Tag Archives: AMC

Fear the Walking Dead: Encore colorist teams with DPs for parched look

The action of AMC’s zombie-infused Fear the Walking Dead this season is set in a brittle, drought-plagued environment, which becomes progressively more parched as the story unfolds. So when production was about to commence, the show’s principals were concerned that the normally-arid shoot locations in Mexico had undergone record rainfall and were suffused with verdant vegetation as far as the eye could see.

Pankaj Bajpai of Encore, who has color graded the series from the start, and the two new cinematographers hired for this season — Christopher LaVasseur and Scott Peck — conferred early on about how best to handle this surprising development.

It wouldn’t have been practical to move locations or try to “dress” the scenes to look as described on the page, nor would the budget allow for addressing the issue through VFX. Bajpai, who, in addition to his colorist work also oversees new workflows for Encore, realized that although he could produce the desired effect in his FilmLight Baselight toolset through multiple keys and windows, that too would be less than practical.

Instead, he proposed using a technique that’s far from standard operating procedure for a series. “We got ‘under the hood’ of the Baselight,” he says, “and set up color suppression matrices,” which essentially use mathematical equations to define the degree to which each of the primary colors — red, green and blue — can be represented in an image. The technique, he explains, “allows you to be much more specific about suppressing certain hues without affecting everything else as much as you would by keying a color or manipulating saturation.”

Once designed, these restrictions on the green within the imagery could be dialed up or down, primarily affecting just the colors in the foliage that the filmmakers wanted to re-define, without collateral damage to skin tones and other elements that they didn’t want effects. “I knew that the cinematographers could shoot in the location and we could alter the environment as necessary in the grade,” Bajpai says. He showed the DPs how effective the technique was, and they quickly got on board. Peck, who was able to sit in on the grading for the first episode, recalls, “One of the things I was concerned with was this whole question about the green [foliage] because I knew in the story as the season progresses, water becomes less available. So this idea of changing the greens had to be a gradual process up to around episode nine. There was still a lot of discussion about how we are going to do this. But I knew just working with Pankaj at Encore for a day, that we could do it in the color grade.”

Of course, there was more to work out between Bajpai and the cinematographers, who’d been charged by the producers with taking the look in a somewhat new direction. “Wherever possible I wanted to plan as much with the cinematographers early on so that we’re all working toward a common goal,” he says.

Prior to this season’s start of production, Bajpai and the two DPs developed a shooting LUT to use in conjunction with the specific combination of lenses and the Arri sensors they would use to shoot the season. “Scott recommended using the Hawk T1 prime lenses,” says LaVasseur, “and I suggested going with a fairly low-contrast LUT.” Borrowing language from the photochemical days, he explains, “We wanted to start with a soft image and then ‘print’ really hard,” to yield the show’s edgy, contrasty type of look.

Bajpai calibrated the DPs’ laptops so that they’d be able to get the most out of sample-graded images that he would send them as he started coloring episodes. “We would provide notes when Pankaj had completed a pass,” says LaVasseur, but it was usually just a few very small tweaks I was asking for. We were all working toward the same goal so there weren’t surprises in the way he graded anything.”

“Pankaj had it done very quickly, especially the handling of the green,” Peck adds. “The show needed that look to build to a certain point and then stay there, but the actual locations weren’t cooperative. We were able to just shoot and we all knew what it needed to look like after Pankaj worked on it.”

“Communication is so important,” LaVasseur stresses. “You need to have the DPs, production designer and costume designer working together on the look. You need to know that your colorist is part of the discussion so they’re not taking the images in some other direction than intended. I come from the film days and we would always say, ‘Plan your shoot. Shoot your plan.’ That’s how we approached this season, and I think it paid off.”

AMC’s ‘Preacher’: Creating a sound path for the series

By Jennifer Walden

When I heard that Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg developed a TV series for AMC based on the comic book series penned by Garth Ennis, I was immediately hooked. Would Preacher be like Pineapple Express? Or more like This Is The End?

