By Jennifer Walden
FX Network’s dramedy series Atlanta, which recently won an Emmy for Outstanding Sound Editing For A Comedy or Drama Series (Half-Hour), tells the story of three friends from, well, Atlanta — a local rapper named Paper Boi whose star is on the rise (although the universe seems to be holding him down), his cousin/manager Earn and their head-in-the-clouds friend Darius.
Told through vignettes, each episode shows their lives from different perspectives instead of through a running narrative. This provides endless possibilities for creativity. One episode flows through different rooms at a swanky New Year’s party at Drake’s house; another ventures deep into the creepy woods where real animals (not party animals) make things tense.
It’s a playground for sound each week, and MPSE-award-winning supervising sound editor Trevor Gates of Formosa Group and his sound editorial team on Season 2 (aka, Robbin’ Season) got their 2018 Emmy based on the work they did on Episode 6 “Teddy Perkins,” in which Darius goes to pick up a piano from the home of an eccentric recluse but finds there’s more to the transaction than he bargained for.
Here, Gates discusses the episode’s precise use of sound and how the quiet environment was meticulously crafted to reinforce the tension in the story and to add to the awkwardness of the interactions between Darius and Teddy.
There’s very little music in “Teddy Perkins.” The soundtrack is mainly different ambiences and practical effects and Foley. Since the backgrounds play such an important role, can you tell me about the creation of these different ambiences?
Overall, Atlanta doesn’t really have a score. Music is pretty minimal and the only music that you hear is mainly source music — music coming from radios, cell phones or laptops. I think it’s an interesting creative choice by producers Hiro Murai and Donald Glover. In cases like the “Teddy Perkins” episode, we have to be careful with the sounds we choose because we don’t have a big score to hide behind. We have to be articulate with those ambient sounds and with the production dialogue.
Going into “Teddy Perkins,” Hiro (who directed the episode) and I talked about his goals for the sound. We wanted a quiet soundscape and for the house to feel cold and open. So, when we were crafting the sounds that most audience members will perceive as silence or quietness, we had very specific choices to make. We had to craft this moody air inside the house. We had to craft a few sounds for the outside world too because the house is located in a rural area.
There are a few birds but nothing overt, so that it’s not intrusive to the relationship between Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) and Teddy (Donald Glover). We had to be very careful in articulating our sound choices, to hold that quietness that was void of any music while also supporting the creepy, weird, tense dialogue between the two.
Inside the Perkins residence, the first ambience felt cold and almost oppressive. How did you create that tone?
That rumbly, oppressive air was the cold tone we were going for. It wasn’t a layer of tones; it was actually just one sound that I manipulated to be the exact frequency that I wanted for that space. There was a vastness and a claustrophobia to that space, although that sounds contradictory. That cold tone was kind of the hero sound of this episode. It was just one sound, articulately crafted, and supported by sounds from the environment.
There’s a tonal shift from the entryway into the parlor, where Darius and Teddy sit down to discuss the piano (and Teddy is eating that huge, weird egg). In there we have the sound of a clock ticking. I really enjoy using clocks. I like the meter that clocks add to a room.
In Ouija: Origin of Evil, we used the sound of a clock to hold the pace of some scenes. I slowed the clock down to just a tad over a second, and it really makes you lean in to the scene and hold what you perceive as silence. I took a page from that book for Atlanta. As you leave the cold air of the entryway, you enter into this room with a clock ticking and Teddy and Darius are sitting there looking at each other awkwardly over this weird/gross ostrich egg. The sound isn’t distracting or obtrusive; it just makes you lean into the awkwardness.
It was important for us to get the mix for the episode right, to get the right level for the ambiences and tones, so that they are present but not distracting. It had to feel natural. It’s our responsibility to craft things that show the audience what we want them to see, and at the same time we have to suspend their disbelief. That’s what we do as filmmakers; we present the sonic spaces and visual images that traverse that fine line between creativity and realism.
That cold tone plays a more prominent role near the end of the episode, during the murder-suicide scene. It builds the tension until right before Benny pulls the trigger. But there’s another element too there, a musical stinger. Why did you choose to use music at that moment?
What’s important about this season of Atlanta is that Hiro and Donald have a real talent for surrounding themselves with exceptional people — from the picture department to the sound department to the music department and everyone on-set. Through the season it was apparent that this team of exceptional people functioned with extreme togetherness. We had a homogeny about us. It was a bunch of really creative and smart people getting together in a room, creating something amazing.
We had a music department and although there isn’t much music and score, every once in a while we would break a rule that we set for ourselves on Season 2. The picture editor will be in the room with the music department and Hiro, and we’ll all make decisions together. That musical stinger wasn’t my idea exactly; it was a collective decision to use a stinger to drive the moment, to have it build and release at a specific time. I can’t attribute that sound to me only, but to this exceptional team on the show. We would bounce creative ideas off of each other and make decisions as a collective.
The effects in the murder-suicide scene do a great job of tension building. For example, when Teddy leans in on Darius, there’s that great, long floor creak.
Yeah, that was a good creak. It was important for us, throughout this episode, to make specific sound choices in many different areas. There are other episodes in the season that have a lot more sound than this episode, like “Woods,” where Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry) is getting chased through the woods after he was robbed. Or “Alligator Man,” with the shootout in the cold open. But that wasn’t the case with “Teddy Perkins.”
On this one, we had to make specific choices, like when Teddy leans over and there’s that long, slow creak. We tried to encompass the pace of the scene in one very specific sound, like the sound of the shackles being tightened onto Darius or the movement of the shotgun.
