Tag Archives: Black Sails

The sound of sensory overload for Cinemax’s ‘Outcast’

By Jennifer Walden

As a cockroach crawls along the wall, each move is watched intensely by a boy whose white knuckles grip the headboard of his bed. His shallow breaths stop just before he head-butts the cockroach and sucks its bloody remains off the wall.

That is the fantastic opening scene of Robert Kirkman’s latest series, Outcast, airing now on Cinemax. Kirkman, writer/executive producer on The Walking Dead, sets his new horror series in the small town of Rome, West Virginia, where a plague of demonic-like possessions is infecting the residents.

Ben Cook

Outcast supervising sound editor Benjamin Cook, of 424 Post in Culver City, says the opening of the pilot episode featured some of his favorite moments in terms of sound design. Each scrape of the cockroach’s feet, every twitch of its antenna, and the juicy crunch of its demise were carefully crafted. Then, following the cockroach consumption, the boy heads to the pantry and snags a bag of chips. He mindlessly crunches away as his mother and sister argue in the kitchen. When the mother yells at the boy for eating chips after supper, he doesn’t seem to notice. He just keeps crunching away. The mother gets closer as the boy turns toward her and she sees that it’s not chips he’s crunching on but his own finger. This is not your typical child.

“The idea is that you want it to seem like he’s eating potato chips, but somewhere in there you need a crossover between the chips and the flesh and bone of his finger,” says Cook. Ultimately, the finger crunching was a combination of Foley — provided by Jeff Wilhoit, Brett Voss, and Dylan Tuomy-Wilhoit at Happy Feet Foley — and 424 Post’s sound design, created by Cook and his sound designers Javier Bennassar and Charles Maynes. “We love doing all of those little details that hopefully make our soundtracks stand out. I try to work a lot of detail into my shows as a general rule.”

Sensory Overload
While hitting the details is Cook’s m.o. anyway — as evidenced by his Emmy-nominated sound editing on Black Sails — it serves a double purpose in Outcast. When people are possessed in the world of Outcast, we imagine that they are more in tune with the micro details of the human experience. Every touch and every movement makes a sound.

“Whenever we are with a possessed person we try to play up the sense that they are overwhelmed by what they are experiencing because their body has been taken over,” says Cook. “Wherever this entity comes from it doesn’t have a physical body and so what the entity is experiencing inside the human body is kind of a sensory overload. All of the Foley and sound effects are really heightened when in that experience.”

Cook says he’s very fortunate to find shows where he and his team have a lot of creative freedom, as they do on Outcast. “As a sound person that is the best; when you really are a collaborator in the storytelling.”

His initial direction for sound came from Adam Wingard, the director on the pilot episode. Wingard asked for drones and distortion, for hard-edged sounds derived from organic sources. “There are definitely more processed kinds of sounds than I would typically use. We worked with the composer Atticus Ross, so there was a handoff between the music and the sound design in the show.”

Working with a stereo music track from composer Ross, Cook and his team could figure out their palette for the sound design well before they hit the dub stage. They tailored the sound design to the music so that both worked together without stepping on each other’s toes.

He explains that Outcast was similar to Black Sails in that they were building the episodes well before they mixed them. The 424 Post team had time to experiment with the design of key sounds, like the hissing, steaming sound that happens when series protagonist Kyle Barnes (Patrick Fugit) touches a possessed person, and the sound of the entity as it is ejected from a body in a jet of black, tar-like fluid, which then evaporates into thin air. For that sound, Cook reveals that they used everything from ocean waves to elephant sounds to bubbling goo. “The entity was tough because we had to find that balance between its physical presence and its spiritual presence because it dissipates back into its original plane, where ever it came from.”

Sound Design and More
When defining the sound design for possessed people, one important consideration was what to do with their voice. Or, in this case, what not to do with their voice. Series creator Kirkman, who gave Cook carte blanche on the majority of the show’s sound work, did have one specific directive: “He didn’t want any changes to happen with their voice. He didn’t want any radical pitch shifting or any weird processing. He wanted it to sound very natural,” explains Cook, who shared the ADR workload with supervising dialogue editor Erin Oakley-Sanchez.

