Tag Archives: Amazon Studios

What it sounds like when Good Girls Revolt for Amazon Studios

By Jennifer Walden

“Girls do not do rewrites,” says Jim Belushi’s character, Wick McFadden, in Amazon Studios’ series Good Girls Revolt. It’s 1969, and he’s the national editor at News of the Week, a fictional news magazine based in New York City. He’s confronting the new researcher Nora Ephron (Grace Gummer) who claims credit for a story that Wick has just praised in front of the entire newsroom staff. The trouble is it’s 1969 and women aren’t writers; they’re only “researchers” following leads and gathering facts for the male writers.

When Nora’s writer drops the ball by delivering a boring courtroom story, she rewrites it as an insightful articulation of the country’s cultural climate. “If copy is good, it’s good,” she argues to Wick, testing the old conventions of workplace gender-bias. Wick tells her not to make waves, but it’s too late. Nora’s actions set in motion an unstoppable wave of change.

While the series is set in New York City, it was shot in Los Angeles. The newsroom they constructed had an open floor plan with a bi-level design. The girls are located in “the pit” area downstairs from the male writers. The newsroom production set was hollow, which caused an issue with the actors’ footsteps that were recorded on the production tracks, explains supervising sound editor Peter Austin. “The set was not solid. It was built on a platform, so we had a lot of boomy production footsteps to work around. That was one of the big dialogue issues. We tried not to loop too much, so we did a lot of specific dialogue work to clean up all of those newsroom scenes,” he says.

The main character Patti Robinson (Genevieve Angelson) was particularly challenging because of her signature leather riding boots. “We wanted to have an interesting sound for her boots, and the production footsteps were just useless. So we did a lot of experimenting on the Foley stage,” says Austin, who worked with Foley artists Laura Macias and Sharon Michaels to find the right sound. All the post sound work — sound editorial, Foley, ADR, loop group, and final mix was handled at Westwind Media in Burbank, under the guidance of post producer Cindy Kerber.

Austin and dialog editor Sean Massey made every effort to save production dialog when possible and to keep the total ADR to a minimum. Still, the newsroom environment and several busy street scenes proved challenging, especially when the characters were engaged in confidential whispers. Fortunately, “the set mixer Joe Foglia was terrific,” says Austin. “He captured some great tracks despite all these issues, and for that we’re very thankful!”

The Newsroom
The newsroom acts as another character in Good Girls Revolt. It has its own life and energy. Austin and sound effects editor Steve Urban built rich backgrounds with tactile sounds, like typewriters clacking and dinging, the sound of rotary phones with whirring dials and bell-style ringers, the sound of papers shuffling and pencils scratching. They pulled effects from Austin’s personal sound library, from commercial sound libraries like Sound Ideas, and had the Foley artists create an array of period-appropriate sounds.

Loop group coordinator Julie Falls researched and recorded walla that contained period appropriate colloquialisms, which Austin used to add even more depth and texture to the backgrounds. The lively backgrounds helped to hide some dialogue flaws and helped to blend in the ADR. “Executive producer/series creator Dana Calvo actually worked in an environment like this and so she had very definite ideas about how it would sound, particularly the relentlessness of the newsroom,” explains Austin. “Dana had strong ideas about the newsroom being a character in itself. We followed her guide and wanted to support the scenes and communicate what the girls were going through — how they’re trying to break through this male-dominated barrier.”

Austin and Urban also used the backgrounds to reinforce the difference between the hectic state of “the pit” and the more mellow writers’ area. Austin says, “The girls’ area, the pit, sounds a little more shrill. We pitched up the phone’s a little bit, and made it feel more chaotic. The men’s raised area feels less strident. This was subtle, but I think it helps to set the tone that these girls were ‘in the pit’ so to speak.”

The busy backgrounds posed their own challenge too. When the characters are quiet, the room still had to feel frenetic but it couldn’t swallow up their lines. “That was a delicate balance. You have characters who are talking low and you have this energy that you try to create on the set. That’s always a dance you have to figure out,” says Austin. “The whole anarchy of the newsroom was key to the story. It creates a good contrast for some of the other scenes where the characters’ private lives were explored.”

Peter Austin

The heartbeat of the newsroom is the teletype machines that fire off stories, which in turn set the newsroom in motion. Austin reports the teletype sound they used was captured from a working teletype machine they actually had on set. “They had an authentic teletype from that period, so we recorded that and augmented it with other sounds. Since that was a key motif in the show, we actually sweetened the teletype with other sounds, like machine guns for example, to give it a boost every now and then when it was a key element in the scene.”

Austin and Urban also built rich backgrounds for the exterior city shots. In the series opener, archival footage of New York City circa 1969 paints the picture of a rumbling city, moved by diesel-powered buses and trains, and hulking cars. That footage cuts to shots of war protestors and police lining the sidewalk. Their discontented shouts break through the city’s continuous din. “We did a lot of texturing with loop group for the protestors,” says Austin. He’s worked on several period projects over years, and has amassed a collection of old vehicle recordings that they used to build the street sounds on Good Girls Revolt. “I’ve collected a ton of NYC sounds over the years. New York in that time definitely has a different sound than it does today. It’s very distinct. We wanted to sell New York of that time.”

