By Jennifer Walden
One of the great storytelling advantages of streaming services like Netflix is that strict program lengths don’t encumber content creators. The total number of episodes in a show’s season could be 13 or 10 or less. An episode can run 15 minutes over the traditional hour or it could be 33 minutes in length. Traditional rules don’t apply, and the story is allowed to dictate the length.
This was a huge advantage for writer/director/producer Scott Frank when creating his series Godless for Netflix.
Award-winning sound designer, Wylie Stateman, of Twenty Four Seven Sound explains why. “Godless at its core is a story-driven ‘big-sky’ Western. The American Western is often as environmentally beautiful as it is emotionally brutal. Scott Frank’s goal for Godless was to create a good-versus-evil conflict set around a town of mostly female disaster survivors and their complex and intertwined pasts. The Godless series is built like a seven and a half hour feature film.”
Without the constraints of having to squeeze everything into a two-hour film, Frank could make the most of his ensemble of characters and still include the ride-up/ride-away beauty shots that show off the landscape. “That’s where Carlos Rafael Rivera’s terrific orchestral music and elements of atmospheric sound design really came together,” explains Stateman.
Stateman has created sound for several Westerns in his prodigious career. His first was The Long Riders back in 1980. Most recently, he designed and supervised the sound on writer/director Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (which for sound earned a 2013 Oscar nom, an MPSE nom and a BAFTA film nom) and The Hateful Eight (nominated for a 2016 Association of Motion Picture Sound Award).
On Godless, Stateman, co-supervisor/re-recording mixer Eric Hoehn and their sound team have already won a 2018 MPSE Award for Sound Editing for their effects and Foley work, as well as a nomination for editing the dialogue and ADR. And don’t be surprised if you see them acknowledged with an Emmy nom this fall.
Capturing Sounds On Set
Since program length wasn’t a major consideration, Godless takes time to explore the story’s setting and allows the audience to live with the characters in this space that Frank had purpose-built for the show. In New Mexico, Frank had practical sets constructed for the town of La Belle and Alice Fletcher’s ranch. Stateman, Hoehn and sound team members Jackie Zhou and Leo Marcil camped out at the set locations for a couple weeks, capturing recordings of everything from environmental ambiences and gunfire echoes to horse hooves on dirt.
To avoid the craziness that is inherent to a production, the sound team would set up camp in a location where the camera crew was not. This allowed them to capture clean, high-quality recordings at various times of the day. “We would record at sunrise, sunset and the middle of the night — each recording geared toward capturing a range of authentic and ambient sounds,” says Stateman. “Essentially, our goal was to sonically map each location. Our field recordings were wide in terms of channel count, and broad in terms of how we captured the sound of each particular environment. We had multiple independent recording setups, each capable of recording up to eight channels of high bandwidth audio.”
Near the end of the season, there is a big shootout in the town of La Belle, so Stateman and Hoehn wanted to capture the sounds of gunfire and the resulting echoes at that location. They used live rounds, shooting the same caliber of guns used in the show. “We used live rounds to achieve the projectile sounds. A live round is very different sounding than a blank round. Blanks just go pop-pop. With live rounds you can literally feel the bullet slicing through the air,” says Stateman.
Recording on location not only supplied the team with a wealth of material to draw from back in the studio, it also gave them an intensive working knowledge of the actual environments. Says Hoehn, “It was helpful to have real-world references when building the textures of the sound design for these various locations and to know first-hand what was happening acoustically, like how the wind was interacting with those structures.”
Stateman notes how quiet and lifeless the location was, particularly at Alice’s ranch. “Part of the sound design’s purpose was to support the desolate dust bowl backdrop. Living there, eating breakfast in the quiet without anybody from the production around was really a wonderful opportunity. In fact, Scott Frank encouraged us to look deep and listen for that feel.”
From Big Sky to Big City
Sound editorial for Godless took place at Light Iron in New York, which is also where the show got its picture editing — by Michelle Tesoro, who was assisted by Hilary Peabody and Charlie Greene. There, Hoehn had a Pro Tools HDX 3 system connected to the picture department’s Avid Media Composer via the Avid Nexis. They could quickly pull in the picture editorial mix, balance out the dialog and add properly leveled sound design, and send that mix back to Tesoro.
