Tag Archives: Lenny Abrahamson

Creating the soundscape for Hulu’s Normal People

By Patrick Birk

Normal People, a new Hulu series based on Sally Rooney’s 2018 novel of the same name, details the intense yet strained romance between Marianne Sheridan (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell Waldron (Paul Mescal). The athletic and popular Connell and the witty and socially outcast Marianne attend the same high school in County Sligo, Ireland. When the wealthy Marianne reveals her feelings for Connell — whose mother works as housekeeper for Marianne’s family — he begins a relationship with her on the condition of it being a secret. After a turbulent final year in their hometown, the two reconnect at Trinity College Dublin, where the tables have turned socially.

Steve Fanagan

The series was written by Rooney, Alice Birch and Mark O’Rowe and directed by Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie Macdonald. (You can see our interview with director/EP Abrahamson about the series here.)

I had the pleasure of chatting with Steve Fanagan (Game of Thrones, Room), who was the supervising sound editor, sound designer and re-recording mixer on the series. Fanagan also contributed to the source music on Normal People, which seamlessly interacts with both the design and a phenomenal licensed soundtrack. From Ireland but now based in London, Fanagan had a lot of knowledge to share on building the soundscape of this world.

Fanagan began his process working on the sound design and editorial at his studio in London before heading to Dublin to mix at picture and sound house Outer Limits, which is owned by Abrahamson’s longtime colorist Gary Curran. Fanagan finds that coordinating with the picture editors prior to the shoot is often helpful. In the case of Normal People, second director Macdonald worked with her editor, Stephen O’Connell, in London. Abrahamson worked with his editor, Nathan Nugent, in Dublin at Outer Limits. O’Connell assembled at Outer Limits then came over to London for the fine cutting.

Let’s find out more from Fanagan, how he works with the picture editors and his workflow on the series.

Let’s talk about working with picture editors. In Episode 5, there’s a shot where the music stops with a sudden cut to Jamie cracking a pool ball with his cue, right on the transient. I’ve met a few sound designers that use transients on cuts as a technique.
It’s a funny thing there. I have to put my hands up and say all credit goes to Nathan Nugent, who cut that episode. That was very much his design. In editorial and then in the mix, we worked on enhancing and expanding on that idea. One of the lovely things about working with a film editor like Nathan is that he is really sophisticated with sound and music.

The way I tend to work is to get my hands on the script at the beginning of the process, which always happens on Lenny’s projects. I then build a library of stuff I think will be useful. I might start mocking up some tonal, more abstract sound design, but I’m also thinking about all the fundamentals: room tone, wind or whatever environmental material they might need. I always make sure to give that to the editor in advance. Then, as the cutting begins, there is a library to pull from rather than the editor having to go search for things. Hopefully, in doing that, we’ve begun a bit of a conversation, and, hopefully, it means the editor is using stuff that I think is useful.

There’s something about a guide track that can become very loved because it’s working as they assemble a cut. It’s also a good way around copyright issues with temp effects while supplying the cutting room with high-quality material. I also always try to go and record material specifically for the show. For this series, I spent four days at the locations and got access to all the different houses, to the school, to parts of Trinity College.

A lot of the extras are actual Trinity students?
Yes, absolutely. They had about 130 extras, and from what I know, a bunch of those were actual Trinity students. That meant that I got some really good crowd material with that specific crowd, but I also got to just wander around the campus freely with my recording equipment, which you wouldn’t ordinarily be allowed to do.

On Connell’s first day in Trinity, he comes off Dame Street, which is a busy front road. He walks through the front arch into the front square, and there is something quite magical about leaving this busy city street. As you go through the front arch, it’s an echo-y space, and there’s quite a lovely acoustic to that. There’s always life in it. And when you come into the front square, a lot of the city disappears. Those three locations have such different acoustic properties to them. To be able to record a whole lot of options for those and build a piece that hopefully does that experience justice felt like a real gift.

