The Queen's Gambit Sound Asbjoern Andersen


Writer/Director Scott Frank's latest entertainment endeavor -- The Queen's Gambit series on Netflix -- is winning over audiences. Who knew a dramatic series on competitive chess could be so captivating?

Here, Sound Designer Wylie Stateman and Re-recording mixer Eric Hoehn explain why the show is so satisfying from a sound perspective, and how their 'Cutting Room 2.0' approach made the marriage of sound and picture seamless, requiring less effort while producing a superior result.


Interview by Jennifer Walden, photos courtesy of Netflix. Please note: Contains spoilers
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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CDrieqwSdgI
The Queen’s Gambit | Official Trailer | Netflix

Back in 1000 AD, it was common for a barber to perform surgical procedures. But in 2020, that practice is outdated. Just because one can wield a sharp instrument well doesn’t make all cuts equal. Let’s apply that same logic to post production. Just because one can cut sound doesn’t mean they’re the best choice for it.

Cutting picture and sound in tandem makes sense. Both should serve the story and support each other. Like a well-choreographed dance, when the two partners move in harmony it makes for a pleasing experience. In a typical post workflow, this is achieved by having the picture editor cut temp sound in the Avid. But why not have the sound editor cut the sound while the picture editor cuts the picture? (Surgeons are best suited for performing surgery after all.)

The award-winning sound team of Wylie Stateman and Eric Hoehn are doing just that in a process they’ve dubbed Cutting Room 2.0. They’re shaping the final soundtrack as the picture is being cut. “It’s a parallel process, the simultaneous design and mixing of sound along with the creation of the picture edit,” clarifies sound designer Stateman.

It’s a parallel process, the simultaneous design and mixing of sound along with the creation of the picture edit.

It is a process he describes as “ABC,” always be cutting, and “ABM,” always be mixing. They’re preparing and mixing the tracks as they go — providing near-final sound material to the picture editor — so when it’s time to ‘final’ mix, the approval process has been well underway and there are no surprises. The filmmakers have confidence in the soundtrack having spent the entire editing process listening to the actual dialogue (ADR and group), effects, Foley, BGs, and music that will be in the final track. “For anyone who’s been playing along during the picture editing, when they hear the track, they say it sounds just like it did in the Avid. And that’s the ultimate goal, to get it to that point before we get to an expensive mix environment,” says re-recording mixer Hoehn.

TheQueensGambit_sound

Stateman and Hoehn have been perfecting their Cutting Room 2.0 workflow since 2016, while working with writer/director Scott Frank, picture editor Michelle Tesoro, and composer Carlos Rafael Rivera on Netflix’s Godless series. In that pre-pandemic time, “we were set up in the cutting room with them. We were actually connected to their Avid Media Composer system via the NEXIS and, as soon as Michelle deemed a cut ‘pencils down,’ we were able to start immediately — viewing it and creating sound for it,” says Hoehn.

These days, the process is the same; it’s just happening remotely. For Netflix’s new series The Queen’s Gambit, director Frank reunited with Tesoro, Rivera, Stateman, and Hoehn. Using collaboration tools like Evercast, Zoom, Aspera, Resilio Sync, Source-Connect, and others, the sound team still had access to a scene or sequence as soon as Tesoro had a cut. They could send their designed and mixed tracks back to the editor just as fast as if they were in the editing suite with her. They could even have remote, real-time final mix playback sessions with the director, editor, music editor, composer, and producer even though they were in multiple and often distant locations. “The tools are really good at keeping continuity between the media between the various departments,” says Hoehn.

But this process takes more than tools. Stateman notes that they ask the team to be very meticulous with how they manage the Pro Tools sessions, how they manage the media, and how they manage the turnovers and the versions. Hoehn says, “A lot of that requires a very intense discipline to maintain the work that is being done, to be good at maintaining and conforming and chasing cuts so that your work is preserved. This way, when the picture changes you don’t have to redesign a whole sequence.”

TheQueensGambit_sound-10

But above all else, it’s the relationship that Stateman and Hoehn have with filmmakers Frank and Tesoro that makes this workflow possible. “We made developing trust with them a very important part of our relationship, because of that, we take part in the cut immediately adding value, context and depth to the story in terms of sound,” says Hoehn.

