OWC 12.4

Creating and mixing authentic sounds for HBO’s Deadwood movie

By Jennifer Walden

HBO’s award-winning series Deadwood might have aired its final episode 13 years ago, but it’s recently found new life as a movie. Set in 1889 — a decade after the series finale — Deadwood: The Movie picks up the threads of many of the main characters’ stories and weaves them together as the town of Deadwood celebrates the statehood of South Dakota.

Deadwood: The Movie

The Deadwood: The Movie sound team.

The film, which aired on HBO and is available on Amazon, picked up eight 2019 Emmy nominations including in the categories of sound editing, sound mixing and  best television movie.

Series creator David Milch has returned as writer on the film. So has director Daniel Minahan, who helmed several episodes of the series. The film’s cast is populated by returning members, as is much of the crew. On the sound side, there are freelance production sound mixer Geoffrey Patterson; 424 Post’s sound designer, Benjamin Cook; NBCUniversal StudioPost’s re-recording mixer, William Freesh; and Mind Meld Arts’ music editor, Micha Liberman. “Series composers Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek — who haven’t been a composing team in many years — have reunited just to do this film. A lot of people came back for this opportunity. Who wouldn’t want to go back to Deadwood?” says Liberman.

Freelance supervising sound editor Mandell Winter adds, “The loop group used on the series was also used on the film. It was like a reunion. People came out of retirement to do this. The richness of voices they brought to the stage was amazing. We shot two days of group for the film, covering a lot of material in that limited time to populate Deadwood.”

Deadwood (the film and series) was shot on a dedicated film ranch called Melody Ranch Motion Picture Studio in Newhall, California. The streets, buildings and “districts” are consistently laid out the same way. This allowed the sound team to use a map of the town to orient sounds to match each specific location and direction that the camera is facing.

For example, there’s a scene in which the town bell is ringing. As the picture cuts to different locations, the ringing sound is panned to show where the bell is in relation to that location on screen. “We did that for everything,” says co-supervising sound editor Daniel Colman, who along with Freesh and re-recording mixer John Cook, works at NBCUniversal StudioPost. “You hear the sounds of the blacksmith’s place coming from where it would be.”

“Or, if you’re close to the Chinese section of the town, then you hear that. If you were near the saloons, that’s what you hear. They all had different sounds that were pulled forward from the series into the film,” adds re-recording mixer Freesh.

Many of the exterior and interior sounds on set were captured by Benjamin Cook, who was sound effects editor on the original Deadwood series. Since it’s a practical location, they had real horses and carriages that Cook recorded. He captured every door and many of the props. Colman says, “We weren’t guessing at what something sounded like; we were putting in the actual sounds.”

The street sounds were an active part of the ambience in the series, both day and night. There were numerous extras playing vendors plying their wares and practicing their crafts. Inside the saloons and out in front of them, patrons talked and laughed. Their voices — performed by the loop group in post — helped to bring Deadwood alive. “The loop group we had was more than just sound effects. We had to populate the town with people,” says Winter, who scripted lines for the loopers because they were played more prominently in the mix than what you’d typically hear. “Having the group play so far forward in a show is very rare. It had to make sense and feel timely and not modern.”

In the movie, the street ambience isn’t as strong a sonic component. “The town had calmed down a little bit as it’s going about its business. It’s not quite as bustling as it was in the series. So that left room for a different approach,” says Freesh.

The attenuation of street ambience was conducive to the cinematic approach that director Minahan wanted to take on Deadwood: The Movie. He used music to help the film feel bigger and more dramatic than the series, notes Liberman. Re-recording mixer John Cook adds, “We experimented a lot with music cues. We saw scenes take on different qualities, depending on whether the music was in or out. We worked hard with Dan [Minahan] to end up with the appropriate amount of music in the film.”

Minahan even introduced music on set by way of a piano player inside the Gem Saloon. Production sound mixer Patterson says, “Dan was very active on the set in creating a mood with that music for everyone that was there. It was part and parcel of the place at that time.”

