Sound Pros Reveal "Stressful" Challenges of Live Productions

A studio audience "is always a wild card," says Jeff A. Johnson, who worked on 'Norman Lear's All in the Family and The Jeffersons,' as he and 'Rent: Live' audio mixer Mark Young share the secrets behind such ambitious projects.
Ray Mickshaw/Fox/Courtesy Everett Collection
'Rent: Live'

When you're making live TV, there are no second chances. "There are always things that come up that are unexpected. You have to handle that and move on," says audio mixer Mark Young. "Every live musical that I have done brings its own challenges."

That was certainly the case in January when he worked on Fox's Rent: Live, based on the 1996 Tony-winning musical about a group of young artists in the East Village. After Brennin Hunt, who played Roger, broke his foot during a dress rehearsal the day before the broadcast, Fox chose to air the dress rehearsal as performed in front of a Fox Studios audience, and only the last act was performed live, with Hunt in a wheelchair.

"It's stressful," Young admits. "But on the other hand, even the dress rehearsal is stressful." In this instance, all of the talent wore headset microphones because of how close they were to the audience and the PA system. "The live band was isolated a little, and that went to a music mix. The instrument mix was passed to me, which I used on-air and mixed the vocals to that."

He adds that the audience's proximity to the set affected the number of mics used. "I used more audience mics than usual, up to 25 audience mics to capture them all. The audience was so loud — despite all our efforts to isolate them from the talent mics, there was leakage."

A live studio audience "is always a wild card," agrees Jeff A. Johnson, who shared broadcast mixer duties with Paul Wittman on Live in Front of a Studio Audience: Norman Lear's All in the Family and The Jeffersons. This Jimmy Kimmel-hosted ABC special re-created episodes of Lear's classic series and, like Rent: Live, involved a carefully planned combination of mics, including booms and lavaliers, to capture the action onstage as well as the audience. The performance was at Sony Pictures Studios Television Studio in Culver City.

Like the production of Rent: Live, the complete dress run-through of All in the Family and The Jeffersons, with an audience, was recorded in the event that it might be needed on the night of the live broadcast. The end of the show was a particular concern as Kimmel had rehearsed it various ways, and the live performance ended differently than what they had on the "safety copy," the mixers explain. "With little time to put lavalier mics on every actor, the decision to use the boom mics came into play," says Wittman. "So on show night, you see the booms clearly in frame as we tried to anticipate what Jimmy would do. No one seemed perturbed by the booms being in the shot, and it turned out to be just another reveal of, 'How did they do that?' "

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Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun
Supervising sound editors of this year's most intense series allow a peek inside merging the sounds of weaponry and tumultuous storms. 

Catch-22

Hulu's Catch-22 required the sounds of B-25 bombers and German Flak guns. Production obtained four vintage B-25 bombers from collectors, but there was one hitch: Everyone was so enamored with the planes that "nobody was anxious to give us time to record," says supervising sound editor Jerry Ross, who ended up recording during and between takes. The Flak gun sounds were made from layers of sounds he collected through the years, including from his early films like Apocalypse Now and Another 48 Hrs. He also turned to his fellow sound editors, Oscar winners Gary Rydstrom and Eugene Gearty, who shared their libraries of recordings from Saving Private Ryan and The Aviator. And they tapped into Warner Bros.' sound effects library, with an end result Ross describes as a "collage of different sounds of canons, explosions, ricochets, Dopplers. It was a communal effort."

Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan

To create the international flavor of Amazon's Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan (starring John Krasinski as the title CIA analyst), the sound editing team's brief was to focus on authenticity for the various domestic and international locations. This ranged from creating the sounds of Washington, Paris and Syria (filmed in Morocco). "This is IP with a huge and knowledgeable fan base. It was important to get that as accurate as possible," explains Benjamin Cook, who shared supervising sound editor duties with Jon Wakeham. "We had to cast specific languages and dialects [including for crowds and backgrounds]." The sound of the weaponry also was very specific. "The machine gun had to be that model of machine gun," Cook says, adding that elements such as foreign car horns and military vehicles also had to be realistic, with some sounds recorded and others found in libraries. 

The Haunting of Hill House

The one-hour "Two Storms" episode — which cuts between the night before a funeral and a past incident at Hill House, the creepy manor at the heart of Netflix's limited series — presented some sizable challenges in that it's made up of long shots. "I believe there were only four shots in the first 45 minutes," says supervising sound editor Trevor Gates. "Crew noise from people moving props to clear a path for the cameras' 360-degree trajectory was one of the challenges. We had to clean a lot of noise from the production." Giving the sound team some help was the decision by creator-director Mike Flanagan to have the episode take place during a storm. "This allowed us to create a camouflage to hide behind, but this created a technical and creative challenge of its own," says Gates. "We had to build an hourlong storm that ebbed and flowed with the emotion of the story."

This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.