Quick Chat: Sound designer David Van Slyke discusses ‘Gotham’

By Randi Altman

Ever wonder what the stoic and steadfast Commissioner Gordon, of DC Comics’ Batman series, was like as a young detective? What about Bruce Wayne as a child? Well, thanks to the new Fox series Gotham, wonder no more. Gotham even gives viewers a glimpse at what some of Batman’s villains were up to in their early days.

Director/executive producer Danny Cannon (Nikita, Dr. Dred, CSI) called on LA-based sound designer David Van Slyke of Sonixphere to help create the pilot’s sound design palette and Episode 3 while also developing a sound design tone that would be carried out throughout the entire series.

For Cannon the choice appeared to be an easy one. He and Van Slyke have worked together before, namely on The Cure and CSI.

David Van Slyke

David Van Slyke

According to Van Slyke, Cannon wanted “a super-sized, over–the-top New York City-on-steroids sonic feel” for Gotham. “His creative brief was to paint a raw, gritty and authentic sonic design palette evoking New York City in its darkest days of the late1980s, when crime was rampant, and to avoid a slick sound. Danny really wanted authentic period soundscapes to keep the show sounding like films really sounded in those days.”

We decided to reach out to the very busy Van Slyke to find out more about his work on Gotham, as well as his sound design process.

Considering your history, you and Danny must have developed a sort of short-hand by now. How did that help on this project in particular? 
Danny says very little, but expects awesome; he has a great imagination as to how sound helps the drama of the story.  When he does ask for something he is clear and decisive, which helps me get to the sound design much quicker.

Since we have a history of spotting well over 100 hours of product, he knows I’ll deliver what he wants. And I know that he likes big, bold sound choices like the sound design I put in the very opening shot of the Gotham pilot, a kind of city shimmer metaphorically.  I thought he will either love it or hate it. That’s the kind of line we work on, and he almost always loves it.

I remember one episode of CSI way back when where in the final scene of the show Grissom is riding a roller coaster — they actually muted the music!

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How does he like to get started with the process?
He takes about 50 minutes to talk about a 45-minute episode. With the Gotham pilot it may have been about an hour and a half because there was more than the usual amount of people in the room. We almost spot in realtime, shouting out any particular directions in a language we’ve used for many years. Everything he says, I get, so he is comfortable with going over only the extremely unique things in the episode.

Having a hand in setting the sound design tone for the season must have been an exciting, and challenging, undertaking.
Danny wanted to hear the grit and the cacophony of New York… in your face stuff. Traffic is harder to cut than one might think. There are thousands of variations, so I split up engines, horns, sirens and trains into separate pre-dubs and customized them all to the vibe of the story.

As a sound designer, are you constantly collecting sounds?
Yes, I take a recorder with me on every trip. I’m constantly on the “hearout” (not just lookout!) for unique singular sounds that could be used in my sound design.

You work on film and television projects. Is your process different at all?
I approach TV like it was a film deserving of a full 5.1 surround treatment. I’ve done this since the early ‘90s.  We mix in 5.1 on CSI and Gotham, however, they are still of the notion that most people will listen to the stereo fold.  Especially since TV will soon be seen, in large part, on iPhones and tablets.

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The other big difference is that in film you can take the time to get into a scene which leaves great opportunities for sound.  TV often has wall to wall dialog which leaves fewer opportunities.

While Sonixphere (@sonixphereinc) is headquartered in Chicago, they have audio pros working around the country, and the world. Gotham can be seen on Fox on Friday evenings.

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