There was no processing to the voices at all. What you hear is what the actors were able to perform, the only exception being Joshua (Gabriel Bateman), an eight-year-old boy who is possessed. For him, the show runners wanted to hear a slight bit of difference to drive home the fact that his body had indeed been taken over. “We have Kyle beating up this kid and so we wanted to make sure that the viewers really got a sense that this wasn’t a kid he was beating up, but that he was beating up a monster,” explains Cook.

To pull off Joshua’s possessed voice, Oakley-Sanchez and Wingard had actor Bateman change his voice in different ways during their ADR session. Then, Cook doubled certain lines in the mix. “The approach was very minimalistic. We never layered in other animal sounds or anything like that. All of the change came from the actor’s performance,” Cook says.

Cook is a big proponent of using fresh sounds in his work. He used field recordings captured in Tennessee, Virginia, and Florida to build the backgrounds. He recorded hard effects like doors, body hits and furniture crashing and breaking. There were other elements used as part of the sound design, like wind and water recordings. In Sound Particles —a CGI-like software for sound design created by Nuno Fonseca — he was able to manipulate and warp sound elements to create unique sounds.

“Sound Particles has really great UI to it, like virtual mics you can place and move to record things in a virtual 3D environment. It lets you create multiple instances of sound very easily. You can randomize things like pitch and timing. You can also automate the movements and create little vignettes that can be rendered out as a piece of audio that you can bring into Pro Tools or Nuendo or other audio workstations. It’s a very fascinating concept and I’ve been using it a lot.”

Cook enjoys building rich backgrounds in shows, which he uses to help further the storyline. For example, in Episode 2 the police chief and his deputy take a trek through the woods and find an abandoned trailer. Cook used busier tracks with numerous layers of sounds at first, but as the chief and deputy get farther into the woods and closer to the abandoned trailer, the backgrounds become sparser and eerily quiet. Another good example happens in Episode 9, where there is a growing storm that builds throughout the whole episode. “It’s not a big player, just more of a subtext to the story. We do really simple things that hopefully translate and come across to people as little subtleties they can’t put their finger on,” says Cook.

Outcast is mixed in 5.1 by re-recording mixers Steve Pederson (dialogue/music) and Dan Leahy (effects/Foley/ backgrounds) via Sony Pictures Post at Deluxe in Hollywood. Cook says, “They are super talented mixers who mostly do a lot of feature films and so they bring a theatrical vibe to the series.”

New episodes of Outcast air Fridays at 10pm on Cinemax, with the season finale on August 12th. Outcast has been renewed for Season 2, and while Cook doesn’t have any inside info on where the show will go next season, he says, “at the end of Season 1, we’re not sure if the entity is alien or demonic, and they don’t really give it away one way or another. I’m really excited to see what they do in Season 2. There is lots of room to go either way. I really like the characters, like the Reverend and Kyle — both have really great back stories. They’re both so troubled and flawed and there is a lot to build on there.”

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

Company 3’s Heydar Adel: The role of today’s online editor

Workflows for episodic TV have changed a lot over the last several years, sometimes daily. A role that has gone largely underappreciated in the process is online editor. Senior online editor Heydar Adel is no stranger to the process, having served in that role for over 17 years. While he has only been with Deluxe’s Company 3 in Santa Monica since last year, he is no stranger to Deluxe itself — he held a similar role at the company’s Encore facility for seven years prior to this recent move.

In describing his current role at Company 3, which provides high-end post services to feature film, commercial, music video and television clients, he says, “I primarily do conforming, which is essentially recreating what the picture editors are doing using smaller, more user-friendly files like Avid DNX-36, but with the larger and more robust files that our colorists works with. That could be a camera-original file format like r3d or ArriRaw, or it could be DPX or EXR, depending on the client’s requirements.”

In addition to the actual conforming of the files, he says, the process almost always involves creating some visual effects. “Elaborate effects and CGI work will go to an effects facility, but I do quite a lot of wire and mic removal, reframing, compositing and those kinds of effects. So that can be clean-up, stabilizations, laptop comps, cell phone comps, gunplay — like sparks and smoke — and those types of things.”

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is just one of the shows that Adel lends his talents to.

Adel makes it clear that he’s not changing the story or making creative decisions, “but the level of polish on a show is quite different when I’m done with it than when it first get it.”

