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Dialects, guns and Atmos mixing: Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan

By Jennifer Walden

Being an analyst is supposed to be a relatively safe job. A paper cut is probably the worst job-related injury you’d get… maybe, carpal tunnel. But in Amazon Studios/Paramount’s series Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, CIA analyst Jack Ryan (John Krasinski) is hauled away from his desk at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, and thrust into an interrogation room in Syria where he’s asked to extract info from a detained suspect. It’s a far cry from a sterile office environment and the cuts endured don’t come from paper.

Benjamin Cook

Four-time Emmy award-winning supervising sound editor Benjamin Cook, MPSE — at 424 Post in Culver City — co-supervised Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan with Jon Wakeham. Their sound editorial team included sound effects editors Hector Gika and David Esparza, MPSE, dialogue editor Tim Tuchrello, music editor Alex Levy, Foley editor Brett Voss, and Foley artists Jeff Wilhoit and Dylan Tuomy-Wilhoit.

This is Cook’s second Emmy nomination this season, being nominated also for sound editing on HBO’s Deadwood: The Movie.

Here, Cook talks about the aesthetic approach to sound editing on Jack Ryan and breaks down several scenes from the Emmy-nominated “Pilot” episode in Season 1.

Congratulations on your Emmy nomination for sound editing on Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan! Why did you choose the first episode for award consideration?
Benjamin Cook: It has the most locations, establishes the CIA involvement, and has a big battle scene. It was a good all-around episode. There were a couple other episodes that could have been considered, such as Episode 2 because of the Paris scenes and Episode 6 because it’s super emotional and had incredible loop group and location ambience. But overall, the first episode had a little bit better balance between disciplines.

The series opens up with two young boys in Lebanon, 1983. They’re playing and being kids; it’s innocent. Then the attack happens. How did you use sound to help establish this place and time?
Cook: We sourced a recordist to go out and record material in Syria and Turkey. That was a great resource. We also had one producer who recorded a lot of material while he was in Morocco. Some of that could be used and some of it couldn’t because the dialect is different. There was also some pretty good production material recorded on-set and we tried to use that as much as we could as well. That helped to ground it all in the same place.

The opening sequence ends with explosions and fire, which makes an interesting juxtaposition to the tranquil water scene that follows. What sounds did you use to help blend those two scenes?
Cook: We did a muted effect on the water when we first introduced it and then it opens up to full fidelity. So we were going from the explosions and that concussive blast to a muted, filtered sound of the water and rowing. We tried to get the rhythm of that right. Carlton Cuse (one of the show’s creators) actually rows, so he was pretty particular about that sound. Beyond that, it was filtering the mix and adding design elements that were downplayed and subtle.

The next big scene is in Syria, when Sheikh Al Radwan (Jameel Khoury) comes to visit Sheikh Suleiman (Ali Suliman). How did you use sound to help set the tone of this place and time?
Cook: It was really important that we got the dialects right. Whenever we were in the different townships and different areas, one of the things that the producers were concerned about was authenticity with the language and dialect. There are a lot of regional dialects in Arabic, but we also needed Kurdish, Turkish — Kurmanji, Chechen and Armenian. We had really good loop group, which helped out tremendously. Caitlan McKenna our group leader cast several multi-linguist voice actors who were familiar with the area and could give us a couple different dialects; that really helped to sell location for sure. The voices — probably more than anything else — are what helped to sell the location.

Another interesting juxtaposition of sound was going from the sterile CIA office environment to this dirty, gritty, rattley world of Syria.
Cook: My aesthetic for this show — besides going for the authenticity that the showrunners were after — was trying to get as much detail into the sound as possible (when appropriate). So, even when we’re in the thick of the CIA bullpen there is lots of detail. We did an office record where we set mics around an office and moved papers and chairs and opened desk drawers. This gave the office environment movement and life, even when it is played low.

That location seems sterile when we go to the grittiness of the black-ops site in Yemen with its sand gusts blowing, metal shacks rattling and tents flapping in the wind. You also have off and on screen vehicles and helicopters. Those textures were really helpful in differentiating those two worlds.

Tell me about Jack Ryan’s panic attack at 4:47am. It starts with that distant siren and then an airplane flyover before flashing back to the kid in Syria. What went into building that sequence?
Cook: A lot of that was structured by the picture editor, and we tried to augment what they had done and keep their intention. We changed out a few sounds here and there, but I can’t take credit for that one. Sometimes that’s just the nature of it. They already have an idea of what they want to do in the picture edit and we just augment what they’ve done. We made it wider, spread things out, added more elements to expand the sound more into the surrounds. The show was mixed in Dolby Home Atmos so we created extra tracks to play in the Atmos sound field. The soundtrack still has a lot of detail in the 5.1 and a 7.1 mixes but the Atmos mix sounds really good.

