True Detective Season 4 sound design and sound effects Asbjoern Andersen


HBO's hit series True Detective is back with Season 4. This time around the show is helmed by Writer/Director/Exec. Producer Issa López, who chose a sound team led by co-supervising sound editors Martín Hernández and Stephen Griffiths.

True Detective: Night Country is set in Alaska during the sunless winter season. The unforgiving environment and persistent darkness act as an antagonistic character working against the detectives who are trying to untangle the events that led to the mysterious deaths of a team of research scientists.

Here, Hernández, Griffiths, and sound editor Jake Fielding talk about building the environment's character using expressive wind sounds, evocative vocal elements, and descriptive sound design, effects and foley to add an additional dimension to the story.


Interview by Jennifer Walden, photos courtesy of Warner Bros. Discovery, Inc.
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True Detective: Night Country – the fourth season of HBO’s hit series – has just taken off. The story is set in a fictional Alaskan town during the Arctic winter, where extreme weather and unrelenting darkness can have negative physical and psychological effects on the townspeople. It certainly adds layers of difficulties to Detective Liz Danvers’s (Jodi Foster) investigation into the mysterious deaths of several research scientists.

Night Country‘s Writer/Director/Exec. Producer Issa López – new to the True Detective series – tapped long-time collaborator and 2x-Oscar nominated supervising sound editor Martín Hernández and BAFTA TV Award and MPSE Award-winning supervising sound editor Stephen Griffiths, who are also new to True Detective.

Here, Hernández and Griffiths – as well as sound editor Jake Fielding – talk about finding the sound of this new season with López, designing elements during picture editorial and sharing those with the editorial team to save time on the dub stage, recording and editing winds in an expressive and “orchestral” way, creating eerie vocal elements and designing evocative sound effects that add new layers to the story, and much more!



True Detective: Night Country | Official Trailer | Max


True Detective: Night Country | Official Trailer | Max

This season of True Detective (S4) has a new showrunner – writer/director/exec producer Issa López. And of course, your sound team is new to this show. Can you talk about your collaboration with Lopez – when did you get started and what were some of the sound ideas you had for this season?

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Sound supervisor Stephen Griffiths

Stephen Griffiths (SG): One of the really important things about this whole season was that Martín has worked with Issa before, so it made the process go very smoothly because Martín was tuned into her aesthetic, her vision and ideas. It’s so impressive what Issa has done in this season of True Detective. She’s written it, as well as directed it, and has reinvigorated the franchise.

Issa is very much someone with a cinematic vision, and the sound had to follow that. It was absolutely helped by the fact that Martín had worked with her before.

Martín Hernández (MH): I must acknowledge Stephen and his sound crew, like Jake [Fielding] (on this interview) who was first sound assistant and then became sound editor on the show. It was a very joyful part of the process, doing the sound with them. Stephen has a very well-tuned machine of editors and people who helped the post-production happen in London. The relationship between the sound supervisor and the re-recording mixer is crucial, and Stephen and Howard Bargroff (re-recording mixer) have worked together since 1826.

SG: I think it was before that…

MH: Having this amazing partnership makes things great. That’s one thing.

TrueDetectiveS4_sound-03

Sound supervisor Martin Hernandez

The other thing is – as Stephen was saying – having previous working experience with Issa, I knew what she was looking for in many moments. She’s the author and director; she’s an artist. She’s the true creator of the whole thing. In the script, there are line notes for sound.

I’ve done two very different films with her previously. One is a comedy that has all the nuances and all the details that Issa also likes on this show. The other film was a fantasy-thriller – a drama with a mixture of fantasy and a fantastic world for the main characters, who are little kids on the outskirts of a border city in Mexico. That film propelled Issa in many ways. Guillermo del Toro became a big fan of hers because of that film, which is called Tigers Are Not Afraid (in Spanish it’s called Vuelven). That experience – the genre, the approach, and the sound – is closer to what we did on Night Country.

Meaning that there were a lot of things that needed to be very present in a very peculiar way. When I say “very present,” for Issa that means a very bold, very brave approach to cuts.

Another director I work with, who is very similar in that sense, is Alejandro Iñárritu. He likes “clashing” elements from inside to outside, from one place to another section of the same place. We were constantly enhancing this experience of you, as a viewer, changing the place and becoming part of that change. It’s noticeable and it should be.

