By Patrick Birk
I think it’s fair to say that America is divided… and changing. But with the perfect storm that has been 2020 thus far, polarization has hit a fever pitch many have not seen in their lifetime. It may be apt, then, that FX and Hulu would release Mrs. America, a limited series depicting the fierce struggle that erupted in the US surrounding the movement to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.
Set in the 1970s, the show explores one of the most contentious elements of the culture war and tells the stories of Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett) — a conservative activist who led the charge against the women’s liberation movement — and feminists such as Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba), Jill Ruckelshaus (Elizabeth Banks) and Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman).
Scott Gershin was the supervising sound editor and designer for the series. His long list of credits includes Nightcrawler, American Beauty, Pacific Rim, Team America, Hellboy II, JFK, The Doors, Shrek and The Book of Life. The methods Gershin and his team put together to complete the show during quarantine give me hope for those of us in the arts during these clearly changing times.
Gershin and his editorial team, part of Sound Lab (at Keywords Studio), partnered up with walla group The Loop Squad to record Episodes 1 through 8 at the Todd-AO ADR stage in Los Angeles. The show was mixed at Burbank’s Westwind Sound with a team that included mixers Christian Minkler (dialogue and music) and Andrew King (sound effects).
Mrs. America takes place throughout the ‘70s. Do you enjoy working on period pieces?
I love it. You have to research and learn about the events of that period. You need to be able to smell it and hear it. I believe that we captured that time, its tone and its vernacular. A lot of it is very subtle, but if we did it wrong, you would notice it.
The subtlety in the sound design served the show well. You never get the impression that it was there for its own sake.
I have worked on a range of projects. On the quiet side is American Beauty. On the loud side is Pacific Rim. In both cases, nobody should know I exist. If the illusion is correct, you enjoy the story, you buy the illusion. Interestingly enough, there was so much design in American Beauty that nobody knows about. An example is the use of silence; it was done strategically to create an aural contrast to support the pace and the actors’ performances. We recreated subtle sounds, such as when they were eating at the table. It was all manufactured to match the dialogue’s ambience in that scene. As the audience watches a show, they should think that everything they’re hearing was recorded at that time, whether it’s fanciful and sci-fi, or it’s realistic.
What’s an example of what you thought this show needed?
I come from movies, so a major goal was to make sure this show could have the same level of detail that I would put into a film, despite budgetary limitations. The first thing I did was to go into my library, which is pretty big. I realized I had no women-only crowd recordings, so I called some fellow sound pros. They had men and women, and the occasional solo woman laughing or crying, but not crowds of women. That’s when I realized I had to create it myself. While I do this often on my films, I had to find a way to accomplish this within the budget I had and across nine episodes.
That was the fun — trying to capture that variety of accents, the vernaculars, in which different cultures and areas within the United States communicated during that time. Then there was capturing the acoustical spaces needed for the show, thinking about the right microphones to use, where they should be placed and how I could combine them with certain sound effects to help the illusion of very large venues, such as rallies or political conventions.
Like during the Reagan-era toward the end?
Yes. In a couple of episodes, there were chants and singalongs. I combined walla group recording (which was somewhere between six to 15 female actresses, depending on the episode) with concert crowds, which I had to manipulate to sound like women. I’d envelope ( a form of precision blending) those crowds against the recorded walla group to give the illusion that a convention hall of women was chanting and singing, even though they weren’t.
We created a tickle of a certain sound to give it that reverb-y, mass-y kind of thing. It’s a lot of experimenting and a lot of “No, that didn’t work. Ooh, that worked. That’s kind of cool.” Then occasionally we’d be lucky that music was in the right place to mask it a little bit. So it’s a bit of a sonic puzzle, an audio version of smoke and mirrors.
It’s like being a painter. I love minimalism for the right shows and rocking the room for others. This show wasn’t about either. In discussions with Dahvi Waller (writer and showrunner), Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (directors and executive producers), Stacey Sher (executive producer) Ebony Jones (post producer) and the picture editors for each episode (Todd Downing, Emily E. Greene and Robert Komatsu), we agreed on dense textures and details. We didn’t want to go the route of dialogue, music and six sound effects; we wanted to create a rich tapestry of details within the environments, using Foley to enhance (while not interfering with) the actors’ performances while hearing the voice and the sound of the times. (Check out our interview with Mrs. America‘s editors here.)
