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Emmy Awards: American Horror Story: Roanoke

A chat with supervising sound editor Gary Megregian

By Jennifer Walden

Moving across the country and buying a new house is an exciting and scary process, but when it starts raining teeth at that new residence the scary factor pretty much makes the exciting feelings void. That’s the situation that Matt and Shelby, a couple from Los Angeles, find themselves in for American Horror Story’s sixth season on FX Networks. After moving into an old mansion in Roanoke, North Carolina, they discover that the dwelling and the local neighbors aren’t so accepting of outsiders.

American Horror Story: Roanoke explores a true-crime-style format that uses re-enactments to play out the drama. The role of Matt is played by Andre Holland in “reality” and by Cuba Gooding, Jr. in the re-enactments. Shelby is played by Lily Rabe and Sarah Paulson, respectively. It’s an interesting approach that added a new dynamic to an already creative series.

Emmy-winning Technicolor at Paramount supervising sound editor Gary Megregian is currently working on his seventh season of American Horror Story, coming to FX in early September. He took some time out to talk about Season 6, Episode 1, Chapter 1, for which he and his sound editorial team have been nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Sound Editing for a Limited Series. They won the Emmy in 2013, and this year marks their sixth nomination.

American Horror Story: Roanoke is structured as a true-crime series with re-enactments. What opportunities did this format offer you sound-wise?
This season was a lot of fun in that we had both the realistic world and the creative world to play in. The first half of the series dealt more with re-enactments than the reality-based segments, especially in Chapter 1. Aside from some interview segments, it was all re-enactments. The re-enactments were where we had more creative freedom for design. It gave us a chance to create a voice for the house and the otherworldly elements.

Gary Megregian

Was series creator Ryan Murphy still your point person for sound direction? For Chapter 1, did he have specific ideas for sound?
Ryan Murphy is definitely the single voice in all of his shows but my point person for sound direction is his executive producer Alexis Martin Woodall, as well as each episode’s picture editor.

Having been working with them for close to eight years now, there’s a lot of trust. I usually have a talk with them early each season about what direction Ryan wants to go and then talk to the picture editor and assistant as they’re building the show.

The first night in the house in Roanoke, Matt and Shelby hear this pig-like scream coming from outside. That sound occurs often throughout the episode. How did that sound come to be? What went into it?
The pig sounds are definitely a theme that goes through Season 6, but they started all the way back in Season 1 with the introduction of Piggy Man. Originally, when Shelby and Matt first hear the pig we had tried designing something that fell more into an otherworldly sound, but Ryan definitely wanted it to be real. Other times, when we see Piggy Man we went back to the design we used in Season 1.

The doors in the house sound really cool, especially that back door. What were the sources for the door sounds? Did you do any processing on the recordings to make them spookier?
Thanks. Some of the doors came from our library at Technicolor and some were from a crowd-sourced project from New Zealand-based sound designer Tim Prebble. I had participated in a project where he asked everyone involved to record a complete set of opens, closes, knocks, squeaks, etc. for 10 doors. When all was said and done, I gained a library of over 100GB of amazing door recordings. That’s my go-to for interesting doors.

As far as processing goes, nothing out of the ordinary was used. It’s all about finding the right sound.

When Shelby and Lee (Adina Porter) are in the basement, they watch this home movie featuring Piggy Man. Can you tell me about the sound work there?
The home movie was a combination of the production dialogue, Foley, the couple instances of hearing pig squeals and Piggy Man design along with VHS and CRT noise. For dialogue, we didn’t clean up the production tracks too much and Foley was used to help ground it. Once we got to the mix stage, re-recording mixers Joe Earle and Doug Andham helped bring it all together in their treatment.

What was your favorite scene to design? Why? What went into the sound?
One of my favorite scenes is the hail/teeth storm when Shelby’s alone in the house. I love the way it starts slow and builds from the inside, hearing the teeth on the skylight and windows. Once we step outside it opens up to surround us. I think our effects editor/designer Tim Cleveland did a great job on this scene. We used a number of hail/rain recordings along with Foley to help with some of the detail work, especially once we step outside.

