Interview by Jennifer Walden – may contain spoilers
Not knowing exactly what’s out there waiting to kill you is scarier than knowing what you’re up against. That’s the premise of Spike TV’s The Mist series, airing Thursdays 10/9c. Based on a Stephen King novella, The Mist begins with a mysterious, dense fog blanketing a New England town. When the mist suddenly turns deadly, the community is forced to face the horrors lurking in its midst. They find manifestations of the demons hiding within themselves. But The Mist is not just a horror story; it’s an allegory of humanity, a look at what happens to people when they’re placed under extreme pressure.
A Sound Effect ventures into The Mist with supervising sound editor Bryan Parker (who’s worked on horror series like Teen Wolf and Scream: The TV Series for MTV) and Emmy-award winning sound designer Paula Fairfield (known for her work on HBO’s Game of Thrones). Parker, based in Los Angeles, worked remotely with Fairfield, whose Eargasm, Inc. studio is located in Sherman Oaks, CA. They divided the sound effects workload with Fairfield handling the supernatural aspects and Parker handling the practical effects, plus ADR, loop group, and Foley.
How did you get involved with the series?
Bryan Parker (BP): I had done MTV’s Scream: The TV Series with the Weinstein’s before, so that was the connection.
Paula Fairfield (PF): I had worked with picture editor Marc Pollon before and I think he recommended me to show. Ironically, my mother who lives in Nova Scotia was talking about a film crew at her church. It turns out that the church in The Mist is my mother’s parish. The great thing about that church is that it is one of the oldest churches in North America. It is celebrating its 200th year anniversary this year. It’s funny, Christian Torpe didn’t know that about the church but he happened to pick the oldest church that he had access to.
BP: The pews in that church sound really good. We took a lot of the production sound of people moving around on the benches and used that in the show because it sounded way better than anything we had in the library.
PF: It’s such a beautiful church acoustically. It’s a wonderful thing that they chose to film in that church because they were getting ready for their 200th anniversary and Nova Scotia is not a rich place. It’s a middle-class area, with bake sales and stuff, and the money that they got from filming the series in there allowed them to do some wonderful upgrades to the church. They replaced carpets and did other renovations and repairs. You often hear horror stories about film crews coming in and what happens to the location, but this was a wonderful thing for the church and it allowed them to do some great things in preparation for their anniversary this year.
What was show creator Christian Torpe’s vision for the soundtrack and how did he plan to use sound to help further the story?
PF: Bryan and I lived parallel lives on the show. I started working with Christian and his team conceptually, before Bryan came on, to get the direction for sound. It was very ambitious what they wanted to do and it could have gone in a million different ways. We tried a bunch of ideas, talking back and forth and trying different designs, and talking about what they liked and what they didn’t like, to try to hone in on how to approach the sound for the series. One of the early ideas was the concept that the mist was like each person’s personal gates of hell. Things from their past, things unresolved, would come to the people caught in the mist.
I don’t use synthesized sounds in my work. It’s all organically based. I was researching sound and reading Trevor Cox’s book about sonic anomalies of the earth. One anomaly is the Moaning Sands, which happens in about thirty places on earth. One location close to where I live is Kelso Dunes. The moaning is caused by a combination of the dry sand, the inclination, and the heat. When movement happens on it, all the particles of sand rub together and the compression produces a moan or causes them to sing. It’s a very beautiful sound.
The concept was all about what fear will drive people to do. … [T]he sound is a collective moan of humanity which is happening right now.
For me conceptually that worked really well for Christians idea of The Mist. The show was initially pitched as an allegory on Trump, long before Trump was sworn in. Ironically, their last day of shooting was on the day of the election, which is kind of crazy. The concept was all about what fear will drive people to do. So the idea of the compression of sand — millions of particles of sand under pressure and being compressed and moaning together, was like millions of souls under pressure and the sound is a collective moan of humanity which is happening right now. It seems like a perfect conceptual idea.
So I used some of the moaning sand sounds I’d collected and then mimicked those using recordings of wind and different things. As you see when you go through the series, the different stories that come out of the mist, there is an overall sound of the mist and its presence, and also the individual sounds for the stories of the people who get caught up in it. Each person has his or her own experience with the mist, fragmentations and bits and pieces of their lives that have been compressed by the mist. That’s the conceptual idea behind it and that informed our choices for sound and how we dealt with the crazy sequences that come because of the mist.
