Black Sails Heads to Port in Atmos

As premium television content creators increasingly adopt the tools, techniques and facilities typically utilized for theatrical movie releases, the differences in audio and picture quality have become barely discernable between the two delivery platforms.
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Las Vegas, NV—As premium television content creators increasingly adopt the tools, techniques and facilities typically utilized for theatrical movie releases, the differences in audio and picture quality have become barely discernable between the two delivery platforms. Recently, the audio team behind Black Sails, which has been mixed in 7.1 since the first episode, discussed the associated workflows as well as the challenges of making the transition to Dolby Atmos.

Black Sails launched in January 2014, and was renewed by Starz for a 10-episode fourth season—expected to premiere in early 2017—even before season three of the eighteenth-century pirate drama began. Introducing the show’s Emmy Award-winning mix team at the DTV Audio Group’s forum prior to the 2016 NAB Show, Roger Charles-worth, executive director, DTVAG, said, “This season they mixed a show in Atmos. The plan is to mix next season in Atmos.”

On the first season, Black Sails producer Jonathan Brytus worked with a different mix team in Dublin, typically taking four or five days per episode. Now, said Brytus, re-recording mixers Onnalee Blank and Matt Waters have a seven-day schedule, working alongside supervising sound editor Ben Cook on the mix stage at NBCUniversal StudioPost in Los Angeles.

“The first three days are for Matt, Onna and Ben to get things clicking,” Brytus explained. He and the mixers previously all worked on Game of Thrones, for which Blank and Waters share two sound mixing Emmys. They continue to mix GoT, thanks to the shows’ compatible production schedules.

“The fourth day, I come in and we review it together,” Brytus continued. “The fifth day, we bring in the creators and writers of the show, John Steinberg, Robert Levine and Dan Shotz. The sixth day, we play back for Starz. Then, on the seventh day, we rest,” he said, pausing for laughter, “and listen to it.”

The team spends a lot of time on the review process, listening to the 7.1 and 5.1 mixes before doing an LtRt pass, said Brytus. “Now, we’re talking about doing that with Atmos. That’s a new complication this year.”

“It’s super great to mix in 7.1, but there’s also the reality that people will hear this on their TV in two-track,” noted Waters. “Some production companies don’t give you time to listen down to all the different versions; it’s crucial.”

Brytus added, “We don’t take those seven days and mix one show after the other. We do it as a feature and split it up. We might mix for 40 days before someone comes into the room to review. That’s a luxury,” he acknowledged.

The mixers are well aware that part of the audience will be viewing on mobile devices, listening on ear buds. “A lot of times on the big sequences, I’ll mix and then I’ll put up the nearfields. There have been times where the sub is fun, but no one else is going to hear it, so I’ve got to make it work without,” Waters commented.

Cook’s small group includes a sound effects editor, a dialog editor and an ADR supervisor in England. “When I get the show, 80 percent is locked,” said Cook. “My dialog and effects editors do their first pass and, when we hit the stage, we’ll have at least one visual effects update while we’re mixing, probably another one when we review for the executive producers, then four or five before we review for Starz. Usually we’ve had to go back after we’re completely done and do another couple of days of VFX updates for the whole season.”

“It’s a show that doesn’t exist without the sound,” commented Brytus. “I’ve seen this show in the final review and I finally understand what a scene is about, because these guys have done such a good job of bringing it out.”

“Even the creators say, ‘What’s that dialog? I never heard that before,’” said Blank.

Cook reported that he likes to prepare his shows in the appropriate multichannel format. “I find that it helps speed the mix along. At my house, I’ve just added two overheads so I have 9.1 [7.1.2]. The Atmos panning plug-in works within Pro Tools, so I’ll be prepping things with Atmos in mind and doing panning. Frequently Matt will re-pan my panning. He likes to spread it out; I’m a little more traditional.”

The production challenge is like no other show, according to Brytus. “They built the set next to the freeway in Cape Town, South Africa, next to the largest township, Khayelitsha. And this is a time period where you have to make sure that you’re not hearing those things.”

Plus, noted Blank, “Our actors are all over the world, so getting them in for ADR is a big challenge. We’ll be mixing a show and not have any ADR for one character. So we do have to wait on certain things.”

With very few composers having the ability to mix and prepare tracks for Dolby Atmos, Blank said, “They’re delivering the same as they would for 7.1. I get something like 125 tracks of music. It’s my job to figure out what I want to put as objects, what I want to have in the 9.1 bed, and mix it to make it sound great but not take away from the story. We try to make every scene sound great and perfect without music before we put it in.”

Brytus added, “Bear McCreary, our composer, will often say, ‘I’ll write something here but I think it’s going to play dry when it’s finished.’ He’s another partner in crime with us; he has a big impact on our show.”

“We don’t want to get in the way of the story,” stressed Waters. “You’re always trying to find the things that are pushing the story forward.”

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