Category Archives: Emmy Awards

The sounds ‘Inside Amy Schumer’

By Jennifer Walden

After four seasons of Comedy Central’s Inside Amy Schumer, it’s hard to imagine still being shocked by the comic’s particular brand of comedy. Somehow Schumer still manages to make jokes that leave you uncomfortable — jokes that are so, so wrong, but so, so funny that you can’t help but laugh. Like the image-building pop song that Schumer and her three friends belt out karaoke-style in the show opener for episode 407, “Psychopath Test.”

The empowering lyrics, provided by Schumer’s writing team, proclaim, “Just be strong cause haters gonna hate. So falsely accuse a college lacrosse team of rape. Go ahead, girl, you a hero. Selfie sticks bitch take pics at Ground Zero. You’re a perfect 10, between nine and eleven. Never forget, you are beautiful.”

The variety-show approach to the half-hour series only adds fuel to Schumer’s creative fire. There are on-set scripted skits, man-on-the-street interviews, comedy club performances and random music videos like Milk Milk Lemonade — with music created by composers Chris Maxwell and Phil Hernandez of Elegant Too in New York City. The duo also created the catchy music for episode 407’s “You are Beautiful” karaoke song.

Great City Post
Chief audio engineer Ian Stynes at Great City Post in NYC has been handling the show’s sound post since the pilot episode with additional mixing by Jay Culliton. He says that although the show’s budget is not quite what people would expect, everybody involved with Inside Amy Schumer has high expectations for it. “We’re always asking, ‘Is this the best we can do?’ The process can be a little down and dirty sometimes, but working with the producers and editors at Running Man Post is amazing. They’ve really fine tuned things at this point. They’re very good at prepping it for sound post,” Stynes shares.

Stynes and Culliton typically spend four days cleaning, doing the edit, the sound design and pre-mix of an episode using Avid Pro Tools 12. Then Stynes is joined at Great City Post by show creator/executive producer Dan Powell, producer Ryan Cunningham from Running Man, executive producer Kevin Kane, executive producer/head writer Jessi Klein and Amy Schumer for a half-day of final playback and edits. “Amy has been in for almost every mix session this season. She is very hands-on and really fun to work with,” says Stynes.

While the production tracks, provided by sound mixer Matt McLarty, are always well recorded, Stynes admits there was a sketch in episode 408, “Everyone for Themselves,” that was particularly challenging from a production sound standpoint. In the sketch, 16 people are in a Lamaze class voicing their concerns over their kids being assholes. “There was no boom and it’s a wide shot, so there were 16 lav mics, some of which were cutting in and out,” says Stynes, who has years of experience in cutting dialogue for narrative features.

In terms of tools, in addition to Pro Tools, he uses iZotope RX5 for cleaning, Avid’s EQ III for frequency management,and various Waves compressors (including his new favorite — Kramer PIE) to help the scene play smoothly. “You spend a lot of time and effort to put something together and hope that no one will think twice about the fact that you did anything at all with the dialogue edit.”

Another interesting sound-driven scene is Bridget Everett’s closing performance in episode 408. She performs a call-to-action song called “Eat It, Eat It” on stage at a comedy club. She’s singing along live to a backing track. In post, Stynes had tracks with Everett’s handheld mic and boom mics, plus the vocal splits and other stems from the composed tracks. “There were pretty good options to work with in the mix,” says Stynes.

Coming from a music background, Stynes is not shy about diving into the music stems to do different treatments on the vocals, or even significantly altering the tracks. In the first season, for a 1920s-era sketch called “A Porn Star is Born,” Amy and her friend discover cocaine. Stynes says, “Composer Chris Anderson wrote an awesome old-timey song for a montage in it. It came to me split out into 30 tracks of stems because the showrunners wanted to make a part of it sound vintage. I ended up speeding up a whole section and edited in different things. Sometimes the music editing can get pretty complicated on this show.”

The show’s format offers plenty of opportunity on the sound design side as well. Last season, in episode 303, “80s Ladies,” there is a sketch where Schumer is in a bar with her friends and she decides to ride a mechanical bull to look sexy. Instead, she ends up failing, hurting herself badly and not looking sexy at all.

