SFP: "The Office"

Oct 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Blair Jackson

FAUX DOCUMENTARY STYLE IS HARDER THAN IT LOOKS

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Increasingly, it seems, The Office has been moving outside the confines of the Van Nuys soundstages to exterior locales or, in the case of one of the best episodes of Season Four, a busy New York nightclub (actually shot in a downtown L.A. bar called The Edison). Patrick says that off-set interiors like the club are still highly manageable from his perspective, but things get a little trickier outdoors. “We did an episode called ‘Survivor Man’ in which they were out in the forest, and I have a rig where I abandon the cart and throw what I can in a little chest pack with a harness with a 744T and a PSC [AlphaMix] 8-channel ENG mixer, and I was out there running after the camera guys. We'll have the boom out there, too, but we're all on foot and running around.” Surprisingly difficult, too, he notes, are scenes in the Dunder-Mifflin parking lot: “You might have nearly the entire cast out there, so it's tough. Normally the way I work with faders is if I open a pot, I close a pot so there's no phasing. But when I have 13 people talking and every single one of them has one line, and they've done it 28 times and now they're starting to ad lib, they want [to hear] it all and you have to give it to them, so then you're in this weird battle with phasing and trying to work it all out so everyone can be heard clearly.”

Though Episode One of Season Five was being shot on that day I interviewed Patrick — July 29 — it wasn't scheduled to reach re-recording mixers John W. Cook II and Peter J. Nusbaum until the second week of September. In between, the show's producers and the director of that particular episode (the show uses a number of different directors who work within the established template for the show, but still bring their unique vision to the proceedings) go through the many hours of takes and essentially assemble the program.

Cook and Nusbaum are both seasoned TV mixers — Cook, who handles dialog and music, goes back to The Larry Sanders Show and News Radio in the mid- and late '90s, while FX and Foley mixer Nusbaum cut his teeth working on Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the late '90s. Together, they've worked on a wide variety of series (and pilots), including The Bernie Mac Show, Grounded for Life, Scrubs and Samantha Who, and upcoming series Worst Week and The United States of Tara. (They were nominated — along with Patrick — for an Emmy for The Office in 2007 and 2008, and won one for Scrubs in 2007.)

Home for this busy and respected mixing team is Studio A in BlueWave Audio at Universal Studios in Universal City (L.A.), Calif., which is equipped with a 192-input Harrison Series 12 digital console. Unlike on a feature film, where the re-recording/mixing process can take weeks, Cook and Nusbaum can typically mix a half-hour show in a single day, and The Office is actually a little less time-consuming because of its format.

The Office is a little bit different than many other shows because part of trying to pull off the documentary feel of the show is to keep some things a little less prepped, a little rawer,” Cook says. “Specifically, that means no ADR on my side. If we're looking for a better articulation on a take, then it's sifting through dailies, sometimes on the stage. With Scrubs and Samantha Who and the bulk of the other things we do, there's less variation how we pull it off: It goes through a week of prep — loop group, ADR, Foley, FX and dialog editorial. That's not the case here, for the most part.”

“As far as the FX and Foley go on The Office,” Nusbaum adds, “we use a lot of production sound effects to enhance the documentary feeling, and we try not to let anything sound sweetened because we want to keep it in that documentary vein. It's an interesting mix because we're trying to keep a subtle balance between the documentary realism and creating an engaging audio environment. So we're not inclined to replace sound from production that may not be perfect with perfect sounds. We want it to sound like it was recorded on the set; that's in line with the vision of the producers.”

Background FX are generally not at all obtrusive — in the office itself, perhaps phones, copy machines and such — “but we don't add a lot because we want to keep it raw,” Nusbaum says. For exteriors on most shows, “Normally, we'd put in birds and traffic-bys and wallas and all kinds of things, but on this show, not so much. We might add some very subtle winds and airs to the exteriors, maybe a bed of traffic, but nothing that would stand out as an added or sweetened effect.”

On Cook's end, “I have to work the dialog track a little harder than other shows because the track needs to be able to play on its own in a lot of ways. Not that it does all the time, but it's so featured and I don't have effects or music under — there's a little more exposure than on other shows.” Cook says he employs the usual tools of the trade to keep the noise floor of exteriors down and maximize the articulation of the dialog, including EQ, notching and noise reduction. Line producer Zbornak, post supervisor Jake Aust and the writer of the episode are usually on hand to oversee the mix, “which is interesting for us because the writers all have slightly different sensibilities,” Cook says.

“With all of our clients,” Nusbaum adds, “you just have to get to know what their likes and dislikes are. Some of them really like music played louder or backgrounds played quieter. At the beginning of the day, you just have to sit down, and say, ‘Okay, who am I working for today?’ and try to do the best work you can.”

“Our job is to serve the show and hopefully bring some consistency,” Cook says. “We want to adhere to the overall vision of the show and create the best possible end-product we can, within the constraints of what's in front of us.”

The bonus is that on a show like The Office, doing that is fun. “Everybody on this show has a can-do attitude,” Patrick concludes. “It's probably the nicest show I've ever worked on.”






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