Tag Archives: Fargo

FX’s Fargo features sounds as distinctive as its characters

By Jennifer Walden

In Fargo, North Dakota, in the dead of winter, there’s been a murder. You might think you’ve heard this story before, but Noah Hawley keeps coming up with a fresh, new version of it for each season of his Fargo series on FX. Sure, his inspiration was the Coen brothers’ Oscar-winning Fargo film, but with Season 3 now underway it’s obvious that Hawley’s series isn’t simply a spin-off.

Martin Lee and Kirk Lynds.

Every season of the Emmy-winning Fargo series follows a different story, with its own distinct cast of characters, set in its own specified point in time. Even the location isn’t always the same — Season 3 takes place in Minnesota. What does link the seasons together is Hawley’s distinct black humor, which oozes from these disparate small-town homicides. He’s a writer and director on the series, in addition to being the showrunner and an executive producer. “Noah is very hands-on,” confirms re-recording mixer Martin Lee at Tattersall Sound & Picture in Toronto, part of the SIM Group family of companies, who has been mixing the show with re-recording mixer Kirk Lynds since Season 2.

Fargo has a very distinct look, feel and sound that you have to maintain,” explains Lee. “The editors, producers and Noah put a lot of work into the sound design and sound ideas while they are cutting the picture. The music is very heavily worked while they are editing the show. By the time the soundtrack gets to us there is a pretty clear path as to what they are looking for. It’s up to us to take that and flesh it out, to make it fill the 5.1 environment. That’s one of the most unique parts of the process for us.”

Season 3 follows rival brothers, Emmit and Ray Stussy (both played by Ewan McGregor). Their feud over a rare postage stamp leads to a botched robbery attempt that ultimately ends in murder (don’t worry, neither Ewan character meets his demise…yet??).

One of the most challenging episodes to mix this season, so far, was Episode 3, “The Law of Non-Contradiction.” The story plays out across four different settings, each with unique soundscapes: Minnesota, Los Angeles in 2010, Los Angeles in 1975 and an animated sci-fi realm. As police officer Gloria Burgle (Carrie Coon) unravels the homicide in Eden Valley, Minnesota, her journey leads her to Los Angeles. There the story dives into the past, to 1975, to reveal the life story of science fiction writer Thaddeus Mobley (Thomas Mann). The episode side-trips into animation land when Gloria reads Mobley’s book titled The Planet Wyh.

One sonic distinction between Los Angeles in 2010 and Los Angeles of 1975 was the density of traffic. Lee, who mixed the dialogue and music, says, “All of the scenes that were taking place in 2010 were very thick with traffic and cars. That was a technical challenge, because the recordings were very heavy with traffic.”

Another distinction is the pervasiveness of technology in social situations, like the bar scene where Gloria meets up with a local Los Angeles cop to talk about her stolen luggage. The patrons are all glued to their cell phones. As the camera pans down the bar, you hear different sounds of texting playing over a contemporary, techno dance track. “They wanted to have those sounds playing, but not become intrusive. They wanted to establish with sound that people are always tapping away on their phones. It was important to get those sounds to play through subtly,” explains Lynds.

In the animated sequences, Gloria’s voice narrates the story of a small android named MNSKY whose spaceman companion dies just before they reach Earth. The robot carries on the mission and records an eon’s worth of data on Earth. The robot is eventually reunited with members of The Federation of United Planets, who cull the android’s data and then order it to shut down. “Because it was this animated sci-fi story, we wanted to really fill the room with the environment much more so than we can when we are dealing with production sound,” says Lee. “As this little robotic character is moving through time on Earth, you see something like the history of man. There’s voiceover, sound effects and music through all of it. It required a lot of finesse to maintain all of those elements with the right kind of energy.”

The animation begins with a spaceship crashing into the moon. MNSKY wakes and approaches the injured spaceman who tells the android he’s going to die. Lee needed to create a vocal process for the spaceman, to make it sound as though his voice is coming through his helmet. With Audio Ease’s Altiverb, Lee tweaked the settings on a “long plastic tube” convolution reverb. Then he layered that processed vocal with the clean vocal. “It was just enough to create that sense of a helmet,” he says.

At the end, when MNSKY rejoins the members of the Federation on their spaceship it’s a very different environment from Earth. The large, ethereal space is awash in long, warm reverbs which Lynds applied using plug-ins like PhoenixVerb 5.1 and Altiverb. Lee also applied a long reverb treatment to the dialogue. “The reverbs have quite a significant pre-delay, so you almost have that sense of a repeat of the voice afterwards. This gives it a very distinctive, environmental feel.”