In many moments, backgrounds were not just the backgrounds sitting there. The backgrounds are a very active character – the wind, the elements, the snow are very active. They are a character that is shaking the office, rattling through the window. It is part of the environment, again, and it’s another character.

 

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The richness of the backgrounds is immediately noticeable; these aren’t your typical beds of ambience. There’s an intensity and purposefulness to these sounds, as well as to the effects and foley. Did you talk about what sounds would be used in the backgrounds to help the storytelling?

SG: Definitely. One of the really nice aspects of the backgrounds is the way that we blended other sounds with the winds. The wind is almost ever-present, so you have to be very careful that it doesn’t become monotonous or too samey. Weaving other elements into the general backgrounds makes it more intensive at times.

Weaving other elements into the general backgrounds makes it more intensive at times.

For instance, the Iñupiat people (the indigenous people of the area) have various songs, whispers, and vocalizations that we merged into some of the winds. It gives it a character, a presence, where necessary.

The foley is a big thing. Martín always works very intensely with foley, and I love the way that it gives that intimacy to the characterization. So, foley was a big thing for all of us. We use Barnaby Smyth’s Feet First Sound. They’re brilliant and did a fantastic job for us.

MH: It involved so many layers of detail that the process would have been almost impossible without planning ahead for a lot of things.

Because of my previous experience with Issa, I knew that it was a very good idea to start showing her our ideas of where we were heading while they were still cutting the episodes – this is the way we want to hear it in the final mix.

Some of these elements are the backgrounds that become part of the song – as Stephen mentioned – or possibly part of the dialogue, and the wind is also part of the ghostly presence that is there. Sometimes, there is a vocalization of whispers of a main character that is part of the wind.

… once you hit the stage with so many layers, it’s going to be very difficult to go through them. We don’t have enough time for that.

All of these little details spread through the series needed to be played for Issa. So from the get-go, we’d have playback sessions every Monday. All the crew, including all the sound crew and the editors, were present to give notes. We’d get bounces from Stephen and sound designer Tom Jenkins and we’d play those. I was playing the stuff I was cutting as well. This way Issa had exactly the perspective that we wanted her to have before hitting the stage, because once you hit the stage with so many layers, it’s going to be very difficult to go through them. We don’t have enough time for that. So, it’s better to start early.

I had a cutting room; Jake was in the cutting room next to me. Everyone would arrive and Issa would give her notes, we’d write them down, and then continue playing what we had for her. She understands that this is not a final mix and that we don’t have everything we need in place. The foley is probably missing here and there. But the main core, the basic backbone of the sound, is going to be there. And that’s a beautiful thing.

Also, very early on – before we started meeting – we sent the editors a library of sounds, of winds and vocals.

SG: That was so helpful.

After reading the scripts, Martín and I made selections of elements that we thought would be useful for the editors while they were cutting picture. That meant that they were putting good sounds into the episodes right from the beginning. That was a very helpful process.

Martín and I made selections of elements that we thought would be useful for the editors while they were cutting picture.

Those playbacks in Martín’s room made a real difference. Any scenes that were subjective – that could be interpreted in different ways and were fundamental to the success of the soundtrack – we could play for Issa and get a response. This way there wasn’t a huge, terrible surprise when we got to the dub stage, when we’d be running out of time and scrambling to make something work.

We assessed what areas would be most important and were perhaps the most subjective, and we could address those and do any extra work on them before we got to the mix. That was a really useful process.

To be honest, it’s been a really fantastic process working with Martín. Sometimes when you work with someone else, it doesn’t necessarily all flow together. And on this one, it has. That’s been a really great experience. We’re all really proud of the work that we’ve done, that Tom Jenkins has done, that Howard Bargroff and his team have done.

Also, I’ve made a new friend, so that’s nice. It’s been an enjoyable experience.

MH: That’s true, Stephen. That was the best part of everything – meeting you, Jake, Howard… I love this guy’s sense of humor. Oddly enough, I find it very Mexican in a way, even though it’s very British. Howard was very fast with his jokes. You’ve got to catch it. He’s very accurate.

Every job is difficult, no matter what.

Every job is difficult, no matter what. And working with a new director for the first time could be a nightmare. For me, working for the first time with this sound team was so joyful. We had problems – but they were reasonable, natural problems; the good problems to have. Sometimes the silliest things were taking us more time than you’d expect.

For example, we were looking for a door sound. One of the characters turns her head because she hears a door slamming. We took some time to find that door. We never saw that one coming.

