By Jennifer Walden
The HBO drama series The Night Of tells the tale of Nasir “Naz” Khan, a young Pakistani-American male accused of brutally murdering a young woman in her uptown Manhattan home. The series takes the audience on a tour of New York City’s penal system, from the precinct to the morgue, into the court room and out to Riker’s Island. It also explores different neighborhoods, from uptown Manhattan across the East River into Queens. Each location has a rich tapestry of sound, a vibrant background upon which the drama plays out.
Supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer Nicholas Renbeck from c5 Sound in New York, has been nominated for two Emmys for his work on the show: one for Outstanding Sound Editing For A Limited Series for Ep. 2 “Subtle Beast,” and one for Outstanding Sound Mixing For A Limited Series for Ep.1 “The Beach.” He’s already won a 2017 Golden Reel Award for Best Sound Editing on The Night Of.
Here he shares insight on building the expressive backgrounds and mixing the effects to create a rich world around the actors.
How did you get involved with the show?
They were looking to do the sound in New York and c5 Sound was one of the places they were considering. I interviewed for the job and ended up getting it.
I flew out to Los Angeles while they were wrapping up locking the picture cut. Just prior to going they had sent me screening links to watch the series, all but the last episode. So I viewed the first seven episodes pretty much straight in a row, and in less than 24 hours I got on the plane and flew out to LA to spot the entire show with Steve Zaillian (series creator/ director/writer), still not knowing what happens in the last episode. While on the plane I had all these possible sound ideas swirling around in my head, mixed with this deep desire to know what happens in the final episode.
Then upon arriving I sat and did a spotting session with Steve and Nick Houy, the picture editor. We watched all eight episodes over a two-day period and talked about the sound concerns and possibilities.
This was your first time working with show runners Richard Price and Steven Zaillian. Did they have specific plans for how they wanted to use sound in the show?
Steve had a definite vision for where he wanted to go with the show. He had very specific ideas on what it would sound like in the prison, or what the city should sound like depending on the neighborhood. When I sat down with them, they already had a lot of sounds in their Avid Media Composer that they were working with. Actually, much more than any show I’ve worked on before.
Warren Shaw (a fellow supervising sound editor/sound designer who was New York-based but went out to Los Angeles a little while ago) had been brought onto the show early on while they were still cutting. Warren did some great initial sound design for them on a few of the later episodes. I got to hear what his ideas were and we brought his work, along with everything they had in the Avid, into our working sound sessions. Then Ruy Garcia, Wyatt Sprague (sound design/effects editors) and I kept going further, adding more elements and refining ideas.
I find there’s always a transitional step from moving from a mono or stereo Avid track into a 5.1 surround environment. Everybody up to this point is used to listening to things in a certain way. Now we’ve added four more speakers, and there’s a re-adjustment processes that happens. So, I spent a good amount of time working to present all the material in a way that would play to the strengths of a 5.1 sound environment.
What came about was a wonderful combination of all our ideas up to that point. I would make a full 5.1 sound effect premix in one of c5 sound design suites for an entire episode, then bring Steve in and get his reaction, and then afterward build from that. What we learned from working with Steve on Episode 102 we would then take and apply to Episode 103, building as we went.
How did they want the prison to sound? What descriptions did they give?
You hear this low rumbling tone, this presence of heaviness. That really spoke to Steve’s idea of what he wanted the prison atmosphere to encompass. We found sounds and tones to mold that mood, working to create what that feeling is like when the prison is busy and full of activity. We also created the flip side of what that oppressive sound is when the lights are out and we are alone with Naz [Riz Ahmed] in this very scary place that’s now quiet. We kept working to give the cell block a heaviness so that it feels like it’s pulling you down as you go through these scenes with Naz and see what his life has become at this point.
Marissa Littlefield, our ADR supervisor, Steve and I had conversations about what we needed in terms of added voices and how we would handle that. We did a lot of interesting casting for loop group, with a focus on being specific to the locations around the city. We definitely put our loop group coordinators Dann Fink and Bruce Winant (of Loopers Unlimited) through the paces of casting. It was nice to be able to combine those added voices from the loop group with the substantial production recording that was done on set, along with a number of sounds we had in our personal sound libraries. I think we were pretty successful at creating those different locations based on both voices and sound atmospheres.
What about the reverb work for the prison and the precinct? You have dry loop group recordings, so what reverbs did you use to help fit those into the environments?
I jump back and forth using Avid’s ReVibe II, Space and Audio Ease’s Altiverb. In doing some of his design work I know Ruy liked to use Soundtoy’s Echoboy delay for some fun stuff, and I believe Michael Berry (re-recording mixer on music/dialog/ADR/Foley) used Revibe II and Altiverb for most of the show. So there was a variety of different reverbs and effects that we would use.
In some cases, we would apply reverb directly to the sound file, and in other cases we would wait until we got to the mix. In terms of the loop group voices, Michael Berry spent time figuring out where he wanted those to sit — how far back in the environment they would play and how they would play against the effects tracks that we created. We found a nice balance there.
Where did you mix “The Beach” episode? What console did you use?
Michael Berry was in charge of all the dialog, ADR, music and Foley premixing, which he did at PostWorks/Technicolor in New York, on the Avid S5. I did the sound effects premixing at c5 Sound, in a 5.1 design/mix room on a Avid D-Command. The final mix then happened at PostWorks/Technicolor. All of the sound editorial was done at c5 Sound.
What were some challenges you had while mixing “The Beach” and how did you handle them?
The trickiest scene for us was the one under the George Washington Bridge. The production tracks were challenging due to the noise of the river and the George Wash-ington Bridge overhead. However, the performances were so good we really wanted to save them at all costs. Sara Stern (dialogue editor) worked for a good while to clean up the initial dialogue, and then Michael [Berry] really worked at those tracks to find a way to save and salvage the on-camera performances. iZotope RX5 (RX6 wasn’t out yet) was our friend in a big way.
Then we had to figure out where the atmospheres wanted to be because the performances are so strong that you don’t want to put the effects or the music over what the actors are doing. You don’t want to over-power that or take away from what is happening on-screen. There’s a lot of subtlety in our decisions. A little went a long way.
Did you have a favorite scene in terms of mixing sound effects on your side of the board?
I really liked the opening section of the Queens neighborhood during the day and going into the night with the drive into Manhattan. The whole driving sequence into the city in the cab has some real nice moments…the juxtaposing of the interiors of the house and cab with city’s night exteriors.
Of all of the episodes you could’ve picked from Season 1, why did you choose the mix on “The Beach” for Emmy consideration?
It’s the first episode and it really grabs you. I was just sitting there on the edge of my seat watching it for the first time. The performances were so powerful and our challenge was to add to that. How can you help build on that?
Steve, Michael, and I felt that was the right episode to go with. It has interesting atmospheric sounds, the music is strong, and the performances are strong. Across the board, the music, the effects, and the dialogue were all there nicely represented.
Let’s talk about the sound editing on “Subtle Beast,” which is up for Emmy consideration. What were some opportunities you had for creative sound on this episode?
What was nice about “Subtle Beast” is that we have so many different, interesting locations to address and figure out. There is the morgue, which is the hallway and the waiting area, the parking lot outside, and the morgue itself. All of those were fantastic spots where we could design the backgrounds and sound effects to create the mood. This episode showcased most of the locations from the first episode again. And we see Naz being brought from the police precinct in the van across town to the holding cell under the courthouse, which is a great sequence. Then finally Naz goes into the transport to Riker’s Island. You have this array of locations in which to create this rich tapestry of sound.
Nothing is huge. There are no large gun battles or things of that nature. There are just many different locations for which we can create some interesting moods.
You did a fantastic job on the backgrounds. They are so expressive. I particularly like when the transport van is backing up to the precinct to pick up the prisoners. You hear the music playing from inside the van and it’s bouncing around the street outside.
There is some fantastic music editing by Dan Evans Farkas and Grant Conway that is happening there as well. It was nice to figure out, from an editorial sense, how to get in all of your editing food groups — your sound effects, your music, your production, your loop group, ADR and Foley. There were a lot of good moments in that episode. In looking at the episodes we could have chosen, I felt that “Subtle Beast” was the strongest for us.
In terms of sound editing on “Subtle Beast,” what was the most challenging scene?
I’m not sure about most challenging, but the most engag-ing sequence for me was the trip from the police precinct in the van to the night holding cell. Once that van pulls in and Naz is being marched down the hall it’s a ride of sound, music and tension. And, possibly, fear.
There’s so much to work with, from the point at which the van is backing up, we’ve got the odd metal double doors on the van, then the juxtaposition of the van, to Detective Box’s (Bill Camp) car drive, to John Stone (John Turturro) going home to his brownstone. All of these actions are intercutting with each other. When the van pulls up at Baxter Street, we lose the music and are left with these echoing footsteps and police radio surrounded by the dripping water of the location. Then finally down into night holding cells and with the yelling distant voices. Naz doesn’t know what’s coming but it doesn’t sound good. So that was one of the more intense and fun spots for me personally.
In building these backgrounds, what were some of your sources? Being in New York, were you able to go out and capture local ambiences? Or was it completely crafted in post?
We did some recordings around town to pick up what we needed. Since c5 is based in New York, we have a really great library of New York sounds to pull from. Also, the production location recordists did a great job of capturing stuff as well so we were able to use a number of those sounds in our sound bed. I would say 85 percent of the ambiences were created in post, and the other 15 percent was what was recorded on set.
Strangely enough I personally have lived in two of the main locations of the series: the Upper West Side of Manhattan — on the exact street of Andrea’s brownstone — and Jackson Heights, Queens, where Naz’s family lives. So I was well aware of what these neighborhoods sounded like at all hours of the day and night and would use my own internal “appropriate location audio filter” when working on those locations. At the end of the day that’s sort of a silly side note, but I like to think it helps us stay true to the sounds of those neighborhoods.
Beyond the background sounds but in keeping with what we crafted in post, once we get to Riker’s I think it’s worth noting that the entire cellblock set had a floor of painted plywood. So it really fell to our Foley department to make sure all our foot falls on concrete were covered and ready to take center stage if called upon. The whole Foley team led by Marko Costanzo (artist), George Lara (recordist) and Steve Visscher (supervising Foley editor) did a wonderful job.
Anything else you’d like to share about The Night Of?
It was a show that involved a lot of really good collaboration in terms of sound and music. I personally feel very fortunate to have had such a good sound crew comprising so many talented people, and very lucky for the opportunity to get to mix next to Michael Berry and see the care and skill he brings to the process. I am also very appreciative of the support we got along the way from everybody at HBO, our wonderful post supervisor Lori Slomka, as well as our picture editor Nick Houy and his crew.
Lastly, I think through our conversations and discussions with Steve Zaillian we were successful in figuring out how best to shape and mold the tracks into something that is very compelling to watch and listen to and I hope people really enjoy it.
Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based audio engineer and writer.