Hearing The Handmaid's Tale: Jane Tattersall's Sound Career
COW Library : Audio Professionals : Kylee Peña : Hearing The Handmaid's Tale: Jane Tattersall's Sound Career
The format of this article is a little different than usual.
Two young women – Eolyne Arnold and Whitney McElveen– are relatively new to Los Angeles and navigating the early days of their careers in sound. I connected them with multi-award winning Sound Editor Jane Tattersall, whose career is now entering its fourth decade.
Over the course of their conversation, the three of them discuss the very different paths they took into the field of sound editing, as well as exploring Jane's work in feature films and TV series including her most recent project for Hulu, The Handmaid's Tale.
Eolyne Arnold: I started off as a musician. Growing up, I was surrounded by musicians, visual artists, and the theatre, and through this I have come to know and love the world of post production sound.
Whitney McElveen: I guess my interest for sound began when I was in band in high school. I knew I always had a good ear for things. Then one day I saw the sound and music portion of a behind the scenes documentary on The Lord of the Rings and I realized "oh that's somebody's job…I want to do that!"
Eolyne: Once I realized what I wanted to do, I attended Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) and got a BFA in sound design, and was awarded the Verna Fields Student Filmmaker Award at the MPSE Golden Reel Awards in 2015 for work I did as a Foley Supervisor on the short film Sea Odyssey.
Whitney: I attended college in Florida, getting degrees in film production technology and TV/film production. Even though my desires have always been for post sound, I first got my start as a Production A2 (audio assistant) in 2011 during the reboot of The Inbetweeners.
Eolyne: There's a saying in the sound world: that if you don't notice our work then we did a good job. As true as that is, I do think it's important for people, especially in entertainment, to realize the psychological effect sound has on our emotions and how we experience the story. I believe we truly suspend our disbelief when there is a solid soundscape accompanying the picture.
Whitney: I think the most important thing to understand about sound is how diverse and how broad it can be. I love sound because there are so many aspects and ranges to it. There is always room to grow and always something new to learn. And best of all, it's just fun.
Eolyne: We both moved to Los Angeles in 2016 and started working in another area of post production with Bling Digital (The SIM Group) around the same time through a crazy coincidence. It’s amazing to have someone in the same situation as me, trying to get established and work on a career in post sound while surviving in LA.
Whitney: Yeah, and it’s especially amazing to have access to people like Jane Tattersall in this network of companies we’re working within. Every job in post production is an important stepping stone, and to be in the middle of it all is empowering.
Who would have thought being an LTO Technician would lead to an in depth discussion with someone like her?
Eolyne: Jane Tattersall is the Senior Vice President of Post, Toronto and Supervising Sound Editor of Tattersall Sound & Picture, one of Canada’s leading boutique facilities. The current iteration of her company began in 2003 as a tiny facility providing sound editing and offline rentals and grew rapidly over the last decade.
Whitney: Now part of the SIM Group of companies, Jane stays busy with shows like Penny Dreadful, Fargo, and Vikings, for which she was nominated for an Outstanding Sound Design Emmy Award and won a Canada Screen Award for Sound in 2016. Her latest project is Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, working alongside director Reed Morano to craft a vivid soundscape for a world that doesn’t feel all that different from our own.
We’re excited to be able to talk to Jane together – the two of us in Los Angeles and Jane in Toronto – as peers and coworkers discussing her past career and current work.
Eolyne: When did you know you wanted to start a career in Sound Editing?
Jane Tattersall: I definitely stumbled upon it! I didn’t go looking for it. When I started I didn’t know there were film schools. I actually went to university to study philosophy. I finished at school and thought maybe I’d go to law school because I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. Back then there wasn’t the same pressure as there is now where people have to figure out what they want to do really early.
So I just graduated and got a job as a researcher on a documentary series, and that introduced me to post production. Research was a very philosophical idea to them, so they thought a philosophy graduate would be able to do it. They went off to shoot in Mexico and parts of Brazil and then all through North America. They brought footage back and because I had done the research and knew the material I became a writer as well.
During that process, I saw what the editor was doing too. The point where it came together for me was a scene that was shot in Santa Barbara in the back of somebody’s garden. It was spectacularly beautiful and there were lots of flowers and bushes and trees, and it was raining so there were drops of water on all the plants. Then the picture editor went back to the beginning of the scene and said, “I know what we need now.”