I noticed a lot of character in the reverbs on each of the voices. Did you take impulse responses of the spaces?
I did. We started to do that with Lenny on his last film, The Little Stranger, and it worked really well. For Normal People, I captured an impulse response from every location I went to. Sometimes they work brilliantly, and sometimes they give you a really good idea of the kind of reverb you’re looking for. So reverb on this series is very much a mixture of Altiverb and those impulse responses, plus Exponential Audio PhoenixVerb for interiors. I’d also used Slapper from The Cargo Cult for exteriors and Avid’s ReVibe as another option on the buss. I try not to be purist about anything.

When you get to hang out in the places where they’re shooting, you have a bit of a feel for how they sound. And you remember that if you were speaking at that level in that space, there would be a kind of this size reverb on it. If I’m quieter or louder, that changes.

How else do you prepare for a project, apart from building that ambience library?
I love building a session template with plugins that I think will be appropriate for the show. With this, it was like, what do I think will be useful to us across all 12 episodes? For the noise reduction, dialogue/ADR supervisor Niall Brady is an iZotope RX wiz, and he used a lot of that on the dialogue track. I tend to use a mixture of Cedar and Waves WNS. I really love FabFilter Pro-Q 3 as an EQ. I love the versatility of it. If I want to put an extra notch or something in there, I can just keep adding to it. I also love their de-esser.

I always have some sort of compression available, but I don’t have it turned on as a default. In this case, I was using Avid Pro Compressor and more often than not, that’s turned off. I love the idea of trying to figure out the simplest approach to the cleanup and to the EQ end of things, and then trying to figure out what I can do with volume automation. After that, it’s just about figuring out if there’s a little bit of extra polish that’s needed through compression.

I always have multi-band compression available to me. On my dialogue auxes, I’ll have some extra compression or de-essing and limiting available if I need it. The one thing that I might leave on the buss is a limiter, but it’s doing almost nothing except managing the peaks. I keep all of my plugins and inserts bypassed and only enable them as I feel I need them.

How did you handle metering?
What’s interesting with the BBC spec is that they don’t just want, for example in our case, a -23 LUFS with a -3 dB true peak. They also want to make sure that the internal dynamic of that spec isn’t too broad for broadcast television — to make sure that at no point are you really hammering music at a very high level or allowing the quiet scenes to be so quiet that people volume surf. We worked hard to keep a good dynamic within that spec. I use VisLM to do those measurements because I quite like the Nugen interfaces. I also use their LMCorrect.

Dynamic range was used to great effect in Normal People. In a show like this where so much of the drama is unspoken, when explosions happen — like Marianne’s brother becoming physically abusive happened — they rocked me.
I think it’s that beautiful idea in sound — quiet and loud are always relative. If something needs to feel loud, then if you can have near-silence before it, you’ll get more of that jump in the moment when the loud bit happens.

It’s also true with the quiet stuff. An example of this in the series is their first kiss in Episode 1. It begins as a normal scene, wherein we’re hearing the ambience outside and inside Marianne’s house. The room tones and that environment are all very live and present, but as the actors lean into each other, it feels natural to start to pull that material away to create some space. This allows us to focus on their breathing and tiny movements because, if you were in that situation, you’re not going to be thinking about the birds outside. I can’t really overstate how much of a joy it was to work on this because all of that material is there. You’re working with this beautiful source material and the book — these beautifully realized scripts — and with directors who’ve really thought that space out. And they’re working with these actors, Paul and Daisy, who just are those characters.

There’s a beautiful moment, the morning after Marianne meets Connell at Trinity. She’s in her boyfriend’s flat and he gets up and asks her if there’s coffee. The look she gives him, you know he’s a dead man walking. It’s just that idea of being allowed to sit in people’s space, being trusted in a lot of ways as an audience member to observe and to infer rather than sort of being hammered over the head with exposition.

The screeners I received for this interview were not finalized in terms of picture or sound. As a sound designer I was grateful, because I could see behind the curtain and get insight into your process. It was like hearing a song you can already tell is good before the final mix. Apart from building ambience banks and templates at first, how do you whittle down a project to its final, most polished form?
What you’re always trying to do is to be open to the project that’s in front of you. Obviously, the sound work is always a team effort, so Niall Brady, our dialogue and ADR supervisor, is very involved in this as well.