Turns out it’s more like This is the End meets Breaking Bad, thanks to Preacher co-writer/executive producer Sam Catlin, who held those same titles on the long-running Breaking Bad series. But Catlin isn’t the only Breaking Bad alum involved in Preacher; composer Dave Porter and picture editor Kelley Dixon (editor on Preacher’s pilot) also had a hand in the series.

Michael Babcock

Michael Babcock

Handling the pilot’s sound was supervising sound editor/sound designer Michael Babcock at Warner Bros. in Burbank — a surprising name to find attached to a TV series, because these days he regularly works on feature films. But when you hear that those films include the Rogen/Goldberg offerings The Interview, This is the End and Neighbors, you understand the jump to TV for this series.

“Seth and Evan are really fun to work with because they come up with original storylines,” explains Babcock. “One reason I wanted to dip my toe back into the TV world was because they were developing this series. It was an excuse for me to make cool sounds for them.”

Although Babcock’s schedule only allowed him to supervise the pilot’s sound, he is still able to contribute sound design on episodes. Richard Yawn took over as supervising sound editor for the rest of the season.

In The Beginning
Preacher’s pilot opens on bold, block type of the words “Outer Space” superimposed over a retro representation of our solar system through which a ball of light flies. This ball eventually crashes on Earth, in the heart of Africa, into the body of a preacher. Sound-wise, the outer-space scene is carried by sound design, with no music or voiceover. Air raid sirens, awash in reverb, act as an underscore while sand-sprinkled sci-fi whooshes accompany the supernatural entity’s flight through the ether.

Rogen and Goldberg were very involved in the sound, says Babcock. “The sound all came out of their heads. They had all of these ideas and themes of what they envisioned these things would sound like.”

Babcock based his sound palette on the themes that Rogen and Goldberg described, like baby sounds, water and heartbeats. “I kept trying to build on their themes. It helps me as a sound designer when a director asks for a specific emotion or sound as their direction,” he says. “For example, if the scene was in a dark room and we needed a dark tone, then I’d stick with slowing down heartbeats or underwater ambience and rumbling. I just tried to stick with those themes.”

The concept for the supernatural entity — which came from Rogen and Goldberg — was that it was like a baby being born. So Babcock designed its sound using baby-related elements, like an ultrasound heartbeat, layered with reversed or manipulated baby vocalizations. When the entity possesses a host, like that first preacher in Africa, it exists inside that person. Using that idea, Babcock worked with womb related sounds, like underwater ambiences that he slowed and pitched.

Throughout the pilot, the entity is searching for the perfect host. It’s tries out different religious figures, including Tom Cruise, and then explodes them if they’re not a match. It eventually ends up inside Preacher’s protagonist, Jesse (Dominic Cooper), a small-town preacher who has possessed a dark side long before the entity possesses him.

“The entity is not just this evil demon thing; there’s more to it. It’s basically growing up as the season goes along, so that’s why Seth and Evan decided to use baby sounds,” explains Babcock. (Those that watched the Directors Commentary version of the pilot will remember that Rogen and Goldberg noted the entity’s sound as a clue for the season.)

Babcock describes the scene in which Jesse is in the church at night, right before the entity finds him. It blows open the doors and knocks the church pews aside as it moves down the aisle. As the entity slams into Jesse, he’s thrown across the room and into the wall. In keeping with the water theme, Babcock says, “I used depth charge sounds for the pews being forced aside. That scene was actually a lot of fun because that’s where I got a chance to really hone-in on what had become the entity heartbeat sound.”

