Interview by Jennifer Walden, photos courtesy of ESPN, Netflix and SIM
For those in the US who missed EPSN’s top-rated docu-series The Last Dance when it aired, you’ll be able to watch it on Netflix on July 19th. The series follows the career of Michael Jordan, his time with the Chicago Bulls and the drama that ultimately surrounds success.
Director Jason Hehir stitched together a quilt of sports commentary and archival basketball games dating back to the 70s, sit-down interviews with retired sports stars, coaches and managers, personal footage shot by friends, press footage, news reports, and more. It’s an interesting story, even for those who aren’t basketball fans.
Bringing so many disparate sources together into one cohesive production required skill and artistry. On the sound side, Keith Hodne — senior recording mixer and supervising sound editor at SIM New York — delivered on both. His years of experience on documentaries and sports documentaries not only gave him the skills to clean up and balance the varied audio tracks; it helped him to shape the sonic tone of the show in an artistic way.
Here, Hodne and Finishing Producer Stephanie Pacchiano at SIM talk about the challenges of crafting the sound of The Last Dance and successfully delivering the show for air in the face of an escalated post-production schedule during a pandemic, which required a change to a remote-based workflow midway through the season.
‘The Last Dance’ exclusive trailer and footage: The untold story of Michael Jordan and the Bulls
Keith, you worked on OJ: Made In America, and the 30 for 30 shorts. How did that sports documentary experience prepare you for The Last Dance?
Keith Hodne (KH): I’ve worked on various different projects and have been lucky enough to work on content that is very authentically me. I was born in 1980, in Brooklyn, and I DJ’d for a number of years so I’m into all different types of music. I’m a huge Knicks fan but I love Jordan. I’m a huge sneaker-head; I have a huge collection of sneakers. So what prepared me for this show was not only all of the work that I’ve done in the past but also just living that life during that era.
Looking at The Last Dance, there are clips, interviews, shots from the locker room, shots from their travels as a team, footage of Dennis Rodman on a bender — so many disparate sources you had to bring together! Different sources, from different eras… you must have had your work cut out for you. When you got involved on the show, what condition was the audio in?
KH: It’s obviously spanning all different types of medium from different years. That was one of the biggest challenges. There were over 100 different interviews. Right off the bat, the cleanest audio that would be coming to me — the interviews — were recorded in over 100 different environments. The biggest challenge was trying to make that all live within the same world. That meant dirtying clips up to match other clips around it, or cleaning other clips. Especially with the archival material in the montages, there had to be a fair amount of blending from sound design and that was from sound banks that I created with Jason [Hehir].
Right off the bat, the cleanest audio that would be coming to me — the interviews — were recorded in over 100 different environments.
Jason and I were lucky enough to work on a bunch of shorts that were teasers for the All-Star Break. So, we set the tone sonically for what the series was going to sound like before I had even received Episode 1 of The Last Dance.
For the audio for those recordings shot in 1998, those look beautiful and so that (as crazy as it sounds) helps the final audio product. I did have to do a fair amount of clean up on those clips and I did my normal restoration/clean-up processing. So the editing team chopped together that footage and then delivered the audio of that to me. Then it’s my responsibility to keep that true to the material as possible but pad it a bit to continue to set the tone that we want to set, which was dark, moody, and questioning as a whole.
When it comes to clean-up, there isn’t much I can’t fix.
When it comes to clean-up, there isn’t much I can’t fix. We aim to please and we do. Technology is so advanced that I feel like as long as you know how to use the tools that are out there, and you know how to use them creatively (for their intended use and beyond), then there isn’t much audio that you can’t clean-up or make into a usable final product by blending the sound with other sounds.
I spent 10 years working on The First 48, which was a crime docu-series. Cleaning up that footage where they were out at night in a field or whatever was not the most pleasant audio. But that, for sure, paved the way for me to work on content like OJ: Made in America which was super-heavy with archival material and interviews as well. Then, fast forward to The Last Dance. My past experience has definitely prepared me for this show.