…because of that, we take part in the cut immediately adding value, context and depth to the story in terms of sound.

There are thousands of sound-related decisions to make and Stateman and Hoehn make the majority of those in the moment as they’re designing and mixing. This keeps the filmmakers from being overwhelmed by minutiae. The picture editor may make adjustments based on their tastes as well, and those tracks are added into the cut. The filmmakers can then judge the cut and the sound in context. If something stands out, or the filmmakers want to try a different approach, then there’s time to explore options. If the filmmakers don’t have a note about this sound or that, then those stay locked to the end. “It’s a rapid prototyping process that’s done at a high enough quality to be shaped as a final soundtrack. This rapid prototyping isn’t a proxy for the final; it is for all intent, the final,” says Stateman.


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Since sound decisions are happening throughout editorial, the “final mix becomes very focused on other high-yield priorities, like ‘Is that music cue to low or a little too loud? and ‘Are we hearing enough punctuation from sound design or hyper detail from Foley?’ Those are the conversations we’re having in the final days after having spent many months just focused completely on the big picture,” says Hoehn.

TheQueensGambit_sound-4

The benefits of Cutting Room 2.0 are evident in the fluid feel of The Queen’s Gambit. The series follows a young orphan, Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy), who becomes a Grand Master chess player. Pace, timing, and clarity are hallmarks of this show’s editing — for both picture and sound.

TheQueensGambit_sound-3

Some matches are fast-paced (and furious), like Beth’s speed chess matches against U.S. Chess Champion Benny Watts (Thomas Brodie-Sangster). First, in Ep. 5 “Fork,” there are the frustrating sets played one evening during a break in the U.S. Championship in Ohio. Beth is beaten by Benny time and again. The ticking clock, the definitive thumps of the pieces on the board, and the quick swishes as they’re swiped away create the music of her defeat. It’s easy to perceive Beth’s waning enthusiasm by the slowly-decreasing timing of the swishes and thumps set against the persistent ticking of the chess clock. You can almost feel Beth thinking more cautiously through her moves with each subsequent game.

Later, in Ep. 6 “Adjournment,” Beth gets redemption in another round of speed chess. Georgie Fame & The Blue Flames’ peppy and positive tune “Yeh, Yeh” plays as she beats Benny and both of his friends. The sounds of the chess pieces sliding across and striking the board, the woody click of pieces tapping together as one overtakes another, and the snap of the time clock marking the end of each move accompany the source track in a syncopated way. The quick picture cuts support the fast-paced action of the players’ back-and-forth exchanges. It’s more like watching tennis than chess because sound and picture together create a feeling of energy and anticipation.

TheQueensGambit_sound-13

During the aforementioned Ohio Championship in Ep. 5, Beth and Benny play their way through match after match trying to reach the final round where they could square off against each other. Their respective matches are briefly shown in a series of panels that effectively condense three days of chess matches into one musical montage. TheQueensGambit_sound “You could play that scene with just the song “Classical Gas” but we played with these panels moving, and with the clocks ticking, the pieces moving on the board, and other sounds like breaths to create rhythms that would enhance the moment,” says Stateman. “The “Classical Gas” track alone would have been a great bed to work with, but then you have all of these moving visual parts and you take these fine sound details and use them to sharpen the audience’s focus and put their attention directly where you want it to be. It builds tension and excitement and it takes a board game like chess and makes it a gladiator match of intellect,” says Stateman.

He adds, “The chess matches themselves were really a study in making an ancient board game into a modern strategy, gladiator domination-and-submission battle. This show isn’t teaching people to play chess — that’s why they mainly show the characters’ faces and only have quick cuts to the board when pieces are moved.

…we’re trying to take what we’ve learned about modern videogame viewership and apply those same stimuli to chess…

Instead, we’re trying to take what we’ve learned about modern videogame viewership and apply those same stimuli to chess to activate those impulses that people feel when they are watching a sport. And we’re using sound to activate those impulses that make people want to watch somebody else play a game.”

Clarity is also a feature of the soundtrack. Stateman and Hoehn have mastered the art of insinuating silence using precise Foley sounds, like playing the squeak of Beth’s shoe on the floor as she enters the screened-off “Top Boards” area where two highly-skilled players are competing. Even though the scene is scored with music, as Beth approaches the small crowd watching the game, you know it is pin-drop quiet just by that tiny, innocuous shoe squeak.

