted house. Toby & his set designers did a fantastic job converting one of the rooms into a faux basement, and when you'd turn a corner you'd run into a 10 foot pile of old gravestones or a pile of body parts.
And to top it all off, there was completely inadequate air conditioning, meaning that it was even hotter inside than outside. We shot from noon to midnight, and it was a relief to walk outside into the sticky 80 degree air. It isn't art if you don't suffer at least a little.
A few terms that are used every day behind the
"Wild" - to record audio without a track. For instance, when we wanted to capture the audience chanting along at the end of Flashlight, we set up some mics, taught them the part, then had them sing without a guide track. This will get mixed in and sound like it happened at the same time, and is much better than having them sing while you're playing the track (which you would hear bleeding through, creating all kinds of messy unwanted echo).
"Thumper" - a very low pitched pulse, allowing you to record wild without the low bumping click/pulse being heard on the final track (you just erase the very low frequency, which is lower than anything you want to hear). For instance, when you want to capture dialogue over music, you have the singers mime singing, in rhythm in the background while you film the dialogue, then you can add your recording to the scene later and voila: clean dialogue over perfect music.
"Honeywagon" - an upscale mobile bathroom. Basically a glorified upscale portapotty on wheels. Usually stinky, so not great, but incredibly well air conditioned, so a much appreciated blast of cold air during a steamy Louisiana outdoor shoot.
"Run" - as in "this take, we're gonna run", which is what Liz would say before she and John Michael Higgins would do a bunch of improv at the end of one of their announcer scenes. They might go for five minutes, back and forth, trading a bunch of improvised and planned jokes, most of which will get cut out in editing, with only the very best remaining.
"Splits" - some days we're on day shoots (which last as long as daylight does, from 6am to 8pm), some days we're on nights (until dawn), and some others we're on "splits" which can mean any combination of day and night, like 9am to 9pm, or noon to midnight.
"Copy" - or "Copy that", perhaps the most common word on a movie set, it means "I understand" or "I heard you." Derived from radio communications, it is used over walkie talkies and in person, and ends up bleeding into everyday speech as an affirmation: "Have you heard the new Beyonce single? I love that song" "Copy that!"
Last week, during the Finale, CJ (Catherine Joy)
Perry returned to be one of the original Bellas. Not
only was she an original Bella in the first movie,
she was the choreography assistant, in rehearsals
and on set every day, working on all the Bellas and
TrebleMakers numbers. Fantastically talented as a
dancer, she would throw herself into each
performance, knowing every move for every actor,
always with a smile on her face.
Turns out she's now a part of the WWE, playing a Russian promoter/manager named "Lana." I turned on the television last night and there she was, in the middle of a huge auditorium, putting on a Russian accent (she was born in Latvia, speaks Russian fluently), and taunting the crowd about how weak American men are. Absolutely hilarious! If only they knew how sweet she is... but that's entertainment.
Also joining us as a "legacy Bella" was Robin Roberts (from the Today Show & ESPN). We spoke early on about having a couple cameos in the scene, completely unexplained. I thought it would be especially funny to have Condoleezza Rice, but alas she wasn't available. Robin was lovely, easy to work with, and mentioned how this brief appearance was the single coolest thing she was doing, according to her staff.
Since the advent of video
playback (thanks to Jerry Lewis, I'm told), you can
watch what is being filmed on flat screen monitors
in a couple of places around set, including the
director's and producer's "village".
Imagine a smallish flea market tent roof on poles with 3-6 director's chairs beneath it and a rolling stand with a couple screens, each showing a different camera angle. Very useful, along with a wireless headset, to check lip sync (although there is a slight delay - whenever possible I'd get right up in the action without being seen on screen), and know everything that's happening on set. Far superior to the old days when you'd have to wait for the film to be developed.
And, if you're feeling decadent, an air conditioning unit, blowing cold air into... the great outdoors. Ah, America.
Fun as it is to make a movie, it's even more fun
to go to summer camp, and as I direct a camp, called
Camp A Cappella, I figured I should show up.
It's only the second year and we had 200 attendees from age 13 to 130 from all over North America. I could go on and on (and on and on) about it, but I figure it's just easier if you head over to www.campacappella.com and see for yourself.
The Treblemakers House, same as used in the first
movie, is a complete trip. It appears to have been
designed in the late 60s by Mike Brady (yes, the dad
in the Brady Bunch was an architect), and furnished
lavishly until the early 80s when the family ran out
Now it's like a disheveled museum of bad taste and questionable trends (note the tiger print carpet on the stairs, in this photo taken from the perspective of the hot tub in the first movie).
They say location is everything in real estate, and that being the case this house has everything as it's located right on the lake at LSU, alongside the other fraternity and sorority houses. One day it'll sell, probably get turned into a new frat house, and when it does they'll have the most amazing retro 60's lounge parties!
Although it'll eventually all flow together
smoothly on camera, creating this scene is quite
complex. We need dialog with the Treblemakers with
Rebel (actually her stunt double) far away in the
distance, paddling in her canoe.
Then we need Rebel herself standing and paddling and lip-synching to her vocal that we recorded last week, with a platform attached to the front of the canoe (for the cameraman)
Then we need footage of Rebel jumping out of the canoe and scampering up the side of the riverbank, which we need to record live, since we need the sound of her out of breath, dropping words, etc.
Then we need to get her crossing the street, also live ("GOOOOOOOOO!!"), and then her prerecorded vocals drop back in at the top of the chorus.
And finally we need to shoot the duet with Adam from several angles (took half the day), all using prerecorded singing, but with lav mics and a boom mic to capture any jokes/asides they throw in between the vocal lines).
All told, 13 hours from the first notes to the last, as soon as the sun got high enough in the sky until it began to sag toward the horizon, for 3 minutes of film, and one apparently smooth, continuous moment.