The sound of Netflix’s ‘Wet Hot American Summer’ prequel

Supervising sound editor J.M. Davey weighs in about First Day of Camp.

By Jennifer Walden

David Wain’s homage to summer camp in the 1980s, Wet Hot American Summer (2001), managed to get away with casting actors in their late 20s and early 30s as teenage camp counselors — talk about suspending your disbelief. Well he took that premise a bit further recently.

Wain’s latest offering, the Netflix series Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, uses the same actors from the first film — Paul Rudd, Janeane Garofalo, Michael Showalter, Amy Poehler, Bradley Cooper, Zak Orth and Michael Ian Black, all now in their 40s — to recount what happened in those first days that summer at Camp Firewood. It’s a prequel to the Wet Hot American Summer film, but the kicker is that all the actors are now 14 years older in real life — the fact that the characters are noticeably older only serves to accentuate the joke.

J.M. Davey

J.M. Davey

Supervising sound editor J.M. Davey, who is LA-based, may not have worked on the Wet Hot American Summer film, but he’s worked with director/writer Wain on the Emmy award-winning comedy series Childrens Hospital, where he learned first hand about Wain’s comedic use of film references. For example, Wain did an Ocean’s Eleven-style episode that involved robbing a sperm bank. WHAS: First Day of Camp also references films, but in a more general way. “It’s more like we’re doing send-ups of genre conventions instead of referencing specific films,” says Davey.

Knives & Other Kitchen Stuff
That isn’t to say that specific films didn’t influence the sound for certain scenes in First Day of Camp. (Spoiler Alert!) In the action-packed final episode, camp cook Gene takes on government-hired assassin The Falcon (Jon Hamm). The sound for the Kung-Fu knife fight was inspired by the sound work of Tobias Poppe and John Marquis on G.I. Joe: Retaliation. “I really like the way they handled the blades in G.I. Joe: Retaliation. It had this foundation of being a great-sounding action moment with a layer of playfulness on top of it,” explains Davey. A perfect fit for the comedy series, where lightning-quick knife flicks are effortlessly caught between fingers and teeth.

Gene and The Falcon also employ pots, pans and utensils in their fight. The sounds for those were all added in post since the pots on-set were made of rubber for safety reasons. “They look really good, very convincing, especially that big pot that Gene kicks and The Falcon catches,” says Davey, who used a Doppler effect on the pot kick sound to give it a sense of motion. “It sounds like Gene kicked it with such force that it’s vibrating as it flies through the air. So instead of just whooshing, it has this metallic vibration sound.”

To add weight to the metal sounds, particularly on the sound of Gene rolling across a large metal table, Davey used reFuse’s Lowender to add sub-harmonics, as well as Altiverb by Audio Ease for a metallic ring-out. “I really wanted it to feel like it was a grown man rolling across the metal table. I only had two different sounds for that and I had to get creative with pitching and adding detail with reverb to make them work for all the times he rolled across it.”

For punches, Davey used the Boom Library Close Combat Construction Kit in combination with punch movements and swooshes he recorded for the TV miniseries Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn. “I like Boom’s construction kits because the sounds are really well recorded and they aren’t over-baked. I can do my own limiting, distortion, and/or compression to shape them how I want to use them.”

In the Camp Firewood face-off with Camp Tiger Claw — the rich kid camp on the other side of the lake — Davey was balancing the sound effects of what’s happening on screen versus what was happening off screen, as well as mixing in a fair amount of dialogue and composer Craig Wedren’s full score.

“I had to braid the dialogue, the music and the effects throughout that scene,” says Davey. “It was very important to watch those scenes over and over again. That’s advice Andy Nelson (Oscar-winning re-recording mixer and sound engineer) once gave me: ‘Watch your work in the biggest chunk you can as many times as you can. Watch as if you were a viewer and not the sound designer.’”

The Music
Music plays a key role in the storyline of First Day of Camp. In addition to the campers staging the musical “Electro City” — complete with auditions, rehearsals and the final performance — there is also a reclusive rock star, Eric (Chris Pine), residing at Camp Firewood. He’s a camp legend. After being signed to a major label by an A&R man attending a camp concert, Eric lost his muse in the recording studio and retreated back to camp to hide.

