New York-based audio post house Hobo provided audio post and sound design for A&E’s two-hour doc Jonestown: The Women Behind the Massacre. The film focuses on the four women in Jim Jones’ inner circle who helped plan the 1978 Jonestown Massacre, one of the largest murder-suicide events in modern history.
Hobo is no stranger to the documentaries in the true crime genre, having recently worked on the acclaimed Netflix docs Voyeur and Amanda Knox, as well as multiple series on the Investigation Discovery channel, including Evil Lives Here and My Dirty Little Secret.
Senior engineer Chris Stangroom, who handled the project’s complex audio mix, says that true crime documentaries, an incredibly popular genre in film and TV currently, uniquely challenges sound designers and audio engineers to think about sound differently.
Let’s find out more from Stangroom about this project.
What did you and Hobo contribute to the film overall?
We were quite involved early on. Hobo producer Mary Valentino and I first met with execs at production company Every Hill Films and discussed the project in length. They wanted to include some form of recreation footage in the series, so Mary worked with them to cast both the voiceover and on-camera talent for those segments.
We then brought the voice talent into our studios and did some voice comparisons to the original recordings of the actual women of Jonestown. The talent did a phenomenal job being truthful and accurate to the powerful women of Jonestown, which gave Every Hill a lot to work with to complete the edit and lock the cut.
Once the locked cut was delivered to us we began the full audio post process. Our senior sound designer Diego Jimenez went through the entire two-hour show and layered in sound design to give the re-creation and archival footage a more dramatic texture. He listened closely to the music that the producers had chosen and added in layered drones and synth sounds that made everything a bit more tension-filled. That elevated the entire soundtrack to a deeper and darker place in anticipation of the fateful ending.
I focused on the mix and finessed all of the music, archival dialogue, interviews, sound design and recreation recordings so that the arc of the show was always moving and always keeping the viewer interested in what was being told. There was a significant amount of audio restoration required for the archival, but in the end everything turned out crystal clear.
Was there a specific scene or part of the film that you found most challenging or creatively interesting?
We spent a couple rounds on the recreation voiceovers. We tried keeping the voices full frequency to give them more of a voiceover feeling, but in the end we felt that a slight “futzing” was necessary to make the voiceovers sound like they were coming from a different sound source like a telephone, old speaker or radio. For each character I did something a little different. I even took one of the main voiceovers and recorded it down to an old, used cassette tape. That gave it a nice saturation to the voice and gives a style of compression on the audio that you don’t always get from emulation plugins like Audio Ease’s Speakerphone and ones like it.
The goal was to make the voices feel like they were possibly the actual recordings of these Jonestown women telling their most intimate thoughts. In reality, I believe no recordings of these actually exist but were based on written journal entries from the women at the time.
Speaking broadly, is there something unique about the true crime genre of filmmaking and audio/sound design? Does this genre need something specific
from audio that you see or hear less of in other genres like comedy or drama?The true crime genre is fascinating to me because it challenges us sound designers and audio engineers to realize that sometimes removing sounds is just as powerful as adding them. These stories, especially ones like Jonestown, that are based on a real event, can be dark to their core. Simply hearing someone tell you about it can impact viewers deeply. Adding dramatic hits and heavy drones under the most chilling moments can actually take away from those moments.
In the Jonestown special, one of those moments occurs when the actual people involved with Jim James and his movement are talking about how the parents were asked to send their children to drink the cyanide-laced Kool-Aid first. I can’t even imagine that feeling, so I felt it needed to stand almost on its own without any audio flourishes. The words alone hit you like nothing else could. Less is very much more in that scene.
What technology did you rely on for this project?
Avid Pro Tools 12 HD, Soundminer, Izotope RX6 Advanced, some custom tools created at Hobo for the darker drones and sounds, Audio Ease’s Speakerphone and my timeless old boom-box.