“There can be so many layers that we get to create and mix in. The show is very cinematic at times,” says Stynes. “For this scene there was score, and source music. There were a bunch of production tracks to clean up. There was a DJ in the room that we recorded ADR lines for, so we had to match his production lines. There was bar ambience and background walla. There were sounds for Amy getting knocked about on the bull. We added a whole layer for the mechanical bull speeding up and slowing down. That was a fun scene.”

He recalls another fun sound design scene, from Season 2, “Schumerenka vs. Everett,” in which Schumer and Everett compete in a tennis match. Schumer distracts the judges and fools the commentators into thinking she is better than she is by being a sexy tennis player. “Once again, it can be very similar to working on a full-length narrative feature film. We added in all of the ambiences, reactions for the crowds, the footsteps on the tennis court, the ball and body movements, and so on.”

Jay and Ian at work.

There is no Foley on the show, so footsteps, touches and clothing movements are cut in when necessary from Great City Post’s extensive collection of sound effects, which, luckily for the Schumer team, includes hundreds of farts sounds. “There was a really great skit where a murderer comes into Amy’s house. The thing is, when she gets scared… she farts. So she is unsuccessfully hiding from the murderer in the closet and farting. We spent 20 minutes going through every fart we had in our library, analyzing them, like, ‘Oh no, it should be juicer. It’s a weird way to spend your time,” says Stynes, “but all things considered, it’s not such a bad way to earn your paycheck.”

Post sound editing and mixing is done in Pro Tools 12. Stynes likes the upgrade to this version specifically for the offline bounce feature, which is a real time-saver when generating the significant amount of deliverables that Comedy Central requires. “They want a 5.1 mix, stereo mix, a version without VO fully mixed, bleeped mono, non-bleeped mono, dual mono, all sorts of stems for everything,” says Stynes.

Now instead of spending a half hour on every single split bounce, each bounce only takes a minute. Still, Stynes says, “It takes a few hours to version it out, and bounce it down, and put together all the different deliverables Comedy Central requires for the show.”

“The best part about working on Inside Amy Schumer really is that everyone sincerely wants it to be the best show it can be and do their best to follow through with that sentiment. From the showrunners and producers to the team at Running Man to all the folks here at Great City — right up to the top with Amy Schumer actually coming in to the mix sessions and getting involved. Really, it’s very rewarding and a lot of fun,” Stynes concludes.

AMC’s ‘Preacher’: Creating a sound path for the series

By Jennifer Walden

When I heard that Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg developed a TV series for AMC based on the comic book series penned by Garth Ennis, I was immediately hooked. Would Preacher be like Pineapple Express? Or more like This Is The End?

Turns out it’s more like This is the End meets Breaking Bad, thanks to Preacher co-writer/executive producer Sam Catlin, who held those same titles on the long-running Breaking Bad series. But Catlin isn’t the only Breaking Bad alum involved in Preacher; composer Dave Porter and picture editor Kelley Dixon (editor on Preacher’s pilot) also had a hand in the series.

Michael Babcock

Michael Babcock

Handling the pilot’s sound was supervising sound editor/sound designer Michael Babcock at Warner Bros. in Burbank — a surprising name to find attached to a TV series, because these days he regularly works on feature films. But when you hear that those films include the Rogen/Goldberg offerings The Interview, This is the End and Neighbors, you understand the jump to TV for this series.

“Seth and Evan are really fun to work with because they come up with original storylines,” explains Babcock. “One reason I wanted to dip my toe back into the TV world was because they were developing this series. It was an excuse for me to make cool sounds for them.”

Although Babcock’s schedule only allowed him to supervise the pilot’s sound, he is still able to contribute sound design on episodes. Richard Yawn took over as supervising sound editor for the rest of the season.

In The Beginning
Preacher’s pilot opens on bold, block type of the words “Outer Space” superimposed over a retro representation of our solar system through which a ball of light flies. This ball eventually crashes on Earth, in the heart of Africa, into the body of a preacher. Sound-wise, the outer-space scene is carried by sound design, with no music or voiceover. Air raid sirens, awash in reverb, act as an underscore while sand-sprinkled sci-fi whooshes accompany the supernatural entity’s flight through the ether.