BP: The work that I did on the series is more on the human side, getting the tones of the crowds right once we already had a cut to work with. I worked with a loop group called Loop Who’s Talking, which I work with often. We spent a lot of time shaping the mood of the scenes through the eyes of those that are there, through their fear and how that gets expressed whether it is quiet tension or something more akin to full on panic.
The mist is dense and it’s very hard to see far into it. How were you able to take advantage of that with sound?
PF: These creatures and things emerge as fragmentations of people’s fear and morph into concrete versions of that. For example, there were the moths and the roaches, and the Shadow Man.
BP: The one scene that comes to mind for me is the cable going off into the mist and what happens to the shopping cart at the end of it. We all put some time into trying to convey what could be out there. The uncertainty, too, is what causes the fear. The ambiguity of what could be out there allows the audience to imagine something from their own personal hell. We make suggestions though. Paula, on numerous occasions, has built very specific storylines off-camera, behind the mist.
You pick up the pieces and try to fill in the gaps, and that can be scarier than anything. It’s not knowing exactly what the sound is and interpreting it.
PF: It’s the equivalent of closing your eyes. You can’t see anything. It’s always the unknown that is the scariest. You are trying to put together the pieces of what it could be. For me, I created my own stories off-camera, but it’s not important if you don’t pick up on all the nuances of the stories that I was trying to insinuate. You pick up the pieces and try to fill in the gaps, and that can be scarier than anything. It’s not knowing exactly what the sound is and interpreting it. We tried to play with that in places.
BP: What I like best about a lot of the work that Paula did is that she started with something that was a little bit recognizable and then twisted and couched it in other layers so that the recognizable element only barely peek their heads above water. It’s almost a subconscious thing, what the kernel of the design is. It’s giving a suggestion without beating the audience over the head with it. That is what I found so creepy about the swirly, in-your-head, subjective moments.
PF: For creatures like the Shadow Man, it’s like, “What is that?” I went back and forth a million times with Christian on that one. A lot of the sound there is very visceral; there are low rumbling, rippling tones and then there are very high-end, prickly, nasty, make-your-skin-crawl elements. The pieces of that sound don’t make any sense together. I made it from monks, and scotch tape, and goats. But it’s all about the quality of the sounds, what will make your skin crawl and scares the shit out of you. A lot of that had to do with intense viscerality.
Another thing about the mist is creating the sense of claustrophobia when you’re in it. I wracked my brain for ways of having that presence. There’s the idea that the mist becomes so thick that it puts pressure on everything in it. We used a lot of vibrations, and pushing, and rubs to have it feel like you’re being squeezed by this entity which is essentially nothing.
BP: Especially when they’re near glass, like in the entrance of the mall, we pushed that vibration the most.
PF: You have this sense of it pushing really hard and wanting to get in, like it’s the mist’s form of knocking and banging. That was another way of creating tension. Again, there’s nothing to see but it’s a feeling.
The mist really became about viscerality and the interpretation of the unknown, the creepy things that come from people’s past. That was the ambition and the challenge of the show, to stay in that psychological realm. There really isn’t a huge amount of gore in the show. It’s all psychological. We explore ideas that make your skin crawl and freak you out.
Let’s talk about some creatures that come out of the mist. So far, there have been cockroaches, the moth that causes wings to sprout out of one character’s back, and the Shadow Man.
PF: For every one of those sounds, it was all about viscerality. For the cockroaches, you have creepy, crawly, clacky, nasty feeling sounds. And it’s bigger than life to accentuate the feeling of eww. And each one is like that. It’s the same with the moth. You have the stretching and breaking of skin and the movement of bones that reassemble themselves into these nasty wings that come out of his back. It’s gross and you can feel it. And the Shadow Man, which I talked about, is the same sort of feel.
Did you have a favorite episode?
PF: I think Episode 6 is my favorite. Mia’s story is my favorite. I love that one. It’s completely the opposite. It’s very quiet and beautiful. That one uses more of a voice for the mist. You can feel the fragmentation of one’s past coming through. It’s cool.
I sent her a bunch of source material to build these swirling suggestions in the design using the characters’ own voice, to design what was going on in their heads whether it was a memory with their own voice …
BP: I think Episode 6 does have something a lot scarier than creatures. Paula would send me texts like, “Hey! Can you send me voices for this character right before this scene?” So I would go through and get all the production takes and see if there was ADR for that line. I sent her a bunch of source material to build these swirling suggestions in the design using the characters’ own voice, to design what was going on in their heads whether it was a memory with their own voice or of someone else’s voice chopped up into different takes and different reads in a really delicate and textured way that I feel is very effective. I look forward to everyone seeing Episode 6.
