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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.

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