Lynds and Lee spend two days premixing their material on separate dub stages. For the premix, Lynds typically has all the necessary tracks from supervising sound editor Nick Forshager while Lee’s dialogue and music tracks come in more piecemeal. “I get about half the production dialogue on day one and then I get the other half on day two,” says Lee. “ADR dribbles in the whole time, including well into the mixing process. ADR comes in even after we have had several playbacks already.”

Fortunately, the show doesn’t rely heavily on ADR. Lee notes that they put a lot of effort into preserving the production. “We use a combination of techniques. The editors find the cleanest lines and takes (while still keeping the performance), then I spent a lot of time cleaning that up,” he says.

This season Lee relies more on Cedar’s DNS One plug-in for noise reduction and less on the iZotope RX5 (Connect version). “I’m finding with Fargo that the showrunners are uniquely sensitive to the effects of the iZotope processing. This year it took more work to find the right sound. It ends up being a combination of both the Cedar and the RX5,” reports Lee.

After premixing, Lee and Lynds bring their tracks together on Tattersall’s Stage 1. They have three days for the 5.1 final mix. They spend one (very) long day building the episode in 5.1 and then send their mix to Los Angeles for Forshager and co-producer Gregg Tilson to review. Then Lee and Lynds address the first round of notes the next morning and send the mix back to Los Angeles for another playback. Each consecutive playback is played for more people. The last playback is for Hawley on the third day.

“One of the big challenges with the workflow is mixing an episode in one day. It’s a long mix day. At least the different time zones help. We send them a mix to listen to typically around 6-7pm PST, so it’s not super late for them. We start at 8am EST the next morning, which is three hours ahead of their time. By the time they’re in the studio and ready to listen, it is 10am their time and we’ve already spent three or four hours handling the revisions. That really works to our advantage,” says Lee.

Sound in the Fargo series is not an afterthought. It’s used to build tension, like a desk bell that rings for an uncomfortably long time, or to set the mood of a space, like an overly noisy fish tank in a cheap apartment. By the time the tracks have made it to the mixers, there’s been “a lot of time and effort spent thinking about what the show was going to sound like,” says Lynds. “From that sense, the entire mix for us is a creative opportunity. It’s our chance to re-create that in a 5.1 environment, and to make that bigger and better.”

You can catch new episodes of Fargo on FX Networks, Wednesdays at 10pm EST.


Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based audio engineer and writer.

Checking in with Tattersall Sound & Picture’s Jane Tattersall

By Randi Altman

Toronto-based audio post house Tattersall Sound & Picture has been a fixture in audio post production since 2003, even though the origins of the studio go back further than that. Tattersall Sound & Picture’s work spans films, documentaries, television series, spots, games and more.

Now part of the SIM Group of companies, the studio is run by president/supervising sound editor Jane Tattersall and her partners Lou Solakofski, Peter Gibson and David McCallum. Tattersall is an industry veteran who found her way to audio post in a very interesting way. Let’s find out more…

(back row, L-R) David McCallum, Rob Sim, and Peter Gibson (front row) Jane Tattersall and Lou Solakofski.

How did you get your start in this business?
My start was an accident, but serendipitous. I had just graduated from university with a degree in philosophy and had begun to think of what options I might have — law and journalism were the only fields that came to mind, but then I got a call from my boyfriend’s sister who was an art director. She had just met a producer at a party who was looking for a philosopher to do research on a documentary series. I got the job, did all the research and ended up working with the picture editor. I found his work using sound brought the scenes to life, so decided I would try to learn that job. After that I apprenticed with an editor and learned on the job. I’m still learning!

When did you open Tattersall Sound & Picture?
I started the original Tattersall Sound, which was just sound editing in 1992 but sold it in 1999 to run a larger full post facility. I opened Tattersall Sound & Picture in 2003, along with my partners.

Why did you open it?
After three years running a big post facility I missed the close involvement with projects that comes with being an editor. I was ready for a change and keen to be more hands on.

How has it evolved over the years?
When we started the company it was just sound editing. The first year we shared warehouse space with a framing factory. We had a big open workplace and we all worked with headphones. After a year we moved to where we are today. We had space for picture editing suites as well as sound editing. Over time we expanded our services and facilities. Now we have five mix stages including a Dolby Atmos stage, ADR, as well as offline and sound editorial.

How have you continued to be successful in what can be a tough business?
We focus simultaneously on good creative work and ensuring we have enough resources to continue to operate. Without good and detailed and good work we would lose our clients, but without earning enough money we couldn’t pay people properly, pay the rent and upgrade the stages and edit rooms. I like to think we attract good talent and workers because we care about doing great work, and the great work keeps the clients coming to us.

