By Jennifer Walden
HBO’s comedy series Vice Principals — starring Danny McBride and Walton Goggins as two rival vice principals of North Jackson High School — really went wild for the Season 2 finale. Since the school’s mascot is a tiger, they hired an actual tiger for graduation day, which wreaked havoc inside the school. (The tiger was part real and part VFX, but you’d never know thanks to the convincing visuals and sound.)
The tiger wasn’t the only source of mayhem. There was gunfire and hostages, a car crash and someone locked in a cage — all in the name of comedy.
Through all the bedlam, it was vital to have clean and clear dialogue. The show’s comedy comes from the jokes that are often ad-libbed and subtle.
Here, Warner Bros. Sound supervising sound editor George Haddad, MPSE, and dialogue/ADR editor Karyn Foster talk about what went into the Emmy-nominated sound editing on the Vice Principals Season 2 finale, “The Union Of The Wizard & The Warrior.”
Of all the episodes in Season 2, why did you choose “The Union of the Wizard & The Warrior” for award consideration?
George Haddad: Personally, this was the funniest episode — whether that’s good for sound or not. They just let loose on this one. For a comedy, it had so many great opportunities for sound effects, walla, loop group, etc. It was the perfect match for award consideration. Even the picture editor said beforehand that this could be the one. Of course, we don’t pay too much attention to its award-potential; we focus on the sound first. But, sure enough, as we went through it, we all agreed that this could be it.
Karyn Foster: This episode was pretty dang large, with the tiger and the chaos that the tiger causes.
In terms of sound, what was your favorite moment in this episode? Why?
Haddad: It was during the middle of the show when the tiger got loose from the cage and created havoc. It’s always great for sound when an animal gets loose. And it was particularly fun because of the great actors involved. This had comedy written all over it. You know no one is going to die, just because the nature of the show. (Actually, the tiger did eat the animal handler, but he kind of deserved it.)
I had a lot of fun with the tiger and we definitely cheated reality there. That was a good sound design sequence. We added a lot of kids screaming and adults screaming. The reaction of the teachers was even more scared than the students, so it was funny. It was a perfect storm for sound effects and dialogue.
Foster: My favorite scene was when Lee [Goggins] is on the ground after the tiger mauls his hand and he’s trying to get Neal [McBride] to say, “I love you.” That scene was hysterical.
What was your approach to the tiger sounds?
Haddad: We didn’t have production sound for the tiger, as the handler on-set kept a close watch on the real animal. Then in the VFX, we have the tiger jumping, scratching with its paws, roaring…
I looked into realistic tiger sounds, and they’re not the type of animal you’d think would roar or snarl — sounds we are used to having for a lion. We took some creative license and blended sounds together to make the tiger a little more ferocious, but not too scary. Because, again, it’s a comedy so we needed to find the right balance.
What was the most challenging scene for sound?
Haddad: The entire cast was in this episode, during the graduation ceremony. So you had 500 students and a dozen of the lead cast members. That was pretty full, in terms of sound. We had to make it feel like everyone is panicking at the same time while focusing on the tiger. We had to keep the tension going, but it couldn’t be scary. We had to keep the tone of the comedy going. That’s where the balance was tricky and the mixers did a great job with all the material we gave them. I think they found the right tone for the episode.
Foster: For dialogue, the most challenging scene was when they are in the cafeteria with the tiger. That was a little tough because there are a lot of people talking and there were overlapping lines. Also, it was shot in a practical location, so there was room reflection on the production dialogue.
A comedy series is all about getting a laugh. How do you use sound to enhance the comedy in this series?
Haddad: We take the lead off of Danny McBride. Whatever his character is doing, we’re not going to try to go over the top just because he and his co-stars are brilliant at it. But, we want to add to the comedy. We don’t go cartoonish. We try to keep the sounds in reality but add a little bit of a twist on top of what the characters are already doing so brilliantly on the screen.
Quite frankly, they do most of the work for us and we just sweeten what is going on in the scene. We stay away from any of the classic Hanna-Barbera cartoon sound effects. It’s not that kind of comedy, but at the same time we will throw a little bit of slapstick in there — whether it’s a character falling or slipping or it’s a gun going off. For the gunshots, I’ll have the bullet ricochet and hit a tree just to add to the comedy that’s already there.