Rogen and Goldberg were very involved in the sound, says Babcock. “The sound all came out of their heads. They had all of these ideas and themes of what they envisioned these things would sound like.”

Babcock based his sound palette on the themes that Rogen and Goldberg described, like baby sounds, water and heartbeats. “I kept trying to build on their themes. It helps me as a sound designer when a director asks for a specific emotion or sound as their direction,” he says. “For example, if the scene was in a dark room and we needed a dark tone, then I’d stick with slowing down heartbeats or underwater ambience and rumbling. I just tried to stick with those themes.”

The concept for the supernatural entity — which came from Rogen and Goldberg — was that it was like a baby being born. So Babcock designed its sound using baby-related elements, like an ultrasound heartbeat, layered with reversed or manipulated baby vocalizations. When the entity possesses a host, like that first preacher in Africa, it exists inside that person. Using that idea, Babcock worked with womb related sounds, like underwater ambiences that he slowed and pitched.

Throughout the pilot, the entity is searching for the perfect host. It’s tries out different religious figures, including Tom Cruise, and then explodes them if they’re not a match. It eventually ends up inside Preacher’s protagonist, Jesse (Dominic Cooper), a small-town preacher who has possessed a dark side long before the entity possesses him.

“The entity is not just this evil demon thing; there’s more to it. It’s basically growing up as the season goes along, so that’s why Seth and Evan decided to use baby sounds,” explains Babcock. (Those that watched the Directors Commentary version of the pilot will remember that Rogen and Goldberg noted the entity’s sound as a clue for the season.)

Babcock describes the scene in which Jesse is in the church at night, right before the entity finds him. It blows open the doors and knocks the church pews aside as it moves down the aisle. As the entity slams into Jesse, he’s thrown across the room and into the wall. In keeping with the water theme, Babcock says, “I used depth charge sounds for the pews being forced aside. That scene was actually a lot of fun because that’s where I got a chance to really hone-in on what had become the entity heartbeat sound.”

God-Like Sound Design
Following his work on the pilot, Babcock’s main focus for sound design on the other episodes relates to the preacher Jesse, and, in particular, his voice. “Jesse goes into the voice of God mode where he’s channeling this entity,” explains Babcock. To create the vocal effect, Babcock starts with the production dialogue in his Avid Pro Tools 12 session. He runs it through the Waves Renaissance Bass (RBass) plug-in to create a richer low end sound by adding a bit of chorusing. Then, if the lines need more of a rumble, Babcock runs them through Avid’s Pro Subharmonic plug-in. Next, he adds in shaking and wave rumbling sound effects to hit each syllable, the amount depending on how intense or aggressive Jesse needs to be. “It’s a process we are calling ‘the kitchen sink,’ so they’ll say, ‘on this one it needs the kitchen sink.’”

The pilot offered Babcock numerous sound design opportunities. There is blood and gore for the African preacher blowing up, and for the cow that gets rapidly devoured by the vampire, Cassidy (Joseph Gilgun). There’s even a subtle cow death that occurs off-screen in the slaughterhouse scene when Jesse visits Betsy Schenck (Jamie Anne Allman). “In that scene, there is a door opening, and in the time it takes for the door to open and close there is a cow moo and then a gun shot. I don’t know if people have picked up on it because it only happens in one place, but that is the humor of Seth and Evan,” comments Babcock.

There was hand-to-hand combat to design, like for Cassidy’s confrontation on the plane, which he also manages to set on fire. Then there is the Tarantino-esque fight scene where Tulip (Ruth Negga) neutralizes her assailants as her car plows through a cornfield. “We had a bunch of recordings that we did for Interstellar where they wiped out a bunch of cornfields in the film. Sound designer Richard King literally drove a truck through a farmer’s cornfield, after they had harvested the crop, and recorded all of that corn being mowed down. I borrowed those recordings to use for the car fight, to go all around in the surrounds,” says Babcock.

Much of Babcock’s sound design sets the tone for the rest of the season. An example of a reoccurring sound is the church ambience. Babcock used wooden boat creaks and placed them around the room in the 5.1 environment. “They are slowed down so it has this creaking, breathing feel to it. That’s the sound they’re using at night when the church is empty,” he says.