Let’s dig in a bit deeper with Adel to find out more about his role and his workflow…

What tools do you use?
I can work in any of the “online” tools, such as Autodesk Flame, which used to be Smoke. We’ve also started doing some work in Blackmagic Resolve, but I’ve worked most often in Avid since it became possible last year to use Avid Symphony for 4K finishing.

Picture editors mostly work in Avid, so that helps with efficiency. We’re finishing a lot of shows for Netflix and Amazon and other companies who want 4K, and now HDR. I’ve found that working in Avid requires a bit less guesswork in recreating some of the effects the picture editor created so I can focus on bigger issues like compositing.

Can you walk us through an average session?
We get the offline edit in whatever format they use — often DNX36 — and all the raw camera footage. Company 3’s data department handles any transcoding that might be required and then we archive everything. My assistant editor puts the entire project online and I watch a split, with the offline version playing back in one monitor and the larger files assembled on a timeline chasing that version. First I check and make sure that there are no discrepancies between the versions and then I start on the bells and whistles.

What determines what effects you do and what gets sent out to a VFX vendor?
Their editorial department prepares lists of work that needs to be done. I’m part of that conversation and I’ll bid specific effects. So I’ll determine it might take two hours to do the shot and they generally pay a certain hourly rate. Some effects shots require many hours. Then they determine whether they want to do it here or send it out based on any number of factors. For the last pilot I worked on, I did 1,200 Avid visual effects shots for one 80-minute piece.

What tools do you use for the effects work, or is it just Avid?
You can do some of the work in the actual online tool — Avid or one of the others. Beyond that I use Adobe After Effects for a lot of compositing and Mocha for tracking. Mocha (now a Boris FX product) is very effective, and the tracking information translates well into the editing tools. I’ve also done some work in Blackmagic Fusion when I’m using Resolve to conform because they talk well to each other.

What monitors do you use?
I use a big 4K UHD monitor (sometimes Sony, sometimes LG) as the primary display, an HD LCD HP DreamColor as a close-up monitor and an HD plasma for comparisons. I use a nice curved Dell monitor for UI, which has a super wide — 21:9 — aspect ratio. Avid and Resolve interfaces are dual monitor set-ups but you can fit the whole thing on this one screen, and I love it.

What are some industry trends you’ve noticed recently?
The speed at which things need to get done — it used to be 8-12 hours to conform and output a show, now maybe four or five and with a lot more visual effects. Of course, the machines are faster but then as the resolution of the files goes up things naturally slow down again. We’re also working with 16-bit files and HDR and that also slows things down. At Company 3 we’re always maneuvering through these technological changes.

What’s the most satisfying part of your job?
Working on shows I like! Recently, because I’m doing more and more, I have a sense of ownership. My job has changed; I’m not just a conform editor. I’ve contributed to it on an artistic level and I’m embracing the shift. So I watch them again and I’m proud of it. I’ve worked on shows I love and have gotten friends to start watching.

Black Sails Season 3

Black Sails

Name three pieces of technology you can’t live without.
Cutnotes is an iPad app I love. When we play out a show with a client, you sync up timecode in the form of a text file. You can input parameters, like that it’s a 23.976 project, and it’s very effective. I really do love Mocha. It lets me do planar tracking in 3D space. It’s the core of most effects I do. And I use After Effects all the time.

Can you name some of those shows you’ve worked on?
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, The Last Ship, Narcos, Black Sails, and a lot of other shows and pilots.

What social media channels do you follow?
Mostly Instagram. I follow photographers and DPs.

If you listen to music while you work, care to share some of your favorites?
I listen to EDM; ‘90s electronica, like Massive Attack and Chemical Brothers; and Jazz. It’s the best music for VFX comps!

What do you do to de-stress?
I spend a lot of time outdoors with my two little boys!

Todd-Soundelux, 424 Post combine to keep ‘Black Sails’ sounding authentic

By Jennifer Walden

If you like your pirate stories with peg legs, eye patches, and other cartoon-like pirate stereotypes, then the Starz original series Black Sails isn’t for you. Anything Jack Sparrow-y is strictly prohibited.

“The show’s creators wanted this world to be real, and dirty. There is nothing Continue reading