By Jennifer Walden
Fire-breathing dragons and hordes of battle-ready White Walkers are big attention grabbers on HBO’s Game of Thrones, but they’re not the sole draw for audiences. The stunning visual effects and sound design are just the gravy on the meat and potatoes of a story that has audiences asking for more.
Every line of dialogue is essential for following the tangled web of storylines. It’s also important to take in the emotional nuances of the actors’ performances. Striking the balance between clarity and dynamic delivery isn’t an easy feat. When a character speaks in a gruff whisper because, emotionally, it’s right for the scene, it’s the job of the production sound crew and the post sound crew to make that delivery work.
At Formosa Group’s Hollywood location, an Emmy-winning post sound team works together to put as much of the on-set performances on the screen as possible. They are supervising sound editor Tim Kimmel, supervising dialogue editor Paul Bercovitch and dialogue/music re-recording mixer Onnalee Blank.
Blank and the show’s mixing team picked up a 2018 Emmy for Outstanding Sound Mixing For a Comedy or Drama Series (One Hour) for their work on Season 7’s sixth episode, “Beyond the Wall.”
“The production sound crew does such a phenomenal job on the show,” says Kimmel. “They have to face so many issues on set, between the elements and the costumes. Even though we have to do some ADR, it would be a whole lot more if we didn’t have such a great sound crew on-set.”
On “Beyond the Wall,” the sound team faced a number of challenges. Starting at the beginning of this episode, Jon Snow [Kit Harington] and his band of fighters trek beyond the wall to capture a White Walker. As they walk across a frozen, windy landscape, they pass the time by getting to know each other more. Here the threads of their individual stories from past seasons start to weave together. Important connections are being made in each line of dialogue.
Those snowy scenes were shot in Iceland and the actors wore metal spikes on their shoes to help them navigate the icy ground. Unfortunately, the spikes also made their footsteps sound loud and crunchy, and that got recorded onto the production tracks.
Another challenge came from their costumes. They wore thick coats of leather and fur, which muffled their dialogue at times or pressed against the mic and created a scratchy sound. Wind was also a factor, sometimes buffeting across the mic and causing a low rumble on the tracks.
“What’s funny is that parts of the scene would be really tough to get cleaned up because the wind is blowing and you hear the spikes on their shoes — you hear costume movements. Then all of a sudden they stop and talk for a minute and the wind stops and it’s the most pristine, quiet, perfect recording you can think of,” explains Kimmel. “It almost sounded like it was shot on a soundstage. In Iceland, when the wind isn’t blowing and the actors aren’t moving, it’s completely quiet and still. So it was tough to get those two to match.”
As supervising sound editor, Kimmel is the first to assess the production dialogue tracks. He goes through an episode and marks priority sections for supervising dialogue editor Bercovitch to tackle first. He says, “That helps Tim [Kimmel] put together his ADR plan. He wants to try to pare down that list as much as possible. For Beyond the Wall, he wanted me to start with the brotherhood’s walk-and-talk north of the wall.”
Bercovitch began his edit by trying to clean up the existing dialogue. For that opening sequence, he used iZotope RX 6’s Spectral Repair to clean up the crunchy footsteps and the rumble of heavy winds. Next, he searched for usable alt takes from the lav and boom tracks, looking for a clean syllable or a full line to cut in as needed. Once Bercovitch was done editing, Kimmel could determine what still needed to be covered in ADR. “For the walk-and-talk beyond the wall, the production sound crew really did a phenomenal job. We didn’t have to loop that scene in its entirety. How they got as good of recordings as they did is honestly beyond me.”
Since most of the principle actors are UK and Ireland-based, the ADR is shot in London at Boom Post with ADR supervisor Tim Hands. “Tim [Hands] records 90% of the ADR for each season. Occasionally, we’ll shoot it here if the actor is in LA,” notes Kimmel.
Hands had more lines than usual to cover on Beyond the Wall because of the battle sequence between the brotherhood and the army of the dead. The principle actors came in to record grunts, efforts and breaths, which were then cut to picture. The battle also included Bercovitch’s selects of usable production sound from that sequence.