A comedy series is all about the dialogue and the jokes. What are some things you do to help the dialogue come through?
Haddad: The production dialogue was clean overall, and the producers don’t want to change any of the performances, even if a line is a bit noisy. The mixers did a great job in making sure that clarity was king for dialogue. Every single word and every single joke was heard perfectly. Comedy is all about timing.
We were fortunate because we get clean dialogue and we found the right balance of all the students screaming and the sounds of panicking when the tiger created havoc. We wanted to make sure that Danny and his co-stars were heard loud and clear because the comedy starts with them. Vice Principals is a great and natural sounding show for dialogue.
Foster: Vice Principals was a pleasure to work on because the dialogue was in good shape. The editing on this episode wasn’t difficult. The lines went together pretty evenly.
We basically work with what we’ve been given. It’s all been chosen for us and our job is to make it sound smooth. There’s very minimal ADR on the show.
In terms of clarification, we make sure that any lines that really need to be heard are completely separate, so when it gets to the mix stage the mixer can push that line through without having to push everything else.
As far as timing, we don’t make any changes. That’s a big fat no-no for us. The picture editor and showrunners have already decided what they want and where, and we don’t mess with that.
There were a large number of actors present for the graduation ceremony. Was the production sound mixer able to record those people in that environment? Or, was that sound covered in loop?
Haddad: There are so many people in the scene. and that can be challenging to do solely in loop group. We did multiple passes with the actors we had in loop. We also had the excellent sound library here at Warner Bros. Sound. I also captured recordings at my kids’ high school. So we had a lot of resource material to pull from and we were able to build out that scene nicely. What we see on-camera, with the number of students and adults, we were able to represent that through sound.
As for recording at my kids’ high school, I got permission from the principal but, of course, my kids were embarrassed to have their dad at school with his sound equipment. So I tried to stay covert. The microphones were placed up high, in inconspicuous places. I didn’t ask any students to do anything. We were like chameleons — we came and set up our equipment and hit record. I had Røde microphones because they were easy to mount on the wall and easy to hide. One was a Røde VideoMic and the other was their NTG1 microphone. I used a Roland R-26 recorder because it’s portable and I love the quality. It’s great for exterior sounds too because you don’t get a lot of hiss.
We spent a couple hours recording and we were lucky enough to get material to use in the show. I just wanted to catch the natural sound of the school. There are 2,700 students, so it’s an unusually high student population and we were able to capture that. We got lucky when kids walked by laughing or screaming or running to the next class. That was really useful material.
Foster: There was production crowd recorded. For most of the episodes when they had pep rallies and events, there was production crowd recorded. They took the time to record some specific takes. When you’re shooting group on the stage, you’re limited to the number of people you have. You have to do multiple takes to try and mimic that many people.
Can you talk about the tools you couldn’t have done without?
Haddad: This show has a natural sound, so we didn’t use pitch shifting or reverb or other processing like we’d use on a show like Gotham, where we do character vocal treatments.
Foster: I would have to say iZotope RX 6. That tool for a dialogue editor is one that you can’t live without. There were some challenging scenes on Vice Principals, and the production sound mixer Christof Gebert did a really good job of getting the mics in there. The iso-mics were really clean, and that’s unusual these days. The dialogue on the show was pleasant to work on because of that.
What makes this show challenging in terms of dialogue is that it’s a comedy, so there’s a lot of ad-libbing. With ad-libbing, there’s no other takes to choose from. So if there’s a big clunk on a line, you have to make that work. With RX 6, you can minimize the clunk on a line or get rid of it. If those lines are ad-libs, they don’t want to have to loop those. The ad-libbing makes the show great but it also makes the dialogue editing a bit more complicated.
Any final thoughts you’d like to share on Vice Principals?
Haddad: We had a big crew because the show was so busy. I was lucky to get some of the best here at Warner Bros. Sound. They helped to make the show sound great, and we’re all very proud of it. We appreciate our peers selecting Vice Principals for Emmy nomination. That to us was a great feeling, to have all of our hard work pay off with an Emmy nomination.
Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based audio engineer and writer. You can follow her on Twitter at @audiojeney.com.