Were there any audio tools that were helpful when working on Chapter 1? Can you share specific examples of how you used them?
I’m going to sound like many others in this profession, but I’d say iZotope RX. Ryan is not a big fan of ADR, so we have to make the production work. I can count on one hand the number of times we’ve had any actors in for ADR last season. That’s a testament to our production mixer Brendan Beebe and dialogue editor Steve Stuhr. While the production is well covered and recorded well, Steve still has his work cut out for him to present a track that’s clean. The iZotope RX suite helps with that.

Why did you choose Chapter 1 for Emmy consideration for its sound editorial?
One of the things I love about working on American Horror Story is that every season is like starting a new show. It’s fun to establish the sound and the tone of a show, and Chapter 1 is no exception. It’s a great representation of our crew’s talent and I’m really happy for them that they’re being recognized for it. It’s truly an honor.

Larson Studios pulls off an audio post slam dunk for FX’s ‘Baskets’

By Jennifer Walden

Turnarounds for TV series are notoriously fast, but imagine a three-day sound post schedule for a single-camera half-hour episodic series? Does your head hurt yet? Thankfully, Larson Studios in Los Angeles has its workflow on FX’s Baskets down to a science. In the show, Zach Galifianakis stars as Chip Baskets, who works as a California rodeo clown after failing out of a prestigious French clown school.

So how do you crunch a week and a half’s worth of work into three days without sacrificing quality or creativity? Larson’s VP, Rich Ellis, admits they had to create a very aggressive workflow, which was made easier thanks to their experience working with Baskets post supervisor Kaitlin Menear on a few other shows.

Ellis says having a supervising sound editor — Cary Stacy — was key in setting up the workflow. “There are others competing for space in this market of single-camera half-hours, and they treat post sound differently — they don’t necessarily bring a sound supervisor to it. The mixer might be cutting and mixing and wrangling all of the other elements, but we felt that it was important to continue to maintain that traditional sound supervisor role because it actually helps the process to be more efficient when it comes to the stage.”

John Chamberlin and Cary Stacy

John Chamberlin and Cary Stacy

This allows re-recording mixer John Chamberlin to stay focused on the mix while sound supervisor Stacy handles any requests that pop-up on stage, such as alternate lines or options for door creaks. “I think director Jonathan Krisel, gave Cary at least seven honorary Emmy awards for door creaks over the course of our mix time,” jokes Menear. “Cary can pull up a sound effect so quickly, and it is always exactly perfect.”

Every second counts when there are only seven hours to mix an episode from top to bottom before post producer Menear, director Krisel and the episode’s picture editor join the stage for the two-hour final fixes and mix session. Having complete confidence in Stacy’s alternate selections, Chamberlin says he puts them into the session, grabs the fader and just lets it roll. “I know that Cary is going to nail it and I go with it.”

Even before the episode gets to the stage, Chamberlin knows that Stacy won’t overload the session with unnecessary elements, which are time consuming. Even still, Chamberlin says the mix is challenging in that it’s a lot for one person to do. “Although there is care taken to not overload what is put on my plate when I sit down to mix, there are still 8 to 10 tracks of Foley, 24 or more tracks of backgrounds and, depending on the show, the mono and stereo sound effects can be 20 tracks. Dialogue is around 10 and music can be another 10 or 12, plus futz stuff, so it’s a lot. You have to have a workflow that’s efficient and you have to feel confident about what you’re doing. It’s about making decisions quickly.”

Chamberlin mixed Baskets in 5.1 — using a Pro Tools 11 system with an Avid ICON D-Command — on Stage 4 at Larson Studios, where he’s mixed many other shows, such as Portlandia, Documentary Now, Man Seeking Woman, Dice, the upcoming Netflix series Easy, Comedy Bang Bang, Meltdown With Jonah and Kumail and Kroll Show. “I’m so used to how Stage 4 sounds that I know when the mix is in a good place.”