When you did need more specific varieties and dialects to come through in crowds and walla, how did you go about it?
I get very detail-oriented. For instance, when we talk about capturing the language of the time, a lot of this was embellished with The Loop Squad, our walla group. I wanted to make sure we were accurate. We didn’t want typical accents that are sometimes associated with conservatives or liberals; we wanted to capture the different tone and dialects of the region each group was from. The principal actresses did an amazing job portraying the different characters, so I wanted to follow suit and continue that approach.
For example, the scenes with Shirley Chisholm and the members of the Black feminist movement at the party. All the times you saw people’s mouths moving, there was no sound (the whole show was shot this way). It was all reproduced, so I wanted to make sure that we had the right vernacular, the right sonic style, the right representation – capturing the voice and sound of the times, the region, the culture.
So an emphasis on respectability politics?
Absolutely. At the party, there was a combination of different issues within the black community. In addition to women’s rights, it was about black rights and lesbian rights, and there were conflicts within that group of women.
Patty Connolly and Mark Sussman of The Loop Squad and I had to do a lot of research. It was important to find the right (loop) actresses who could portray that era, that time and culture, and come up with what the issues were that were being discussed within the different timelines that were covered in the show.
We had the opportunity to record a political rally held in LA. For the scene where Phyllis shows up in DC, and there’s a large group of women activists in front of the government building, the Bernie Sanders rally provided the exterior spatial perspective I needed. Adding in the walla group made it feel like it was all women discussing the issues of that time period.
What recording methods did you use?
Because I didn’t have a massive budget to record enormous amounts of people, I had to create hundreds of people with a small group of actors and actresses. For Mrs. America, I grabbed the big ADR room at the old Todd-AO building. Working with our ADR mixer, Jeffrey Roy, I brought in a bunch of my own mics and placed them in different places within the room. Traditionally, ADR stages use shotgun microphones to get rid of any ambience or size of the room. I didn’t do that at all. I wanted to use the acoustics of the room as an important component of the performance.
In using the room, I had to position the actors in strategic places within the room to accomplish a given scene. To get another perspective, I had them stand facing the wall one or two feet away, or in the middle of the room facing each other, or back to back in a line.
In Episode 3, when all the men were running to take back their seats in the convention center, I had them (the loop actors) running really fast in two opposing circles to try to create the feeling of motion and energy. By combining these perspectives and placing them in different speakers during the mix, it gave the scene a certain “spatial-ness” and energy. I loved using the acoustics of the room as a color and a major part of the illusion.
What mics were you using, and did you use any shotgun mics despite not relying on them?
The stage had a Sennheiser MKH 416 shotgun for specific lines, but I prefer using a Sennheiser MKH 800 more often than not. I like the midrange clarity better. For spatial effect, I used a pair of MKH 8040s in ORTF pattern in front (with the MKH 800 in the middle), while in the back I used the Sanken CSS-5 or the DPA 5100, which I moved around a bunch. This gave me the option to have a 5.0 perspective or to use the rear mics for an offstage or defocused perspective.
Each mic and their placement served as a kind of paint brush. When I sent my tracks to effects mixer Andy King at Westwind, I didn’t want to just bathe it in reverb because that would smear the spatial image. I wanted to preserve a 5-channel spatial spread or ambience of the room, so the left was different from the right and the front was different than the back, giving a kind of a movement within the room.
Did quarantine affect the post process?
Halfway through the mix, the virus hit. So little by little, we didn’t feel comfortable being in the same room together for safety reasons. We looked at different streaming technologies, which we had to figure out quickly, and decided to go with Streambox for broadcasting our mix in real time.
We ended up broadcasting privately to the showrunner, the producers and the picture editors. Our music editor Andrew Silver and I were online most of the time. At the end, the only people on the stage at Westwind were our two mixers, with our mix tech Jesse Ehredt in a room next to the dubbing stage and our first assistant Chris Richardson in his edit room down the hall. Everybody else was remote.
Doug Kent introduced us to Flemming Laursen and Dave Weathers of Center Point Post who supplied us with Streambox. We came up with something that worked within the bandwidth of everyone’s download speeds at their houses, since the whole country was working and going to school online. This challenged everyone’s capabilities. When picture and audio started to degrade, Flemming and I decided to increase the buffer size and decrease the picture quality a little bit, which seemed to solve a lot of our issues during peak usage times.