God-Like Sound Design
Following his work on the pilot, Babcock’s main focus for sound design on the other episodes relates to the preacher Jesse, and, in particular, his voice. “Jesse goes into the voice of God mode where he’s channeling this entity,” explains Babcock. To create the vocal effect, Babcock starts with the production dialogue in his Avid Pro Tools 12 session. He runs it through the Waves Renaissance Bass (RBass) plug-in to create a richer low end sound by adding a bit of chorusing. Then, if the lines need more of a rumble, Babcock runs them through Avid’s Pro Subharmonic plug-in. Next, he adds in shaking and wave rumbling sound effects to hit each syllable, the amount depending on how intense or aggressive Jesse needs to be. “It’s a process we are calling ‘the kitchen sink,’ so they’ll say, ‘on this one it needs the kitchen sink.’”

The pilot offered Babcock numerous sound design opportunities. There is blood and gore for the African preacher blowing up, and for the cow that gets rapidly devoured by the vampire, Cassidy (Joseph Gilgun). There’s even a subtle cow death that occurs off-screen in the slaughterhouse scene when Jesse visits Betsy Schenck (Jamie Anne Allman). “In that scene, there is a door opening, and in the time it takes for the door to open and close there is a cow moo and then a gun shot. I don’t know if people have picked up on it because it only happens in one place, but that is the humor of Seth and Evan,” comments Babcock.

There was hand-to-hand combat to design, like for Cassidy’s confrontation on the plane, which he also manages to set on fire. Then there is the Tarantino-esque fight scene where Tulip (Ruth Negga) neutralizes her assailants as her car plows through a cornfield. “We had a bunch of recordings that we did for Interstellar where they wiped out a bunch of cornfields in the film. Sound designer Richard King literally drove a truck through a farmer’s cornfield, after they had harvested the crop, and recorded all of that corn being mowed down. I borrowed those recordings to use for the car fight, to go all around in the surrounds,” says Babcock.

Much of Babcock’s sound design sets the tone for the rest of the season. An example of a reoccurring sound is the church ambience. Babcock used wooden boat creaks and placed them around the room in the 5.1 environment. “They are slowed down so it has this creaking, breathing feel to it. That’s the sound they’re using at night when the church is empty,” he says.

Final Mix
Preacher’s final 5.1 mix was done at Sony Pictures Studios by Deb Adair handling music/dialogue and Ian Herzon taking on sound effects/Foley/backgrounds. As directors for the feature film industry, it’s no surprise that Rogen and Goldberg wanted the Preacher pilot to sound as dynamic and impactful as a theatrical release. That can be difficult to achieve when dealing with television sound specs.

“This is the kind of show where the story needs to be supported by some pretty heavy dynamics to be quiet and loud. I think of all the things that you have to deal with on a creative level… dealing with broadcast spec is just as challenging because Seth and Evan want the show to look theatrical, and they want it to sound theatrical, too,” concludes Babcock.

If you haven’t already, you can check out Preacher on AMC, Sundays at 9/8c.

Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based writer and audio engineer. You can follow her on Twitter at @audiojeney

Keeping score for ‘Better Call Saul’

Breaking Bad composer Dave Porter returns for this prequel

By Jennifer Walden

When AMC’s Breaking Bad ended, many went through withdrawal from the multi-Emmy Award-winning show. Thanks to its prequel, Better Call Saul, the world that Vince Gilligan created in the New Mexico desert lives on. But while the landscapes might seem familiar, don’t expect the show to look or sound the same as Breaking Bad.

Dave Porter

“For me, it all starts with the black and white keys,” says Los Angeles-based composer Dave Porter, whose score for AMC’s Better Call Saul is anything but black and white emotionally. At the piano he works out melodies and harmonies that communicate the complicated blend of emotions that move the show. “The characters are complex. The challenge is in trying to find the right balance between the different emotions that are at play in any given scene.”

While Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad feature some of the same characters, Better Call Saul show runners/creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould were adamant that this should be a very different show, says Porter, who won an ASCAP Award for Best Television Composer of 2013 for his work on Breaking Bad. “That meant everything from how they write it, to how they shoot it, to how it sounds. We went back to the drawing board to create a whole new musical vocabulary for Better Call Saul, particularly for Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) who, eventually, becomes Saul.”
Porter defines the show’s score with words like intimate, human and relatable. “Breaking Bad [feels] very worldly,” he says. “The scope is much larger, whereas in Better Call Saul, Jimmy’s fight is a smaller fight. Although it is no less important, it is the challenge of one man.”

Getting Real
In terms of instrumentation, Porter gravitated toward real instruments, relying less on the computer and synths he used on Breaking Bad. “I use instruments that I can actually sit down and play, like organs, electric piano, lots of bass and guitar, vibraphone and different mallet percussion, such as vibes and different little xylophones,” he explains.

BCS_210-20151026-UC_0371.JPGWhile Porter performed the piano/keyboards and percussion parts, he hired studio musicians to play the bass and guitar parts. He works with recording engineer James Saez, owner/president of Glendale, California’s The Audio Labs, when the session requires more than one musician. Otherwise, Porter handles recording, editing and mixing at his home studio using an Avid Pro Tools 12 rig and a collection of outboard effects.

For Better Call Saul, Porter likes the 1980’s-era Korg GR-1 Gated Spring Reverb and a TC Electronic guitar-oriented rackmount effects processor from the 1990s called Fireworx. “I usually play and record everything into Pro Tools first, as unprocessed as possible, and then I go back and process the sound. That gives me the flexibility to play around with the effects later.”

Turnaround time for Porter’s score is seven to 10 days per episode. After reviewing the episode, Porter meets with show runners Gilligan and Gould, the episode’s picture editor and supervising sound editor Nick Forshager for a spotting session. They determine where original music is needed and what it needs to express emotionally. “We try not to use music as a placeholder or filler. If it’s going to be in there than it needs to have a purpose,” says Porter, who notes that Better Call Saul, like Breaking Bad before it, is not edited with temp music tracks. “I have ingrained in all of those folks not to use temp music. This way, when I get the episode there is no preconceived notion about what the music should sound like. It’s a great and very rare thing, and I am blessed to have had that on these two shows.”

BCS_209-20151020-UC_0619.JPG

Letting the Music Do the Talking
Porter’s favorite track on Season 2 was for the opening sequence of Episode 8 — a five-minute scene featuring a US-Mexico border crossing in which a previously unknown character goes through a customs inspection of his transport truck. “There is very little dialogue, so the music was front and center and required a kind of confidence and swagger, which is something I don’t always get to do on the show,” he explains. “The character plays his part so well, so calm and cool and collected, that I took my inspiration from him.” One fun feature to the track is a rock ‘n’ roll horn section, which is something Porter had never done for any of the Better Call Saul episodes before.

Knowing that the opening sequence was a long, fluid shot, Porter began thinking about how to make a track that rhythmically was able to sustain itself over a long period of time without getting boring. “I had to find ways to change it up and divide it into different sections,” he says. “I attacked it that way. Often, when you’re scoring to picture you are building up to a certain moment, but this piece was like a big arc that lasts five or six minutes. It was about keeping the music fresh and interesting and evolving for that length of time.”

Better Call Saul requires music that is emotionally complex, but it also offers another challenge. As the prequel of Breaking Bad, the two shows are related even though they’re very different. Better Call Saul’s score needs to gradually evolve as the timelines of the two shows converge. “The challenge,” says Porter, “is to be present and honest with where these characters are, but at the same time be able to look ahead and map out the path musically, to evolve the score as the characters evolve into the characters we know they will become eventually on Breaking Bad.”

Porter says he’s happy exploring this new world of Better Call Saul, especially Jimmy before he becomes Saul Goodman. “I am in no hurry to get to where the stories have to overlap. Personally, I hope that takes many years because I’m having a fantastic time watching these characters evolve.”

Jennifer Walden is an New Jersey-based audio engineer and writer. You can follow her on Twitter at @audiojeney.