Sound Design for the Web
COW Library : Audio Engineering : Rick Castaneda : Sound Design for the Web
Rick Castaneda (Writer/Director): When I first came up with the idea to create a web series that took place entirely inside someone's head, the value was immediate -- I could do anything I wanted. Here was my main character, Dan Humford, who had a car crash and ended up in a coma. We've given him the white space of his subconscious, and are letting him interact with all of his deepest desires, the nightmares, and random thoughts that he's had. If we wanted to, we could bring in a T-Rex, and have them talk about their feelings. That's how wide open the show is. I brought in Lawrence to sound design really early -- actually at the script level -- because I knew that with such a blank white space, with nothing to look at, sound would be more important than ever.
Infinite possibility was the first problem we had in sound designing the series -- we could really make the inside of Dan's head sound like anything we wanted to. This wasn't a park -- which you've been to, and you know how it sounds. This is the inside of a person's head. What does that sound like? A desert? A conch shell?
Lawrence Everson (Sound Designer): It was really wonderful to be part of "Coma, Period" so early in the process. I started experimenting with world sounds before I got any video cuts, just playing around with all sorts of different ideas, listening to a wide variety of ambience sounds in my SFX libraries like caves, submarines, winds, and processing them numerous ways. At one point, I tried making it sound like the blood rushing through your ears. It was a very free-form process. Rick really had a crystal clear idea of this series in his mind, so his notes were always direct and clear, and he has a great grasp on audio. A lot of the process was weeding out extraneous sounds or toning down some of the over-hectic sound effects. The fact is that first pass mixes are usually far busier than they need to be, as they are often the 'kitchen sink' pass. The focusing that comes from eliminating a lot of unneeded sounds can be one of the best ways to enhance a soundscape. In the end, we came up with an approach that fit better when music was playing, and made Dan's world feel a bit more vast and lonely when there was no score present.
Rick: We really dialed in on what kind of sounds things made in Dan's world, too. Walking couldn't sound like footsteps on concrete, rather, on whatever kind of material it is that makes up the floor of Dan's subconscious. We kept trying different things, like footsteps with echoes, footsteps on wood, footsteps on linoleum. I basically wanted to give them the auditory equivalent of Dan's shadow -- something that is there, but more ethereal than the real thing.
Lawrence: Rick wanted something more simple and light, almost as if somebody was stepping gently right by your ear. So, instead of hard footsteps, I held a pair of dress shoes in my hands, and gently tapped them together in my sound booth. That, plus a little bit of EQ, was the foley process for every footstep in the series.
Rick: In fact, a lot of the sounds we used for this show were these kind of homemade sounds, which makes sense, because it's in his head. For the pitter-pat of naked girls running offstage in episode 2, Lawrence recorded the sound of his fingertips tapping on his palm. It sounded exactly perfect. He won't like me telling you this, but he also did the voice of the naked girl saying "hi." Which I think is also perfect, because this isn't actually a girl saying "hi", it's Dan's imagination of a girl saying "hi".
Lawrence: It was processed of course! I don't sound like that in real life. I hope.
Rick: Then in episode 4, there's this giant, floating fetus that sort of represents Dan's inner child -- and Dan is so immature, he challenges it to a staring contest. Well, Lawrence plays me this subtle, gurgling sound as his idea for what the fetus should sound like. It's absolutely perfect. Only later does he tell me that it's the sound of his girlfriend's stomach.
Dan in a staredown with his "inner child."
Lawrence: I tried a variety of stuff -- undersea sounds and whales and bubbles -- but nothing worked. I was sitting in my studio trying to imagine what sounds a fetus might surrounded with when suddenly the light bulb went on. So I threw my girlfriend into my recording booth after dinner and close-miked her gurgling stomach for 8 minutes. I can't wait to see what other uses I can come up with for the recording, it's like an alien language. It's great. She was such a good sport about it.
