By Jennifer Walden
When I heard that Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg developed a TV series for AMC based on the comic book series penned by Garth Ennis, I was immediately hooked. Would Preacher be like Pineapple Express? Or more like This Is The End?
Turns out it’s more like This is the End meets Breaking Bad, thanks to Preacher co-writer/executive producer Sam Catlin, who held those same titles on the long-running Breaking Bad series. But Catlin isn’t the only Breaking Bad alum involved in Preacher; composer Dave Porter and picture editor Kelley Dixon (editor on Preacher’s pilot) also had a hand in the series.
Handling the pilot’s sound was supervising sound editor/sound designer Michael Babcock at Warner Bros. in Burbank — a surprising name to find attached to a TV series, because these days he regularly works on feature films. But when you hear that those films include the Rogen/Goldberg offerings The Interview, This is the End and Neighbors, you understand the jump to TV for this series.
“Seth and Evan are really fun to work with because they come up with original storylines,” explains Babcock. “One reason I wanted to dip my toe back into the TV world was because they were developing this series. It was an excuse for me to make cool sounds for them.”
Although Babcock’s schedule only allowed him to supervise the pilot’s sound, he is still able to contribute sound design on episodes. Richard Yawn took over as supervising sound editor for the rest of the season.
In The Beginning
Preacher’s pilot opens on bold, block type of the words “Outer Space” superimposed over a retro representation of our solar system through which a ball of light flies. This ball eventually crashes on Earth, in the heart of Africa, into the body of a preacher. Sound-wise, the outer-space scene is carried by sound design, with no music or voiceover. Air raid sirens, awash in reverb, act as an underscore while sand-sprinkled sci-fi whooshes accompany the supernatural entity’s flight through the ether.
Rogen and Goldberg were very involved in the sound, says Babcock. “The sound all came out of their heads. They had all of these ideas and themes of what they envisioned these things would sound like.”
Babcock based his sound palette on the themes that Rogen and Goldberg described, like baby sounds, water and heartbeats. “I kept trying to build on their themes. It helps me as a sound designer when a director asks for a specific emotion or sound as their direction,” he says. “For example, if the scene was in a dark room and we needed a dark tone, then I’d stick with slowing down heartbeats or underwater ambience and rumbling. I just tried to stick with those themes.”
The concept for the supernatural entity — which came from Rogen and Goldberg — was that it was like a baby being born. So Babcock designed its sound using baby-related elements, like an ultrasound heartbeat, layered with reversed or manipulated baby vocalizations. When the entity possesses a host, like that first preacher in Africa, it exists inside that person. Using that idea, Babcock worked with womb related sounds, like underwater ambiences that he slowed and pitched.
Throughout the pilot, the entity is searching for the perfect host. It’s tries out different religious figures, including Tom Cruise, and then explodes them if they’re not a match. It eventually ends up inside Preacher’s protagonist, Jesse (Dominic Cooper), a small-town preacher who has possessed a dark side long before the entity possesses him.
“The entity is not just this evil demon thing; there’s more to it. It’s basically growing up as the season goes along, so that’s why Seth and Evan decided to use baby sounds,” explains Babcock. (Those that watched the Directors Commentary version of the pilot will remember that Rogen and Goldberg noted the entity’s sound as a clue for the season.)
Babcock describes the scene in which Jesse is in the church at night, right before the entity finds him. It blows open the doors and knocks the church pews aside as it moves down the aisle. As the entity slams into Jesse, he’s thrown across the room and into the wall. In keeping with the water theme, Babcock says, “I used depth charge sounds for the pews being forced aside. That scene was actually a lot of fun because that’s where I got a chance to really hone-in on what had become the entity heartbeat sound.”
God-Like Sound Design
Following his work on the pilot, Babcock’s main focus for sound design on the other episodes relates to the preacher Jesse, and, in particular, his voice. “Jesse goes into the voice of God mode where he’s channeling this entity,” explains Babcock. To create the vocal effect, Babcock starts with the production dialogue in his Avid Pro Tools 12 session. He runs it through the Waves Renaissance Bass (RBass) plug-in to create a richer low end sound by adding a bit of chorusing. Then, if the lines need more of a rumble, Babcock runs them through Avid’s Pro Subharmonic plug-in. Next, he adds in shaking and wave rumbling sound effects to hit each syllable, the amount depending on how intense or aggressive Jesse needs to be. “It’s a process we are calling ‘the kitchen sink,’ so they’ll say, ‘on this one it needs the kitchen sink.’”
The pilot offered Babcock numerous sound design opportunities. There is blood and gore for the African preacher blowing up, and for the cow that gets rapidly devoured by the vampire, Cassidy (Joseph Gilgun). There’s even a subtle cow death that occurs off-screen in the slaughterhouse scene when Jesse visits Betsy Schenck (Jamie Anne Allman). “In that scene, there is a door opening, and in the time it takes for the door to open and close there is a cow moo and then a gun shot. I don’t know if people have picked up on it because it only happens in one place, but that is the humor of Seth and Evan,” comments Babcock.
There was hand-to-hand combat to design, like for Cassidy’s confrontation on the plane, which he also manages to set on fire. Then there is the Tarantino-esque fight scene where Tulip (Ruth Negga) neutralizes her assailants as her car plows through a cornfield. “We had a bunch of recordings that we did for Interstellar where they wiped out a bunch of cornfields in the film. Sound designer Richard King literally drove a truck through a farmer’s cornfield, after they had harvested the crop, and recorded all of that corn being mowed down. I borrowed those recordings to use for the car fight, to go all around in the surrounds,” says Babcock.
Much of Babcock’s sound design sets the tone for the rest of the season. An example of a reoccurring sound is the church ambience. Babcock used wooden boat creaks and placed them around the room in the 5.1 environment. “They are slowed down so it has this creaking, breathing feel to it. That’s the sound they’re using at night when the church is empty,” he says.
Preacher’s final 5.1 mix was done at Sony Pictures Studios by Deb Adair handling music/dialogue and Ian Herzon taking on sound effects/Foley/backgrounds. As directors for the feature film industry, it’s no surprise that Rogen and Goldberg wanted the Preacher pilot to sound as dynamic and impactful as a theatrical release. That can be difficult to achieve when dealing with television sound specs.
“This is the kind of show where the story needs to be supported by some pretty heavy dynamics to be quiet and loud. I think of all the things that you have to deal with on a creative level… dealing with broadcast spec is just as challenging because Seth and Evan want the show to look theatrical, and they want it to sound theatrical, too,” concludes Babcock.
If you haven’t already, you can check out Preacher on AMC, Sundays at 9/8c.
Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based writer and audio engineer. You can follow her on Twitter at @audiojeney.