By Jennifer Walden
If you like your pirate stories with peg legs, eye patches, and other cartoon-like pirate stereotypes, then the Starz original series Black Sails isn’t for you. Anything Jack Sparrow-y is strictly prohibited.
“The show’s creators wanted this world to be real, and dirty. There is nothing stereotypical that you would’ve heard in a pirate movie ever,” says re-recording mixer Mathew Waters, who handles the sound effects mix on Black Sails. He works alongside dialog re-recording mixer Onnalee Blank on Stage 1 at Todd-Soundelux Burbank.
Supervising sound editor Benjamin Cook, 424 Post, a strategic partner of Todd-Soundelux, in Culver City, created a palette of unique sounds for Black Sails. He captured recordings from locations in the Florida Keys and the Dry Tortugas, a seven-island national park located 70 nautical miles west of Key West.
He hired sound designer Charles Maynes, who specializes in military sounds, to record the guns, muskets, and cannons for Black Sails. Cook’s sound effects editor Jeffrey Pitts scoured eBay for hemp ropes and antique nautical pulleys. They used those to build a contraption to create one of the main sound elements for the sailing ships. They also recorded sounds on actual ships. Good Foley was paramount to add distinct character to the track, our team did an outstanding job. “We had great support from production, so we got recordings of the doors and other props on location. They really fit in nicely with the track, even if they were just the starting point, we could add sounds and embellish them to make the location sounds really work,” notes Cook.
Cook feels fortunate to have worked on epic series such as Deadwood, Rome, and The Pacific. Working on time-period shows really plays into his enjoyment of history. “When I’m working on these types of shows, it gives me a reason to delve into the particulars of the time and find out details that come into play when you’re building the sound. From the types of weapons they had to what kinds of shoes they wore, to the types of birds and bugs they’d hear around them; those little details are important when creating an authentic sound for shows.”
Keeping the sound effects authentic posed a bit of a challenge when balancing them against big moments in the music. Cook wanted the sounds to be big and full, yet not over-the-top. “That was always our driving principle, and at times that was a hard balance to achieve.”
One of Cook’s favorite scenes to work on was in the first episode, before the pirates attacked. You hear the threat before you see it. The unseen pirates boarding the ship start a menacing war chant with a pounding that surrounds the captain and his crew who are below in the ship’s hold. “I ended up being the voice of the lead guy initiating the chant and the pounding. You hear me yodeling this kind of war scream, and it was great. We also recorded a group doing some of the war chants,” he says. You won’t hear the legendary Wilhelm Scream sound effect in Black Sails, but Cook did record himself and the co-producer (Jonathan Brytus ) performing a variety of screams and callouts that they used throughout the show. “Everybody lent a hand when needed.”
Removing Modern Background Noise
Black Sails was shot in Cape Town, South Africa, near a freeway. Since it’s a period drama, it’s essential to remove all modern-era sounds, like cars and planes, from the background. Dialog re-recording mixer Onnalee Blank used every tool available to clean up the production dialog. Though they recorded ADR for most of the scenes, Blank tried to use as much of the production dialog as possible. “It’s really tricky to get all location noise out without it affecting the dialog,” she explains. “From a dialog standpoint, this is probably one of the hardest shows I’ve ever done.”
The show has a lot of detail in terms of sound: the ship environments, the whorehouses, the islands, and other locations are busy with activity. Blank’s quiet dialog tracks give Waters more space for the background sound effects. “Onna gives me enough space to tell the story of the environment. In one scene we mixed, they rocked the boat on-set using a gimbal,” says Waters. “That was a pretty noisy scene. In the end, Onna pulled out a bunch of tricks that worked in our favor. It just sounded like more of the ship rocking. It actually melded everything together. That kind of attention takes time and, fortunately, we get a good amount of time to mix the show.”
According to Waters, this is the first TV series to be mixed in 7.1, and Blank and Waters have an average of five days to mix each episode. This season they’re mixing the show on an Avid ICON D-Control using seven Pro Tools 10 machines all tied together. Next season, says Waters, they’ll mix the show on a Euphonix System 5. “The Euphonix will be a completely different way to mix and brainstorm on how we’re going to do the sound,” says Blank.
Given the choice of Blackbeard or Captain Morgan for their survival team, Blank, Waters, and Cook all agreed. “The rum,” they said! “And a pineapple,” added Waters.
Jennifer Walden is an audio engineer and freelance writer based in New Jersey.