Rick: My girlfriend tries to claim that her stomach never gurgles, so that wouldn't have worked for me. You have great instincts, Lawrence. Everybody writes me about the candy bar in Episode 5. They love the sound that it makes.
Lawrence: Ah, that was me squeaking through my teeth and foleying a candy wrapper.
Rick: Brilliant. I think that was definitely my favorite part of working with you -- climbing into the sound booth and conspiring to create something new. Like when we couldn't figure out what kind of noise the floor ripping should make. In episode 8, Dan basically rips the floor of his subconscious to dig into his unconscious, and we couldn't figure out how it should sound.
Rob Delaney as Dan Humford.
Lawrence: Paper didn't sound right, and neither did cloth.
Rick: Yeah, because I wanted it to sound somewhat organic, you know, because it's his mind. And then Lawrence said something about how they use orange peels to simulate cutting through flesh in horror movies. So then I thought "Leaves!" (Well, actually first I thought "Why don't they just use flesh? Oh, right.") And it turned into this really fun session where I kept running out to the garden to get different leaves, and then ripping them in Lawrence's sound studio. I got pretty excited -- kind of like a little kid. With all these sounds we kind of built up a language of "Coma, Period." Like in episode 2, there's this freestanding door that Dan happens upon that says "Do Not Open." And when he first sees it, there's this low slamming sound, almost like the door is saying "Beware." I really loved that, and throughout the series whenever Dan sees something that looks like bad news, I had him put in that slam sound as sort of a callback.
Lawrence: And there's this "ding" that we used later to signify something good, and then the sound of a wine glass breaking in slow motion that we used whenever things had gone horrible. The great thing was that the subject matter really lent itself to sound design and experimentation. It wasn't just "Oh, we'll tack on some audio at the end." It was clear that the importance of sound was present from the script all the way on down, and it makes a huge difference in the quality of the end result.
Rick: I'm a big fan of every step of filmmaking, because each one is just another layer of meaning, or, in comedy, jokes. There's the writing, and that's the first layer, and then you add the performance, and the way you shoot it has meaning, and then you can add other jokes with editing, graphics, music, sound. If a joke doesn't play the way you wrote it, maybe it plays right if you add the right sound effect. I love the extra chances to make something good, or to make something good, great.
Rick: We captured DVCPRO HD with the Panasonic HVX200 HD camera. It comes standard with a wide-angle 13X Leica Dicomar zoom lens, offering a wide 30mm viewing angle. We transferred the data from the P2 cards to at least two different hard drives for backup, and then used FCP to log and transfer all the footage. We had either our assistant editor or one of our producers going through and logging the footage as we shot it each day to make sure we weren't losing anything. We shot all 10 episodes in a period of 3 days, which means we had to get about 70 shots per day. This was possible because we had a really fast crew, and shooting entirely on green screen. We used the were shooting green screen and had a really fast crew. We shot entirely on greenscreen at Ringleader Studios, and also used their studio tungsten lights and Kino Flo fixtures. I wanted our actor really evenly lit from all sides, because he's supposed to be stuck inside his own mind. There isn't a sun overhead, or a desk lamp lighting the scene -- I wanted the entire white environment to be the light source. We did add some shadows in post, though. Nice, soft and cuddly shadows that would help define the floor, and show that he was standing on something.
Lawrence: The video footage was edited on Final Cut Pro, and I started each episode by receiving the greenscreen cut, which I would then export as an OMF to bring into Pro Tools. The first step after that was the dialogue edit, cleaning the audio, patching takes together, and smoothing out the room tones. The production sound was recorded with a Sennheiser 416 on a boom, and lavalier mics on all the actors when they had speaking parts. The greenscreen facility was essentially a giant concrete bowl, so echoes and reverb were an issue, but the great thing about shooting all-greenscreen is you can move the boom really close to the actors. Even in the wide shots since it'll all be masked out anyway. So we were able to get really nice consistently close mic'd production dialogue the whole shoot which lessened the impact of reverb and outside noise. Everything was recorded and edited in 24-bit, which also helped noise-floor issues.