Pros reveal how they used clever tricks (including a Bernie Sanders rally) to bring authenticity to period stories.
The most notable challenge faced by the sound team on FX/Hulu's Mrs. America, which follows the fight to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s, was the crowd scenes. "I wanted this to be very realistic … I just wanted to make the perfect illusion [with sound] for what that era presented and what we saw on the screen," says supervising sound editor Scott Martin Gershin.
The sound team required the voices of many women, from small groups during home parties and sing-alongs to chanting crowds at large rallies and events including the 1977 National Women’s Convention in Houston and 1972 Democratic National Convention in Miami Beach. But there was a key complication: "Upon looking through my libraries and talking to all my friends in town, I came to the stark conclusion that there are no [sound] libraries [solely] of women in any great depth."
The team formed an all-women Walla group, a term that refers to a group of actors brought in during postproduction to record the murmur of a crowd. The Walla group ranged in size from eight to 18 women, who delivered performances including chants, sing-alongs and background voices. “I had the actors stand in different places in the room…and we had microphones in front of them, behind them, and [used] different styles of microphone techniques,” Gershin explains. “I would have people facing the wall [and] in the center of the room, because I was recording not only their voice but the spaciality of their voice. If you do that five or six time and move them in different places, you could start simulating sounds of hundreds and hundreds of people. He adds that for the singalongs, “I didn't want that studio sound. I wanted to give it a very organic sound, a little detuned." There also was careful research for scenes where the women hit the road, to accurately deliver regional accents.
”To get the roar of a large crowd at rallies and conventions, one member of the team recorded a Bernie Sanders rally "to get that sound of tens of thousands of people cheering," Gershin says, adding that they also incorporated some library material of concerts and topped that with the Walla group to "make it feel like it's all women. It's an illusion."
As the team was working on the ninth and final episode, they received the stay at home order prompted by the spread of COVID-19. “A lot of the actresses have home setups. Each actress was at home doing individual Walla for us. That's how we were filling in the blanks, though most of that is not the big groups.” He adds that whatever else they didn’t have, they pulled from material that was previously recorded for earlier episodes.”
For the final mix, rerecording mixers Christian Minkler (who was recently Oscar nominated for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) and Andy King went to work nearly in isolation. The team put together a system so that Gershin and others could participate in the sessions remotely, in real time. This was also used for notes and final approvals.
The sounds of period cars, cameras and film projectors were all part of creating Tinseltown during the late 1940s for Netflix's Hollywood. Take, for example, the scenes set at the Golden Tip, a brothel fronted by a gas station, that were shot on location at a period auto repair shop in L.A.'s Atwater Village. Supervising sound editor Greg Megregian says his team had to replace the sounds of modern vehicles on nearby streets with those of period Buicks and Chevys. And a very specific sound for these scenes was the gas station's customer bell. "We mostly had to use sound libraries. Technicolor's sound library is extensive," Megregian says. For scenes set on a studio lot, period filmmaking came to life with the mechanical sounds of specific film cameras and projectors. "We tried to think about what they were doing on sets at the time," Megregian says of the research. "Set construction mostly [involved] hand tools. In the cutting room, they used [first-generation editing] Moviolas."
Based on Philip Roth's 2004 novel, The Plot Against America offers an alternative history set in the early '40s, primarily in and around Newark, New Jersey. The HBO limited series involved careful research to find authentic period sounds, from the engine of Charles Lindbergh's aircraft (located in a sound library) to the motor of a Hudson automobile (a period car was found and recorded for the series). And when filming quieter dialogue scenes on the streets of Newark, the sound editors were similarly challenged to remove any traces of modern sounds, including street noises and the unavoidable roar of planes departing from and landing at nearby Newark Liberty International Airport. Supervising sound editor Fred Rosenberg relates that parts of the story are told through the characters listening to the radio in various scenes as well as montages. He says that for the scene during which President Franklin D. Roosevelt loses his re-election bid to Lindbergh, his team "recorded the same copy with four different radio readers, and they were segued to give the sense of time going by." In another instance, they found an actor to record fictional Lindbergh speeches.This story first appeared in a July stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.