Authenticity was a major driving force behind Deadwood’s aesthetics. Each location on set was carefully dressed with era-specific props, and the characters were dressed with equal care, right down to their accessories, tools and weapons. “The sound of Seth Bullock’s gun is an actual 1889 Remington revolver, and Calamity Jane’s gun is an 1860’s Colt Army cavalry gun. We’ve made every detail as real and authentic as possible, including the train whistle that opens the film. I wasn’t going to just put in any train whistle. It’s the 1880s Black Hills steam engine that actually went through Deadwood,” reports Colman.

The set’s wooden structures and elevated boardwalk that runs in front of the establishments in the heart of town lent an authentic character to the production sound. The creaky wooden doors and thumpiness of footsteps across the raised wooden floors are natural sounds the audience would expect to hear from that environment. “The set for Deadwood was practical and beautiful and amazing. You want to make sure that you preserve that realness and let the 1800s noises come through. You don’t want to over sterilize the tracks. You want them to feel organic,” says Patterson.

Freesh adds, “These places were creaky and noisy. Wind whistled through the windows. You just embrace it. You enhance it. That was part of the original series sound, and it followed through in the movie as well.”

The location was challenging due to its proximity to real-world civilization and all of our modern-day sonic intrusions, like traffic, airplanes and landscaping equipment from a nearby neighborhood. Those sounds have no place in the 1880s world of Deadwood, but “if we always waited for the moment to be perfect, we would never make a day’s work,” says Patterson. “My mantra was always to protect every precious word of David Milch’s script and to preserve the performances of that incredible cast.”

In the end, the modern-day noises at the location weren’t enough to require excessive ADR. John Cook says, “Geoffrey [Patterson] did a great job of capturing the dialogue. Then, between the choices the picture editors made for different takes and the work that Mandell [Winter] did, there were only one or two scenes in the whole movie that required extra attention for dialogue.”

Winter adds, “Even denoising the tracks, I didn’t take much out. The tracks sounded really good when they got to us. I just used iZotope RX 7 and did our normal pass with it.”

Any fan of Deadwood knows just how important dialogue clarity is since the show’s writing is like Shakespeare for the American West — with prolific profanity, of course. The word choices and their flow aren’t standard TV script fare. To help each word come through clearly, Winter notes they often cut in both the boom and lav mic tracks. This created nice, rich dialogue for John Cook to mix.

On the stage, John Cook used the FabFilter Pro-Q 2 to work each syllable, making sure the dialogue sounded bright and punchy and not too muddy or tubby. “I wanted the audience to hear every word without losing the dynamics of a given monologue or delivery. I wanted to maintain the dynamics, but make sure that the quieter moments were just as intelligible as the louder moments,” he says.

In the film, several main characters experience flashback moments in which they remember events from the series. For example, Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) recalls the death of Jen (Jennifer Lutheran) from the Season 3 finale. These flashbacks — or hauntings, as the post team refers to them — went through several iterations before the team decided on the most effective way to play each one. “We experimented with how to treat them. Do we go into the actor’s head and become completely immersed in the past? Or, do we stay in the present — wherever we are — and give it a slight treatment? Or, should there not be any sounds in the haunting? In the end, we decided they weren’t all going to be handled the same,” says Freesh.

Before coming together for the final mix on Mix 6 at NBCUniversal StudioPost on the Universal Studios Lot in Los Angeles, John Cook and Freesh pre-dubbed Deadwood: The Movie in separate rooms as they’d do on a typical film — with Freesh pre-dubbing the backgrounds, effects, and Foley while Cook pre-dubbed the dialogue and music.

The pre-dubbing process gave Freesh and John Cook time to get the tracks into great shape before meeting up for the final mix. Freesh concludes, “We were able to, with all the people involved, listen to the film in real good condition from the first pass down and make intelligent decisions based on what we were hearing. It really made a big difference in making this feel like Deadwood.”


Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based audio engineer and writer. Follow her on Twitter @audiojeney.


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