I really love sound but also cinema and storytelling. The work that we get to do as sound designers is an amazing alchemy of all of those things. As you approach the work, you’re just trying to find the way into a scene or a character. If you can find small sounds that help you begin that process, some simple building blocks, then hopefully you can go on a journey with the sound work that will help your director realize the vision that he or she has for the work.

A lot of the time, that can be about really subtle stuff. At times it’s adding things like breath and very close-up breath and nonverbal utterances. The impetus for this in Normal People is intimacy — the idea that these characters are so close together and so inhabiting each other’s space that you’d hear those kinds of noises. A really lovely thing about sound is that it’s a very subconscious experience in a funny way.

Often, the moments where we become aware of sound in film is when it’s not working. So you’re trying to find the things that feel natural, honest and true to what you’re watching. Here, that began with trying to figure out what the environments might sound like. You’ve got this lovely contrast that is a real feature of the book and the series, which is that these two people have quite different backgrounds and quite different home lives.

The Foley crew that worked on this was Caoimhe Doyle and Jonathan Reynolds, and their work is incredibly specific in that way as well. From trying to pick the right shoes for a character to the right surface to miking techniques, all so that the right acoustic is on that sound.

This exploration is also facilitated by the collaboration that you have with the entire production. In this case, the collaboration is very much led and directed by Lenny, who has an amazing insight into everything that we’re working on, and his editor Nathan Nugent, who always has a really clear sound and music pass done on an episode. We always have a very interesting place to start. A lot of the time, rather than doing formal spotting sessions, we’ll have conversations. Lenny likes to talk to us in preproduction. I was in touch with the location sound mixer Niall O’Sullivan, who also worked on Lenny’s film Frank, to get ahead of any challenging shoot locations.

Then, what begins to happen is that Lenny and Nathan will share some of the picture with us, whether it’s some scenes that they’ve assembled or full episodes that are work in progress, and we tend to just start working on them. We’ll send some dialogue, music and effects bounces to them, so we’re starting to build the track a little bit. I’m always mixing as I cut because I feel like it’s the best way for me to present the work and figure out what it is. So we’re developing the mix from the beginning of editorial through to the end of the final mix. Sometimes you’re having conversations with them about what they liked or didn’t like, and sometimes you’re getting the next version of the cut back, and you can see from their AAF what they’ve used or haven’t used.

Also, as you’re watching the cuts, you’re looking for those notes from them that may appear on a card or a subtitle on the screen. So it’s a really helpful way to work.


Patrick Birk is a musician, sound engineer and post pro at Silver Sound, a boutique sound house based in New York City.

Director/EP Lenny Abrahamson on Hulu’s Normal People

By Iain Blair

Irish director Lenny Abrahamson first burst onto the international scene in 2015 with the harrowing drama Room, which picked up four Oscar nominations, including for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Director. Abrahamson’s latest project is Hulu’s Normal People, based on Sally Rooney’s best-selling novel of the same name.

 (Photo by: Enda Bowe)

Lenny Abrahamson

The series focuses on the passionate, tender and complicated relationship of Marianne and Connell — from the end of their school days in a small town in the west of Ireland to their undergraduate years at Trinity College. At school, he’s a popular sports hero, while she’s upper class, lonely, proud and intimidating. But when Connell comes to pick up his mother from her cleaning job at Marianne’s house, a strange connection grows between the two teenagers… one they are determined to conceal. A year later, they’re both studying in Dublin and Marianne has found her feet in a new social world but Connell hangs on the sidelines, shy and uncertain as the tables are turned.

The series stars Daisy Edgar-Jones (War of the Worlds, Cold Feet) as Marianne and Paul Mescal, in his first television role, as Connell. Adapted by Sally Rooney alongside writers Alice Birch and Mark O’Rowe, Normal People is a 12-episode 30-minute drama series produced by Element Pictures for Hulu and BBC Three. Rooney and Abrahamson also serve as executive producers and Endeavour Content is the international distributor.

I spoke with Abrahamson — whose credits also include The Little Stranger, Frank, Garage, What Richard Did and Adam & Paul — about making the show, his workflows and his love of editing.

You’ve taken on quite a few book projects in the past. What was the appeal of this one?
It’s always an instinctual thing — something chimes with me. Yeah, I’ve done a number of literary adaptations, and I wasn’t really looking to do another. In fact, I was setting out not do another one, but in this case the novel just struck me so much, with such resonance, and it’s very hard not to do it when that happens. And it’s an Irish project and I hadn’t shot in Ireland for some seven years, and it was great to go back and do something that felt so fresh, so all of that was very attractive to me.

(Photo by Enda Bowe/Hulu)

Rooney co-wrote the script with Alice Birch, but translating any novel to a visual medium is always tricky, especially this book with all its inner psychological detail. As a director, how challenging was it to translate the alternating sections of the book while maintaining forward motion of the narrative?
It was pretty challenging. The writing is so direct and honest, yet deep, which is a rare combination. And Sally’s perspective is so fresh and insightful, and all that was a challenge I tried to take on and capture in the filming. How do you deal with something so interior? When you really care about the characters as I did, how do you do justice to them and their extraordinary relationship? But I relished the challenge.

Obviously, casting the right actors was crucial. What did Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal bring to their roles and the project?
I feel very lucky to have found them. We actually found Paul first, very early on. He’d been making some waves in theater in Ireland, but he’d never been on screen in anything. What I saw in him was a combination of intelligence, which both characters had to have, and brilliant choices in playing Connell. He really captured that mix of masculinity and anxiety which is so hard to do. There is a sensitivity but also an inarticulateness, and he has great screen presence. Daisy came later, and it was harder in that you had to find someone who works well with Paul. She’s brilliant too, as she found a way of playing Marianne’s spikiness in a very un-clichéd and delicate way that allows you to see past it. They ended up working so well together and became good friends, too.

You co-directed with Hettie Macdonald (Doctor Who, Howard’s End), with you directing the first six episodes and Macdonald directing the final six. How did that work in terms of maintaining the same naturalistic tone and feel you set?
We spoke a lot at the beginning when she came on board. The whole idea was for her to bring her own sensibility to it. We’d already cast and shot the first half and we knew a director of her caliber wasn’t going to break that. We had two DPs: Suzie Lavelle and she had had Kate McCullough. During the shooting I had the odd note, like, “It looks great,” but I was more involved with her material during editing, which is natural as the EP. We had a great relationship.

Tell us about post and your approach.
We did it all — the editing, sound and VFX — at Outer Limits, which is on the coast about 30 minutes outside Dublin. It’s run by two guys who used to be at Screen Scene, where I posted my last five or six films. I followed them over there as I like them so much. It’s a lovely place, very quiet. The editor and I were based out there for the whole thing.

Our VFX supervisor was Andy Clarke, and it’s all pretty invisible stuff, like rain and all the fixes. I also did all the grading and picture finishing at Outer Limits with my regular colorist Gary Curran, who’s done nearly all my projects. He knows what I like, but also when to push me into bolder looks. I tend toward very low-contrast, desaturated looks, but over the years he’s nudged me into more saturated, vivid palettes, which I now really like. And we’ll be doing a 4K version.

I love post, as after all the stress of the shoot and all the instant decisions you have to make on the set, it’s like swimming ashore. You reach ground and can stand up and get all the water out of your lungs and just take your time to actually make the film. I love all the creative possibilities you get in post, particularly in editing.

You edited with your go-to editor Nathan Nugent. Was he on set?
No, we sent him dailies. On a film, he might be cutting next door if we’re in a studio, but not on this. He’s very fast and I’d see an assembly of stuff within 24 hours of shooting it. We like to throw everything up in the air again during the edit. Whatever we thought as we shot, it’s all up for grabs.

