Interview with UK production Sound Mixer John Casali (AMPS), June/July 2020

Mel Noonan, StylusMC
Aaton-Transvideo editorial John Casali Q&A

John Casali (AMPS), was awarded an Oscar by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for Sound Mixing for the movie Bohemian Rhapsody.

For the same movie John was also included in the BAFTA award for Best Sound; included in the UK AMPS award for Excellence in Sound for a Feature Film; and included in the C.A.S. Award in the USA for Outstanding Achievement in Sound Mixing for Motion Pictures.

All of his sound recording for Bohemian Rhapsody was accomplished with his two Aaton Digital CantarX3 multitrack field recorders.

Shooting restarts on the backlot at Pinewood Studios, Jurassic World Dominion, July 2020
Picture#1: Shooting restarts on the backlot at Pinewood Studios, Jurassic World Dominion, July 2020

Q: Starting with the Corona Virus situation, how were you affected?

We had just returned from shooting in Canada on Jurassic World Dominion, and we were in our first week of UK shooting when the producers announced that we were going into a week’s hiatus. A week later the world went into lockdown. Shooting restarted in early July.

Q: Aaton-Digital likes to look back at your career and how you started. Do you think there were any influences in your childhood and teens that steered you towards a sound based career path?

At Christmas 1976, I was 11 years old. My parents bought me a Philips N2507 Stereo Cassette Recorder with a plug-in microphone. My sister was learning to play the piano, so I recorded her playing. I must have been keen as she was terrible! I then started recording the BBC Radio 1 top 40 in my bedroom. I would place the microphone in front of the radio, press record and sneak out of the room trying not to make a sound, then sneak back in to pause until the next track played. As you can imagine this was a lengthy process but I thought it was worth the effort.

Q: What followed from there?

Nothing immediately. There was some talk of following in my father’s footsteps, he was a pastry chef with a couple of shops in London, but in my late teens I thought ‘not for me’. My ex father-in-law had a small film and lighting company and offered me a job as driver/camera assistant. He was shooting documentaries, commercials and corporates. I gravitated towards the sound department and started working as a sound assistant, I loved it. Mainly we shot on Betacam, we’d occasionally shoot on film and it was the film side that really captured me.

I got to meet a lot of the documentary guys, a couple of them moved into drama, and one of them asked me if I’d like to join him as a Second AS, (Second Assistant Sound), on the period detective TV series Poirot - and so I did that. At that time, around age 25, I felt that this was the path I wanted to pursue.

In 1990 I was introduced to Trevor Carless who was a Drama Sound Mixer. I started working with him and his legendary boom operator Charlie McFadden on the TV show London’s Burning. I gained much experience there that would make the later transition into films relatively easy.

The Cantaress and CantarX3 are in the back of Luton van on the backlot at Leavesden studio- Fast 9 - 2019
Picture#2: The Cantaress and CantarX3 are in the back of Luton van on the backlot at Leavesden studio- Fast 9 - 2019

Q: What was your first experience working on a feature film?

I was extremely fortunate to assist the very talented Production Sound Mixer David Crozier on the film Madness of King George. Over time, I worked very closely with David, from quarter inch tape on the Nagra through to DAT, then through to multi-track hard disk recording.
I became his boom operator and we continued working together for about 11 years until his retirement.

Q: Was there travelling involved?

Yes. We travelled a lot, including Morocco, Malta, Italy, France, Turkey...

Q: Did you enjoy this time?

I did. We had a great working relationship and are still friends.

Q: What were some of the other movies you did with him?

We did the first Mission Impossible, and Finding Neverland; we did Harry Potter, Goblet of Fire.
Alfie was the first film where we used an eight track DVD recorder, a Fostex PD6.

Q: What happened when David retired?

It was a natural progression from boom operating to sound mixing. My first real opportunity was on the 2nd Unit of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Then, during a break between the Harry Potter films I was offered The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. Mark Herman was the writer director. We had a wonderful time making that film. The cast were brilliant and it was an amazing film to work on for my first main unit production. It was challenging because of the subject matter, but made in such a beautiful way. It was a low budget film, but it felt really special. It will stay with me forever.

In Hawaii shooting Jurassic World Fallen Kingdom, 2017, with Chris Murphy, my boom operator of 14 years
Picture#3: In Hawaii shooting Jurassic World Fallen Kingdom, 2017, with Chris Murphy, my boom operator of 14 years

Q: When you went out on your own, what was your recording equipment?

My first documentary kit consisted of a 4-channel Film Tech mixer, Sennheiser 416 and a couple of Audio Ltd VHF radio mics.

Q: When was your first introduction to Aaton recorders?

