How the Soundscape of the Spooky 'Teddy Perkins' Was Crafted to Be Perceived as Silence
FX’s Atlanta is one of the most highly acclaimed shows on TV for good reason — in episodes that run barely a half-hour in length, show creator Donald Glover and a team of collaborators that includes his brother, Stephen, craft an ongoing narrative about, as Glover put it before the first season premiered back in 2016, “how it felt to be black.”
But if Atlanta provides both education and enlightenment, it never feels like an exercise or an obligation. It takes place in a world that’s almost (but not quite) recognizable as our own, where everyday urban life is punctuated by moments of violence and comedy, sadness and joy, desperation and magic realism. Atlanta arguably hit its stride in a deliberately fragmented second season where episodes often played as mini-movies that contributed to the bigger picture but also succeeded as standalone narratives, and the best example of that may be “Teddy Perkins,” a sort of cautionary fable that takes place in a large house in the tony suburbs, where Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) meets the highly eccentric Teddy, who lives there alone. (Or does he?)
The spooky mood of “Teddy Perkins” is unlike any other episode of the show, and FX took the unusual step of airing it without commercials, which ratcheted up the tension. Atlanta earned no fewer than 16 Emmy nominations this year, and five of them went to “Teddy Perkins.” We talked to supervising sound editor Trevor Gates, who is nominated for Outstanding Sound Editing for a Comedy or Drama Series (Half-Hour) and Animation, about his work on the unnerving episode and how he crafts sounds that evoke a sense of silence.
StudioDaily: TV has come closer to feature film in a lot of ways recently, in terms of the aesthetic level you’re operating at, and I’m just wondering: is there a big difference in your working process, or the level of work you’re able to do sound-wise in a feature film as opposed to an episode of a TV show?
Trevor Gates: It really boils down to budgets and budget constraints. Most of the films I’ve done have been medium-budget. A lot of independent films. There’s a growing delta between low-budget films and super-high-budget tentpole films. There used to be this middle ground, with a middle amount of money, and the space in between is growing. That’s because we watch things in different capacities now. The medium in which we ingest our entertainment is changing, and that’s changing the business model. So the money is different. That plays into your question, because traditionally in feature films you might have a little more time — i.e., a little more money — to explore and finesse some of the sound ideas you feel are appropriate and necessary to make something excellent. In the TV world — or we’ll call it broadcast, meaning Netflix and Hulu and Amazon and also networks like Fox and so on — the budgets are a little smaller and you don’t have as much time to really craft and finesse your work.
For me, being mostly a feature film supervising sound editor and sound designer, I come from a world where you meet your client and build a relationship, find their expectations, take time to develop ideas, get them in a room, show them your ideas, and talk about them. If you haven’t met their expectations, you still have time to go back and revise, and by the time you get to the final mix you’ve had an opportunity to refine the sound concepts that everybody has in mind and get what they wished for. In broadcast, that time doesn’t exist. You get in a room with the clients, you talk about what they want, you go back to your studio, you build something, and you take it straight to the mix. There’s no time for revisions or re-dos. You have to do it on the fly.
One of the things I’ve learned over the course of my career is that when you build and design sound, you need to have extreme purpose in the choices that you make. When you’re a young designer or young editor, and this could be the same for a young composer, one of the classic problems you run across is over-composition — too much sound, too many instruments. You end up clouding the specificity of what you’re trying to show the audience to tell a story. This is a skill that I’ve been working on for years, and something I trust and hold dear is my ability to make articulate, purposeful decisions about what sounds I use.
It really played a huge part in this specific episode of Atlanta, because it was a horror/thriller episode. In entertainment in this genre, you have to be very quiet, so you have to make smart decisions about the things you do want to hear and you don’t want to hear. I feel there’s a couple of things that made this relationship and this project so special. It depends on my ability to make good decisions, and part of that is luck and part of that is skill. It’s about the high-pressure situation of delivering a first viewing of your work and having it be close to a final product, but also the relationship with these clients. We really just got each other. We were on the same page, we had a vibe, and it was a good fit as far as being able to create something that is super-cool in a very short period of time.
This episode was unusual in a lot of ways. It actually aired without commercials. So there was a sense that this would stand apart [from the rest of the season] in some ways. Did that translate at all into you having a little more time, or putting more attention on it? Or was it slamming through the process the same way you would for any other episode of this show?
[Director] Hiro Murai and [writer-producer-actor] Donald Glover had an idea that this was something special. Hiro had alluded to this as kind of the crown jewel when we went in for our spotting session, which is our meeting to talk about sound. I consider myself a man of my craft, so part of my identity is that I take pride in excellence. No matter how we do it or when we do it or how much time we have, I always deliver something that i’m proud of. But it was apparent going into this that it was something interesting. And that was something that I communicated to my team. What was really cool about this — when we were done mixing this episode, Hiro was very happy. He went to get a cup of coffee and he came back into the room, and he said, ‘Guys, I really want you to know that you have absolutely, 100%, realized my dream of what this episode sounds like.’ That was a very cool thing — to have such high expectations and also to meet and exceed those expectations.
But you had alluded earlier to the fact that you were in a groove with these guys, so that made it easier for you to do your thing independently so it was in shape before it went back to them.