We actually put up a roll of tape on a flat bed -- this was the film days -- and then he showed me the scene a second time. This time he had the sound of thunder. I thought that REALLY transformed the scene. You could FEEL it rather then just see it. It made it dramatic and I thought, “You know, when I go looking for the next job, maybe I’ll work in post-production and study sound.”
I ended up getting a job as a production assistant in a commercial facility and apprenticed with the sound editor who worked there. He happened to be really good, which was lucky. His standards were movie level standards and he trained me well. When he left I took his job and then I did that for two years before I went freelance. I made some good contacts and I really never looked back. It was really easy to focus on something that I thought was really cool. I knew I had a lot to learn so I was really paying attention and stayed focused. And this is what it led to.
Whitney: While working on The Handmaid’s Tale, was there any particular learning curve or special challenge involved?
Jane: The bar was really high for The Handmaid’s Tale, but I would say that I wasn’t daunted by it. I’ve been working for a long time. But if I got this show 20 years ago, I might have panicked!
First of all, you sit with whoever is in charge creatively and you listen to their ideas for the show, for the characters and story. And then you sort of translate that into sound. Often they will talk about the sounds that they hear in their imagination, and this gives me the opportunity to ask questions. For example: when the window is open, do you want to hear the sound of the street or would you prefer a quiet interior sound?
In the case of Handmaid’s Tale, it was a really big deal for them all to use sound as a tool for a storytelling device and to create the world that is Gilead. There was no shortage of ideas that were being put forth and suggestions.
In one particular scene, we wanted it to really have this sense that she’s cooped up. We want to hear that there are really nice birds outside, but she can’t go outside. It’s very beautiful out there, but she’s trapped. Its not an obvious thing, but it’s cumulative to what we see visually, what the character is performing.
We had a very unusual experience for the very first episode. We had a sound spotting session, where we just sat and watched the locked picture with the director Reed Morano. She was new to being a director but her experience on her previous film with sound was very dramatic, so she kept saying, “ I really really want you to go crazy with this sound. I want you to really think about it.”
[Sidebar: A sound spotting session is when the director, the sound supervisor, and any other significant crew get together to watch a rough cut of the film and take spotting notes on ideas for sound and what elements of sound they want to include in each scene.]
So, I put in a lot of tonal winds and weird screams -- all types of sounds that aren’t necessarily a part of what you see. There was a lot of discussion during the spotting session about the sound, what it should be, and what the goal was.
We actually spent around 6 hours going through it. It was very detailed. We would get to a scene and then we would stop and talk about it for 20 minutes. Then we’d replay it and talk about it some more. I had never had that kind of experience before. That’s why I say the bar was really high. They put a lot of emphasis on the sound design, and I knew they were going to listen.
Elizabeth Moss in Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale
Eolyne: That’s a lot of creative feedback! When you sat down in the sound spotting session, did you already have your team assembled?
Jane: Yeah, along with myself I had another sound effects editor that I’ve worked with many times before, and our assistant. There was also a dialogue supervisor and the ADR editor. We also had our re-recording mixers involved early on so they would know exactly what the goal was first hand.
Eolyne: Building off that high bar, did you do any personal research for yourself, like reading the book or watching the previous movie adaptation?
Jane: You know, I normally would have but I didn’t want to have any preconceptions of it. Although I have read a number of books by Margaret Atwood, I had never read The Handmaid’s Tale. I decided I would just not read it, I would watch it with no preconceived ideas. That doesn’t always work, sometimes you should be doing research, but I thought it would be interesting for me.
The dialogue supervisor had never read anything by Margaret Atwood and he was cramming to get the book finished! Part of that might be because he tends to deal with much more of the dialogue than with the character’s performances, so he probably wanted to figure out the intention of the author and then also the intention of the filmmaker.
Whitney: Between the exploration of the sound and everyone’s feedback throughout what was the most enjoyable part working on The Handmaid’s Tale?
Jane: I think probably the most enjoyable part was the direction that was given. Gilead is not a real place and it’s set in the near future. It’s a world very much like our own, with the exception that there’s no gasoline cars because they’ve figured out the world is getting way too polluted and needed to evolve into having only electric cars. So all the cars that we see -- and we don’t see very many -- are quiet.
And so it should sound familiar, but not exactly like today. The idea was make it sound like the perfect world, where the birds are chirping, the wind is blowing through the trees, and there’s lots of nature.