Re-recording mixer Blank went through all of those elements on dub Stage 1 at Formosa Hollywood using an Avid S6 console to control the Pro Tools 12 session. She chose vocalizations that weren’t “too breathy, or sound like it’s too much effort because it just sounds like a whole bunch of grunts happening,” she says. “I try to make the ADR sound the same as the production dialogue choices by using EQ, and I only play sounds for whoever is on screen because otherwise it just creates too much confusion.”
One scene that required extensive ADR was for Arya (Maisie Williams) and Sansa (Sophie Turner) on the catwalk at Winterfell. In the seemingly peaceful scene, the sisters share an intimate conversation about their father as snow lightly falls from the sky. Only it wasn’t so peaceful. The snow was created by a loud snow machine that permeated the production sound, which meant the dialogue on the entire scene needed to be replaced. “That is the only dialogue scene that I had no hand in and I’ve been working on the show for three seasons now,” says Bercovitch.
For Bercovitch, his most challenging scenes to edit were ones that might seem like they’d be fairly straightforward. On Dragonstone, Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) and Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) are in the map room having a pointed discussion on succession for the Iron Throne. It’s a talk between two people in an interior environment, but Bercovitch points out that the change of camera perspective can change the sound of the mics. “On this particular scene and on a lot of scenes in the show, you have the characters moving around within the scene. You get a lot of switching between close-ups and longer shots, so you’re going between angles with a usable boom to angles where the boom is not usable.”
There’s a similar setup with Sansa and Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) at Winterfell. The two characters discuss Brienne’s journey to parley with Cersei (Lena Headey) in Sansa’s stead. Here, Bercovitch faced the same challenge of matching mic perspectives, and also had the added challenge of working around sounds from the fireplace. “I have to fish around in the alt takes — and there were a lot of alts — to try to get those scenes sounding a little more consistent. I always try to keep the mic angles sounding consistent even before the dialogue gets to Onnalee (Blank). A big part of her job is dealing with those disparate sound sources and trying to make them sound the same. But my job, as I see it, is to make those sound sources a little less disparate before they get to her.”
One tool that’s helped Bercovitch achieve great dialogue edits is iZotope’s RX 6. “It doesn’t necessarily make cleaning dialogue faster,”he says. “It doesn’t save me a ton of time, but it allows me to do so much more with my time. There is so much more that you can do with iZotope RX 6 that you couldn’t previously do. It still takes nitpicking and detailed work to get the dialogue to where you want it, but iZotope is such an incredibly powerful tool that you can get the result that you want,” he says.
On the dub stage, Blank says one of her most challenging scenes was the opening walk-and-talk sequence beyond the wall. “Half of that was ADR, half was production, and to make it all sound the same was really challenging. Those scenes took me four days to mix.”
Her other challenge was the ADR scene with Arya and Sansa in Winterfell, since every line there was looped. To help the ADR sound natural, as if it’s coming from the scene, Blank processes and renders multiple tracks of fill and backgrounds with the ADR lines and then re-records that back into Avid Pro Tools. “That really helps it sit back into the screen a little more. Playing the Foley like it’s another character helps too. That really makes the scene come alive.”
Bercovitch explains that the final dialogue you hear in a series doesn’t start out that way. It takes a lot of work to get the dialogue to sound like it would in reality. “That’s the thing about dialogue. People hear dialogue all day, every day. We talk to other people and it doesn’t take any work for us to understand when other people speak. Since it doesn’t take any work in one’s life why would it require a lot of work when putting a film together? There’s a big difference between the sound you hear in the world and recorded sound. Once it has been recorded you have to take a lot of care to get those recordings back to a place where your brain reads it as intelligible. And when you’re switching from angle to angle and changing mic placement and perspective, all those recordings sound different. You have to stitch those together and make them sound consistent so it sounds like dialogue you’d hear in reality.”
Achieving great sounding dialogue is a team effort — from production through post. “Our post work on the dialogue is definitely a team effort, from Paul’s editing and Tim Hands’ shooting the ADR so well to Onnalee getting the ADR to match with the production,” explains Kimmel. “We figure out what production we can use and what we have to go to ADR for. It’s definitely a team effort and I am blessed to be working with such an amazing group of people.”
Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based audio engineer and writer.