By Jennifer Walden
Beloved politician — now there’s an oxymoron. I can almost hear the collective “pffff” that term would elicit from today’s younger voters. However, voters of a certain age may remember one such president who could pull off that title: John F. Kennedy. So if you’ve had enough of this election year’s hoopla, then turn off the news channels and turn on Hulu. Their new series 11.22.63, based on a book by Stephen King, transports viewers back to the 1960s, a time when racism, sexism, domestic abuse and mistreatment of mental patients prevailed. (It wasn’t the glory days, but every generation and president has their battles… even JFK.)
11.22.63 follows the newly divorced English teacher Jake Epping (James Franco), who steps out of 2016 and into 1958 via a time portal in the utility closet of a small-town diner. His mission is to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy by unraveling the conspiracy theories that surround the event.
Sounds of the Sixties
Setting the stage of early ‘60s sound is supervising sound editor Michael Wilhoit, who is based at the Technicolor Sound facility on the Paramount lot in Hollywood. He got involved early, working with director Kevin Macdonald, executive producer Bridget Carpenter and associate producer Jill Risk during editorial on the pilot episode — well before the score and visual effects were created. “The sound we established in the pilot was going to be the continuing style of sound for all the episodes,” explains Wilhoit. “Jill and Bridget were the leading force for us on the whole series. They were involved in all of the sound design spotting sessions and they really wanted to have something in the track besides the score. Bridget was the one who signed off on everything for sound.”
One big decision they made early on was how to handle the time travel event. “We purposefully didn’t want to make it over the top. We wanted to include the audience without taking them out of reality and making it too sci-fi or too bold,” says Wilhoit. The time travel effect, sonically and visually, is very subtle. It’s not the earth-shattering epic thunderstorm of Terminator, for example. It’s a delicate blend of music — by composer Alex Heffes — and sound design. “We just wanted to bring the audience into this place and not lose them by overdoing our job. It’s the same for the ambiences and other sounds too. We tried not to hit people over the head. When we do our jobs right no one knows we’re here.”
The ‘60s soundscape is more mechanical and analog than modern day, with rotary phones with real metal ringers, clacking typewriters and big clunky cars — even the shoes of the day made more noise. Although the elements that make up the ambiences are louder than today’s sounds, the environments that Wilhoit and his sound effects editor, Dino Dimuro, created feel subtle and real, and they don’t draw unnecessary attention. Wilhoit and Dimuro really hit their mark without over shooting it.
Another sci-fi situation in the series involves the “past pushing back.” Whenever the characters get too close to changing the past, unexpected events cause them to fail. As with the time travel effect, the “past pushing back” effect errs on the side of realism. It was a reoccurring challenge throughout the show. Instead of designing one signature sound for the past pushing back, Wilhoit and Dimuro worked with sounds that were relevant to each situation on screen. For example, when Jake is back in 1958, he tries to call his father from a phone booth and the past pushes back. Wilhoit and Dimuro set up the uneasy feeling of the scene by adding distant dog barks, crickets and a mournful train horn as Jake approaches the booth. Once Jake is on the phone, they manipulated and distorted the voices on the other end. He and Dimuro added crackling static and high-pitched tones that interfere with the phone call; they added buzzing on the flickering lights. Out of nowhere a car races down the street and crashes into the phone booth, all of which was carefully crafted with sound.
“Because you don’t see the past pushing back you have to convey that with sound,” says Wilhoit. “My whole thing was making sounds stutter. Sound design wise I wanted there to be a stuttering of reality. I wanted there to be a dysfunctional stuttering sound.” He achieved this by editing the effects in Avid Pro Tools 11.
Matching the VFX
For several VFX-led scenes, Wilhoit and his team had to design sound without the benefit of actually seeing the visual effects. One of the early VFX-dependent scenes happens in Episode 1. Jake is hiding in a dark room in the basement of the Dallas Convention Center. It’s another situation of the past pushing back, so the lights flicker and buzz. Jake starts to hear things emerging from the shadows; it’s a swarm of cockroaches coming after him.
“I had to create a whole sound texture for these cockroaches that none of us ever saw until we were nearly done with the mix. Then at the very end we were able to make slight adjustments to make it work once the visual effects were finished,” says Wilhoit.
Another interesting VFX-dependent scene that takes place at the Dallas Convention Center is when John F. Kennedy is addressing a large audience. According to Wilhoit, that entire sequence was fabricated. “That was completely shot on greenscreen, but when you watch it you would never know because you can see and hear all of these people in this convention center. You see and hear the president up there, and that is unbelievable to me.”
JFK’s speech is an original recording that Wilhoit and dialogue/ADR editor Kimberly Ellis cleaned up using iZotope RX Advanced. There was no reverb inherent to that original track so the mixers were able to add that on the dub stage, effectively putting the speech into the 14,000-seat theater. Ellis edited the period-specific reactions in a loop group, and additional crowd sounds were added to fill in the space.
The loop group tracks were an essential element that Wilhoit used to help build a convincing early 1960’s soundscape. They added the right flavor without being over the top. “Because the show takes place mainly from 1958 into the early 1960’s, you won’t hear people say the same things that you would hear today, or hear the same reactions. The loop group sound had to be very specific in regards to the lingo of the time. For instance, they were saying things like ‘swell’ instead of ‘cool.’”
11.22.63 was mixed in 5.1 surround on Stage 7 at Technicolor Sound on the Paramount lot by re-recording mixers Kevin Roache (sound effects/Foley) and Pete Elia (dialogue/music). Wilhoit notes that the mixers’ contributions on the dub stage went beyond balancing EQ and levels. “Kevin was able to take my effects tracks and make them that much more interesting on the dub stage. We have Pro Tools 11 and a ton of plug-ins that we all use. I make sounds and they twist them to make them even crazier. The re-recording mixers are like sound designers too. They bring everything to another level. It was definitely a collaborative effort between sound editorial and mixing.”
The season finale of 11.22.63 aired Monday, April 4 on Hulu, but all episodes are available for streaming, so binge away!
Jennifer Walden is a writer and audio engineer based in New Jersey.