Emmy Awards: American Horror Story: Roanoke

A chat with supervising sound editor Gary Megregian

By Jennifer Walden

Moving across the country and buying a new house is an exciting and scary process, but when it starts raining teeth at that new residence the scary factor pretty much makes the exciting feelings void. That’s the situation that Matt and Shelby, a couple from Los Angeles, find themselves in for American Horror Story’s sixth season on FX Networks. After moving into an old mansion in Roanoke, North Carolina, they discover that the dwelling and the local neighbors aren’t so accepting of outsiders.

American Horror Story: Roanoke explores a true-crime-style format that uses re-enactments to play out the drama. The role of Matt is played by Andre Holland in “reality” and by Cuba Gooding, Jr. in the re-enactments. Shelby is played by Lily Rabe and Sarah Paulson, respectively. It’s an interesting approach that added a new dynamic to an already creative series.

Emmy-winning Technicolor at Paramount supervising sound editor Gary Megregian is currently working on his seventh season of American Horror Story, coming to FX in early September. He took some time out to talk about Season 6, Episode 1, Chapter 1, for which he and his sound editorial team have been nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Sound Editing for a Limited Series. They won the Emmy in 2013, and this year marks their sixth nomination.

American Horror Story: Roanoke is structured as a true-crime series with re-enactments. What opportunities did this format offer you sound-wise?
This season was a lot of fun in that we had both the realistic world and the creative world to play in. The first half of the series dealt more with re-enactments than the reality-based segments, especially in Chapter 1. Aside from some interview segments, it was all re-enactments. The re-enactments were where we had more creative freedom for design. It gave us a chance to create a voice for the house and the otherworldly elements.

Gary Megregian

Was series creator Ryan Murphy still your point person for sound direction? For Chapter 1, did he have specific ideas for sound?
Ryan Murphy is definitely the single voice in all of his shows but my point person for sound direction is his executive producer Alexis Martin Woodall, as well as each episode’s picture editor.

Having been working with them for close to eight years now, there’s a lot of trust. I usually have a talk with them early each season about what direction Ryan wants to go and then talk to the picture editor and assistant as they’re building the show.

The first night in the house in Roanoke, Matt and Shelby hear this pig-like scream coming from outside. That sound occurs often throughout the episode. How did that sound come to be? What went into it?
The pig sounds are definitely a theme that goes through Season 6, but they started all the way back in Season 1 with the introduction of Piggy Man. Originally, when Shelby and Matt first hear the pig we had tried designing something that fell more into an otherworldly sound, but Ryan definitely wanted it to be real. Other times, when we see Piggy Man we went back to the design we used in Season 1.

The doors in the house sound really cool, especially that back door. What were the sources for the door sounds? Did you do any processing on the recordings to make them spookier?
Thanks. Some of the doors came from our library at Technicolor and some were from a crowd-sourced project from New Zealand-based sound designer Tim Prebble. I had participated in a project where he asked everyone involved to record a complete set of opens, closes, knocks, squeaks, etc. for 10 doors. When all was said and done, I gained a library of over 100GB of amazing door recordings. That’s my go-to for interesting doors.

As far as processing goes, nothing out of the ordinary was used. It’s all about finding the right sound.

When Shelby and Lee (Adina Porter) are in the basement, they watch this home movie featuring Piggy Man. Can you tell me about the sound work there?
The home movie was a combination of the production dialogue, Foley, the couple instances of hearing pig squeals and Piggy Man design along with VHS and CRT noise. For dialogue, we didn’t clean up the production tracks too much and Foley was used to help ground it. Once we got to the mix stage, re-recording mixers Joe Earle and Doug Andham helped bring it all together in their treatment.

What was your favorite scene to design? Why? What went into the sound?
One of my favorite scenes is the hail/teeth storm when Shelby’s alone in the house. I love the way it starts slow and builds from the inside, hearing the teeth on the skylight and windows. Once we step outside it opens up to surround us. I think our effects editor/designer Tim Cleveland did a great job on this scene. We used a number of hail/rain recordings along with Foley to help with some of the detail work, especially once we step outside.

Were there any audio tools that were helpful when working on Chapter 1? Can you share specific examples of how you used them?
I’m going to sound like many others in this profession, but I’d say iZotope RX. Ryan is not a big fan of ADR, so we have to make the production work. I can count on one hand the number of times we’ve had any actors in for ADR last season. That’s a testament to our production mixer Brendan Beebe and dialogue editor Steve Stuhr. While the production is well covered and recorded well, Steve still has his work cut out for him to present a track that’s clean. The iZotope RX suite helps with that.

Why did you choose Chapter 1 for Emmy consideration for its sound editorial?
One of the things I love about working on American Horror Story is that every season is like starting a new show. It’s fun to establish the sound and the tone of a show, and Chapter 1 is no exception. It’s a great representation of our crew’s talent and I’m really happy for them that they’re being recognized for it. It’s truly an honor.

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