Old Movie Musicals---how were orchestras combined with actors singing?

Hi SD,

I was recently watching My Fair Lady and Mary Poppins. How did the actors/actresses “sing” along to the orchestra score? Was the technology advanced enough when these movie musicals were made that they were able to have a studio recording of them singing with the orchestra blaring off-camera and then they lip-synched to it? Or was there an accompanist on the piano off-camera to provide live accompaniment at the exact tempi the orchestra would perform at?

With the former, it seems like it would be devilishly hard to match your lip movements to what you’d sung in studio previously.

With the latter, it seems like it would be devilishly hard to play a full orchestral score on the piano, exactly to the specifications of what the orchestra had played previously.
Or was the orchestra recorded afterwards?

In short I’d like to know what Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn were listening to when they were “singing” “The Rain in Spain.” I assume that whatever I learn here was the same method used for all song and dance numbers for all movie musicals.
What am I missing?



I remember an old CBC radio program which demonstrated where the musicals “cut away” from the star performer to a lip-synching stand-in singer. IIRC, one of the classic examples was Gigi - there’s a spot around the first line of the song where the girl’s voice suddenly becomes richer. I’m sure you’ve seen the “behind the scenes” where actors lip-sync for animations - sometimes they record first and animate to that (easier today) and sometimes the animation is played on the screen and the actor speaks their part. Orchestra would be no different.

There’s also the phenomenon where as long as the movement is very close, the eye does not see a difference; In the old westerns, for example, the audio guys made no effort to synchronize the actual hoofbeats with the horses’ steps - our mind assumes the connection. Perhaps speech is the trickiest. As long as the orchestra keeps time with the dancers as the movie is played back during recording it is good. The dancers, of course, were also dancing to a another recording.

In almost every musical, heck in almost every movies, much of the sound - music, voice, singing, sound effects - is re-recorded or heavily modified afterward. (The joke is that in his first movie (Hercules?), Arnold Schwarznegger has his lines completely overdubbed because of his accent.)

Since this is about movie-making techniques, let’s move it to Cafe Society.

General Questions Moderator

It’s funny you should mention My Fair Lady - this was actually the first case where an actor (Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins) did perform live on camera. All the other roles in that movie and almost every other movie musical were indeed pre-recorded and had to be lip-synced by the actors on set. And md2000 is right - in many cases the actor is not the singer. Audrey Hepburn was replaced in almost all singing parts with Marni Nixon, which caused some bad vibes on set, as you can imagine. The reason Rex Harrison insisted on performing live was that he had done the role on stage for close to 10 years and was more speaking than singing. This would have been much harder to do in the traditional way.

The first movie musical that strayed from this way of doing things was Les Miserables in 2012. All the actors had wireless mics and earpieces and sang live on set along to a pianist that only they could hear. That way they could adjust the timing and expression to their fellow actors on set rather than making all their acting choices 3 months before in a studio, maybe even without their fellow actors in the room. This short video gives a great idea of the process.

That technology came in with the first talkies. Except for rare instances, no singing in movies has ever been live. It is always prerecorded and the actors lipsync. It may be hard but that’s what they’re paid for.

A subject I generally know nothing about, but I am aware that different technologies were used as technology advanced. There is at least one Hollywood movie where the dance scenes were direct-mic’ed, and what you hear is the dancers tapping, moving and squeaking when they nailed a good bit. Later, the dance sounds (including the taps) where added in post production.

Depends on what you mean by “old.” They were able to mix sound by the time of My Fair Lady, but in the very early days of talkies, they didn’t have that capability. Sound was recorded on the film, so most early musicals were done live. I’ve seen production stills for The Coconuts that showed the orchestra on set, and a quick search shows the first films to have any dubbing at all were from two years later.

Dubbing was a complicated process back then, since you had to work from the optical strip on the actual film. It was quickly developed, so by the mid-30s, it was technically feasible.

It wasn’t too hard to do things with a live orchestra; Broadway shows did it all the time.

As a side note, the scenes in Singin’ in the Rain where Kathy dubbed Lina’s voice were not technically possible at the time frame shown.

Wait, so they did or did not have live orchestras on set? Like where were they, behind the cameraman? A huge 30 piece orchestra? With a conductor and everything? Or if not, there were speakers with the orchestra score blaring while the actors are trying to lip-synch?

And you say lip-synching. So this means Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn would be trying to lip-synch to a live orchestra, or an orchestra recording? Would they have heard their voices with the orchestra or was it just an orchestra track? They recorded their voices in studio way before they did the scene with the song in it, right?

Sorry, still confused.

I can’t really say for earlier stuff, like in the 1930s. It’s absolutely possible they had a live (30 piece is not huge, btw) orchestra on set in those times. The acoustics on a film set usually suck, though.

I do, however, know that in the 1950s and '60s all the music including the vocals was pre-recorded in a studio and played via speakers on set and the actors lip-synced to their own voice. Singers like Marni Nixon would sometimes then dub over the actor’s original voice if it was deemed unsuitable for a movie audience, as apparently Audrey Hepburn’s and Natalie Wood’s (Maria in West Side Story) voices were. You can hear Audrey Hepburn singing “Just You Wait” herself in this clip.

As for Rex Harrison, he

From here.

Go ahead and watch that short Les Miserables clip I linked to upthread. It’s a great glimpse into the way they did it and why they couldn’t have done it the traditional way. That kind of effort wouldn’t have been feasible 20-30 years ago, though.

In the early days, such as the Marx Brothers’ films, you can control the mix both by the orchestra controlling it’s volume, and by their proximity to the microphone. Before multi-tracking, most records were mixed the same way.

Most microphones benefit from a pretty heavy proximity effect. For example, I have a microphone set up in my living room right now. If I turn the TV up loud through the stereo, it comes through on the mic that is on the other side of the room pretty clearly. But if someone steps close to the mic and starts singing, they can easily be heard above the stereo as long as it’s not already saturating the mic.

In the case of acting/dancing to a prerecorded track, that should be easier than overdubbing dialogue, which is done all the time in movies. The prerecorded music track has a beat that the performer can follow, that the performers would have to sync themselves with, anyway.

This has been the common practice in Indian films since the first talkies in the 1930s. Virtually every Indian film was a musical, with a dozen numbers typical, and all used “playback”. It was taken for granted that the actors were not singing, and often, the playback singers were better known celebrities than the actors. Lata Mangeshkar never appeared on the screen, but is believed to have recorded over 30,000 songs in dozens of languages, for film playback.

Everything was prerecorded. There was no orchestra in the South Pacific off camera during South Pacific.

That’s not the proximity effect, though. But you’re right, the closer to the microphone you are, the louder you’ll be in the mix, and that’s how “mixing” was done in the days before multiple mic recordings. (The proximity effect occurs in directional mics and refers to a boost in low frequencies the closer you are to the mic.)

Yes, an orchestra on set (albeit a small one). Remember, sound stages of the time were extremely large, so there was plenty of room. But it was not ideal, and as mixing became available, music was prerecorded.

By that time, four-track machines were available, so the orchestra could play, then the singer would sing their role. That would be put on the soundtrack. Prior to that development, everything had to be recorded live.

The examples he gave in the OP were made long after the need for a live orchestra was over. I think when people think of movie musicals they are more likely to think of the ones from the 50s and 60s and not the old black and white ones. In many cases it was often not even the actor singing as was pointed out with the previous mention of Marni Nixon who sang lead in many of the big movie musicals.

Well, that’s part of what I meant (e.g. the orchestra sounds thin compared to the performers in those old recordings), but I sure didn’t write it. Thank you for explaining it more clearly.