What are some of your favorite tools for clean up? iZotope RX? CEDAR DNS One? Any others you prefer to use?
KH: The reason those tools are so popular is because they work so well. I definitely love Sonnox Restore and iZotope, like everybody else. Also, I have been using Accusonus ERA-D for clean up and some of their other tools. Those are definitely interesting tools.
I would say that I use all of those tools in my daily workflow.
What about compression? Do you find that’s helpful for this kind of work or do you encounter issues with the noise floor on archival material?
KH: From a storytelling standpoint, I don’t like to process any of my material until I’ve heard it all. Once I hear it, then I can start applying processing. Compression is definitely one of those tools. You can certainly over-compress and I try not to do that. There is a time and a place for compression but I pick and choose where I use it — especially with the material in The Last Dance.
I wanted to have different elements popping through and playing together in an orchestrated way in the mix and there is no faking that.
I try to use compression judiciously. I don’t think you’d be able to achieve the mix without some compression, but stylistically, I wanted to have different elements popping through and playing together in an orchestrated way in the mix and there is no faking that. You have to do that with automation, with volume rides. Compression is a great thing but I try to use it only as much as I needed to for this project.
When stitching these pieces of audio together, there are ancillary sounds that support the scene — like basketball bounces and crowd reactions. What were your guidelines for adding in supporting effects?
KH: Jason and I set the tone for the hip-hop montages — music was going to be king/queen. But, in most storytelling, the dialogue is king/queen. So it was a fine balance to figure out when to drive with the music, drive with the effects, and when to let the announcing take over. If you’re not doing that very carefully then you wind up with mud.
I’m definitely all over my faders when mixing, EQing parts of crowds out to allow the music to shine through, or bringing in some highs from the crowd to let that take over as an element.
It’s like if you’re painting and you use too many colors at once then you wind up with a wreck. I’m definitely all over my faders when mixing, EQing parts of crowds out to allow the music to shine through, or bringing in some highs from the crowd to let that take over as an element.
One of the super interesting scenes that Jason and I created was in Ep. 10 where we go into the stark loneliness of a superstar and what that means, and sonically creating that texture. It’s an episode about being present and in the moment and we try to make it feel like you’re in Jordan’s head. We have a moment in which the music swells and comes to an end and the crowd starts swelling and overtaking the scene. That comes to an end very gradually and slowly. It’s not overly done, but it creates this very introspective moment where Jordan is present but he’s inside his head. We do that with a lack of sound and that’s the interesting part. I would say those elements of what we’re using and hearing at that moment in time are what are important for that scene. In terms of sound design, it’s not always about adding things; it’s about subtracting things and the mixing.
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With your time schedule, were you able to do Foley? Do you feel Foley was one element that helped you to get a natural sound to help stitch these audio clips together?
KH: I use Foley for any project on a per-needs basis. If it’s going to help me tell the story then yes, I do Foley. I don’t record Foley for everything, just to have a Foley track as you’d have for the M&E of a narrative feature. I picked and chose those scenes where Foley could help fill in the sound.
…we weren’t going to fake anything for any other reason than to add an artistic style to the story.
Jason decided to set a template with me that we weren’t going to fake anything for any other reason than to add an artistic style to the story. We didn’t fake anything to change the story in any way, shape, or form.
Most of the content you are hearing is coming from the actual tapes. That comes from cleaning those files up and mixing. That was the skill in that for sure. The content I had to work with was great as long as I stripped back some of the stuff that was aged.
This went to Netflix for international release, and so there was likely a localization process. Did you have to have a Foley track for the M&Es for the international releases?
KH: Most networks request different M&Es for scripted and non-scripted content.
This show was delivered to ESPN first and then Netflix, so there were two different sets of deliverables. They weren’t wildly different, but they were different.
Don’t forget, we did step on the gas and fast-forward the editing schedule; we escalated our schedule by two months to get it out and we weren’t done with the series before they decided to escalate the schedule.