Sound Design
Good Girls Revolt is a dialogue-driven show but it did provide Austin with several opportunities to use subjective sound design to pull the audience into a character’s experience. The most fun scene for Austin was in Episode 5 “The Year-Ender” in which several newsroom researchers consume LSD at a party. As the scene progresses, the characters’ perspectives become warped. Austin notes they created an altered state by slowing down and pitching down sections of the loop group using Revoice Pro by Synchro Arts. They also used Avid’s D-Verb to distort and diffuse selected sounds.

Good Girls Revolt“We got subjective by smearing different elements at different times. The regular sound would disappear and the music would dominate for a while and then that would smear out,” describes Austin. They also used breathing sounds to draw in the viewer. “This one character, Diane (Hannah Barefoot), has a bad experience. She’s crawling along the hallway and we hear her breathing while the rest of the sound slurs out in the background. We build up to her freaking out and falling down the stairs.”

Austin and Urban did their design and preliminary sound treatments in Pro Tools 12 and then handed it off to sound effects re-recording mixer Derek Marcil, who polished the final sound. Marcil was joined by dialog/music re-recording mixer David Raines on Stage 1 at Westwind. Together they mixed the series in 5.1 on an Avid ICON D-Control console. “Everyone on the show was very supportive, and we had a lot of creative freedom to do our thing,” concludes Austin.

Creating new worlds for Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle

Zoic Studios used visual effects to recreate occupied New York and San Francisco.

By Randi Altman

What if Germany and Japan had won World War II? What would the world look like? That is the premise of Philip K. Dick’s 1963 novel and Amazon’s series, The Man in the High Castle, which is currently gearing up for its second season premiere in December.

The Man in the High Castle features familiar landmarks with unfamiliar touches. For example, New York’s Time Square has its typical billboards, but sprinkled in are giant swastika banners, images of Hitler and a bizarro American flag, whose blue stripes have been replaced with yet another swastika. San Francisco, and the entire West Coast, is now under Japanese rule, complete with Japanese architecture and cultural influences. It’s actually quite chilling.

Jeff

Jeff Baksinski

Helping to create these “new” worlds was Zoic Studios, whose team received one of the show’s four Emmy nods for its visual effects work. That team was led by visual effects supervisor Jeff Baksinski.

Zoic’s path to getting the VFX gig was a bit different than most. Instead of waiting to be called for a bid, they got aggressive… in the best possible way. “Both myself and another supervisor here, Todd Shifflett, had read Dick’s book, and we really wanted this project.”

They began with some concept stills and bouncing ideas off each other of what a German-occupied New York would look like. One of Zoic’s producers saw what they were up to and helped secure some money for a real test. “Todd found a bunch of late ‘50s/early 60’s airline commercials about traveling to New York, and strung it together as one piece. Then we added various Nazi banners, swastikas and statues. Our commercial features a pullback from a 1960s-era TV. Then we pull back to reveal a New York penthouse with a Nazi solider standing at the window. The commercial’s very static-y and beat up, but as we pull back out the window, we have a very high-resolution version of Nazi New York.”

And that, my friends, is how they got the show. Let’s find out more from Baksinski…

The Man in the High Castle is an Amazon show. Does the workflow differ from traditional broadcast shows?
Yes. For example, on our network TV shows, typically you’ll get a script each week, you’ll break it down and maybe have 10 days worth of post to execute the visual effects. Amazon and Netflix shows are different. They have a good idea of where their season is going, so you can start building assets well in advance.

High Castle’s version of the Brooklyn Bridge features a Nazi/American flag.

When we did the pilot, we were already building assets while I was going out to set. We were building San Francisco’s Hirohito Airport, the airplane that featured heavily in a few episodes and the cities of New York and San Francisco — a lot of that started before we ever shot a single frame.

It’s a whole new world with the streaming channels.
Everybody does it a little bit differently. Right now when we work on Netflix shows, we are working in shooting order, episode 105, 106, 107, etc., but we have the flexibility to say, “Okay, that one’s going to push longer because it’s more effects-heavy. We’re going to need four weeks on that episode and only two on this other one.” It’s very different than normal episodic TV.

Do you have a preference?
At the moment, my preference is for the online shows. I come from a features background where we had much longer schedules. Even worse, I worked in the days where movies had a year-and-a-half worth of schedule to do their visual effects. That was a different era. When I came into television, I had never seen anything this fast in my life. TV has a super quick turnaround, and obviously audiences have gotten smarter and smarter and want better and better work; television is definitely pushing closer to a features-type look.

Assuming you get more time with the pilots?
I love pilots. You get a big chunk of the story going, and a longer post schedule — six to eight weeks. We had about six weeks on Man in the High Castle, which is a good amount of time to ask, “What does this world look like, and what do they expect? In the case of High Castle, it was really about building a world. We were never going to create a giant robot. It was about how do we do make the world interesting and support our actors and story? You need time to do that.