Does working on diverse types of projects play a role in that success?
Yes, that’s true as well. We have a diversity of projects — TV series, documentaries, independent feature films, some animation and some children’s TV series. Some years ago we were doing mostly indie features and a small amount of television, but our clients moved into television and brought us along with them. Now we are doing some wonderful higher-end series like Vikings, Penny Dreadful and Fargo (pictured below). We continue to do features and love doing them, but it is a smaller part of the business.

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If you had one tip about keeping staff happy and having them stay for the long-term, what would it be?
Listen to them, and keep them involved and make them feel like an appreciated part of the business.

What is the biggest change in audio post that you’ve seen since your time in the business?
The biggest change would be the change in technology — from Moviolas to Pro Tools and all the digital plug-ins that have become the regular way of editing and mixing. Related to that would be the time allotted to post sound. Our schedules are shorter because we can and do work faster.

The other change is that we work in smaller teams or even alone. This means fewer opportunities for more junior people and assistants to learn by doing their job in the same room. This applies to picture editing as well, of course.

There is no denying that our industry is filled with more males than females, and having one own an audio post house like yours is rare. Can you talk about that?
I certainly didn’t set out to own or run anything! Just to work on interesting projects for directors and producers who wanted to work with me. The company you see today has grown organically. I attracted like minded co-workers and complementary team members and went after films and directors that I wanted to work with.

We would never have built any mix stages if we didn’t have re-recording mixer Lou Solakofski on board as partner. And he in turn would never have got involved if he didn’t trust us to keep the values of good work and respectful working environment that were essential to him. We all trusted one another to retain and respect our shared values.

It has not always been easy though! There were many projects that I just couldn’t get, which was immensely frustrating. Some of these projects were of the action/violent style. Possibly the producers thought a man might be able to provide the right sounds rather than a woman. No one ever said that, so there may have been other reasons.

However, not getting certain shows served to make me more determined to do great work for those producers and directors who did want me/us. So it seems that having customers with the same values is crucial. If there weren’t enough clients who wanted our quality and detail we wouldn’t have got to where we are today.

What type of gear do you have installed? How often to do you update the tech?
Our facility is all Avid and Pro Tools, including the mix stages. We have chosen an all-Pro Tools workflow because we feel it provides the most flexibility in terms of work flow and the easiest way to stay current with new service options. Staying current can be costly but being up to date with equipment is advantageous for both our clients and creative team.

Hyena Road had a Dolby Atmos mix

Hyena Road had a Dolby Atmos mix

We update frequently usually, driven by the requirements of a specific project. For example, in July 2015 we were scheduled to mix the Canadian war film Hyena Road and the producer, distributor and director all wanted to work in Dolby Atmos. So our head tech engineer Ed Segeren and Lou investigated to see how feasible it would be to upgrade one of the stages to accommodate the Dolby requirements. It took some careful research and some time but that stage was updated to facilitate that film.

Another example is when we began the Vikings series and knew the composer was going to deliver very wide — all separate stems as 5.0 — so we needed a dedicated music Pro Tools. This meant we had to expand the console.

As a rule when we update one mix stage, but we know we will soon update the others in order to be able to move sessions between rooms transparently. This is an expense, but it also provides us flexibility — essential in post production as project schedules inevitably shift from their original bookings.

David McCallum, fellow sound supervisor and partner, has a special interest in acoustic listening spaces and providing editors with the best environment to make good decisions. His focus on editorial upgrades help to ensure we can send good tracks to the stage.

Our head tech engineer Ed Segeren attends NAB and AES every year to see new developments, and the staff is very interested in learning about what’s out there and how we might apply new technology. We try to be smart about our upgrades, and it’s always about improving workflow and work quality.

What are some recent projects completed at Tattersall?
We recently completed the series Fargo (mixing), and the feature films Beeba Boys (directed by Deepa Mehta) and Hyena Road (directed by Paul Gross), and we are in the midst of the TV series Sensitive Skin for HBO Canada. We are also doing Saving Hope, Vikings (pictured below) Season 4 and will start Season 3 of Penny Dreadful in early 2016.

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Are you still directing?
I’m surprised you even know about that! I’m trying to! Last spring I directed a very short film, a three-minute thriller called Wildlife. This month I am co-directing a short film about a young women indirectly involved in a police shooting and her investigation into what really happened. I have an advantage, which is that I know when a story point can be made using sound rather than needing a shot to convey something, and I have a good idea of how ADR can be employed so no need to worry about the production recording.

The wonderful thing about these non-work film projects is that I learn a huge amount every time, including just how hard producers must work to get something made, and just how vulnerable a director is when putting something of themselves out there for anyone to watch.