Stephanie Pacchiano (SP): One thing that’s excellent about Keith is his organization. We had to go through two different QC passes. We had different Netflix deliveries, and ESPN deliveries. We had an internal structure to keep that very clear. As Keith finished an episode, it went through round one of QC, and round two of QC, and a final delivery with possible changes after that final delivery. Or, more changes after it aired for alternative airs. There was a layer of complexity after completing that we executed.
…we certainly needed great coordination with all of those parties to make sure every destination for the deliverables had what they needed for their airs and distribution.
KH: I wouldn’t have been able to do that without Stephanie. I’m a large part of this project but just a small part of what we create at SIM. Stephanie was totally in charge of running it.
SP: Typically we have a set workflow of once it passes QC then we export all of our final assets but because Episodes 9 and 10 were so tight with the schedule push-up Netflix said they didn’t have time to wait for that proper workflow. They asked us to deliver our audio once it was done so they could start the localization process. Then, after it goes through QC, we can provide any fixes. Fortunately, there weren’t any audio QC notes.
But, we certainly needed great coordination with all of those parties to make sure every destination for the deliverables had what they needed for their airs and distribution.
KH: I can do the best sound design and editing. I can have the best client relationships. But, at the end of the day, if you’re not passing those network deliverables quickly and successfully then everything else you’ve done doesn’t matter.
Did you have a few episodes to work on initially? Or did you get the episodes one at a time? How did that affect your approach creatively and logistically?
KH: We were lucky enough to do them in order, which was nice. Then, when we knew the schedule would escalate, Jason and the team did a good job of giving us the episodes a bit ahead of time and kept funneling them to us. That was nice because, from a sound design and mix perspective, I was able to know what was happening in the timeline from point A to point C and to escalate that sonically.
Once you got your feet wet with Ep. 1, how did that process help you to prepare for the following episodes, especially with the escalated schedule?
KH: Jason and I were together in the studio at SIM for Eps. 1 – 3. That allowed us to lay groundwork for when the shelter-in-place orders came down and all the editors had to work at home.
We set the tone sonically in terms of what Jason liked and what he wanted to hear.
Working on those first three episodes together at SIM definitely helped to set the tone for what it would sound like later.
Ep. 1 and 2 were a bit different from the other episodes because they were more like a highlight reel. They were more action-packed sports footage as opposed to the format we get into a bit further in, like in Eps. 5 – 10. Those are more of a typical documentary style.
Working on those first three episodes together at SIM definitely helped to set the tone for what it would sound like later. We set the tone for how it would sound in the arenas, for example. I was in charge of finessing the dialogue, and fixing any music edits to make it hit what it needed to hit for this very in-your-face style. There was a certain time and place for every element, for it to pop up in your face.
Tell me about your transition to a remote-based workflow. How did it affect productivity? For the first episode you worked on at home, did you have to find your pace all over again?
KH: It was definitely challenging. I’m lucky enough to have a decent home studio in my basement that I’ve been crafting and improving for the past couple of years. I have most of the same equipment here at home that I do in the studio.
But, I’m home and I have my adorable four-year-old son and a five-month old too, who require attention. So, that was a challenge. Fortunately, my wife is here and she has her own business so we’ve been trading off, finding time to focus on the work and focus on the family.
Doing work here as opposed to doing work at SIM, and also facing a pushed-up deadline, was a bit of an adjustment but you have to make things happen. We’re all under stress. It’s a totally new challenge for all of us. But we have to rise up and do what we have to do.
…maybe my son will be an audio engineer when he gets older. He had a very strong opinion on the mix and he took control.
One funny thing (well, now it’s funny) was my son — who is very curious about what I do and I try to show him what the buttons and knobs are and what the board does — decided to move some faders as I was in the process of creating Ep. 4’s masters. I stood up for a second and I didn’t realize that he grabbed all the faders and hit play a couple of times essentially changing the mix altogether from what it was. Three hours later, I looked at my automation and it looked like mountains instead of a proper mix. I lost about four hours of work trying to figure out what had happened. So, maybe my son will be an audio engineer when he gets older. He had a very strong opinion on the mix and he took control.