You were creating a world that doesn’t exist, but also a period piece that takes place in the early ‘60s. Can you talk about that?
We started with what the normal versions of New York and San Francisco looked like in the ‘60s. We did a lot of sketch work, some simple modeling and planning. The next step was what would New York look like if Germany had taken over, and how would San Francisco be different under the influence of Japan?

Zoic added a Japanese feel to San Francisco streets and buildings.

In the case of San Francisco, we found areas in other countries that have heavy Japanese populations and how they influence the architecture —so buildings that were initially built by somebody else and then altered for a Japanese feel. We used a lot of that for what you see in the San Francisco shots.

What about New York?
That was a little bit tougher, because if you’re going to reference back to Germany during the war, you have propaganda signs, but our story takes place in 1962, so you’ve got some 17 years there where the world has gotten used to this German and Nazi influence. So while those signs do exist, we scaled back and added normal signs with German names.

In terms of the architecture, we took some buildings down and put new ones in place. You’ll notice that in our Times Square, traffic doesn’t move as it does in real life. We altered the roads to show how traffic would move if somebody eliminated some buildings and put cross-traffic in.

You also added a little bit of German efficiency to some scenes?
Absolutely. It’s funny… in the show’s New York there are long lines of people waiting to get into various restaurants and stores, and it’s all very regimented and controlled. Compare that to San Francisco where we have people milling about everywhere and it’s overcrowded with a lot of randomness.

How much of what you guys did were matte paintings, and could those be reused?
We use a few different types of matte paintings. We have the Rocky Mountains, for example, in the Neutral Zone. Those are a series of matte paintings we did from different angles that show mountains, trees and rivers. That is reusable for the most part.

Other matte paintings are very specific. For example, in the alley outside of Frank’s apartment, you see clothes hanging out to dry, and buildings all the way down the alleyway that lead to this very crowded-looking city. Those matte paintings are shot-specific.

Then we use matte paintings to show things far off in the distance to cut off the CG. Our New York is maybe four square city blocks around in every direction. When we get down to that fourth block, we started using old film tricks — what they used to do on studio lots, where you start curving the roads, dead-ending, or pinching the roads together. There is no way we could build 30 blocks of CG in every direction. I just can’t get there, so we started curving the CG and doing little tricks so the viewer can’t tell the difference.

What was the most challenging type of effects you created for the show? Which shots are you most proud of?
We are most proud of the Hirohito Airport and the V9 rocket plane. What most people don’t realize is that there’s actually nothing there — we weren’t at a real airport and there’s no plane for the actors to interact with. The actors are literally standing on a giant set of grip pipe and crates and walking down a set of stairs. That plane looks very realistic, even super close-up. You see every bolt and hinge and everything as the actors walk out. The monorail and embassy are also cool.

What do you call on in terms of tools?
We use Maya for modeling and lighting environments and for any animation work, such as a plane flying or the cars driving. There is a plug-in for Maya called Miarmy that we used to create CG people walking around in backgrounds. Some of those shots have hundreds of extras, but it still felt a little bit thin, so we were used CG people to fill in the gaps.

What about compositing?
It’s all Nuke. A lot of our environments are combinations of Photoshop and Nuke or projections onto geometry. Nuke will actually let you use geometry and projections in 3D inside of the compositing package, so some of our compositors are doing environment work as well.

Did you do a lot of greenscreen work?
We didn’t do any on the pilot, but did on the following episodes. We decided to go all roto on the pilot because the show has such a unique lighting set-up — the way the DP wanted to light that show — that green would have completely ruined it. This is abnormal for visual effects, where everyone’s always greenscreening.

street-before-nyRoto is such a painstaking process.
Absolutely. Our DP Jim Hawkinson was coming off of Hannibal at the time. DPs are always super wary of visual effects supervisors because when you come on the set you’re immediately the enemy; you’re about to tell them how to screw up all their lighting (smiles).

He said very clearly, “This is how I like to use light, and these are the paintings and the artwork.” This is the stuff I really enjoy. Between talking to him and director David Semel, and knowing that it was an RSA project, your brain immediately starts going to things like Blade Runner. You’re just listening to the conversations. It’s like, “Oh, this is not straightforward. They’re going to have a very contrast-y, smoky look to this show.”

We did use greenscreen on the rest of the episodes because we had less time. So out of necessity we used green.

What about rendering?
We use V-Ray, which is a global illumination renderer. We’d go out and take HDR images of the entire area for lighting and capture all of the DPs lights — that’s what’s most important to me. The DP set up his lights for a reason. I want to capture as much of his lighting as humanly possible so when I need to add a building or car into the shot, I’m using his lighting to light it.

It’s a starting point because you usually build a little bit on top of that, but that’s typically what we do. We get our HDRs, we bring them into Maya, we light the scene inside of Maya, then we render through V-Ray, and it all gets composited together.