Think of the Bellas as the Rocky of the a cappella set: they’re underdogs who will never give up, a point driven home in the latest and possibly final film in the series, Pitch Perfect 3. Following their victory in Pitch Perfect 2, the group has gone their separate ways, but the opportunity to perform on an overseas USO Tour brings them back together, unaware that they’re going to end up competing against a group that not only sings (which they do) but plays instruments as well (which they don’t).

The series began in 2012 with Pitch Perfect, which had Anna Kendrick‘s Beca, a freshman at Barden University, talked into joining the Bellas a cappella group, leading to a competition with their male rivals. The sequel, released in 2015, begins at The Kennedy Center with a performance that goes so wrong that the highlight is someone vomiting on stage. Trying to regain their reputation, they go into an international competition that no American group has ever won before.

All of which sets the stage for the new film — being released December 22, 2017 — which we go behind the scenes of with the crew and Pitch Perfect cast members, including the returning Anna, Rebel Wilson, Hailee Steinfeld, and Elizabeth Banks.

MAX HANDLEMAN (producer):Pitch Perfect 3 introduces the Bellas to the big bad world around them. We raised the bar and wanted fans to get what they love: the singing, the dancing and laughter, but also to see the women involved in new, fun and exciting situations. This is a much more action-driven movie; the cold open announces right away that things are very different. The characters are older, and they’re all on different journeys.”

TRISH SIE (director): “Fat Amy has her own one-woman show she’s trying to get off Broadway. So she’s off of Times Square with her street performer set-up — complete with hecklers and hot dog men interrupting her every day.”

REBEL WILSON (actress, “Fat Amy”): “You find out a lot more about Fat Amy in this movie, which is cool. At the start of the film, she is trying to make it on Broadway. She puts together a little show called Fat Amy Winehouse, which is an amazing and hilarious one-woman show that she’s performing on the street. But she keeps getting contacted by someone very mysterious.”

BRITTANY SNOW (actress, “Chloe Beale”): “Chloe has a soft spot for animals, and she also has one for the Bellas, so she can’t let go. She lives in close quarters with Beca and Fat Amy, and is trying to move on very slowly to become a vet. It is surreal being back with the Bellas, but I love it.”

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ANNA CAMP (actress, “Aubrey”): “Aubrey was definitely the most uptight and nervous about singing in front of everyone and put all of her rigidity onto all of the other Bellas. Over the course of these movies she’s opened up and loosened up. Now she’s running The Lodge at Fallen Leaves. She comes back for one last chance to sing with the Bellas and introduces them to this USO tour.”

ESTER DEAN (actress, “Cynthia Rose”): “In the beginning, you see us living our life and trying to figure out which direction to go, just as much as any person coming out of college. She’s trying to get through flight school, though it’s not working out too well.”

Although the characters have moved in different directions, they ultimately come together for what is a pretty different adventure from what’s come before.

ELIZABETH BANKS (producer/actress, “Gail”): “This movie not only has more singing and dancing than the previous two features, but it is a full-fledged action-adventure. We were excited about the idea of literally making the Bellas action heroes, especially Fat Amy.”

ANNA KENDRICK (actress, “Beca”): “The humor has always been what made our movies stand out, and we’ve all worked together to bring out the best version of this script.”

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REBEL WILSON: “All the Bellas are back and we’re going on this USO tour, which is pretty awesome. At first we didn’t think there was any competition there, and then, guess what? It turns out to be one, which we obviously love.”

ANNA KENDRICK: “The Bellas get on the tour and everybody who uses instruments is still better at a cappella than we are. In the universe of Pitch Perfect, everybody can sing a cappella. It’s like how in the universe of Jackie Chan movies, everybody can do martial arts.”

ELIZABETH BANKS: “We wanted to put on the USO tour with them, similar to what happens in real life, as the USO has multiple acts on it. It’s similar to a variety show, so we came up with other bands that would be fun for them to interact with.”

REBEL WILSON: “There’s a new band called Evermoist, led by fellow Australian Ruby Rose, who are very sexy and moisty, shall I say. Then there’s Saddle Up, which is actually a country band in real life — so that was easy for them. They just rock up and sing country. Then there’s DJ Dragon Nuts and DJ Looney, who also just bring it on this tour.”

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Before embarking on the tour, the cast had to participate in Aca Boot Camp to learn choreography for the new film and the new a cappella arrangements, which could be challenging at times.

ANNA CAMP: “When we got to rehearsal and started to learn the dance moves, it took me a minute. I definitely had a slight panic in my face, because I hadn’t taken a dance class in so long. But once we breathed and relaxed, our phenomenal choreographers reminded us that they have faith in us. The performances we shot were amazing, so lovely. Half the time I didn’t want them to end, they were so fun to shoot.”

BRITTANY SNOW: “I’m not an a cappella person. I also didn’t grow up singing professionally. So when I get in the booth, I’m not like Ester and Hailee, who are phenomenal. I have to feel confident and comfortable, and this team does that.”