PF: I do feel the episodes are getting stronger as the season goes on and I hope people stick with the show. It’s almost a slow ramp up but it’s starting to take off now. There are some really awesome sequences and episodes that are coming up.
BP: I had a lot of fun with Episode 4 too, all the detail on the shopping cart and harpoon gun. I looked for some really expressive cable movements that build and ramp up to the moment before they drop away and there’s the big scare.
PF: We are playing with the rules of the mist there, in the sense of what’s there and how does it work. Is there a creature out there? You’re still trying to figure that out. To me, the mist is like the roving personal gates to hell. It envelops you and there you are inside your own fears. It’s like you get sucked down into your own soul. That’s the concept. It’s about how people handle that, how they handle the things that come to haunt them.
BP: You get to know the characters and you get to see each of them handle this differently and you get to know them better throughout the show.
PF: It’s really a comment on how we all function in the larger world with the crazy shit that is going on now. A big part of Christian’s intent was to comment on that. You think you know somebody until they are really pushed to the limit in a fearful place, then you get to see how they handle it and what decisions they make in that moment. It can be quite shocking and that can be more horrifying than the physical monster. You can watch it as a superficial story about people in a town dealing with this mist but it also has a lot of depth conceptually. That is what I really appreciate about the show.
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Exploring that psychological fear factor in Episode 6, how did you manipulate the voices and what was your ultimate design?
PF: I took as many different takes of the same line as I could get, all with slight variations, and then I made more variation by pitching them and stretching them out and chopping them up into little fragments and reversing some. Then I did some work with panning, placing certain words in spots.
I also used Sound Particles for that. That is a cool piece of software but it takes a long time to get the effects that you want. I spent a long time messing with it because it’s a little bit random. So I would do many versions. You place samples and you can move them around in space. You can have them trail or do different things. I would make some lighter versions and some very busy ones and some medium ones. There were lots of different versions and different combinations of samples. I created this library of material for the scene and then I would cut them together, add reverb and other processing to create what I was looking for. It was quite a process to build them but that design work is on great display in the episode. It’s a very delicate scene and you can really hear it.
I’ve used Sound Particles on the moths coming out of Mikhail [Steven Yaffee]’s mouth too. I’m using Sound Particles in combination with cutting because otherwise, it’s too random. You get this cool movement but it’s a little painstaking because it’s kind of random and you have to shape it but when it works it’s freaking brilliant. Not only can you swirl sounds around, you can layer sounds and have some sit deeper and move independently. It’s a fun box but you can spend a lot of time on it. You can get magic out of it if you spend some time and work with it long enough. It was definitely worth it on the sequences. For this show, it was perfect.
Did you do any field recordings for The Mist?
PF: Yes, I went to Kelso Dunes and did a bunch of recordings up there for this, of all kinds of sand sounds, the moaning, and winds. I have photos of me and all of my gear absolutely covered in sand. But it was great. I’m inspired to go to Namibia now, to go to the biggest ones in the world. I learned from Kelso Dunes that recording the moaning sands can be pretty brutal because you are walking up a hill in sand with all of this gear.
I took Zoom gear. I have an F8 and an H6, and a huge array Zoom mics, plus a Sanken CSS 5 and a set of DSM mics.
BP: I didn’t do much, but I did record the shopping cart and the metal cable. For that, I used the Neumann KMR 81 and a Sound Devices 722T.
Creatively, what was the most challenging scene to design and how did you go about it?
PF: The owl from Episode 6. There is this scene with an owl that I had to make talk. It seems so simple and it was the bane of my existence. I joke now that I have a gigantic hooter collection. I have the nicest hooter collection you ever did see. I bought no less than 15 different kinds of hooters (which are owl calls). It turns out they use barn owls to attract wild turkeys while hunting, and so there are hundreds of people on the Internet who sell or claim to sell the best hooter.
I’ve tried every hooter sound there was and I melded it with vocals. It was really difficult to get this owl sound. At one point, Christian said it was close enough but not exact. I was like no way. I kept going and I finally nailed the sound. He said, “Well you don’t give up.” And I said, “You’ll give up on it before I do.”
It’s a tiny moment, a tiny scene with three or four small sounds and it was just really challenging to find the right thing. But, in the end, we nailed it.
