TV on the 'Fringe'

Mar 30, 2010 7:48 PM, By Matt Hurwitz



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Just another day in the world of <I>Fringe</i>: John Noble plays Dr. Walter Bishop and Jasika Nicole plays Astrid Farnsworth.

Just another day in the world of Fringe: John Noble plays Dr. Walter Bishop and Jasika Nicole plays Astrid Farnsworth.

Parallel universes. Cryonics. Mind control. Clairvoyance. Mutations. Bald-headed Observers. What do these things sound like? Figuring that out and bringing them to life is the weekly challenge for the sound design team behind J.J. Abrams’ hit Fox series Fringe. The show focuses on a trio of FBI-led investigators who explore cases involving so-called “fringe science”—everything from the existence of a parallel universe (and the effects of getting from ours to theirs) to creepy, loathsome creatures (including humans) who attempt to wreak havoc on the unsuspecting.

For the show’s first season, the post-production sound was handled by a different team; for Season 2, Warner Bros. Television, seeking to use the convenience of a remote Pro Tools stage, set up a new team in a new office—upstairs from saucy Hustler Hollywood on the Sunset Strip—along with the writing and other post-production staff.

The new crew—comprising supervising sound editor Paul Curtis, re-recording mixers Rick Norman and Mark Hensley, and sound effects editor Bruce Tanis—inherited nothing from the previous team in terms of an SFX library. “Style-wise, it’s similar,” says Curtis. “But we’ve definitely added a different feel to the show.”

Curtis and team typically work within an extremely tight turnaround, sometimes spread over seven or eight days, but more often in the four- to five-day range. “This is a sprint to the finish—literally,” comments Norman.

To help get a jump on the process, editorial will pass along completed sequences that will likely require creating new SFX a few episodes in advance, allowing Tanis to begin developing those sounds as a pre-design prior to the formal spotting session. “They’re usually very specific to a device or a portal opening or an underwater sequence,” Curtis says. Upon receipt of the locked edit, Curtis will then take a pass spotting the episode before meeting with the picture editorial team, post supervisor, post coordinator and associate producers Tamara Isaac and Tanya M. Swerling.

“We’ll play Bruce’s pre-design, and ask them, ‘Of the elements we’ve given you, what do you like, what do you not like?’” Curtis explains. “We’ll go through and ask them what they’re looking for: ‘What is the idea of the storytelling at this point? What are we trying to convey?’ Sound should help with storytelling; it shouldn’t just be some big cool thing. It needs to help sell what they’re trying to sell, idea-wise.”

After spotting, the editorial process formally begins: Norman starts editing dialog, Curtis begins cueing and recording ADR, and after receiving spotting notes from Curtis, Bruce Tanis begins making adjustments and creating additional sound effects and background elements.

While Paul Curtis uses a Terabyte of basic library SFX to drop in small sound effects, the major sounds are created by Tanis, working either at the West Hollywood facility or at Warner Bros. (carrying sound and picture on a drive with him), sending finished cues to Curtis via the Internet as they’re completed.

As with its often-cited inspiration, The X-Files, Fringe is divided into two types of episodes: those referencing an ongoing “mythology” having to do with a parallel universe; and stand-alone episodes, featuring monster/science-of-the-week story lines. While stand-alone episodes contain sounds new to audiences each week, core mythology shows require re-creation of sounds that fans might be familiar with from previous episodes, which is particularly challenging in the absence of a Season 1 effects library.

“If we get a core mythology item—like the Observers’ [the mysterious bald characters who populate the mythology] gun or binoculars or the portal [between the two universes], we’ll reference last season’s episode to see what it sounded like and try to re-create that,” Tanis explains. The task is not always an easy one, Norman points out: “The editors will give us a show from last season, and say, ‘We want this device to sound like this.’ Of course, it’s comped in the track with music and other sounds so it can be tricky. It’s not identical, but it’s very close.”

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