Friday, April 8, 2016

THE 100: Pulp Science Fiction and my Sonic Mindset

I have had the privilege of being part of the dynamic and creative team on the CW's THE 100, serving as sound designer on 44 of the 45 episodes.  It has been an exciting and challenging job, but one that has required quite a bit of soul-searching along the way on my part in order to
bring out the best sonic fingerprint possible.  With sound editorial and mixing on three seasons complete, I would like to share a little bit about my thought process, motivations and discoveries with regard to the soundscape for THE 100.

Just as actors do, all of us craftspeople (writers, directors, cinematographers, editors, Et al.) have to dig into our arsenals of experience in order to breathe exuberant life into our individual cogs in the giant wheel that is THE 100.  With regard to sound design, there are a number of things that inform and influence my work.  For THE 100, it began with reading the first novel by Kass Morgan, watching the pilot episode (which I did not work on), and reading a handful of the show's scripts.  This provided a sense of the world I was supposed to build and expand upon.  It also gave me initial impressions on specific sound design elements (technology, creatures, mood, etc.).  The show was definitely steeped in sci-fi, but with an overall sense of the dilapidated,  the run-down and melancholy.  It felt scary, yet rambunctious, exciting and big.  Old and new.  Unique.  Okay, these were broad-stroke concepts, but enough for me to get started.

Sound editorial for each episode normally begins with a spotting session, where a number of our key post production crew meet and discus specific issues, ideas, concepts, and approaches to making the episodes sonically awesome.  I don't normally go to these sessions, as my editorial schedule is pretty full, but I do get the notes from my sound supervisor, Charlie Crutcher (who also shares my enthusiasm for this show).

The picture cut is also a vital component in informing my approach to design, as the picture editors are in fact the architects who sculpt and structure the footage into a cohesive and artistic representation of the original script.  They provide a timing, a heartbeat if you will, and I feed off their impressions.  So far, so good.  The shows were coming in, and we were all good.

But at some point in the first season, it all went to hell.  Things became darker, bleaker, harder, painful and threatening.  The faceless enemy proved terrifying and haunting, and the Dropship became a claustrophobic prison in a Brave New World.  It all changed, and I had to adjust my thought process accordingly.  And it was exciting.  The overall sound design approach became bigger, bolder, more active and bombastic.  Hard-hitting and violent.  Okay, cool.  I can do that.

The final episode of Season One was epic for me, but once again, just as I'd settled into my design groove, and just as we were about to wrap up on that first season, a massive cliffhanger presented a potential shift in the upcoming season's sound design.

Mount Weather changed everything.

It was clean, pristine and not so mean (at first).  Woah.  Totally different than the big, bombastic First Season.  It was at that point that I had a sudden epiphany about what THE 100 really was, and what I could have been defining my editorial style as during that first season... and it drastically redefined my approached to the sound design on both Seasons 2 and 3.

THE 100 is pulp fiction.

Not the incredibly awesome 1994 Quentin Tarantino film, but the grimy, shocking, violent and cynical gangster/crime paperbacks of the 1930s.  Those short, dime-store rags were chock full of gritty and hard-hitting, politically and socially questionable storylines, with colorful and shady characters, mayhem, murder, lust, revenge and not-so-happy endings.

Seeing and hearing the show in this fashion suddenly opened my eyes to a million thing I should have seen/heard from the start.  I've always loved old, gritty black-and-white gangster films, as well as the film of Kurasawa, and the more modern martial arts films that have come out of Hong Kong as of late.  Needless to say, my creative juices started flowing and I was extra-motivated to dive into this further.  I've always wanted to cut on something "grindhouse-y", and suddenly, THE 100 became just that.  Suddenly Lexa wasn't just the Commander; she was a bad-ass Amazon warrior queen with ninja skills.  Titus wasn't just the Flamekeeper; he was a fighting Shaolin monk.  Lincoln and Bellamy weren't men; they were Titans.  Raven, Octavia, Miller, Harper, Monty, Jasper... they were The Avengers.  And why not??  Things sound better when they're supercharged.

In the real world, no one would be able to survive the harsh physical/emotional damage and destruction everyone on this show sustained... and in this extremely short amount of time they've been on the ground?  Less than a year?  Ridiculous!  But in a pulp world, it's totally logical.  All caution is thrown to the wind and it's totally okay.  This makes the approach to the series fun for me, and I took this as a cue to go big or go home.  It's a comic book.  It's a superhero tale.  It's a graphic novel (PLEASE!!).  It's pulp fiction.