Those street scenes in Syria, as we’re following the bank manager through the city, must have been a great opportunity to work with the Atmos surround field.
Cook: That is one of my favorite scenes in the whole show. The battles are fun but the street scene is a great example of places where you can use Atmos in an interesting way. You can use space to your advantage to build the sound of a location and that helps to tell the story.

At one point, they’re in the little café and we have glass rattles and discrete sounds in the surround field. Then it pans across the street to a donkey pulling a cart and a Vespa zips by. We use all of those elements as opportunities to increase the dynamics of the scene.

Going back to the battles, what were your challenges in designing the shootout near the end of this episode? It’s a really long conflict sequence.
Cook: The biggest challenge was that it was so long and we had to keep it interesting. You start off by building everything, you cut everything, and then you have to decide what to clear out. We wanted to give the different sides — the areas inside and outside — a different feel. We tried to do that as much as possible but the director wanted to take it even farther. We ended up pulling the guns back, perspective-wise, making them even farther than we had. Then we stripped out some to make it less busy. That worked out well. In the end, we had a good compromise and everyone was really happy with how it plays.

The guns were those original recordings or library sounds?
Cook: There were sounds in there that are original recordings, and also some library sounds. I’ve gotten material from sound recordist Charles Maynes — he is my gun guru. I pretty much copy his gun recording setups when I go out and record. I learned everything I know from Charles in terms of gun recording. Watson Wu had a great library that recently came out and there is quite a bit of that in there as well. It was a good mix of original material and library.

We tried to do as much recording as we could, schedule permitting. We outsourced some recording work to a local guy in Syria and Turkey. It was great to have that material, even if it was just to use as a reference for what that place should sound like. Maybe we couldn’t use the whole recording but it gave us an idea of how that location sounds. That’s always helpful.

Locally, for this episode, we did the office shoot. We recorded an MRI machine and Greer’s car. Again, we always try to get as much as we can.

There are so many recordists out there who are a great resource, who are good at recording weapons, like Charles, Watson and Frank Bry (at The Recordist). Frank has incredible gun sounds. I use his libraries all the time. He’s up in Idaho and can capture these great long tails that are totally pristine and clean. The quality is so good. These guys are recording on state-of-the-art, top-of-the-line rigs.

Near the end of the episode, we’re back in Lebanon, 1983, with the boys coming to after the bombing. How did you use sound to help enhance the tone of that scene?
Cook: In the Avid track, they had started with a tinnitus ringing and we enhanced that. We used filtering on the voices and delays to give it more space and add a haunting aspect. When the older boy really wakes up and snaps to we’re playing up the wailing of the younger kid as much as possible. Even when the older boy lifts the burning log off the younger boy’s legs, we really played up the creak of the wood and the fire. You hear the gore of charred wood pulling the skin off his legs. We played those elements up to make a very visceral experience in that last moment.

The music there is very emotional, and so is seeing that young boy in pain. Those kids did a great job and that made it easy for us to take that moment further. We had a really good source track to work with.

What was the most challenging scene for sound editorial? Why?
Cook: Overall, the battle was tough. It was a challenge because it was long and it was a lot of cutting and a lot of material to get together and go through in the mix. We spent a lot of time on that street scene, too. Those two scenes were where we spent the most time for sure.

The opening sequence, with the bombs, there was debate on whether we should hear the bomb sounds in sync with the explosions happening visually. Or, should the sound be delayed? That always comes up. It’s weird when the sound doesn’t match the visual, when in reality you’d hear the sound of an explosion that happen miles away much later than you’d see the explosion happen.

Again, those are the compromises you make. One of the great things about this medium is that it’s so collaborative. No one person does it all… or rarely it’s one person. It does take a village and we had great support from the producers. They were very intentional on sound. They wanted sound to be a big player. Right from the get-go they gave us the tools and support that we needed and that was really appreciated.

What would you want other sound pros to know about your sound work on Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan?
Cook: I’m really big into detail on the editing side, but the mix on this show was great too. It’s unfortunate that the mixers didn’t get an Emmy nomination for mixing. I usually don’t get recognized unless the mixing is really done well.

There’s more to this series than the pilot episode. There are other super good sounding episodes; it’s a great sounding season. I think we did a great job of finding ways of using sound to help tell the story and have it be an immersive experience. There is a lot of sound in it and as a sound person, that’s usually what we want to achieve.

I highly recommend that people listen to the show in Dolby Atmos at home. I’ve been doing Atmos shows now since Black Sails. I did Lost in Space in Atmos, and we’re finishing up Season 2 in Atmos as well. We did Counterpart in Atmos. Atmos for home is here and we’re going to see more and more projects mixed in Atmos. You can play something off your phone in Atmos now. It’s incredible how the technology has changed so much. It’s another tool to help us tell the story. Look at Roma (my favorite mix last year). That film really used Atmos mixing; they really used the sound field and used extreme panning at times. In my honest opinion, it made the film more interesting and brought another level to the story.


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


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