Final Mix
Preacher’s final 5.1 mix was done at Sony Pictures Studios by Deb Adair handling music/dialogue and Ian Herzon taking on sound effects/Foley/backgrounds. As directors for the feature film industry, it’s no surprise that Rogen and Goldberg wanted the Preacher pilot to sound as dynamic and impactful as a theatrical release. That can be difficult to achieve when dealing with television sound specs.

“This is the kind of show where the story needs to be supported by some pretty heavy dynamics to be quiet and loud. I think of all the things that you have to deal with on a creative level… dealing with broadcast spec is just as challenging because Seth and Evan want the show to look theatrical, and they want it to sound theatrical, too,” concludes Babcock.

If you haven’t already, you can check out Preacher on AMC, Sundays at 9/8c.

Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based writer and audio engineer. You can follow her on Twitter at @audiojeney

Cinna 4.13

Kabir Akhtar: Editing The CW series ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’

By Randi Altman

When Kabir Akhtar, ACE, who cut season one of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, got the itch to start editing, he didn’t even know that what he was doing was actually editing… he was just having some fun. In high school, Akhtar would use his computer, multiple tape decks and stereos to record and mix different songs, creating mash-ups, remixes and even musical voicemail messages. An editor was born!

After moving out to LA and paying his dues working on unscripted and music video shows, Akhtar went on to earn one Emmy nomination for editing the Billy Crystal opening sequence from the 2012 Academy Awards broadcast and another (along with frequent collaborator AJ Dickerson) for his work on Netflix’s Arrested Development in 2013.

With an editing resume that now also includes New Girl, The Daily Show and Behind the Music, Akhtar took on directing (the pilot episode of the MTV series 8th & Ocean, Unsolved Mysteries, the Billy Crystal/Melissa McCarthy opening for the 2012 Oscars, and the TV Diaries pilot for Fox) and garnered an associate producer title on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

This Penn graduate, who went on to film school at the University of Miami, knew all along that he wanted to work in scripted television. “I moved out here to get involved in narrative filmmaking and storytelling, and I felt very strongly that until I got a job doing that, I wasn’t going to stay at another job very long.”

Akhtar also knew he didn’t want to do the same job for years at a time. He was young and wanted to have different experiences that allowed him to meet different people. “I think I intentionally avoided having a steady gig for a very long time because as I moved from one job to another, I continued to build a network of contacts and people that I liked working with. I got more experience and more credits, which I think served me well in those early years. Others like the financial security that comes with having a steady job. I know my path is not for everybody.”

Akhtar still works freelance, too. In fact, while on hiatus from The CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, he cut the pilot for Speechless for ABC, which just got picked up.

Let’s dig in a bit deeper with Akhtar and find out more about what led him to this quirky TV series, which is a one-hour musical comedy.

When did you get involved on the show, and what’s your workflow like?
I edited the pilot, which was a half-hour show, in the fall of 2014. We thought we made a great show, but Showtime passed. The good news was it was shopped around to other networks and got a pick-up at The CW. They turned it into a one-hour show, which was such a unique thing because nobody was making a one-hour musical comedy.

You have cut traditional half-hour comedies in the past, how was this different?
When the show became a one-hour, it gave us the opportunity to do more dramatic storytelling in addition to the comedy. In half-hours, you’re moving really fast to try to tell a story and land jokes, but with a one-hour you have time to dig into supporting characters’ stories and have more built-out emotional scenes. We can take the time to land emotions instead of just being in a race to get X number of jokes out every minute.

How does that affect the way that you edit? Do you let a reaction go a little bit longer? Do you let a joke sit longer?
The thing that helps the most is that our writers don’t overwrite the show. My first cut will usually only be a few minutes over, and at the end we’re rarely stuck with a show that’s more than a minute over, which is great. It’s the worst when you get a show down to the end, to a deadline, and you’re still 30 seconds over and you have to take out a joke that everybody likes.

Doing Arrested Development for Netflix, we didn’t have those parameters. With a network show, you have to deliver a show exactly to time, but for Netflix (like some cable networks), we didn’t have to hit a specific runtime per episode, so we never had to lose a joke or a story point “for time.”