TheQueensGambit_sound

These details — like an actor’s scratch of pencil on paper as they log their moves, a protracted exhale of contemplation — are allowed to shine through the mix because the track is uncluttered. The Cutting Room 2.0 approach of rapid prototyping allows Stateman to focus on using sound to serve the story without over designing a scene. “I wish we could talk about how hard we worked but I can’t. We like to work fast, and efficiently, and create priorities so we spend our time on the highest yielding story moments,” he says.

During the mix, they didn’t have to wade through tons of tracks to find the best sonic details. Those decisions were happening during editorial. Stateman explains, “A lot of mixing is dealing with masking. The reason we rapidly prototype is so that everyone can see who is contributing what, and the best idea wins. So from the beginning, we removed this masking effect.”

You synchronize your mix move to that camera move so that everything feels very deliberate.

Since Hoehn doesn’t have to decide what sounds should carry a scene during the mix, he can spend more time finding the best moments to make mix transitions. “When you need to make a mix move and lower the backgrounds to favor the music or you need to create some sort of dramatic effect so that the focus is on the character, you may use a camera push-in on the character’s face as your transition. You synchronize your mix move to that camera move so that everything feels very deliberate. It’s not random. It feels like as the camera is moving in, we’re creating a moment of change in the mix. And we’re constantly looking for opportunities like that, making things feel like they are meant to be there and deliberate, the audience very much appreciates that. They can make sense of it,” explains Hoehn.

Stateman concludes, “When you really get down to the mindset of what’s important and what you want the audience to experience in the moment, then the mix is easy because there’s very little clutter. Together we prototype the soundtrack as early as possible so everyone understands — the editor, the director, and the composer. It’s so much faster. It’s much more interesting and enjoyable to then have the time to focus creative intention on the remaining new ideas.”

A big thanks to Wylie Stateman and Eric Hoehn for giving us a behind-the-scenes look at the sound of The Queen’s Gambit and to Jennifer Walden for the interview!

 

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THE WORLD’S EASIEST WAY TO GET INDEPENDENT SOUND EFFECTS:
 
A Sound Effect gives you easy access to an absolutely huge sound effects catalog from a myriad of independent sound creators, all covered by one license agreement - a few highlights:

  • Human Sound Effects Crowds: Emotions And Reactions Play Track 400 sounds included, 90 mins total $39.50

    This SFX library contains a wide range of reactions and emotional responses varying from quiet crowds to roared battle cries to a large selection of exclamations generated by a group of passionate theatrical actors in indoor venues.

    Apart from the vocalizations, we’ve also included recordings of more unusual crowd ambiances like people walking around the mics, falling down, sitting down and getting up, jumping around, marching, or just being present in the space.

    Crowds library is split into the following two parts:

    Small Groups: Includes small groups of up to 30 people which you can layer together and quickly create the sound of any sized realistic groups of people.

    Large Crowds: Brings pre-designed, easy-to-use sounds of medium to large crowds in various types of reactions, moods, and surroundings.

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  • A complete collection of sonic exploration by Slava Pogorelsky.
    Grow your sound arsenal with an ever evolving collection of high-end cinematic and fresh sound effects!
    Here’s what to expect:

    RESONATING METAL FORCE offers a fresh sound palette of reverberant aggressive metal rampage, totaling 680 sound effects. Featuring creeping evolving metal pressure and resonating rattle, massive rumble, explosive impacts and nerve-racking squeaks.
    HORROR SERIES VOL.1: EVIL STRINGS TORTURED WIRES offers a unique toolset for nightmarish designs, totaling 564 sound effects. Featuring creeping dread of bowed metal wires, strings and double bass, providing exciting opportunities for unique layering.
    CINEMATIC MAGICAL ICE is offering a unique toolset for ice-cold freezing designs, totaling 267 sound effects. Great for fantasy genre with ice based magic, motion graphics, time lapse and flow motion freeze sequences.
    CINEMATIC WATER WHOOSHES AND TEXTURES is offering a unique toolset for water and underwater designs, totaling 285 sounds. Great for hyper realistic designs, water based magic, surreal underwater movement or motion graphics with liquid elements.
    CINEMATIC WOOD SYMPHONY is offering a variety of wood based recordings that were morphed into a unique audio experience that bends the boundaries between recognisable source and unusual wooden textures, totaling 611 sound effects.
    SCI – FI ELEMENTS VOL.1 is offering a variety of carefully crafted futuristic sound effects that vary from pleasant and musical to unpredicted and glitchy, totaling 364 sound effects.
    CINEMATIC METAL WHOOSHES is offering a unique collection of aggressive roaring metal whooshes and transitions with cinematic feel and mind bending characteristics, totaling 120 sound effects.

