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.
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.