It was at an IPS weekend where they were showing all the current multitrack recorders. There was Portadrive, Fostex, Deva, and the CantarX2.
I was very impressed with the Cantar, with the build quality and then listening to it, the microphone preamps. It was the closest thing I could get to a Nagra, and it was just a beautifully made piece of kit.

Q: Did you order one following that week end?

Yes I did. I bought an X2 four weeks after that, and then I bought a second hand X1 as a backup machine. I've always had two Cantars on the go since then. I bought it and used it on the 2nd Unit of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

Q: What were some of the films you used the X2 on?

I did a lot. I did all the second units on Harry Potter. I did The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. I bought the X2 in 2005 and I didn't buy my X3 until the first ones came out, I think it was at the end of 2015. So I did a lot of movies with the X2, 10 years or so, and it was brilliant. It never gave me any problems, ever.

Also, if I ever had any issue in terms of other functionality, Aaton was brilliant. During that time, there was an issue because the X2 recorded monophonic files, and productions back then began to want polyphonic files. I was starting on the 2nd unit of a film called Inkheart and I was in Italy on location and I was asked to hand in poly files. I contacted Aaton and they updated the software, sent it to me, I loaded it on the machine and it worked perfectly. They did that before I started the job. That was unheard of at the time. They didn't want to do it, but I said, look, this is what we need, and they did it. It made the difference between my being able to use the recorder on a film or not. That gives you some idea of how committed they are.

In Macau 2016 on Now You See Me 2
Picture#4: In Macau 2016 on Now You See Me 2

Q: So You did a lot of movies with the X2. What led you into buying the X3?

More tracks. With the X2 I was using two tracks up for the mixtrack, so basically I only had six ISOs. The 24 tracks and bigger screen was a huge factor; I ran tests with an X3 and I loved it, it offered everything I wanted in a multitrack recorder. It was game changing to not have to run two recorders for big, high track count dialogue scenes.
The whole menu system is much more user friendly than the X- and it does so much more - all the things that the X2 didn't do, the X3 did, and more, and that sold it to me completely.

Q: What are some of the films you’ve done now with the CantarX3?

Beauty and the Beast, Darkest Hour, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Bohemian Rhapsody, Fast and Furious presents: Hobbs and Shaw, Emma, F9 (in post production) and Jurassic World: Dominion (shooting now resumed).

Q: How have you been using the X3?

I use it differently to my X2. I recently purchased the Aaton Cantaress control panel and I finished off Fast 9 in LA with it and then I went on to the new Jurassic, which we started filming in Canada. For both films, I needed a lightweight rig that could cope with a lot of radio mics, and the Cantaress and the X3 worked so well. I had all much better access to EQ, I had all the outputs that I needed and it worked beautifully.

Q: Was it in a cart or in a bag?

I had a really small cart that I could pull on my own. It was brilliant. I had everything there with the Cantaress panel and the X3, and it was just so easy. I was dragging this lightweight cart up mountains, we had the dialogue scenes in really inaccessible locations and it was just so easy. In Canada we were working at high altitudes, bright sunshine and sometimes heavy snow in temperatures of -15, -20, but everything just went on working. We were often in very bright environments and never once did I have a problem seeing the screen.

Q: Have you got to know Jacques and some of the team at Aaton-Digital?

I’ve met Jacques a few times now, and Pierre Michoud. They’ve always been so supportive, and even when they don’t agree with something, they completely take on board what the end user needs and wherever possible will bend over backwards to make it work for us.
Listening to sound mixers’ needs like this has helped make the X3 a highly versatile multitrack recorder. The X3 is the perfect blend of powerful digital capabilities and an ergonomic analogue feel and sound. It’s a very satisfying machine to work with.

John’s IMDB link:

John Casali talks about Aaton’s latest software bundle that he has ordered, and the Cantaress panel he now uses with his CantarX3

Currently with Covid-19 there will be times when we are filming scenes in a travelling vehicle and may be unable to be in a follow vehicle or low loader due to social distancing. This is when the new AatonMix will be very useful. I can still produce a mixed track for editorial with the recorder in the boot of a vehicle. For a time this may change the way we work.

The Dante option is also very interesting. I am using the new MCR54 Wysicom radio mics, and later this year they're going to release a rack that supports Dante. Once this becomes available I will integrate Dante into my system.

I recently purchased the Cantaress. I used it on Fast 9 shooting in LA, I then went on to Jurassic World Dominion, which we started filming in Canada. For both of these projects my location trolley needed to be lightweight but able to cope with multiple radio mics. I have used my Cooper CS208 for many years and was very reluctant to change. The Cantaress has proved to be a worthy replacement. Smooth faders, full control of my EQ and being a sealed unit safe from dust. The display is fabulous.