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    Victor Mercader – AAA Sound Designer (Apex Legends)
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    Ginno Legaspi – SoundBytes Music Magazine‎
    “‘Evil Strings Tortured Wires’ is an all-scary affair with plenty of really good, nightmarish, imaginative sounds from authentic materials, like double bass, dulcimer strings and metal wires. Sound-wise, this sample pack is clean and carefully recorded. The editing and processing of sounds is top notch, with sound design techniques applied very professionally. Overall, very gritty and not for the faint of heart.”
     
    Ginno Legaspi – SoundBytes Music Magazine‎
    “As far as the sound goes ‘Cinematic Magical Ice’ is both beautiful and mystical. I happen to like the icy textures that are oozing with coldness. Overall, this sound library boasts a good variety of effect samples ready to drop in various cinematic projects.”
     
    Ginno Legaspi – SoundBytes Music Magazine‎
    “The spotlight of ‘Cinematic Wood Symphony’ is the wide range of complex sounds that can be dropped in your sound design projects. I love the Wood Movement and Tonal sounds, and I’m sure thriller and horror music composers will be delighted with the Friction and Impact sounds. If your cinematic projects are lacking texture and impact sounds ‘Cinematic Wood Symphony’ is a library to be considered – especially if you’re looking beyond common wood sounds.”
     
    Ginno Legaspi – SoundBytes Music Magazine‎
    “Cinematic Water Whooshes and Textures is great for anything. You won’t be hearing recordings of calm rivers or relaxing streams, but cinematic whooshes and textures for soundtrack works and media projects. Whether you’re into this type of sounds, this pack was recorded quite well, professionally edited and processed with Slava’s own flair.”

    Ginno Legaspi – SoundBytes Music Magazine‎
    “Slava is back with another aggressive and energetic sample library called Resonating Metal Force – a 680 strong collection of modern metal effects captured using various tools and high-end studio equipment. The source material was edited and processed professionally for instant use. These sounds are primed for experimentation – whether you add your unique processing, layer several WAV samples or slice and dice to your heart’s content, the sky’s the limit. This sound pack is another winner.”

    Ginno Legaspi – SoundBytes Music Magazine‎
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  • Farm & Horse Sound Effects Animal Farm Play Track 165 sounds included $69

    This library is dedicated to popular farm animals, rural backgrounds and agricultural activities – all you need around farm life. It features 165 sounds in total, from 14 different species with multiple variations for each animal, 25 discreet rural backgrounds and 10 types of modern and traditional agricultural activities.

    Recorded and mastered at 24-bit/96kHz high-resolution, Animal Farm took over a year to get ready, since the goal was to capture as many seasonal work activities, weather conditions and animal habits, as possible.

    List of animals recorded: Cat • Chicken • Cow • Dog (Wolf hound, Sheepdog) • Duck • Fowl • Goat (Mediterranean) • Goose • Horse (Arabian, Andalusian) • Pig • Pigeon • Rooster • Sheep (Mediterranean) • Turkey

    Types of agricultural work recorded: Chopping • Feeding • Gardening • Loading Manure • Milking • Mowing • Olive harvest • Sowing • Tilling • Watering

Explore the full, unique collection here

Latest sound effects libraries:
 
  • Presenting the most malfunctioning, dirty old gritty sounding engine failure library out there

    Featuring a staggering 81 files with numerous takes in most tracks, the Kaput sound effects library will cover the bases of almost any broken false starting engine scene one can imagine.

    I can honestly say, that finding the vehicles and tools for this library, has been among the most challenging I have come by. Old and broken cars and trucks are hard to come by these days. Most cars are obviously either driving and dont have start problems, and many of the rest just wont start at all.

