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Bringing Sound Together in ‘Electric Dreams’

By Steve Harvey. The Los Angeles Section of AES and the Hollywood Section of SMPTE co-hosted the sound editorial team behind the Amazon sci-fi anthology series “Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams” in January.

Culver City, CA—The Los Angeles Section of AES and the Hollywood Section of SMPTE co-hosted the sound editorial team behind the Amazon sci-fi anthology series Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams at the end of January. The panel presentation, in the Kim Novak Theater at Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City, CA, was moderated by Mark Lanza, supervising sound editor on the project, and included sound effects editor Harry Snodgrass, dialogue editor Ryne Gierke and music editor Brittany DuBay, plus executive producer Michael Dinner.

The series, which debuted on Amazon Prime Video in January, features 10 standalone episodes based on the writings of Philip K. Dick. The evening began with a screening of “Autofac,” based on Dick’s 1955 short sci-fi story about factories run by self-replicating robots producing products that are consuming the world’s resources and threatening the continued existence of humans following an apocalyptic war.

The Electric Dreams project began five years ago, Dinner reported. “The original idea was for an anthology series, and a show that encouraged diverse points of view,” tied together by Dick’s writing and filtered through the minds of British and American writers and directors. There are numerous themes, he said: “What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be an individual faced with technology or authoritarianism? What’s the nature of reality?”

There were different casts, different locations and different directors for each episode, half of which were shot in the U.K. and half in the U.S. Virtually the only constant was Dinner and the sound team.

The series features scores by five composers from around the world, each working on one British and one American show. Lanza asked DuBay how she approached the music edit.

“Carefully,” she said. “It’s about keeping what the composer wants. What changes is what the showrunner wants.”

Director Peter Horton had very specific ideas for “Autofac,” she said. “It takes out some of the grey area when someone knows exactly what they want you to do,” although it also presents challenges.

Each composer had a different workflow. “Whenever we got music—for some people it would be stemmed out; from one, we just got a stereo file. If we wanted to add anything, he would send us an additional stereo file to play along with it,” she said.

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In general, few music changes were needed. When they were, though, “It was a lot of work,” said DuBay.

For instance, in one scene in “Autofac,” there was no music. “Peter was adamant that there needed to be music. I had to go through the entire episode and find something that fit. This was a show where we had to think on our feet.”

Each episode portrays a different and unique world, explained Lanza. “This means that we couldn’t use any sound effects twice. We had many different location recordists, and each episode had to be redesigned from the ground up.”

Since Amazon was releasing the entire series all at once, said Lanza, “There was no order to how we started. It was by which had the most complete visuals or which story was the most put-together.”

Adding to the challenges, the series averaged 300 to 400 visual effects per episode, Dinner commented.

One central challenge was how far into the future each episode was set and what had changed. The production tracks included crickets and birds, for example, but did they still exist?

Lanza asked Gierke how—without naming a specific manufacturer—he cleaned up the production dialogue and removed birds, crickets and traffic sounds. Someone in the crowd shouted out the name of the software, to laughter. Gierke admitted he had the latest version and used it to “de-rustle” the tracks. “We also had plenty of takes to work through,” he said.

For each episode, Snodgrass had to create a new world while also keeping everything time-appropriate throughout the series. “I had to create libraries for every show, of beeps, boops, every sound a computer makes, and they could not cross over between episodes,” says Snodgrass, who got out his old analog synths to create the sounds.

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“I cut backgrounds first,” he continued, describing his process on “Autofac.” “It gives me a sense of the show, so, tonally, I knew I had big limitations. I had to clean birds out of tracks. I needed some factory sounds, something that added weight. There were so many factory locations, and different drones, and I wanted them all to sound different.”

The “Autofac” episode stars Janelle Monae as a robot. “This show was so complicated that I attacked it piece by piece,” he said. It took Snodgrass a full day just to do the servos for the main character, he said: “The eyes, the head, the legs, the arms.”

“You can always hear the eyes, every time she blinks,” said Lanza. “It reminds you that she’s not one of us.”

“It took me out of my process, as many of the episodes did. This episode was a very big challenge,” said Snodgrass. Organization was key. “I did things to make it easier on the mixers, so they could get through it, because of the sheer volume of tracks and sound effects in this episode.”

The episode “Safe & Sound” was especially challenging, according to Lanza: “All the effects were musical, including all the background traffic, the cars, the drones. And they all had to match the key of the music, which changed all the time.”

“I’m a musician. That’s not something you get to do often,” said Snodgrass.

“I came up with the real sound for each item. Then I unraveled the music and figured out the key and put in a musical element for every car by, every drone by, all the background traffic.” Sometimes he went against the chord with something dissonant to add tension.

“As the key of the music changed, I would make sure we were matching so it would play with the music, but they would play on their own and would still have a good sound,” Snodgrass added.

“It’s my favorite episode because of the challenge,” he said.

Audio Engineering Society •

Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers •