By Jennifer Walden
Turnarounds for TV series are notoriously fast, but imagine a three-day sound post schedule for a single-camera half-hour episodic series? Does your head hurt yet? Thankfully, Larson Studios in Los Angeles has its workflow on FX’s Baskets down to a science. In the show, Zach Galifianakis stars as Chip Baskets, who works as a California rodeo clown after failing out of a prestigious French clown school.
So how do you crunch a week and a half’s worth of work into three days without sacrificing quality or creativity? Larson’s VP, Rich Ellis, admits they had to create a very aggressive workflow, which was made easier thanks to their experience working with Baskets post supervisor Kaitlin Menear on a few other shows.
Ellis says having a supervising sound editor — Cary Stacy — was key in setting up the workflow. “There are others competing for space in this market of single-camera half-hours, and they treat post sound differently — they don’t necessarily bring a sound supervisor to it. The mixer might be cutting and mixing and wrangling all of the other elements, but we felt that it was important to continue to maintain that traditional sound supervisor role because it actually helps the process to be more efficient when it comes to the stage.”
This allows re-recording mixer John Chamberlin to stay focused on the mix while sound supervisor Stacy handles any requests that pop-up on stage, such as alternate lines or options for door creaks. “I think director Jonathan Krisel, gave Cary at least seven honorary Emmy awards for door creaks over the course of our mix time,” jokes Menear. “Cary can pull up a sound effect so quickly, and it is always exactly perfect.”
Every second counts when there are only seven hours to mix an episode from top to bottom before post producer Menear, director Krisel and the episode’s picture editor join the stage for the two-hour final fixes and mix session. Having complete confidence in Stacy’s alternate selections, Chamberlin says he puts them into the session, grabs the fader and just lets it roll. “I know that Cary is going to nail it and I go with it.”
Even before the episode gets to the stage, Chamberlin knows that Stacy won’t overload the session with unnecessary elements, which are time consuming. Even still, Chamberlin says the mix is challenging in that it’s a lot for one person to do. “Although there is care taken to not overload what is put on my plate when I sit down to mix, there are still 8 to 10 tracks of Foley, 24 or more tracks of backgrounds and, depending on the show, the mono and stereo sound effects can be 20 tracks. Dialogue is around 10 and music can be another 10 or 12, plus futz stuff, so it’s a lot. You have to have a workflow that’s efficient and you have to feel confident about what you’re doing. It’s about making decisions quickly.”
Chamberlin mixed Baskets in 5.1 — using a Pro Tools 11 system with an Avid ICON D-Command — on Stage 4 at Larson Studios, where he’s mixed many other shows, such as Portlandia, Documentary Now, Man Seeking Woman, Dice, the upcoming Netflix series Easy, Comedy Bang Bang, Meltdown With Jonah and Kumail and Kroll Show. “I’m so used to how Stage 4 sounds that I know when the mix is in a good place.”
Another factor of the three-day turn-around is choosing to forgo loop group and minimizing ADR to only when it’s absolutely necessary. The post sound team relied on location sound mixer Russell White to capture all the lines as clearly as possible on set, which was a bit of a challenge with the non-principal characters.
Tricky On-Set Audio
According to Menear, director Krisel loves to cast non-actors in the majority of the parts. “In Baskets, outside of our three main roles, the other people are kind of random folk that Jonathan has collected throughout his different directing experiences,” she says. While that adds a nice flavor creatively, the inexperienced cast members tend to step on each other’s lines, or not project properly — problems you typically won’t have with experienced actors.
For example, Louie Anderson plays Chip’s mom Christine. “Louie has an amazing voice and it’s really full and resonant,” explains Chamberlin. “There was never a problem with Louie or the pro actors on the show. The principals were very well represented sonically, but the show has a lot of local extras, and that poses a challenge in the recording of them. Whether they were not talking loud enough or there was too much talking.”
A good example is the Easter brunch scene in Episode 104. Chip, his mother and grandmother encounter Martha (Chip’s insurance agent/pseudo-friend played by Martha Kelly) and her parents having brunch in the casino. They decide to join their tables together. “There were so many characters talking at the same time, and a lot of the side characters were just having their own conversations while we were trying to pay attention to the main characters,” says Stacy. “I had to duck those side conversations as much as possible when necessary. There was a lot of that finagling going on.”