There’s another scene when Darius goes down into the basement, and he’s traveling through this area that he hasn’t been in before. We decided to create a world where he would hear sounds traveling through the space. He walks past a fan and then a water heater kicks on and there is some water gurgling through pipes and the clinking sound of the water heater cooling down. Then we hear Benny’s wheelchair squeak. For me, it’s about finding that one perfect sound that makes that moment. That’s hard to do because it’s not a composition of many sounds. You have one choice to make, and that’s what is going to make that moment special. It’s exciting to find that one sound. Sometimes you go through many choices until you find the right one.
There were great diegetic effects, like Darius spinning the globe, and the sound of the piano going onto the elevator, and the floor needle and the buttons and dings. Did those come from Foley? Custom recordings? Library sounds?
I had a great Foley team on this entire season, led by Foley supervisor Geordy Sincavage. The sounds like the globe spinning came from the Foley team, so that was all custom recorded. The elevator needle moving down was a custom recording from Foley. All of the shackles and handcuffs and gun movements were from Foley.
The piano moving onto the elevator was something that we created from a combination of library effects and Foley sounds. I had sound effects editor David Barbee helping me out on this episode. He gave me some library sounds for the piano and I went in and gave it a little extra love. I accentuated the movement of the piano strings. It was like piano string vocalizations as Darius is moving the piano into the elevator and it goes over the little bumps. I wanted to play up the movements that would add some realism to that moment.
Creating a precise soundtrack is harder than creating a big action soundtrack. Well, there are different sets of challenges for both, but it’s all about being able to tell a story by subtraction. When there’s too much going on, people can feel the details if you start taking things away. “Teddy Perkins” is the case of having an extremely precise soundtrack, and that was successful thanks to the work of the Foley team, my effects editor, and the dialogue editor.
The dialogue editor Jason Dotts is the unsung hero in this because we had to be so careful with the production dialogue track. When you have a big set — this old, creaky house and lots of equipment and crew noise — you have to remove all the extraneous noise that can take you out of the tension between Darius and Teddy. Jason had to go in with a fine-tooth comb and do surgery on the production dialogue just to remove every single small sound in order to get the track super quiet. That production track had to be razor-sharp and presented with extreme care. Then, with extreme care, we had to build the ambiences around it and add great Foley sounds for all the little nuances. Then we had to bake the cake together and have a great mix, a very articulate balance of sounds.
When we were all done, I remember Hiro saying to us that we realized his dream 100%. He alluded to the fact that this was an important episode going into it. I feel like I am a man of my craft and my fingerprint is very important to me, so I am always mindful of how I show my craft to the world. I will always take extreme care and go the extra mile no matter what, but it felt good to have something that was important to Hiro have such a great outcome for our team. The world responded. There were lots of Emmy nominations this year for Atlanta and that was an incredible thing.
Did you have a favorite scene for sound? Why?
It was cool to have something that we needed to craft and present in its entirety. We had to build a motif and there had to be consistency within that motif. It was awesome to build the episode as a whole. Some scenes were a bit different, like down in the basement. That had a different vibe. Then there were fun scenes like moving the piano onto the elevator. Some scenes had production challenges, like the scene with the film projector. Hiro had to shoot that scene with the projector running and that created a lot of extra noise on the production dialogue. So that was challenging from a dialogue editing standpoint and a mix standpoint.
Another challenging scene was when Darius and Teddy are in the “Father Room” of the museum. That was shot early on in the process and Donald wasn’t quite happy with his voice performance in that scene. Overall, Atlanta uses very minimal ADR because we feel that re-recorded performances can really take the magic out of a scene, but Donald wanted to redo that whole scene, and it came out great. It felt natural and I don’t think people realize that Donald’s voice was re-recorded in its entirety for that scene. That was a fun ADR session.
Donald came into the studio and once he got into the recording booth and got into the Teddy Perkins voice he didn’t get out of it until we were completely finished. So as Hiro and Donald are interacting about ideas on the performance, Donald stayed in the Teddy voice completely. He didn’t get out of it for three hours. That was an interesting experience to see Donald’s face as himself and hear Teddy’s voice.
Where there any audio tools that you couldn’t have lived without on this episode?
Not necessarily. This was an organic build and the tools that we used in this were really basic. We used some library sounds and recorded some custom sounds. We just wanted to make sure that we could make this as real and organic as possible. Our tool was to pick the best organic sounds that we could, whether we used source recordings or new recordings.
Of all the episodes in Season 2 of Atlanta, why did you choose “Teddy Perkins” for Emmy consideration?
Each episode had its different challenges. There were lots of different ways to tell the stories since each episode is different. I think that is something that is magical about Atlanta. Some of the episodes that stood out from a sound standpoint were Episode 1 “Alligator Man” with the shootout, and Episode 8 “Woods.” I had considered submitting “Woods” because it’s so surreal once Paper Boi gets into the woods. We created this submergence of sound, like the woods were alive. We took it to another level with the wildlife and used specific wildlife sounds to draw some feelings of anxiety and claustrophobia.
Even an episode like “Champagne Papi,” which seems like one of the most basic from a sound editorial perspective, was actually quite varied. They’re going between different rooms at a party and we had to build spaces of people that felt different but the same in each room. It had to feel like a real space with lots of people, and the different spaces had to feel like it belonged at the same party.
But when it came down to it, I feel like “Teddy Perkins” was special because there wasn’t music to hide behind. We had to do specific and articulate work, and make sharp choices. So it’s not the episode with the most sound but it’s the episode that has the most articulate sound. And we are very proud of how it turned out.
Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based audio engineer and writer. You can follow her on Twitter at @audiojeney.com.