KELLEY JAKLE (actress, “Jessica”): “The choreography and the music are harder than ever and better than ever.”

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DEKE SHARON (vocal arranger): “The Bellas recorded all their own vocals, but on set it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the excitement of the crowd — not to mention all the new choreography and cameras flying around. They had to remember to lip sync perfectly to their own voices and keep microphones up close, the way a singer would on stage.”

ED BOYER (vocal arranger): “Most of the music this time around is more scene-specific and related to what’s going on in the Bellas’ personal stories, rather than just military-related songs.”

ANNA KENDRICK: “At the beginning we’re handed music and choreography that feels like insanity. Then they tell us, “It’s going to be okay; we’re going to work it out.” It feels manageable, because you’ve got this parachute with the music and dance department.”

The Bellas head out on this tour in response to watching Emily and her troupe of freshman Barden crew hit the stage. This eventually leads them to the USO.

ELIZABETH BANKS: “How could we make the look and feel of this movie different from what we’d done previously? I was fortunate enough to go on a USO tour last year with the Joints Chief of staff. I visited Afghanistan, Bahrain, Djibouti, Africa, and we felt like it was a cool and meaningful experience that the Bellas could go on as well. We knew this would also drastically change the backdrop of all of the performances.”

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ANNA CAMP: “Aubrey finds out about the USO tour through her dad, who is high up in the military. She gets the idea when the Bellas all want to sing together one more time and there’s the USO tour coming up.”

CHRISSIE FIT: “When we get invited on this USO Tour, we think that we’re going to sing for fun, and quickly we realize that it’s a competition. At the end of the tour, DJ Khaled is going to choose a group to perform live on national TV. Of course, once the Bellas hear “competition,” we are excited and ready to compete for the spot.”

ELIZABETH BANKS: “If there’s a theme to this film, it’s breaking all the rules. We were joking that the Barden Bellas were our female Avengers, so we were excited to put them into real danger — taking them out of college and out of their cloistered world. I have to say, I was impressed by everyone’s bravery, especially Rebel’s. In the last movie, she worked with Cirque de Soleil, got into silks, and hung 30 feet about the stage in a harness. She’s been so brave and game. She got into a suit and got attacked by dogs, because she knew it would be funny. And it came out amazing. That’s the spirit Rebel brings that is so Fat Amy. You believe that Fat Amy would do anything, and that’s Rebel proving it to us.”

REBEL WILSON: “Look out Tom Cruise, let’s do this! I’ve never done a fight scene in any movie, and now I get two massive fight scenes, plus some other high-jinx. It’s so awesome. I’m a huge fan of action. I’ve always felt like I had it in me to kick butt, and here I get to show some of those skills. There have been a few bruises along the way, but it has been the best fun.”

The real fun comes from the competition itself, the results of which obviously won’t be revealed here. One thing we can say is that this is, in all likelihood, the last film in the series, and it was something that the cast was very much aware of as they shot the final scenes, which also happened to be the ending of the movie itself (very unusual as films are typically shot out of order).

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TRISH SIE: “Shooting the finale was the most rewarding part of the whole movie. It took a long time for this number to come together, because we knew how important it was. It had to accomplish so many things. It had to be a goodbye song, and start a new chapter as a move-forward song. It had to be a song about friendship and about stepping into your own future.”

ANNA KENDRICK: “I have wept openly in front of most of my coworkers about seven times now.”

REBEL WILSON: “We’ve known each other for over five years now, and this finale sequence was very emotional; we were trying to soak up all of what it’s like to be a Bella. These movies have been so instrumental in our lives and careers, so as we wrap up production, we’ve been crying and hugging a lot.”

ELIZABETH BANKS: “To say goodbye, we went with George Michael’s ‘Freedom! 90’. It was complicated, trying to figure out the finale. It had to be a message to the audience, as well as a declaration of where Beca’s character has to go. We also had to blend the two with a unifying finish to these Bellas.”

TRISH SIE: “There are so many people who care about this movie, these characters, and the journey they’ve all been on. It was so powerful to create this magical scene in which to bring everything to its huge climax. The amount of emotion was raw and true. Even in the rehearsals, the girls could barely go through the scenes without crying. They left it all on the floor that night; everyone in the room could feel it. It’s easy to be wacky and over-the-top, and to stick to things that feel familiar. What’s hard to do is to balance those two. Pitch Perfect has that ring of truth that you can apply it to your own life. These women go through what we all do — whether it’s being a misfit, being in a group of friends figure out your way after college.”

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REBEL WILSON: “I hope it’s surprising to the audience, because it is a slightly different tone in this movie, because we didn’t want to just do the same thing. We wanted to go the next level for the fans. I also hope they like finding more out about Fat Amy. I just love the songs in this movie. We’re constantly singing them… even when we’re not supposed to.”

ELIZABETH BANKS: “With this series we feel like we tapped into something — this flood of female empowerment, not just in Hollywood and in our industry, and in movies, but in the world. If that power comes with entertainment for the audience, so much the better. Plus, singing and dancing and making people laugh is never a bad combination.”