“Because there were so many scenes and so much material to get through, we really developed a creative process that centered around rapid prototype mixing,” says Hoehn. “We wanted to get scenes from Michelle and her team as soon as possible and rapidly prototype dialogue mixing and that first layer of sound design. Through the prototyping process, we could start to understand what the really important sounds were for those scenes.”
Using this prototyping audio workflow allowed the sound team to very quickly share concepts with the other creative departments, including the music and VFX teams. This workflow was enhanced through a cloud-based film management/collaboration tool called Pix. Pix let the showrunners, VFX supervisor, composer, sound team and picture team share content and share notes.
“The notes feature in Pix was so important,” explains Hoehn. “Sometimes there were conversations between the director and editor that we could intuitively glean information from, like notes on aesthetic or pace or performance. That created a breadcrumb trail for us to follow while we were prototyping. It was important for us to get as much information as we could so we could be on the same page and have our compass pointed in the right direction when we were doing our first pass prototype.”
Often their first pass prototype was simply refined throughout the post process to become the final sound. “Rarely were we faced with the situation of having to re-cut a whole scene,” he continues. “It was very much in the spirit of the rolling mix and the rolling sound design process.”
Stateman shares an example of how the process worked. “When Michelle first cut a scene, she might cut to a beauty shot that would benefit from wind gusts and/or enhanced VFX and maybe additional dust blowing. We could then rapidly prototype that scene with leveled dialog and sound design before it went to composer Carlos Rafael Rivera. Carlos could hear where/when we were possibly leveraging high-density sound. This insight could influence his musical thinking — if he needed to come in before, on or after the sound effects. Early prototyping informed what became a highly collaborative creative process.”
Another example of the usefulness of Pix was for the shootout in La Belle in Episode 7. The people of the town position themselves in the windows and doorways of the buildings lining the street, essentially surrounding Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels) and his gang. There is lots of gunfire, much of it bridging action on and off camera, and that needed to be represented well through sound.
Hoehn says they found it best to approach the gun battle like a piece of music by playing with repeated rhythms. Breaking the anticipated rhythm helped to make the audience feel off-guard. They built a sound prototype for the scene and shared it via Pix, which gave the VFX department access to it.
“A lot of what we did with sound helped the visual effects team by allowing them to understand the density of what we were doing with the ambient sounds,” says Hoehn. “If we found that rhythmically it was interesting to have a wind gust go by, we would eventually see a visual effect for that wind going by.”
It was a back-and-forth collaboration. “There are visual rhythms and sound rhythms and the fact that we could prototype scenes early led us to a very efficient way of doing long-form,” says Stateman. “It’s funny that features used to be considered long-form but now ‘long-form’ is this new, time-unrestrained storytelling. It’s like we were making a long-form feature, but one that was seven and a half hours. That’s really the beauty of Netflix. Because the shows aren’t tethered to a theatrical release timeframe, we can make stories that linger a little bit and explore the wider eccentricities of character and the time period. It’s really a wonderful time for this particular type of filmmaking.”
While program-length may be less of an issue, production schedule lengths still need to be kept in line. With the help of Pix, editorial was able to post the entire show with one team. “Everyone on our small team understood and could participate in the mission,” says Stateman. Additionally, the sound design rapid prototype mixing process allowed everyone in editorial to carry all their work forward, from day one to the last day. The Pro Tools session that they started with on day one was the same Pro Tools session that they used for print mastering seven months later.
“Our sound design process was built around convenient creative approval and continuous refinement of the complete soundtrack. At the end of the day, the thing that we heard most often was that this was a wonderful and fantastic way to work, and why would we ever do it any other way,” Stateman says.
Creating a long-form feature like Godless in an efficient manner required a fluid, collaborative process. “We enjoyed a great team effort,” says Stateman. “It’s always people over devices. What we’ve come to say is, ‘It’s not the devices. It’s people left to their own devices who will discover really novel ways to solve creative problems.’”
Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based audio engineer and writer. Follow her on Twitter at @audiojeney.