    Just as rare are broken petrol powered tools, which usually fit the latter category of not working at all.

    Still, with amazing recording help from recordist Michal Fojcik Soundmind Poland, and just as amazing help from recordist Erik Watland from Norway, the Kaput sound effects library is featuring no less then

    24 different cars, trucks, moped and motorcycles

    1 boat engine

    A few weird sounding power generators and water pump motors

    Back firing exhausts

    Petrol powered garden tools, chain saws, and hedge trimmers

    Brutal construction machines

    From old eastern european trucks, vintage US V8 muscle trucks, classic scandinavian cars, and more modern diesel and petrol engines to funny sputtering dying petrol power tools.

    There is even a few more recording sessions planned, that just didn’t make the deadline for the first batch of sounds in this library (buying a copy of this first of sounds, will of course make any future sounds added to the library free of charge).

    KAPUT is 81 stereo and mono files, 96/24. 1,6 gb big, all UCS ready!

  • Hear the majesty of tropical seas from soothing surf, trickling water laps, and crashing wave sound effects.

  • ACOUSTIC GUITAR FOLEY FOR YOUR PROJECTS
    The SB111 ACOUSTIC GUITAR FOLEY Sound Effects Library is a collection of handling movements, grabs and sets, string noise, drags, impacts, strumming, fingerpicking, tuning, and the smashing and destroying of an acoustic guitar.

    A UNIQUE ACOUSTIC GUITAR FOLEY LIBRARY
    We’ve gone above and beyond just capturing the sounds of strumming and picking – we’ve recorded the nuances and details that make acoustic guitars so special. Like the subtle sounds of the guitar strap as it settles against your shoulder, string noise of fingers on the fretboard, the satisfying sound of the guitar being tuned, grabs and set downs, strings being clipped and even a full restringing sequence. Of course we’ve also included the playing of chords and riffs while strumming and fingerpicking – some played in tune and some out of tune. We did not forget to record your pick as it rattles around in the abyss of the guitar’s sound hole – and the satisfying sound of the guitar being smashed and destroyed. All the details you need to bring realism to your project.

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  • The Drawers & Cupboards SFX library is an essential collection for professionals seeking high-quality sound effects for their projects. This library features 63 meticulously recorded sounds of opening, closing, and rummaging through cupboards and drawers, making it perfect for game developers, animators, and filmmakers.

    This library offers a diverse range of sounds, including:

    • Opening and closing cupboard doors
    • Picking up glass bottles
    • Rummaging through various materials (glass, mixed materials, containers, plastic)
    • Metal and wooden drawers opening and closing
  • Car Sound Effects Broken Car Engine Play Track 5 sounds included, 28 mins total $27

    My car engine broke! As a result of making a huge costly mistake caused by accidentally skipping an oil change service from getting dates and miles mixed up (on top of being a higher milage car), my 2006 Volvo V50 T5’s engine starting making incredibly loud knocking, clicking and rattling sounds. Took it for one last drive before it was picked up by a junk yard, and recorded the process. I put a DPA 4061 and a Rode NT5 in the engine and drove it around the neighborhood, first on residential streets, then drove it harder on some faster streets (the engine was so loud you can’t hear any other cars in the recordings), abusing the manual mode for higher rpm recordings the whole time until it started overheating, smoking and dumping liquid (coolant I think? Oil? Both?). I Quickly took the DPA out because it was right near a section of the engine that was overheating, but I left the NT5 in. Satisfied with what I recorded but still a couple miles from home, after my car cooled a bit I continued to record my drive home, this time with the DPA inside the car to get an interior perspective (this drive is labeled “bonus drive” in the library).

    This library is just 5 files, totaling 27 minutes and 28 seconds, 24/96k, 956MB. Quality Soundminer metadata and UCS compliant. Recorded with a DPA 4061 and NT5 for starts, idles, off, revving, slow to moderate driving, harder faster driving, with lots of variation. One file is just the NT5 engine recording for an additional 5 and a half minute drive, and one is just the DPA for an interior perspective of that drive.

    I’ll miss that car a lot, but at least I got some great recordings out of it! I hope you find them useful.


   

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