What were the main editing challenges?
I think choosing to work with short episodes was really good as it takes away some of the pressure to have lots of plot and story, and it allows you to look really closely at the shifts in their relationship. But there’s nowhere to hide, and you have to absolutely deeply care about the two of them. But if you do, then all the losses and gains, the highs and lows, become as big a story as any you could tell. That’s what gives it momentum. But if you don’t get that right, or you miscast it, then the danger is that you do lose that momentum.

So it’s a real balancing act… to feel that you’re spending time with them but also letting the story move forward in a subtle way. It’s the challenge of all editing — maintaining the tension and pace while letting an audience get a deep and close enough look at the characters.

Lenny Abrahamson

Can you talk about the importance of music and sound in the show.
I’ve had the same team ever since What Richard Did, including my supervising sound designer and editor Steve Fanagan and sound mixer Niall O’Sullivan. They’re so creative. Then I had composer Stephen Rennicks who’s also done all my projects. What was different this time was that we also licensed some tracks, as it just felt right. Our music supervisors Juliet Martin and Maggie Phillips were great with that.

So it was a core team of five, and I did what I always like to do — get all of that involved far earlier than you’d normally do. We don’t just lock picture and hand it over, so this way you have sound constantly interacting with editorial, and they both develop organically at the same time.

What’s next?
Another collaboration with Sally on her first novel, “Conversations With Friends,” with the same team I had on this. But with the COVID-19 pandemic, who knows when we’ll be able to start shooting.


Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.

The Little Stranger director Lenny Abrahamson

By Iain Blair

Lenny Abrahamson, the Irish director who helmed the cult indies Frank, Garage, What Richard Did and Adam & Paul, burst onto the international scene in 2015 with the harrowing drama Room. The claustrophobic tale — of a woman and her young son kept prisoner in a 10×10-foot garden shed — picked up four Oscar nominations in the categories of Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Director, and won the Best Actress Oscar and BAFTA for lead Brie Larson.

Now Abrahamson is back with a new film, Focus Features’ The Little Stranger, which swaps the tight confines of The Room for the sprawling, light and airy expanses of a huge English country home.

But don’t be fooled by appearances. Abrahamson begins to twist the screws from the very start of the story, which is part ghost story, part murder mystery. The film follows Dr. Faraday (Domnhall Gleeson), the son of a housemaid, who has built a life of quiet respectability as a country doctor. During the long hot summer of 1948, he is called to a patient at Hundreds Hall, where his mother once worked. The Hall has been home to the Ayres family for more than two centuries, but it is now in decline. Its inhabitants — mother, son and daughter — are haunted by something more ominous than dying. When he takes on his new patient, Faraday has no idea how closely, and how disturbingly, the family’s story is about to become entwined with his own. It also stars Ruth Wilson (Showtime’s The Affair).

I spoke with Abrahamson about making the film.

Last time we talked, you had been offered a lot of high-profile projects after the huge success of Room. Instead you made this smaller film, which you had been developing. What do you look for in a project, and what was the appeal of this new film?
I did this for the same reason I did all my other films — I felt compelled to do it, and I connected to it. I’d been thinking about it for the past 10 years. I’m not really strategic about my career. I did consider other projects, but this just felt ready to go, and I was worried that if I didn’t do it just then, I’d never get to do it. So the timing was right.

This is based on Sarah Waters’ novel “The Little Stranger,” and translating any novel to cinema is always tricky, especially this book with all its flashbacks. How difficult was it?
It was very tough, because in a novel you’ve got space to work and digress and build up atmosphere and shift focus. But films are so demanding in terms of unfolding narrative, and it was hard maintaining forward motion while keeping it subtle and ambiguous and dealing with multiple timelines. I also focused on doing it elegantly, not mechanically. It took all the combined efforts of everyone involved — editing, production design, music and sound — to deal with those challenges and also keep it true to the novel.

It’s quite a mixture of genres, tones and themes. Was that your intent?
Finding the right balance and the right tone is always crucial, and in this case we had to find that sense of disquiet and uneasiness, which permeates everything. We also had to keep that sense of ambiguity about everything that happens. I wanted a sort of mash-up of genres — drama, psychological thriller, ghost story, period romance and gothic chiller — and to keep the audience off balance all the time.