The Handmaid's Tale
The characters spent a lot of time in the houses. In episode one there is an old house that looks like a lovely, traditional, old-fashioned place; lots of wood, so they wanted to hear a lot of creaking floors. With things like her hand brushes down the banister as she’s walking down the stairs, they wanted to hear the texture so the audience could really get a sense of the place. It looks like this pioneer environment except that it’s now modern.
Then there are also a tremendous number of flashbacks and some are dreams, which I also enjoyed. Traditionally what people do with sound in flashbacks is you start hearing some dialogue of the thing you’re going into and they put a lot of reverb on it. The director very much liked reverb, but it’s also kind of a cliché thing to do, so the thought was how do we let the audience to know we are going into a flashback without just having reverb?
We experimented with a lot of interesting sounds and finding ways to make the sound transitions that would propel and draw us into the next scene. This way you would want to keep watching.
Eolyne: Did your technical processes or overall workflow have to be modified for delivering to a streaming service like Hulu?
Jane: The biggest challenge is, and it’s not just for streaming, but it’s how are people going to be watching and therefore what is their sound capacity? If you’re watching on your laptop with headphones, and if the headphones are pretty good, you can hear quite a lot. But if the headphones are not great you lose a lot of low end.
And if you aren’t using headphones at all, it’s going to sound quite thin. So, if you have a scene where there’s a lot of music and we’ve mixed it one way but it’s played over the computer, often the music is much quieter relative to the dialogue. The music will have some significant bass elements that just disappear in smaller speakers.
The key is to make the dialogue as good as possible and try to preserve the frequencies that are a part of the human voice characteristics, and then add all the other sounds around it.
Whitney: As a sound editor, how do you approach each project and it’s specifics like delivery requirements or storytelling needs? Do you have a creative method that gets you into a project?
Jane: I just like to watch something through to see how it makes me feel. I mainly deal with sound effects and ambiences instead of the dialogue. My job is to build the world and make it authentic. I make sure that when somebody turns a doorknob that it sounds like that doorknob. A palm tree branch blowing in the wind sounds different than a pine tree branch, so I want the right type of texture so you’re not thrown out of the story.
To me it’s about building the world and enveloping myself in the world. I came to realize not very long ago, it’s not as complicated, but it’s not dissimilar to an actor learning a character. For me I’m learning the world. What would be right in this world, what would not be right in this world. And sometimes I’ve had situations where the world I had imagined is different from the world the director imagined. So I have to adapt and quickly get into their head, because it’s their film, it’s not my film.
I also do a fair amount of recording. There’s a show I’m working on now called Alias Grace and there’s a lot of handling of doors, so went and recorded some doors in my house. Turns and shakes, and unlocking and locking, and then I put them in our library to be used.
Jane at work on Vikings
Eolyne: When working in scripted television, do you prefer sound supervising design or supervising editing?
Jane: Sometimes design includes sounds that don’t really exist, so if you have a superhero that has a magic power, you’d call THAT sound design because it’s a made up sound. But sometimes sound design is also the design of the overall soundscape of the show. And I would rather do the overall soundscape of the show.
I’m not wild about science fiction or robot sounds, or that kind of thing. I’m more interested in real life and characters in the world we live in today. Even if they were going to a place I’ve never been, I would want to do research to find out what that world might sound like. To me the building of a whole world that is real is much more interesting, and it’s much more subtle.
Whitney: What's the one piece of advice you would give to your younger self, especially someone like me?
Jane: Be bolder! I was always assuming that I knew the least amount among everybody in the group. I realize now that they didn’t always know, they were just acting like they did. I think I undersold myself over and over again.
I’ve had a good career and I’ve worked on great shows, but there were some shows I went after that I didn’t get. I now realize if I’d been more aggressive I might’ve gotten them. I would’ve said to myself: have more confidence in your ability, because if you don’t know now you can always figure it out.
Whitney: “Be bold” really speaks volumes to me. How much sooner I could have accomplished more in life if I just really went after what I wanted without being so timid to do things? Especially when most times not only was I the only woman, but also the only person of color. I was afraid to mess up or ask questions. So as I move forward in this industry, no matter what I decide to do, I will take that with me..."Be. Bold."
Eolyne: And it’s comforting to hear that it’s okay not to know what you really want to do in your career at first, because it is a journey and you will find your way.