Mostly I interfaced with Hiro and the picture department and the music department, the music supervisors, and Donald would attend to the playbacks of the episodes. Over the course of my career I’ve been part of more than 100 films, so I’ve had the opportunity to build relationships with lots of people. And this one was something special, just from the team outlook. There was an exceptional togetherness through all departments. When we were in a room together on the final mix with the picture department, we’d have the editors there and Hiro and Donald and the music supervisors. Through whatever challenges we faced, we worked closely together and we listened to each other and we asked questions of each other. It was a hyper-team effort. I really felt the connection to these guys. They were the team, not just clients. That was something special. I think that Hiro and Donald both have the talent of surrounding themselves with exceptional people. All the team, from the picture department and the music department to the cast and crew and, I’m sure, everyone on set. They have the ability to assemble a team of people who are all humble people of their craft with passion for what they do, who function with the kind of togetherness that we function with. And that’s when you get nominated for 16 Emmys.
This episode was largely set inside one location, so you had to think about what the sound of this house was. Was it a matter of adding sounds to silence, or making a soundscape and dropping stuff away? How did you build that mood and sustain it for 30 or 35 minutes?
This is one of the most difficult things to do in the sound world — building soundscapes that are quiet. Working on films like Get Out, Don’t Breathe and a handful of others, I’ve learned something that’s not a revolutionary concept but makes a lot of sense. Quietness, as perceived in entertainment, is not actually the absence of sound. It’s the isolation of sound. In a movie I did called Ouija: Origin of Evil, we had a clock that was ticking through quiet scenes. It allows you to hold a relative volume at a low level so you can get really loud in places to make scares. In Atlanta, our perceived silence was held by a cold house tone. It was something that we crafted to make you feel the space, the coldness in the house, with the absence of technology like air conditioning or any electricity. That air held space so we could manipulate the production track, the dialogue, and use as much or as little as we wanted of the sound recorded on set within the mix.
The mix of this episode was just as crucial as the editing, because we had to build all the components and then we had to balance them perfectly, so you would perceive quietness the way you do. Inside the house, we created this cold house presence that held the quiet space, and then we worked with the production dialogue, using reverbs when the actors would talk. None of this is very complex as an idea, but we had to make very crafted choices about what specific sounds we used. We only had a couple of layers. You can’t hide behind music. You can’t hide behind loud car chases or a bunch of people talking. This was a very articulate sound edit and sound mix.
That’s interesting. You don’t really have a sound bed to work with because it’s just these two people talking — until the end, when the whole thing is punctuated by a violent climax.
We had to make choices. This may seem pretty trivial, but this was in a rural area and you have birds outside. So we had to craft an exterior sound that you could partially hear on the interior and have it not be intrusive to these long dialogue stretches. We really had to craft the environment to not divert somebody’s attention away from the things they needed to pay attention to, which was the dialogue. But we also needed to craft the ambience that helped people suspend their disbelief, to become engrossed in the world of Teddy Perkins and not be distracted.
Were there any scenes that required a certain type of sound that you had to source, something that was unconventional or that you had to return to to get right? What stands out for you about the process of getting this sound dialed in?
Well, when Darius goes down into the basement, we created this kind of submersive world. We created some fictional sounds to give him a journey through that space, to make it weird and interesting. He’s walking past a fan, and there’s a water heater that kicks on and some pipes that make a slight knocking sound, which we continued in its frequency, but slowed. We had to craft a fictional soundscape out of nothing that we actually saw that gave us an interesting POV of what Darius was traveling through in that basement.
And that was key to the episode — giving the audience his perspective.
One more thing — Donald Glover actually played the mysterious Teddy Perkins.
Was there any concern about when he was speaking? The voice doesn’t sound disguised, but was there any discussion about whether you should be able to tell that it’s him?
This was part of what that was super-special about this episode, and I think they purposely held back on any promotion for this. There was one scene where Donald is talking about great fathers, rounding the statue in the museum room, and that was the first day of shooting. I don’t think Donald had quite mastered the voice the way he wanted to. By the second and third day and all the way through the shooting schedule, the voice developed into something that was special and weird and cool. And that scene of them in the museum room was from day one. We had to re-record that entire scene in ADR to match the rest of the episode for performance. That was mostly a challenge for Donald, because he had to perform the way he wanted to perform and make it sync to where it was believable. We had to do some pretty razor-sharp editing and choose from our performances, since we had several takes of the scene, and then we also had to mix it to make it sound like it was an actual thing. That was a challenge.
There are a couple of things that are very specific and special and unique about this series. One is that 99% of the time there’s no score in this series. It’s source music. As far as recording ADR for these episodes, we always err on the side of authenticity. When you’re a supervising sound editor, one of your toughest decisions is, if we have poorly recorded production sound, what’s the threshold where we sacrifice performance from the day to gain clarity? For Atlanta, we raised the bar a little bit higher. Hiro and I came to an understanding — if it’s a little dirty, with a bump or something that’s not so pretty, but we can still understand what’s happening? We won’t do ADR, because we want 100% authenticity. We want the magic of the performance they captured on the day. So there’s not much ADR in Atlanta season 2 as a whole. For us to go in and re-record an entire scene was totally out of the ordinary. So we couldn’t mess it up. It needed to be sharp. It needed to be authentic. And we did it. I’ve got an ear for that stuff, and you almost can’t tell. It was a win.
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