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Composer Wedren and the musicians at Pink Ape handled all the music, from the musical theater numbers to the rock hits. They replaced the guide tracks used during production with recordings of the actors in the studio. Davey explains that singing from the production tracks, for both the musical theater performances and Eric’s roof-top concert during the final episode, made their way into the final mix. “We wanted to be very careful about the balance between the music sounding realistic in the space and going into full on musical mode where everything sounds great,” he explains.

Davey asked composer Wedren to deliver two sets of stems: one set completely dry and another with Wedren’s studio polish on it. This allowed Davey the freedom to transition from realistic to enhanced musical numbers as it fit the scene. For example, all the auditions for the musical theater were production tracks with the exception of Katie’s performance where they decided to dub her performance to make her (Marguerite Moreau) stand out.

For Eric’s roof-top performance, Davey started out using the production track vocals with realistic reverb and slap and then moved into more musical reverb and slap. Throughout the song, Eric’s vocal track cuts back and forth between the production track and the vocals recorded in the studio. “There was even the loop group singing along for the ‘higher’ lines,” he says. “We were firing on all cylinders, using all the tools in the tool chest to create that moment.”

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The Shofar!
Music editor Emily Kwong was the key to clear communication between Davey and the music team, wrangling the numerous tracks and stems sent by composer Wedren. Kwong also crafted the long shofar solo for Cooperberg’s performance in the final episode. The shofar, a musical instrument made from a ram’s horn and used for Jewish religious purposes, is very difficult to play.

“The shofar is not an instrument that can be played like a jazz trumpet,” says Davey. “We tried to create that solo from samples of shofars, and even other instruments we pitch- and tone-manipulated to sound like a shofar, but that didn’t work.”

Davey ended up recording himself making random noises for several minutes on the shofar. “Emily took that track and put it together in a way that it sounded like somebody struggling through a performance.”

At one point in the series, the entire camp is walking around, blowing shofars. To create that sound, Davey handed out shofars to the loop group and captured the session in L-C-R. “It was great because the loop group didn’t know how to play the shofar and neither did the kids in the camp,” says Davey. “By recording in L-C-R, I had the option of a nice wide stereo track and I could just place the shofars all around and they would all sound different and terrible.”

Production Sound & ADR
Production sound mixer Lee Ascher had his work cut out for him on-set. Davey notes the series is like a Robert Altman film, with many characters interacting and speaking all the time. The series was shot very quickly and in a challenging environment, with traffic and generator noise on some of the tracks. The combination of replacing noisy lines and recording the actors singing resulted in over 475 tracks of ADR. “I made a super-session of the ADR because there was so much of it,” says Davey. “I didn’t even have all the singing because some we recorded at Craig’s studio.”

One challenge for ADR was replacing the voice of George Dalton — the on-camera actor who played Arty, the radio station kid — with Samm Levine’s voice. “George Dalton did an excellent job and really brought that character to life, but it was decided to use Samm’s voice instead. Fortunately for me, Samm is very talented at ADR and voiceover,” reports Davey.

Using Pro Tool’s Elastic Time and Serato’s Pitch ’N Time Pro, Davey tweaked the voice into place. However, something about Levine’s voice wasn’t quite marrying to the visuals. “I experimented and eventually landed on using Pitch ’N Time Pro to pitch up Samm’s voice just slightly (without changing the speed of his dialog). “The latest version of Pitch ’N Time Pro has a ‘Voice’ algorithm that works amazingly well for human voice manipulation. The plug-in is a major tool in my work, from dialog to sound effects design. It’s not an inexpensive plug-in but it’s worth every penny.”

The camp environment is always busy with kid’s activities. Even in the quiet, semi-private moments, like the conversations between Cooperberg and Donna in the cabin, there is still the distant sound of kids. Davey captured unique ambiences of kids playing at parks and in a nature study on a hiking trail to use for the backgrounds. The only time we don’t hear kids, or birds for that matter, is at the toxic sludge site. “I wanted the audience to get a sense that it’s a dangerous place because wildlife stays away from that area. Sound effects editor Charles Maynes, added in some really great, creepy, weird, unfriendly insects in that location,” he says.

Davey also got to work a few vintage sound effects into the series, including a great horned owl hoot from the 1940s to highlight Eric’s creepy cabin, the classic red hawk screech as the sound of The Falcon and computer sounds from the ‘80s that no one gets to use anymore. “David and I are kindred spirits in that we both are computer nerds. He was definitely using computers in the ‘80s, so he was really excited about the sounds we used for that old computer.”

The series is available now on Netflix.

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


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