SG: Basically, time is always against you; time is your enemy because something will always happen. There’ll be a problem with visual effects, or there will be a re-cut. You’re always going to face challenges and it makes such a difference if you feel that you’re in good shape when you hit those problems. If people are confident in what they’ve done so far, then it’s like, “Okay, it’s a problem but we’ll address it and solve it.” It’s not so, “Oh my god, this is such a worry.”

MH: There were days that we ended up very tired of working all day and our ears got tired – the whole thing. We had a lot of notes to address. There were many days like that because it’s very sound-driven. Issa wants to hit the mark with what she believes the sound should be.

There were days that we ended up very tired of working all day and our ears got tired – the whole thing…There were many days like that because it’s very sound-driven.

But, she’s very reasonable. She knows that we will get there, rather than getting into a spiral of anxiety and feeling that everything’s wrong and nothing’s going to be good. And that could happen. Stephen and I have both had previous experience with an environment like that – one that is negative rather than positive.

You aim to succeed and do your job properly; that’s why you get hired. We all try to accomplish that and be a good professional with the director. We all want that. So, it’s a challenge already to get there, and then getting into this anxiety that we are never going to get it doesn’t help at all.

SG: Issa is very sound-driven but she also knows what she likes. The worst thing is if a director is changing their mind all of the time and doesn’t know what they want.

…Issa had a clear pathway, and with every pass-through on an episode, we knew we were improving it.

But Issa had a clear pathway, and with every pass-through on an episode, we knew we were improving it. It was working and it was an interesting soundscape. It’s great to have that; you’re responding to the locations, to the drama, to the characters. And it’s a different direction from the first season of True Detective – from this southern gothic feeling to the oppressive, glacial environment of Alaska – so there’s something to respond to sound-wise.

 

TrueDetectiveS4_sound-05

As the title “Night Country” suggests, the show unfolds in the constant darkness of the Arctic winter. The environmental sounds are mainly wind and weather. Did you capture any wind recordings for the show?

SG: Yes, I went to a particular place that a friend had told me about, which was right down on the south coast. There’s a house for rent that has an extension on the roof with glass on all sides. It’s perhaps not been built quite as well as it should have been so you get tiny movements of air, or drafts, through the window casements, the fittings. Those were really useful to have for our interior locations because you want to have some movement in the air.

…we recorded lots of things with movement outside, like wires, wire fences, and things that would rattle a little bit just to give a feeling to the wind.

It’s the interaction of wind with a surface, or whatever it’s going against, that makes the interesting sound. So we recorded lots of things with movement outside, like wires, wire fences, and things that would rattle a little bit just to give a feeling to the wind.

MH: From the very beginning, we talked about the presence of these elements. Wind, like rain, doesn’t make a sound on its own. The surface the wind hits creates a very different character, depending on the location and what it’s doing.

They were shooting in Iceland and were truly living with that wind and that weather. Issa remembers very clearly that the house she was staying in, and the locations they were recording in, were windy all the time. If you walk outside, the wind is hitting you and interacting with the environment as well. So she was very keen to find the right wind for every place, for every moment.

Stephen and I had to use a lot of our own libraries – as well as Tom and everyone involved – to find the right elements and pieces of wind sounds. Sometimes it’s a very small, very detailed sound that really tells you the whole story.

Sometimes it’s a very small, very detailed sound that really tells you the whole story.

And sometimes, it’s more elaborate. It needs to be more designed. For example, there is this conversation between the main characters inside a car, and it’s in the middle of a snowstorm. It’s a very important conversation, a very dramatic moment, but the wind needed to be there. Issa wanted us to feel like the wind was shaking the car. To create that, you don’t go and record a windstorm inside a car. It’s not that easy. That’s too literal. That doesn’t have the cinematic size that’s required. It is fantasy in a way. Our reference for a snowstorm is very different throughout the world. People who have access to a snowstorm will have a very clear idea of how it sounds.

So, how does a snowstorm sound inside a car that is shaking enough to be present, but not too much to obstruct the conversation or the music? You have to take a more elaborate approach in that moment. Sometimes it’s just air leaking through the window and there’s rattling, and there are foley elements that allude to what’s happening outside.

 


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TrueDetectiveS4_sound-06

There’s a great scene in the beginning of Ep. 1 where a delivery man is dropping off supplies but the research station seems to be devoid of its inhabitants. The hallway lights flicker, the TV glitches, and there are atmospheric breathy sounds. It’s a very creepy vibe. Can you talk about your sound work on this scene?