Stacy used iZotope RX 5 features like Decrackle and Denoise to clean up the tracks, as well as the Spectral Repair feature for fixing small noises.
Another challenge for sound mixer White was that he had to quickly shoot in numerous locations for any given episode. That Easter brunch episode alone had at least eight different locations, including the casino floor, the casino’s buffet, inside and outside of a church, inside the car, and inside and outside of Christine’s house. “Russell mentioned how he used two rigs for recording because he would always have to just get up and go. He would have someone else collect all of the gear from one location while he went off to a new location,” explains Chamberlin. “They didn’t skimp on locations. When they wanted to go to a place they would go. They went to Paris. They went to a rodeo. So that has challenges for the whole team — you have to get out there and record it and capture it. Russell did a pretty fantastic job considering where he was pushed and pulled at any moment of the day or night.”
White’s tracks also provided a wealth of production effects, which were a main staple of the sound design. The whole basis for the show, for picture and sound, was to have really funny, slapstick things happen, but have them play really straight. “We were cutting the show to feel as real and as normal as possible, regardless of what was actually happening,” says Menear. “Like when Chip was walking across a room full of clown toys and there were all of these strange noises, or he was falling down, or doing amazing gags. We played it as if that could happen in the real world.”
Stacy worked with sound effects editor TC Spriggs to cut in effects that supported the production effects, never sounding too slapstick or over the top, even if the action was. “There is an episode where Chip knocks over a table full of champagne glasses and trips and falls. He gets back up only to start dancing, breaking even more glasses,” describes Chamberlin.
That scene was a combination of effects and Foley provided by Larson’s Foley team of Adam De Coster (artist) and Tom Kilzer (recordist). “Foley sync had to be perfect or it fell apart. Foley and production effects had to be joined seamlessly,” notes Chamberlin. “The Foley is impeccably performed and is really used to bring the show to life.”
Spriggs also designed the numerous backgrounds. Whether it was the streets of Paris, the rodeo arena or the doldrums of Bakersfield, all the locations needed to sound realistic and simple yet distinct. On the mix side, Chamberlin used processing on the dialogue to help sell the different environments – basic interiors and exteriors, the rodeo arena and backstage dressing room, Paris nightclubs, Bakersfield dive bars, an outdoor rave concert, a volleyball tournament, hospital rooms and dream-like sequences and a flashback.
“I spent more time on the dialogue than any other element. Each place had to have its own appropriate sounding environments, typically built with reverbs and delays. This was no simple show,” says Chamberlin. For reverbs, Chamberlin used Avid’s ReVibe and Reverb One, and for futzing, he likes McDSP’s FutzBox and Audio Ease’s Speakerphone plug-ins.
One of Chamberlin’s favorite scenes to mix was Chip’s performance at the rodeo, where he does his last act as his French clown alter ego Renoir. Chip walks into the announcer booth with a gramophone and asks for a special song to be played. Chamberlin processed the music to account for the variable pitch of the gramophone, and also processed the track to sound like it was coming over the PA system. In the center of the ring you can hear the crowds and the announcer, and off-screen a bull snorts and grinds it hooves into the dirt before rushing at Chip.
Another great sequence happens in the Easter brunch episode where we see Chip walking around the casino listening to a “Learn French” lesson through ear buds while smoking a broken cigarette and dreaming of being Renoir the clown on the streets of Paris. This scene summarizes Chip’s sad clown situation in life. It’s thoughtful, and charming and lonely.
“We experimented with elaborate sound design for the voice of the narrator, however, we landed on keeping things relatively simple with just an iPhone futz,” says Stacy. “I feel this worked out for the best, as nothing in this show was over done. We brought in some very light backgrounds for Paris and tried to keep the transitions as smooth as possible. We actually had a very large build for the casino effects, but played them very subtly.”
Adds Chamberlin, “We really wanted to enhance the inner workings of Chip and to focus in on him there. It takes a while in the show to get to the point where you understand Chip, but I think that is great. A lot of that has to do with the great writing and acting, but our support on the sound side, in particular on that Easter episode, was not to reinvent the wheel. Picture editors Micah Gardner and Michael Giambra often developed ideas for sound, and those had a great influence on the final track. We took what they did in picture editorial and just made it more polished.”
The post sound process on Baskets may be down and dirty, but the final product is amazing, says Menear. “I think our Larson Studios team on the show is awesome!”