I was ready for the remote-workflow. I feel like this project was a culmination of everything I had been doing in my career, and my whole life really. Jason and I are very similar. We see eye to eye, more so than any other client I work with. If I had to choose a client to work with during this situation, it would have been Jason anyway. We had to trust each other, to work with each other over the phone and through Zoom and just know what each other thinks. I was very lucky to have Jason as the director of this project. He had faith in us and luckily we knocked it out of the park for him. At least, that’s what he said.
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What’s in your remote setup? You’re going from an acoustically calibrated studio environment to a home studio. How do the two mix environments compare?
KH: Luckily enough, and to my wife’s disdain, I took up a whole room in the basement for my studio. I’ve been DJing and making music since Pro Tools had the Digi-001 interface. So, over the years I’ve collected and purposefully tried to have the same equipment at home as I do at SIM.
I have a 24-fader D-Command control surface, which I feel is very important for me when I’m wearing my mixer hat. I love to grab faders and feel the mix.
I also have acoustic treatments and sound padding around the studio here. So, I’m not a fish out of water in my home studio and I’m lucky that when the shelter-in-place orders happened that I had a nice place to work.
You just have to trust in yourself and trust what you do, and trust the 20 years of experience to give you good instincts.
I’m using a 2009 Mac Pro, so the computing isn’t as powerful as what is at SIM. But I do have all of my plug-ins. When we knew we were going into shelter-in-place mode, I took all of my plug-ins home so I have my whole toolkit of go-to plug-ins.
Instead of 8-inch JBLs, I’m using 6-inch JBL’s at home. With that said, the space is much smaller here. I trusted my ears, and that’s what I had to do. I took a few days to sit in my studio and get atuned to mixes I’ve made at SIM and how they sound here. I had Eps. 1 – 3 of The Last Dance finalized at SIM and I listened to those over and over and over again. I wanted to get comfortable with the way they sounded so that I didn’t second-guess myself when mixing the new episodes. Because I didn’t have time to second-guess myself. You just have to trust in yourself and trust what you do, and trust the 20 years of experience to give you good instincts.
In terms of collaboration, how are you sharing your mixes with Jason? Were you bouncing them out or sending a live feed from your board?
KH: I create a mix and then pass it off to Stephanie. We did sound and color at SIM so my mix was just one part of the whole.
SP: We presented several different options to Jason for the review process and the best option for Jason was to send him one file with color and mix together so he could see it like a viewer would see it. He was able to analyze both the color and the mix and how everything worked together.
Jason would view the postings immediately and intensely, given the tight schedule. He would send us notes and then Jason would get on a call with Keith and talk about the sound changes. Once we executed those changes then we’d send another posting to Jason for review, to sign-off on the changes and make sure he’s good with everything and that we’re ready to go to air.
What would you want other sound pros to know about your work on The Last Dance ?
KH: We all try to do the best possible work we can. I had to react and respond when we fast-forwarded the schedule. I trusted my gut instincts and tried to make the most impactful, powerful piece. I hope that sonically I matched the level of this man, Michael Jordan, and his team. You just got to keep cranking every day, and do what you do and a dream project — like this one was for me — will hit you one day. This was the best thing I’ve ever done.
There are six speakers and people pay good money for them so let’s try to utilize them as much as possible…
In terms of the mix, I try to take my documentary work to the next level. Documentaries as a medium have been escalating for the past five to seven years, but in the past few years the production value of documentaries has skyrocketed. So what can you do to make your documentary stand out from the others? I try to create as stylistic a documentary as possible, to make the montages as artistic and beautiful as we could to match the music, and fill out the surround field as much as possible. There are six speakers and people pay good money for them so let’s try to utilize them as much as possible — without taking away from the story of course. That artistic approach is not typically done on documentaries. So, that’s one thing I’m proud of.
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