Supervising sound editors Nick Forshager and Kathryn Madsen reflect on the joys of using sound to fill out key moments in the series.
The 2022 Emmy Award nominations for Best Series Sound Design range from the eerie gurgling of “Stranger Things” to the explosive space adventures of “Picard,” “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds” and “Boba Fett” to retro, Timey-wimey vibes from “Loki,” all of these series feature nuanced and expansive work, creating fantastical worlds and immersing viewers in heart-pounding action.
But then there’s “Better Call Saul,” the only show in the category that’s set entirely on planet Earth in the 21st century (odd as the desert landscape of Albuquerque sometimes seems). That’s a huge outlier per genre. It’s not an outlier at all, though, when you look at how “Better Call Saul” uses sound in its storytelling, or how the show’s sound drives the series forward.
Co-supervised sound designer Nick Forshager said that, for the longer episodes of Season 6, the team recorded 28 to 30 hours of sound effects – which, for anyone in need of a quick refresher, is the art of creating sounds in a post-production studio. for a TV show or movie, in sync with each scene as it is projected on a screen. When you think of a former radio producer tapping a pair of shoes on a wooden board near the microphone to simulate footsteps, you think of sound effects.
The “Better Call Saul” team does so much sound work, not because it’s hard to capture sounds on set, but because the series has made rich use of sound in all sorts of enterprising ways. . Audio is often given extra attention in moments when the camera is getting closer or into the perspective of a specific character, or when the real world is encroaching on the characters, for both comedic and dramatic effect, not to mention sequences. of action in the series, which are less dependent on the volume of gunfire and explosions (although when the twins get involved, this sometimes changes). Rather, it’s about finely threading a needle and finding ways to telegraph precisely where sounds occur in space and how the characters under fire perceive them.
“It’s become a huge, integral part of the show,” Forshager said. “We’ll take something very small, like a pen or something, and blow it up. We’re working on a scene where we have a movie-sized theatrical image, so you look at it from this point of view: how big is this little thing going to be in relation to the story we’re telling in this scene ? ”
Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Television
Sometimes all it takes is the sound of one small thing to tell the whole story. In Episode 9, “Fun and Games,” the scene of Kim (Rhea Seehorn) revealing she left the bar captures Kim’s nervousness for whatever she’s about to do as she gets closer to a pen she can’t stop clicking. The sound of the pen is basically the only noise on the soundtrack, because the only information that matters is that quick plastic click and what the audience infers about Kim from it. She needs to get out of here, she just needs to go, and she’s terrified of what she’s doing: it’s all about volume and speed of sound.
The scene immediately cuts from Kim’s reveal to another extreme close-up of a cigarette as she smokes it in front of her and Jimmy’s apartment, the sound of burning tobacco acting as a coda to the moment in a way that poetry does, extremely summarized and precise but containing multitudes of emotion. Likewise, the squeal of tires from a car stopping beneath her is all we need to know that it’s Jimmy driving her. After Kim tells Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) what she was doing, the camera lets her out of the room and stays behind Odenkirk’s head. We don’t see his expression but we hear, magnified, the sounds of zippers and adhesive tape. These tell the audience everything we need to know. The fact that we don’t actually see her leave or the look on Odenkirk’s face makes the action much worse.
“It’s really powerful, and then this moment jumps so far in time in such a short time. We don’t need to know what happened because we know exactly what happened at that It’s a very powerful cinematic choice to do it that way,” Forshager said. “I think it’s a perfect example of the show stretching and expanding the way we need it to. We stay in our lane where we need to be, but then we take liberties or open it up to new ideas and thoughts. [about how sound will help shape the story]…Sometimes the sound fills the production dialogue [where] there are holes or noises that you have to try to balance out, and that’s the general range. But then you start breaking down the scenes and you look at the story that the sound is going to help tell.
Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Television
The show’s entire environment is made up of intense, emotional sounds that punctuate key moments (the echo of Kim and Jimmy’s last kiss, in the parking lot earlier in episode 9, is poignant for reasons that only become publicly apparent later). But co-supervised sound designer Kathryn Madsen is responsible for making those key moments whole. Sometimes the most dramatic scenes are the ones that require extra recorded dialogue to fix noise or smooth out the sometimes smaller bits of takes. It’s Madsen who has to help the actors return to their original level of performance, much later and alone in a studio booth, and adjust the dialogue so that it’s at the center of a key moment or another ingredient in a rich bran stew.
For example, Poppy Liu appears briefly at the start of Episode 2, “Carrot and Stick”, as Jo, one of two women staying at Nacho’s house and potentially discovering a passion for dominoes. “She was saying so many funny things, and I really wanted people to be able to understand what she was saying. But [with how the scene was shot], sometimes they can’t put a mic in there, so sometimes she was off mic,” Madsen said. They called Liu back to do some ADR so her one-liners could be heard clearly and also more easily adjusted to create a slightly manic and coked sound mix, which gives a sense of the overall vibe of these women and keeps the scene spinning. . more difficult when a taciturn Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) appears.
“That scene is crazy because we turned on the TV and then she turned on the dominoes and then she talks. And we spent a lot of time trying to find the balance to make sure people could hear the funny things that ‘ she was saying. It’s kind of like this cacophony,” Madsen said. “So we brought her in again to re-record and re-do some of the fun things that she had said. And, my God, she’s done funnier things than [when Vince Gilligan, the episode’s director,] first heard them on the mix stage, he was laughing.
Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Tel.
Madsen also said ADR work can be fun even for very serious footage. “[In Season 5,] in another episode of Vince, when Bob gets shot and tries to crawl between cars? I will never forget that. Bob, and it was his idea, wanted to get on the studio floor, and we recreated this whole scene. I took the boom mic off the stand, and I followed it everywhere [as he ducked and weaved]. It was amazing. You see what this cast gives on screen, but they give the same level of commitment in ADR.
And, according to Madsen, one of the benefits of working with an engaged cast is being able to re-enact the entire scene they’re covering and helping them make physical adjustments to the room so they can bring the same level. of performance even to simply replace words or syllables on words.
“When we’re actually going to record, we’re going to look for the individual tracks [as opposed to re-recording the scene all the way through]. And [the actors] get right back into the emotion,” Madsen said. “This scene where [Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian)] gets shot in the head, he does this big monologue right before he gets shot, calling Jimmy and Kim. His performance was simply amazing. And I mean, you can’t say there’s ADR in that scene.
Madsen and Forshager’s job on “Better Call Saul” is to create a strong perspective for each episode of the series. Sometimes we enter and experience whole scenes through a heightened sonic point of view; other times the sound work consists of transparent dialogue and benign background noise. But the sound is still placed as intentionally as the camera frame or cut of the edit, because the show’s creative team understands that showing who the characters are and how they feel through it is so much more impactful than tell us what’s going on with visuals alone.
“The one thing I tell film students when I’m working with them is, ‘Don’t put on sounds just to put on sounds. Put them on so they have a purpose,’” Forshager said. “In this show in particular, everything is magnified and examined many times, you really have to know what his intention is. And if he has no intention, then you get rid of it and leave room for something else .