Another factor of the three-day turn-around is choosing to forgo loop group and minimizing ADR to only when it’s absolutely necessary. The post sound team relied on location sound mixer Russell White to capture all the lines as clearly as possible on set, which was a bit of a challenge with the non-principal characters.

Baskets

Tricky On-Set Audio
According to Menear, director Krisel loves to cast non-actors in the majority of the parts. “In Baskets, outside of our three main roles, the other people are kind of random folk that Jonathan has collected throughout his different directing experiences,” she says. While that adds a nice flavor creatively, the inexperienced cast members tend to step on each other’s lines, or not project properly — problems you typically won’t have with experienced actors.

For example, Louie Anderson plays Chip’s mom Christine. “Louie has an amazing voice and it’s really full and resonant,” explains Chamberlin. “There was never a problem with Louie or the pro actors on the show. The principals were very well represented sonically, but the show has a lot of local extras, and that poses a challenge in the recording of them. Whether they were not talking loud enough or there was too much talking.”

A good example is the Easter brunch scene in Episode 104. Chip, his mother and grandmother encounter Martha (Chip’s insurance agent/pseudo-friend played by Martha Kelly) and her parents having brunch in the casino. They decide to join their tables together. “There were so many characters talking at the same time, and a lot of the side characters were just having their own conversations while we were trying to pay attention to the main characters,” says Stacy. “I had to duck those side conversations as much as possible when necessary. There was a lot of that finagling going on.”

Stacy used iZotope RX 5 features like Decrackle and Denoise to clean up the tracks, as well as the Spectral Repair feature for fixing small noises.

Multiple Locations
Another challenge for sound mixer White was that he had to quickly shoot in numerous locations for any given episode. That Easter brunch episode alone had at least eight different locations, including the casino floor, the casino’s buffet, inside and outside of a church, inside the car, and inside and outside of Christine’s house. “Russell mentioned how he used two rigs for recording because he would always have to just get up and go. He would have someone else collect all of the gear from one location while he went off to a new location,” explains Chamberlin. “They didn’t skimp on locations. When they wanted to go to a place they would go. They went to Paris. They went to a rodeo. So that has challenges for the whole team — you have to get out there and record it and capture it. Russell did a pretty fantastic job considering where he was pushed and pulled at any moment of the day or night.”

Sound Effects
White’s tracks also provided a wealth of production effects, which were a main staple of the sound design. The whole basis for the show, for picture and sound, was to have really funny, slapstick things happen, but have them play really straight. “We were cutting the show to feel as real and as normal as possible, regardless of what was actually happening,” says Menear. “Like when Chip was walking across a room full of clown toys and there were all of these strange noises, or he was falling down, or doing amazing gags. We played it as if that could happen in the real world.”

Stacy worked with sound effects editor TC Spriggs to cut in effects that supported the production effects, never sounding too slapstick or over the top, even if the action was. “There is an episode where Chip knocks over a table full of champagne glasses and trips and falls. He gets back up only to start dancing, breaking even more glasses,” describes Chamberlin.

That scene was a combination of effects and Foley provided by Larson’s Foley team of Adam De Coster (artist) and Tom Kilzer (recordist). “Foley sync had to be perfect or it fell apart. Foley and production effects had to be joined seamlessly,” notes Chamberlin. “The Foley is impeccably performed and is really used to bring the show to life.”

Spriggs also designed the numerous backgrounds. Whether it was the streets of Paris, the rodeo arena or the doldrums of Bakersfield, all the locations needed to sound realistic and simple yet distinct. On the mix side, Chamberlin used processing on the dialogue to help sell the different environments – basic interiors and exteriors, the rodeo arena and backstage dressing room, Paris nightclubs, Bakersfield dive bars, an outdoor rave concert, a volleyball tournament, hospital rooms and dream-like sequences and a flashback.