We used Zoom to communicate, allowing us to give each other notes in real time to the stage. I’ve got a similar setup at my home studio to what I have in Burbank, so I was able to listen in a quality environment. At the end of the day, we sent out QuickTimes in both 5.1 and stereo for everyone to listen to, which supported their schedules. Also, if a streaming glitch happened while we were Zooming or streaming, we could verify that it wasn’t in the mix.
It added more time to the process, but we still got it done while maintaining the quality we strived for. Being online made the process efficient. Using Zoom, I would contact dialogue editor Mike Hertlein, who was working from home, for an alternate line or a fix during the mix (with clients on Streambox). Fifteen minutes later we had it in the session and were mixing it.
Did you record walla groups remotely?
Yes, for some of Episode 8 and all of Episode 9. I’d normally record 10 to 15 actors at a time, recording five to eight takes of those 10 to 15 actors, each with a different acoustical perspective. Since Todd-AO was closed due to the pandemic, I had to come up with a different solution. I decided to have all the actors record in their closets or booths if they had them. They recorded into their own recording systems, with each actor having his or her own unique setup. The first thing I had to do was teach a number of actors how to record (basic audio and delivery).
I used Zoom to communicate and direct them through the different scenes. I could hear well enough through group chat on Zoom, and I was able to direct them and provide them with picture by sharing my second screen, like we do on an ADR stage. They would all record at once. From that point, I could direct an actor, saying, “You’re doing too much of this” or “You’re too loud.” I needed to maintain what we had done in previous episodes and keep that blended feel.
Can you talk about benefits and negatives to working this way?
A benefit was that every actor was on a separate track. When I record everybody in a group at Todd-AO, if one person’s off, the whole recording had to be scrapped. Separation let me choose whether I would use someone’s take or not. They didn’t pollute each other’s performances.
When it came to editing, instead of being five or six tracks (each containing eight to 15 actors), now it was 100 tracks. I had five to eight takes of each actor, so when combined, it made for a lot of tracks. Editing those took quite a bit more time. I had to EQ and clean up each actor’s setups, using different types of reverbs to fit the room (which Andy King and Christian Minkler did as well). We had created such cool sounds from previous episodes; the goal was to see if we could match them. It was a bit of a white-knuckle ride. We honestly weren’t sure we could pull it off. But when we were finished, Dahvi let me know she really couldn’t hear a difference between Episode 9 and the previous episodes.
How did you approach the scene in Episode 8, where Alice mixes cocktails with a “Christian pill” and ends up sharing a meal with a group of lesbian feminists? Did you consciously lean toward the surreal given how much time it took to make the home recordings blend naturally?
We had lots of discussions. At first, we wanted to try doing something a little out there. Basically, “How does Alice hear this?” We wanted to be consistent, but we wanted to be able to tell the story. Sarah Paulson did such a great job of portraying being drugged that we thought maybe we should take a step back and let her run with it a little bit, rather than trying to make something that we don’t see. Picture editor Todd Downing did a fantastic job of editing, which enhanced Sarah’s performance — giving it a psychedelic feel without going way over the top
We wanted to stay organic. We manipulated the mother’s voice on the phone a little when Alice’s pill started to take effect. For that scene, we recorded Alice’s mother’s lines on a phone during quarantine, and it worked out because the futz coming from recording on a phone translated quite well. To keep it organic, I did some subtle things: slowed down the crowds without affecting pitch and inserted backward and forward voices and blended them together so they would sound a little odd.
During the scene with the nun, at a certain point we replaced the nun’s voice with Cate’s voice, so she heard Cate’s voice talking through the nun’s performance. We did a number of other things and supported the hard cuts and time travel feel.
Overall it seemed like half my job was coming up with ways to keep working, creating new workflows, dealing with constant change. You’d have an hour’s notice to come up with plan B, plan C, plan D, and “How do we do this?” We’d all talk about it and say, “Let’s try this.” If that worked, cool. On to the next challenge!
Patrick Birk is a musician, sound engineer and post pro at Silver Sound, a boutique sound house based in New York City.