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September 2014
Issue: November 1, 2011

In the Mix: AMC's Hell on Wheels

By: Randi Altman
HOLLYWOOD — AMC, the network that hosts the critically acclaimed Mad Men and Breaking Bad, has a new series determined to wow viewers and critics alike: Hell on Wheels,  which premieres this month.

The show is set just after the Civil War and revolves around the expansion of the Union Pacific Railroad. AMC, as well as the show’s creators Tony and Joe Gayton, have an eye for detail and realism that follows all the way through to the show’s mix.

One half of their mix team includes Australian-born re-recording mixer David Raines, who has been working in television and film in the US for nearly 10 years. His resume boasts stints all over the world.

He mixes where the work takes him, and currently he and his mixing partner Mark Server are at Larson Studios (www.larson.com), lending their talents to this new series. Larson takes care of the editorial work on the show as well.

Hell On Wheels is a one-hour drama focusing on a small town, called not so coincidently Hell On Wheels, that progresses along with the railroad’s construction. The story is rife with conflict. There are people from the north and the south working side-by-side building the railroad, there are Native Americans and emancipated slaves, and there is also a political element.
The first season is 10 episodes long, and Raines says the creators and network liken it to 10 feature films as opposed to 10 series episodes. That involves a lot of work and a lot of collaboration. Here, Raines talks us through the process.

POST: This is a period piece, so that must  affect the audio?

DAVID RAINES: “It’s one of the things that makes the sound great, but it’s also one of the things that makes the sound very, very difficult. The producers on Hell on Wheels have made sound a priority on the set for the production sound crew in Calgary, Alberta, where it’s shot.

“Mike Playfair, the production sound mixer, is fantastic, so the dialogue we receive is the absolute best they can shoot. But it does mean there is some physics to the sound we are dealing with, and the physics of the locations in terms of background noise and rules we can’t break,  since this is set before the industrial revolution. So some of those unique physical rules are constantly being challenged by the real world, and the production sound crew does an amazing job delivering us something we can work with in the mix stage.”

POST: Can you walk us through the workflow?

RAINES: “Our sound editorial crew is led by John Kincade of Larson Studios, they are generally receiving material a week before the mix. They get about five to seven days to go through all the dailies, edit all the dialogue, find the best takes and alternate takes that are going to work with the story and dynamically with the other sound elements within the track. There is an entire crew of Foley guys, led by Foley mixer Andrew Morgado, who do an amazing job of coming up with unique and interesting Foley sounds that are historically accurate but also dramatically bring a lot to the story.

“Our sound effects crew, led by sound designer John Peccatiello, spent a lot of time shooting trains. From the beginning, the creators were very adamant that they wanted trains to be a real character in the story. So our sound effects guys spent a lot of time researching what these trains sounded like and shooting trains and other elements that are part of this story. There is livestock and unique wildlife as well, so it’s bringing all of those elements in and in a way that is creative and contributes to what’s happening in the story from moment to moment. Once they have it all together, our associate producer Scott Schofield brings it all to the stage with John Kincade and we get a few days to mix it and produce it.”

POST: Are you working on your own or are those guys on the stage with you?

RAINES: “A little of both. There is always a certain amount of ‘housework’ that Mark and I need to do. We are dealing with the locations and the background noise. On the effects side, when it comes to action sequences — and same with the music — the mixing process is also dealing with the physics of the delivery and how much our ears can perceive at any one moment. So the housework takes time and can’t be rushed. Often, the producers are not there for this section of the mix. They know they’ll get a more creative track and a better track if they don’t rush it. When that’s done we can move into the area of pushing the storytelling beyond the obvious from a sound perspective, and that’s when they get involved and it becomes really fun for everyone.”

POST: When you start the mix process, what goals do you have in mind?

RAINES: “Our goal it to get to the point where we’ve got all the housekeeping done, we know all the elements intimately — everything that the dialogue, music and effects departments have brought to the stage, so when our producers are in the room it’s all about story and character and the emotion of the moment for each frame and scene. That is what we are trying to achieve from the start of the process, and the sooner we get there the sooner we can achieve that, and we start pushing the story and the characters through the soundtrack.”

POST: How do you accomplish that part?

RAINES: “It’s a collaboration between our sound editorial team, who have had five to seven days to work with the picture and elements — that’s more time than we’ve had. They know the picture better than we do. It’s also a collaboration with associate producer Scott Schofield, who is very involved and very knowledgeable about what the producers are trying to achieve with the sound.

“Toward the end of the process the key collaborators in the room are the creators, Tony and Joe Gayton, the show runner John Shiban, and other executives like Jeremy Gold, and sometimes the network is involved. Everyone knows what the scene is about, but everyone has a subjective way of getting to the emotional core of that scene, so discussing those different strategies and implementing different tactics to achieve those strategies is what it’s about. As much as we can have everyone involved in that collaboration, the better.”

POST: Can you give us an example of some things they’ve asked for from you?

RAINES: “We are really lucky on the show in that the creators, Tony and Joe, come from a feature film background; they think about how they want the sound from the script stage and how it might bring additional emotional impact to their story. They carry that strategy onto set, into picture editorial, into visual effects and into sound, so we’ll have some incredibly bold choices and they’ll sometimes make them on the mix stage.

“For instance, ‘Let’s run an entire gunfight action sequence with absolutely no effects and see how that sounds.’ And they do that from a storytelling perspective because they want to bring more emotional impact to the story than otherwise would be done.”

POST: Any surprises or challenges during the process?

RAINES: “The challenges are always the collaboration. When we are in the mix, in some of the playbacks for this series, we’ve had 20 people in the back of the room. Once you’re into a series, after the first three or four mixes, generally things become a little more focused, everyone knows what to expect and what they are going to do in each sequence. For example, ‘There is an action sequence in show eight so we are going to play it similar to the action sequence in show three,’ but not in this show. They want the action sequence in show eight to be its own production and have more storytelling impact than it did, or play it as a different scene. Or play the sound in a completely different manner because there is a different character involved. That’s been surprising and a wonderful experience because often that doesn’t happen. These producers want every show and every scene unique.”

POST: So they are open to ideas from all?

RAINES: “The producers and the show runner want the sound team to challenge them on the stage. They know the sound editorial and mixing crew can contribute such a tremendous amount to the story and characters rather than just going with the OMF.

“That is the other thing that can happen in television: sometimes productions use the sound edit from the OMF in the final mix, or they’re satisfied with the Avid mix in terms of strategy. Those sound elements or mixes are often not nearly as emotionally powerful as they could be. The sound edit from the OMF is usually rushed, it’s the picture department having to put something temporary together — they’re usually focused on the picture not the sound and as a result being satisfied with the temp from a sound editorial and mixing perspective is short changing your story, I think.”

“In filmmaking you only really get one chance. It’s rare that a production will try a strategy and then someone challenges that strategy and they go back and redo. These producers are open to being pushed creatively and pushing us creatively; it’s a true collaboration. So being satisfied with any part of the process is not what they do. As such, it’s a much more creative and powerful track as a result.”

POST: What gear do you guys call on?

RAINES: “We use Avid’s ICON series of consoles, mixing in six-track surround and also delivering a stereo track. As far as plug-ins, we use Waves Platinum bundle and the full complement of Avid plug-ins like EQ3.

“Some mix crews work at different stages so the tools we use depend on the project. When we work on features, it’s more time-based tools than plug-ins.”