Furthermore, I came to realize that each season of THE 100 was in fact a self-contained volume of short stories in a hopefully much-broader collection of pulp stories set on Earth in the future.  No long, drawn-out, overly-inflated storylines, but lean, mean kick-ass tales of survival that come to an often blood or violent resolution before starting all over again the following season.  Like The Martian Chronicles meets Mad Max meets Kill Bill.


I love when a show can tell a strong and compelling multi-dimensional tale in a short number of episodes, and so far, this season has delivered with the hard-hitting, politically and socially-charged storylines, colorful and shady characters, mayhem, murder, lust, revenge and not-so-happy endings.  Yes, this season has seen its share of controversy, and though totally heartbreaking to most of us, in the big picture, those moments of controversy are integral to the gritty pulp fiction genre.  I'm not saying I agree or disagree with some of the story decisions, but man, what a ride!  You gotta give the writers that much.  City of Lights, ALIE, Skaikru history, Grounder religion, Commander lineage, nightbloods...  All this and more to come... That's a lot to chew on for 16 episodes (10 aired so far!), so I say we all just sit back and enjoy the craziness!

I always look forward to the sonic challenges presented in THE 100, and with each new season, I've been able to expand my editorial style and grow as an editor.   I hope Season Four brings on a mountain of new, terrifying and delicious challenges for the extraordinary characters we love so dearly, and I hope I'm successful in making them sound good.  Stay pulp, friends!

Thursday, June 12, 2014

I'm a Grounder: Sounding Off on The 100's Grand Finale

The audio post team on our final night of mixing
WE ARE GROUNDERS (Part 2), the big, bad Season One finale of the CW's sci-fi drama, The 100, was a massive undertaking on all fronts.  From the writing, directing and acting, through production and all the way through every aspect of post production.  After watching the show last night, I thought I'd take a moment and share some of what the Warner Bros. sound team and I went through in order to bring this ambitious episode to sonic life.  If you haven't watched The 100 yet, the following paragraphs will contains some SPOILERS.  If you have watched, then please read on!

The 100 presented us with a massive challenge on both the creative front and on a time management level.  With approximately six days allocated for editorial on each episode (before tearing through a two-day mix), our team faced the grueling and exhausting undertaking of developing the sonic themes of the series, while sculpting and heightening the sonic drama that unfolds chaotically within each episode.  Every episode was huge in different ways.  We faced violent crash landings, acid fog, physical enemies of all sorts, booby traps, hallucinogenic fruits and nuts, rocket launches, hangings, lynching, torture and executions, biological warfare, crude surgeries with primitive tools, bone crunching fights, electrical explosions, concussive bridge explosions, wily machine gun fire, bow and arrow attacks, and a slew of other sound-heavy insanity.

Up until Episode 109, one of our biggest theme-based sonic challenges had been to followed the decline and eventual "death" of the Ark (the orbiting space station where humanity settled after a cataclysmic nuclear fiasco), as well as designing a haunting soundscape for the alien-but-oddly-familiar setting of Earth.  The Ark was plagued with system malfunctions, power surges, ventilation failures, straining physical components, and a concerned and panicked population  to boot, and a thick combination of backgrounds and group ADR played a major role here.  Similarly, backgrounds and ADR were also vital components on the ground, given the fact that the one hundred active and curious juveniles were experiencing Earth for the first time.  However, Episode 109 was a huge turning point for The 100.  Mutineers hijacked the Exodus Ship and blasted away from the Ark, completely crippling the Ark, its people and its future.  By this point also, everything on Earth had gone to hell.  Every bad decision carried ridiculously major consequences, particularly the failed "peace talks" with the Grounders.  War was inevitable, and it came in Episode 113.

WE ARE GROUNDERS (Part 2) was by far the biggest episode of the season, not just for the obvious onscreen reasons, but also for our concerted effort to manage our budget against the allotted number of editorial shifts while knocking the show out of the park.  Our crew was tight, focused and excited to tackle this big show despite the taxing schedule and mounting pressure to wrap up the season with a bang. 

There were several big moments here where sound effects, dialogue and ADR served to heighten the experience of the season's grand finale.  In space, these moments included:
  • The firing of the Ark’s thrusters, launching the Ark into Earth’s atmosphere
  • The panicked and frightened members of the Ark during the violent entry into Earth’s atmosphere
  • The entry and break up of the massive Ark.  Many stations exploded, disintegrated and blew apart into hundreds of fragments.

 The major sound effect and dialogue moments on Earth include:
  • The remaining members of the original hundred juveniles busily and frantically prepare to face the approaching army of Grounders.  Lots of heavy FX/Foley and ADR prep to sell the fear and chaos.
  • Radios, walkie-talkies, intercoms and other communication devices.  Lots of prep in FX for squelches, radio interference and hash.  Our ADR sessions also included recording the actors and group performers through walkie-talkies as well as with a clean signal.  Lots of perspective and intercutting throughout the episode.
  • A massive and barbaric battle.  Our group ADR sessions for this (as well as the previous episode) are of particular note here, as we took precise care to create two distinct vocal stylings to distinguish between the wild, cannibalistic and terrifying battle cries of the Reapers and those of the deadly Orc-like Grounders.  The battle also required heavy amounts of Foley, sound FX and design, of course.  Rusted, heavy swords, primitive yet punchy bows and arrows, and lots of hand-to-hand combat elements were crucial.
  • Tons of gunfire (onscreen and offscreen, as well as heard from within the Drop Ship)
  • Landmines and hand grenades
  • The Grounder Queen infiltrating the Drop Ship and the fight that ensues
  • The Grounders pounding on the Drop Ship trying to get at the hiding juveniles
  • The juveniles firing off the Drop Ship's rockets in an effort to fry the invading army
  • Abby experiencing Earth for the first time.  It's beautiful, unlike the events of the previous Act (and the previous 11 episodes).

Warner Bros. Sound:  My home away from home
Though sound effects and ADR played prominently throughout this episode, I'd like to give big kudos to this episode's music, which played an equally huge part in bringing forth the emotional core of this story.  We made every effort to feature music during the mix, particularly during the poignant and intimate scenes, and again during the heightened battle sequences.

Given the pressed, no-room-for-mistakes schedule, waiting for visual effects to be delivered became the second biggest obstacle on this episode.  The visuals we received early on in the process were too crude to cut to, yet we began to build conceptual elements that helped create a solid yet turbulent basis for what was to come.  Final VFX arrived late during our second and final day of the mix.  Despite it all, spirits remained high during the home stretch of the show, and the clients went away extremely happy with the end result.

Working on this series was not only an incredible challenge for me, but also a blessed milestone in my career.  I am absolutely grateful to Charlie Crutcher and Warner Bros. Sound for bringing me into the fold, and I look forward to sharing in next season's adventures of The 100.  Happy Summer!

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Pilots Wrapped, Crucible Survived!

So the dust has settled on Pilot Season for 2014, and in the end, I must say I had a fantastic experience. That's not to say it was all puppy dogs and rainbows, but it was truly a memorable moment in my career, filled with immense scheduling and creative challenges, lots of mental gear shifting, and very little sleep.  I'm still buzzed by the whole experience, and I loved every minute of it.

The Tower.  Warner Bros. Lot, Burbank, CA
All five of the pilots I worked on were picked up for series (The Flash, Forever, Empire, A to Z, and Proof), and I am proud to have been part of the great sound editorial teams involved.  I got the chance to stretch my creative wings in many directions (quickly and jarringly, I might add), and work with a number of insightful editors and sound supervisors, all of whom I have the deepest admiration for.

Since pilots, I was given the chance to work on a new animated feature film from Tyler Perry called MADEA'S KIDS, and now that I'm done with my portion of the sound design work, I'm winding down a bit to enjoy a tiny hiatus before (hopefully) hopping onto some Summer work.  

Big thanks to Charlie Crutcher, Michael Lawshe, Peter Austin, Paul Curtis, Matt Taylor, Robert Ramirez, Connie Kazmer, Bill Angarola, Warner Bros. Post Production and lastly, to the Universe, for all the great opportunities that have come my way.  I look forward to more incredible experiences with Warner Bros. in the years to come.

Many blessings to all my fellow sound folks.  Be bold; be daring, and keep it interesting!
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