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Reflecting on The Mandalorian’s Reflections

Disney's The Mandalorian shoots within a circle of 20-foot-high video screens that surround actors in realistic panoramic environments—but also considerable vocal reflections.

Disney's The Mandalorian shoots within a circle of 20-foot-high video screens that surround actors in realistic panoramic environments—but also considerable vocal reflections.
Disney’s The Mandalorian shoots within a circle of 20-foot-high video screens that surround actors in realistic panoramic environments—but also considerable vocal reflections.

Manhattan Beach, CA (June 2, 2021)—Disney+’s The Mandalorian has been racking up accolades and ever-increasing record viewing numbers since its debut on the premium streaming platform in late 2019. One of the latest honors went to production mixer Shawn Holden, CAS, who won a Cinema Audio Society award in April for her work on “Chapter 2: The Child,” which debuted Nov. 15, 2019.

No doubt the CAS Award looks nice next to Holden’s Emmy Award, which she won a few months earlier for the same episode. She shares the Emmy with scoring mixer Christopher Fogel, CAS and re-recording mixer Bonnie Wild, also honored by the CAS, and with re-recording mixer Stephen Urata, ADR mixer Matthew Wood and Foley mixer Blake Collins, CAS.

The recognition must be doubly sweet considering the challenges presented to the show’s production sound by the advanced video technology used to film The Mandalorian at Manhattan Beach Stages. There, Industrial Light & Magic is using its Stagecraft integrated virtual production platform, better known as The Volume, to film location sequences without, well, going on location.

The Volume is a seamless circle of 20-foot-high LED video screens that, in combination with tracking sensors, infra-red cameras, a powerful gaming engine and arrays of computers, positions the actors in realistic panoramic environments with perfect camera perspective. One of the challenges for Holden and her current team—Randy Johnson and Patrick Martens  on boom and Veronica Kahn on utility duties—is that the almost-perfect circle of LED screens, with a roof of yet more screens, reflects sound very efficiently.

“Your voice is reflected back at you, about every two and a half inches, all the way around the wall, at 100% with no decay,” says Holden. To meet the challenge, Holden called in acoustician Hanson Hsu, principal of Delta H Design, who recommended his company’s ZR (Zero Reflection) Acoustics screens, which measure eight feet by four feet by about 1.5 inches thick. Suspended on wheeled stands at the stage, they can be rolled around and positioned as needed.

“They will do a rehearsal, set up cameras and we work around that. The trick is that you have to get the panels close enough to the actors for them to be effective,” she says, noting that they can’t interfere with the cameras or sensors—or reflect in the lead character’s shiny helmet. “It really is a delicate balance.”

Some scenes are shot on sets or on location, but in The Volume, she says, “If we get close enough and if we can get the screens in, then we can boom it.” Her preference is for Schoeps CMIT boom mics, with Sanken, DPA and Countryman lavs, and Lectrosonics RF equipment. “The Mandalorian himself is in a helmet, so he’s on a wire. We’ve built permanent things into helmets, masks, suits and various costumes” for other characters, she says.

No less of a challenge on The Mandalorian is coordinating the RF and Wi-Fi also used by the cameras, lighting, video assist and other departments. That has even included adjacent stages. But all the departments have worked together to alleviate interference, she says, and consulted with her before buying a Riedel Bolero system for production comms.

Holden captures everything to an Aaton Cantar X3 recorder via a Cooper CS-208 mixer. “I’ve been using Cantar since it came out. They told me I was the first woman in the world to own one. I had no. 75, back in the day,” she says, an X1 model. “It’s such a beautiful machine and sounds so lovely. And I just love the sound of my Cooper.”

Holden’s credits are extensive in both film and TV, and include movies such as Gods and Monsters and Nightcrawler. She started in local television news after graduating with a radio-TV-film degree in Oklahoma. Relocating to Dallas, she lucked into accompanying a former colleague, award-winning freelance cameraman Darrell Barton, to cover the 1985 Mexico City earthquake. “I was there for a week and ended up working with Dan Rather. From that point on, I was a network news sound technician,” she says, working on 20/20, 60 Minutes and the like.

For season two of The Mandalorian, the shape of The Volume became slightly less symmetrical, Holden reports, “but it’s still a challenge, and always will be in this environment.”

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