Kabir Akhtar and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend star Rachel Bloom the day after she won her Golden Globe.

How much footage do you have for one episode?
For each one-hour episode, we shoot seven days. That includes two or three musical numbers, which are essentially music videos. Like all scripted shows, we have one day of editing for every day of footage that comes in, plus another two or three days to get a first cut together (but with us it’s typically been two).

Because we’re a one-hour show, the directors come in after my first cut, and they get four days. We work with our producers, and then we go to the studio, then to the network, then we lock the show.

What about cutting the musical numbers?
I switched to a standing desk a few years ago, and that makes it a lot easier to cut music, because I will inevitably end up dancing along as I’m cutting. I’m convinced that it helps. I started my career cutting so much music, so I’ve always loved doing it. To have the opportunity to be cutting musical numbers, comedy scenes and some dramatic scenes for one show is so much fun.

Would you like to share your philosophy of editing?
Attitude-wise, it’s about protecting the show, I really believe that’s job one.

What about technically?
I have a workflow that I believe is different than most editors. I think many editors do a first cut of each scene as it comes in. Then, at the end of dailies, they glue the show together. I am not good at that at all.

What’s your process?
When I get a scene, my assistant editor Kyla Plewes and I will work with the Script Windows in Avid Media Composer — it allows you to very quickly pick through takes and performances, and it’s opened up the amount of options you have in the limited time that you have. I’ll go through a scene left to right and start to frame it out to get it shaped right. As I’m going through, I feel like I’m too close to it. My eyes are right up against every detail in the frame, like continuity issues and the smallest nuances of performance.

I’ll start with a clean take for line one and then have a different take for the second line, and then I’ll realize it didn’t work so I’ll try that first take again and try another take for that second line — I’m intentionally making mistakes over and over to stay open to finding something great by riffing, and I just keep making copies in a sequence. I don’t delete any of the stuff I’m doing, I keep making a giant mess, like putting all the Legos together, except I have a copy of each Lego. Eventually, I find pieces that click together a way that feels right and work my way across the whole scene that way.

When I get to the end, I’ve figured out the connective tissue and I have many copies of all of the individual pieces, but I’ve no idea how they go together. I have piles of connected Legos, alt versions of selected takes, but not a finished sequence. Again, because I feel I’m too close to it, having just done it, I put it away and start the next scene. Then I come back to it at the end of dailies, about a week later, and it all makes perfect sense… the pieces that want to be in the show flow and stand out immediately. By then I’ve seen all the footage for the whole show and I can gauge accurately how best to tell the story we’re trying to tell.

Can you talk about assistant editors and how they fit into the mix?
When you have a good AE, it’s really important to give them opportunities to get better at cutting or at working with people. I don’t know how you’re going to learn otherwise. I think everyone is looking for someone above us to give us an opportunity. I can’t tell you how much easier it makes working on a show when you’ve got a great assistant. I think I had years of working on shows with no AEs at all.

Our lead assistant editor on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Kyla, works on the side editing online content, which I think is the way to go these days in terms of growing your editing skills.

If you want to keep learning your craft you have to find things to edit, right?
Yeah, I went the path of editing, editing, editing, editing. The only two jobs I’ve ever had are editing and directing. Going the AE route, you might get an episode to edit on a show that you’ve been working on. But that can also be tough, because the people you’re working for still see you as an assistant editor. It can be difficult to change people’s perceptions of you if you’re staying at one job for a long time. Also, if that’s your first editing credit, it can be a lot of pressure and there’s not a lot of room to fail without consequences.

I feel pretty fortunate that my first jobs were lower profile projects. I certainly made large mistakes, like delivering a show out of phase once. But I was working for such a small company, luckily I didn’t get fired.

You have to make mistakes to learn as you go, I imagine?
You work your way up to these bigger things. It’s bad to deliver a show out of phase, but it’s way worse to do that if your first one of those is on a big multi-million-dollar episode. Everybody fails; you have to fail to grow. I’m still doing both — but hopefully more growing than failing.

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Main Image: Kabir Akhtar and Rachel Bloom after hearing about her Golden Globe nomination for her performance on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.