Obviously, casting the right actors was crucial. Is it true you originally cast Domnhall Gleeson as another character, not Faraday?
Yes, I’d worked with him on Frank, and he’s got such a range and is so clever. I’d actually started talking to him about this three, four years ago, and I sent him the script with another character in mind for him, but he said he so loved Faraday that he wanted to play him instead. It just made sense, so I cast around him.

It’s beautifully shot by Ole Bratt Birkeland, the DP who also just shot the Judy Garland biopic Judy, starring Renee Zellweger for director Rupert Goold. What was your approach?
We didn’t have any hard and fast rules. I always think that’s a mistake. So we watched a lot of films and talked a lot, and tried to go against the usual assumptions about making a film like this. We avoided the obvious dark look, and in some of the more sinister scenes the lighting is very even and bright, which I think makes it creepier. It’s a bright interior, maybe not what you expect for violence.

He did a great job, very subtle work, and he created great atmosphere without using any of the obvious lighting tropes. We tested a lot, which was very useful, and Ole didn’t use any direct light. All the light is bounced and soft, which was a very smart decision by him. We shot in a real 18th Century country house near London, and then used another in better repair for all the exterior flashbacks.

Where did you post?
I’m based in Dublin, so I always do all the post there, and we have great facilities and great people. We posted and did most of the cutting at Screen Scene in Dublin, where I’ve posted my last four films. We had a big room with a big screen and projector, which was great, and they also did all the VFX.

Ed Bruce was the VFX supervisor and is very experienced. They do such subtle work. For instance, the house didn’t have the beautiful skylight you see quite a lot, so they added all that, and there are a lot of invisible things they did that you’d never notice. They do shows like Game of Thrones, so they’re very experienced and very good at what they do, and it’s a close collaborative relationship.

Do you like the post process?
I love post after the stress of the shoot and the instant decisions and deadlines you have to deal with on the set. It’s such a big contrast, and it’s where you can take your time to actually make the film.

I love sitting there with the editor and slowly building the movie. And unlike the shoot, where the meter’s ticking away, it’s relaxing and also the cheapest part of the whole filmmaking process. It’s where all the magic happens and you begin to discover what the film is.

The film was cut by your go-to editor Nathan Nugent. Can you tell us about that relationship and how it worked?
He was on the set and also shot 2nd unit for me, so he was very involved during the shoot. He began cutting in Soho during the shoot, and then did most of the editing back in Dublin after we got back.

Can you talk about the importance of music and sound in the film.
It’s so important and we began all the sound design and sound work at the same time we began the offline editing, instead of the usual waiting until picture’s locked. I always insist on doing it this way now as there are so many advantages. As you work, you can really see the effect of sound, and that helps with the picture cut.

Our sound editors Steve Fanagan and Niall Brady were also on set and recorded tons of material. Then Steve designed for seven months while we cut, assembling this very rich soundscape. The sound was done at Screen Scene and partly at Ardmore, with some ADR at Goldcrest in London. The music mix was by Peter Cobbin and Kirsty Whalley, ex-Abbey Road, now with their own studio called Sweet Thunder. They did incredibly delicate and beautiful work.

How important was the DI on this?
It’s so important, and we did all the grading and picture finishing at Outer Limits in Dublin, with my regular colorist, Gary Curran, who started early on developing looks. We also did an HDR grade, which I hadn’t really delved into before, and it was very beautiful.

What’s next? A big Hollywood movie?
(Laughs) I do get offered projects, but it would have to be something original that really excites me. Next, I’ll probably shoot this boxing film called A Man’s World, based on the true story of Emile Griffith. It’s a fascinating life, and I’ll shoot it in the US next year… hopefully.

We’re heading into the awards season. You’ve been nominated for an Oscar for Room, which won a ton of awards. How important are awards to you and your films?
Very important. They bring a lot of attention to smaller films like mine, and this one is very unusual. It looks like it falls into a genre, but it doesn’t really, so awards and recognition really help.


Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.