BP: There is a certain lightness to it but it’s eerie too. It’s not a comedic break, but there is a lightness to it.
PF: And it is a story point so it is significant. It was a collaboration on the ADR side too. We tried using the actual actor’s voice, which is what Christian wanted and we did try, but it didn’t work. I tried it with all of the actor’s different takes. Then they tried loop group, using people who sounded like him. And finally, it was this one woman’s voice that was the best. It was the most malleable and I could crank it into the zone of the hooters. I put the hooter filter on and it was just brilliant.
It’s funny, sometimes it’s the small sounds that trip you up. It’s the things that seem simple but they turn out not to be. It’s one of those effects that plays bare-assed, with nothing to hide behind. It is loud and proud and just by itself. Plus it’s a story point. So there was no denying the sound had to be right.
The production sound isn’t supposed to have any electrical hums or air conditioner hums because the power in the whole town is supposed to be out. That was pretty challenging …
BP: As far as practical effects go, there were a lot of tough scenes. Once the power goes out, then we have to try and craft really creepy moments, giant set piece moments, with compromised production audio. The production sound isn’t supposed to have any electrical hums or air conditioner hums because the power in the whole town is supposed to be out. That was pretty challenging to build those moments in a way that was believably quiet and creepy. There are windy textures aided by the mist ambiences that Paula built to create the space around the story without having any technological artifacts that aren’t supposed to be there.
PF: The mall, in general, was tough. There were long extended scenes with no technology but the production track had sounds in it, sounds from a working mall.
BP: It was filmed in an active mall. I had to RX out electronic cash register beeps.
The drone scene in Episode 2 was right near a transformer room or something. That was tough.
It’s all about selling those long, quiet moments of anticipation before the big loud events, otherwise the big loud events don’t seem as loud and scary. So that’s why it was essential for us to get our production tracks clean. There were a bunch of scenes where we just couldn’t make that happen and had to go with ADR. We had to make a lot of decisions on the scenes between the mom Eve [Alyssa Sutherland] and the daughter Alex [Augusta ‘Gus’ Birney]. They are trying to relate to each other in this tense situation, and the scenes are performed quietly, under the noise floor of an active mall.
What was the single most challenging sound you had to create?
PF: Initially, I think it was just coming up with the overall concept of the mist and how it would remain present. How many different ways can mist be present at any time? It doesn’t really make any sound so I had to develop a library of different textures for how the mist would hit different things, just so you are reminded that the mist was present and that you can feel it closing in on you.
Once I got that figured out, it wasn’t hard to create. But the initial stage was tough, getting to that point was tough. The mist is literally thin air.
What are you most proud of in terms of sound on The Mist?
PF: For me, it’s Episode 6 for sure. Mia’s story is very subtle and beautiful.
BP: Danica Curcic who plays Mia, is so compelling. Her performance is so personal and expressive in that scene. It was incredible.
I’m most proud creating moods, creating layers of people and shaping people’s reactions to a scene. I worked a lot with loop group to guide their performances. I was very hands-on with that. Afterward, in editorial, I was pulling the best small reactions and retiming those, going with where the principal actors were looking to add an off-screen element. I was building around what they were doing on-screen. Sometimes what is on-screen just needs a little more activity, or a little more something to make it feel real. On The Mist, I was using sound to build up the humanity, and then break down the humanity as we get further along in the season.
PF: That’s really the arch of the show. There are two important aspects of the show and that is the mist itself and the degeneration of society within the mall. There is a build-up of tension and the breakdown of individuals. It’s really delicate and I think Bryan did a great job of that. It’s delicate work and invisible work — you don’t notice it happening. It’s just happening. It grows on you slowly and creates the tension.
BP: With ADR, I can help steer the performances in a more intense direction or put a sharper point on the emotion of the scene using ADR. That’s one task that comes across my desk a fair amount on TV shows. I like that work. I like getting in there with an actor and saying, “That was a good take but let’s try pulling the pitch up a little bit without changing the projection. The level was good but let’s raise the intensity of the moment by raising the pitch up a little bit. Keep the same pacing and let’s try it again.” With group, we are adding sounds in there that weren’t there before. And you are creating different moods and changing what’s on-screen a bit and you’re doing that all from scratch.
A big thanks to Paula Fairfield and Bryan Parker for giving us a look into the creepy sound design of The Mist – and to Jennifer Walden for conducting the interview!
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