Going back in time sonically for ‘Outlander’ series

By Jennifer Walden

While on the surface, it might seem surprising that writer Ron Moore, with his extensive Star Trek credits, created the popular Starz Originals period drama Outlander, but as you dig a bit deeper it all starts to make sense. Outlander is more than just a period piece; it’s about time travel. Who doesn’t love themselves a little time travel?

Outlander, based on the book series by Diana Gabaldon, follows Claire Randall, a British combat nurse on vacation in Scotland with her husband. After touching one large stone in an ancient stone circle she gets transported back in time, from 1945 to 1743. While time travel is sci-fi, that element of the story is but a minuscule moment, with the majority of the storyline happening in 1743. But her being from a different time and place is always front and center to the story, and that is the world that Moore knows well.

Outlander 2014 Outlander 2014

His sci-fi heavy resume includes starting as a writer on Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987) before becoming a producer on the show. That was just the beginning of his path to “where no man has gone before.” Work on Star Trek: Generations, Star Trek: First Contact, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and, finally, Star Trek: Voyager followed. He also had a hand in the Battlestar Galactica franchise, and most recently worked on the sci-fi series Caprica and Helix.

Speaking of Battlestar Galactica, when it came time to get the team together for Outlander’s audio post, Moore called on a familiar face: supervising sound editor/dialogue editor, Vince Balunas, from audio post facility AnEFX in Burbank. Balunas previously worked with both Moore and Outlander’s picture editor, Michael O’Halloran, on Battlestar Galactica.

The Sound of 1743
Balunas says all that prior sci-fi experience may not be applicable to Outlander, but having that knowledge of what Moore and O’Halloran are looking for helped more than anything else when developing the overall sound for Outlander. “There’s a certain grit to the show. Yes it was shot in HD, and next season will possibly be shot in 4K, but there is still a visual grit to it much like there was on Battlestar,” says Balunas. Sonically, Outlander is like Battlestar Galactica in that both focus on sounds that make the world on screen seem tangible.

Vince Balunas

Vince Balunas

“In Battlestar, the ship would be constantly groaning and you’d hear all of this metal creaking,” he says. “There is this tactile feel of the CIC (Combat Information Center of the ship’s bridge). We grounded Outlander the same way; it’s like actually being there in 1743.”

Balunas notes the scope of Outlander, visually and sonically, is huge. Without any big music moments to hide behind, Balunas needed sound for every movement that happened on screen because without it, he says, the scene felt naked. He worked with lead sound designer/effects editor Jeff Brunello at AnEFX. “We understood that we were going to be building this show a whole lot bigger than other shows,” says Balunas. They filled out the soundtrack with elaborate backgrounds made from wind, rain and rivers — everything you’d find in the Scottish Highlands. “It’s a very wide build compared to other shows we do for network television.”

Small sound details help ground the show in reality, and pull the audience in close to the action. When the characters are on horses walking through the rolling fields of Scotland, Moore and the Starz team wanted to hear every step of that horse. “They wanted to hear a little bit of rattle, leather creaks and other small details to bring the scene to life,” says Balunas. “My Foley track count doubled in size for this show.”

AnEFX handles all of Outlander’s Foley in-house, with a team led by supervising Foley editor Sam Lewis and Foley artist Brian Straub. “Our two main Foley guys both recorded Foley and edited the Foley,” reports Balunas. “More than anything, the Foley on the show is very detailed and very specific.”

Outlander 2014 Outlander 2014

As expected with scenes set in 1743, it’s absolutely unacceptable to hear modern sounds, like airplanes or traffic. Luckily, Balunas didn’t have trouble in that department. The production tracks from sound mixer Brian Milliken were tremendously clean. “There was no evidence of any kind of modern sounds throughout the whole entire production of the first season. Brian [Miliken] did a really good job of giving us good clean audio to work with. There weren’t any challenges with the production dialogue.”

In contrast, for scenes that take place in 1945, Balunas and his team added sounds to intentionally emphasize technology. “When we’re in the police station, we really want to hear the phones ringing and cars go by,” says Balunas. “We want to make sure that people know that scene is in 1945 in Scotland.”

Balunas feels that starting with good production sound was really a key to the show sounding great. Without having to sync up tons of ADR, or heavily process the dialogue to improve clarity, he was able to focus on his sound team. “The biggest thing about Outlander is its size. It’s a very large show with a lot of elements to manage.”

Sound editorial, Foley, most ADR, and premixes were completed at AnEFX. Balunas and his team typically spent 8-10 days per episode on sound editorial. “The schedule was spread apart and we worked on the series in waves. We would do three episodes one month and then take a month and a half off before doing another two episodes.”

Their sound editorial schedule was dependent on how long it took for picture to lock. “We had a very liquid schedule that wasn’t your standard TV schedule of five days to get an episode done, and then next week it’s another five days for the next episode,” he says. “It wasn’t remotely close to that.”

The final mix happened with re-recording mixers Nello Torri and Alan Decker at BluWave Audio at NBC Universal in Studio B. Working with four days per episode, Torri and Decker mixed the show in 7.1 with delivery to Starz for air in 5.1. “For episodes like the witch trial episode, we needed every second of that four-day mix,” says Balunas. “We had everyone and their mother talking on-camera. That was a really big show for us.”

The Season 1 finale of Outlander was May 30, but feel free to binge watch on Starz.

Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based writer and audio engineer.

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