SG: We were very proud of the different elements we got for the research station. We tried to give a different feel to all the different rooms. The way that the lights and the electricity reacted – like electrical responses – is a continuous theme throughout the series. So, the people are reacting, the environment is reacting, and the environment is charged, whether it be purely on a paranormal level or on a physical level. Certain people react more to it than others.

We worked a lot on all the different ways that the perspective affected how people heard things around the research station.

Also, you’ve got the glitching of the “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” movie and how that builds and moves away and how that was played in the different perspectives in the research station. We worked a lot on all the different ways that the perspective affected how people heard things around the research station.
 

TrueDetectiveS4_sound-07

Was that something you explored on the dub stage or was that baked into your idea in editorial?

MH: It was built in editorial. Especially in the first episode, many of these ideas were already built-in long before the mix. Again, we wanted to send good elements, good sounds, to the editors and Issa while they were building the episodes.

I asked my girlfriend to record some whispers, some cries, and some screams on her iPhone and send me that file.

One of those ideas was the whispers and the cries because it’s part of the character. I asked my girlfriend to record some whispers, some cries, and some screams on her iPhone and send me that file. I wanted to have that as a placeholder but it ended up that many of these were exactly the way we placed them originally.

Brenna Rangott – one of the main editors – randomly grabbed many of these raw, original sounds from through the episodes and placed them in the guide track, which does get embedded in the memory of the director. Issa has a very cinematic memory, a sound memory. So she says, “Oh, I remember how it sounded.” That’s a good thing. Once you place that in the early version of the cut, it will stay that way. That can save a lot of time because you’re not wondering which is the right whisper, which is the right level for the ghost, which is the right sound for this or that. As Stephen said, we don’t have the luxury of time.

 

TrueDetectiveS4_sound-08

The “light flickering” sounds play more prominently near the end of Ep. 1. I love to hear the sounds that designers come up with for lights flickering. It’s so open for creative interpretation. And it’s also just a lovely, delicate sound. How did you create those for Night Country?

SG: A big shout out to Tom Jenkins because the light flickers nearly killed him. He went to town on them; he did an awful lot of panning and everything. And, of course, there was a re-cut. I remember him with his head in his hands at one moment. The light flickering nearly defeated him, but he did a fantastic job on those.

A big shout out to Tom Jenkins because the light flickers nearly killed him.

Martín did some work on those as well.

MH: Yes, but in the end, we used Tom’s flickering because they were so much better. They had more character and yet weren’t intrusive to the dialogue.

We cut very bold, always. I prefer sounds to be loud and very present, and then have the right mixer get them into place. Howard is an amazing mixer. His ears are very much tuned to what the episode will sound like in the end. That’s very important because we, as editors, have tunnel vision. Sometimes when we are cutting, we forget the whole scope of the episode. A good mixer like Howard understands that narrative and is very eloquent.

We cut very bold, always. I prefer sounds to be loud and very present, and then have the right mixer get them into place.

Not having a good mixer is a big problem because we lose perspective when we are cutting sounds and if you don’t have a good collaborator, in this case, a good mixer giving you his thoughts and enhancing the original cut, that can be very problematic. Sometimes we overdo things. For instance, Tom loves to do a very complicated layout of elements for a door. And Howard is grabbing his head like, “Why do we need so many layers for that sound?”

In the end, the best result comes from the contributions of both the editor and the mixer. And the sound of this episode, this series, is a very happy marriage.

We were always waiting for the next one, to see what we could do better. And that’s an asset. I really feel like everyone was doing so much better just by standing next to each other, waiting to hear what they have to do with their art form. It’s been a process of learning for me.

 

TrueDetectiveS4_sound-09

Ep.1 is an introduction as to what the audience can expect for the rest of the season. You really set expectations high with this first episode – with these cool wind designs, vocal effects, and other interesting sonic details. All these things come together in a scene near the end, during Travis’s dance in the snow. The music, the vocal effects, the winds, and his scream all work so cohesively together to tell the story. Can you talk about your approach to this scene?

SG: That was a great scene. The sound on that was mainly Martín.

MH: That scene is very sound-driven; it’s very eloquent because sound creates a lot of the dynamics in the scene on its own as Travis is performing in front of the camera. But, I think there are many moments like that, that are very complicated and very much charged with a lot of dynamics but are very subtle.