“I spent more time on the dialogue than any other element. Each place had to have its own appropriate sounding environments, typically built with reverbs and delays. This was no simple show,” says Chamberlin. For reverbs, Chamberlin used Avid’s ReVibe and Reverb One, and for futzing, he likes McDSP’s FutzBox and Audio Ease’s Speakerphone plug-ins.

One of Chamberlin’s favorite scenes to mix was Chip’s performance at the rodeo, where he does his last act as his French clown alter ego Renoir. Chip walks into the announcer booth with a gramophone and asks for a special song to be played. Chamberlin processed the music to account for the variable pitch of the gramophone, and also processed the track to sound like it was coming over the PA system. In the center of the ring you can hear the crowds and the announcer, and off-screen a bull snorts and grinds it hooves into the dirt before rushing at Chip.

Another great sequence happens in the Easter brunch episode where we see Chip walking around the casino listening to a “Learn French” lesson through ear buds while smoking a broken cigarette and dreaming of being Renoir the clown on the streets of Paris. This scene summarizes Chip’s sad clown situation in life. It’s thoughtful, and charming and lonely.

“We experimented with elaborate sound design for the voice of the narrator, however, we landed on keeping things relatively simple with just an iPhone futz,” says Stacy. “I feel this worked out for the best, as nothing in this show was over done. We brought in some very light backgrounds for Paris and tried to keep the transitions as smooth as possible. We actually had a very large build for the casino effects, but played them very subtly.”

Adds Chamberlin, “We really wanted to enhance the inner workings of Chip and to focus in on him there. It takes a while in the show to get to the point where you understand Chip, but I think that is great. A lot of that has to do with the great writing and acting, but our support on the sound side, in particular on that Easter episode, was not to reinvent the wheel. Picture editors Micah Gardner and Michael Giambra often developed ideas for sound, and those had a great influence on the final track. We took what they did in picture editorial and just made it more polished.”

The post sound process on Baskets may be down and dirty, but the final product is amazing, says Menear. “I think our Larson Studios team on the show is awesome!”

Mirada helps FX promote ‘The Strain’ in 360-degrees

LA’s Mirada, a design, VFX and animation studio founded by filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, partnered with Headcase and ad agency Digital Kitchen to create an immersive VR experience to promote season two of FX’s The Strain, developed by Del Toro and Chuck Hogan.

The Strain VR experience follows the character Vasiliy Fet, a former Ukranian rat exterminator, as he leads viewers on a 360-degree journey through an abandoned warehouse, all while under constant threat of attack from vampires.

Mirada built a custom VR application to run the experience wirelessly across six Samsung Gear VR headsets, allowing multiple viewers to engage in the experience at the same time. The application also facilitated the playback of realtime vision-distorting effects in the VR headset, simulating blinking eyes and tunnel vision to heighten suspense.

“Even though the Gear VR comes with a solid stock 360-degree video player, the platform that we developed allowed us customize this app in a really unique way,” reports Mirada technical director Andrew Cochrane (pictured right on set). “We had total control over the experience – from sync to realtime effects and spatial audio – we even disabled the touchpad to prevent viewers from accidentally pausing the video.”

Mirada facilitated the VR pipeline for the entire project and worked closely with Headcase from the start of pre-pro. Live action was captured using a cinema-grade spherical camera rig developed by Headcase, and Cochrane was on set to provide technical and creative supervision.

Mirada stitched the multi camera footage together into 360-degree scenes for dailies that were sent back to Headcase for editorial. Once Headcase locked picture with FX Network, Mirada proceeded to final spherical stitching, articulate clean-up and compositing, custom spatial audio playback for the project and designing the final delivery application.

They also called on Nuke, Resolve, and After Effects for the piece.

The VR pipeline for The Strain was developed using a suite of tools that Mirada designed, initially customized to power the Google Shop VR experience, the studio’s first immersive cinema project that debuted in April of 2015.