There doesn’t have to be anything supernatural happening in the scene. The main two characters could be having a small conversation and there are so many nuances and layers happening underneath; it’s beautiful.

Good sound is when you don’t notice sound. Sometimes, sounds should be unnoticed, just there sitting between the lines of the character(s). And sometimes, sound has to be very much a dynamic force.

In that scene with Travis, everything that is happening there visually, emotionally, and musically is very important. But if everything is important, then nothing is important.

In that scene with Travis, everything that is happening there visually, emotionally, and musically is very important. But if everything is important, then nothing is important. You can’t have everything all the time. So we have to choose second by second whether the sound belongs to the music or the music belongs to the sound. You can’t clearly see the boundary. And there shouldn’t be a boundary, probably. Finding that balance is very important. It’s not about lowering the music or lowering the effects. It’s not that easy. It doesn’t work like that. It’s about having the right moment, the right sound, and taking it in and out. The contrast is what makes it effective and efficient.

There are a few things in the show – my own work – that I don’t like. That I feel could be better. I know. And maybe the next time, I’ll do it better. We all feel the same; we feel we could have done something so much better. And then there are some things that we feel like we nailed it, that it works great.

 

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I hope you feel that you nailed this scene! The sound and music are working together, and Travis’s breathy scream is interesting and unexpected…

MH: I remember the first cut they sent us had a scream for Travis. It didn’t work. You see him screaming and you have the music – the scream didn’t work with that. So I got rid of it and tried a recording I did for another project, and it worked.

Almost everything I do is just by serendipity. I try out this or that and discover that it works better this way…

To me, sound is like cooking. You have the ingredients, but you don’t know exactly how the dish is going to turn out. So you try a little thing here and there. Almost everything I do is just by serendipity. I try out this or that and discover that it works better this way than the other way.

It’s not planned out that we’re going to do this sound with this vocal. We start mixing elements – trying less, more, a few others – and then little by little end up with something hopefully workable.

 

TrueDetectiveS4_sound-11

Jake, what were some of your responsibilities this season? What sounds did you work on?

Jake Fielding (JF): In terms of editing, I started on Ep. 4 and I edited backgrounds for Episodes 4, 5, and 6 of which 90% was editing wind. Before this, I was purely assisting Martín in his day-to-day tasks, re-conforming to new cuts, transferring files, etc.

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Sound Editor Jake Fielding

Tom spoke a lot about using wind as a score – having different elements like an orchestra – and scoring the scenes emotionally; this was a useful way to look at things. It’s much harder than it sounds because it’s such a limited palette that you can use to tie the scenes together and have a familiarity of the places yet also have it sound different.

The sound should always be supporting the story and the emotion of the scenes, but it was really challenging trying to attribute an emotion to different wind sounds. If a scene is tense or sad, for example, what kind of wind fits that? These were questions I often found myself struggling to answer. Though I find it fascinating; it’s a huge part of what I love about sound design. How does this (wind sound) make me feel? Would other people agree? Why does it make us feel this way? It’s often subjective but you have to trust your judgment.

This, and making the sound fit the visuals, were the challenges of the job, especially with my relative lack of experience. Though I had lots of guidance from Tom and Stephen and my work would always have another pass from Stephen before it went to the stage.

This was my first major credit and I learned a lot from Stephen, Martín, and Tom. I loved working with Martín every day. It was brilliant. The communication (that they’ve already talked about in this interview) is something I felt straight away and throughout the whole process, as is Martín’s relationship with Issa and Stephen’s relationship with the team here. It was an honor and a pleasure to work with them.

 

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Did you use a sampler to perform the wind sounds, or some plugins to gently modulate the wind – maybe to add a slight shift in pitch or tonality – just to give it a bit of movement when it needed to have some?

JF: No, I didn’t use a sampler. Martín and Stephen gave me a huge library of really well-recorded, original sounds that had many different textures. So, I had enough in the organic recordings to play with and I didn’t need to do any modulation to the sound once it was in. It was a case of finding the right wind sound for the scene. Then, it beds itself in rather than having to work it too hard.

 

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What are you most proud of in terms of the sound work on Night Country?

SG: There is something integral to Night Country, to Issa’s vision, which is to make the most of the environment, the location, and the permanent night that’s part of the winter in Alaska that causes a psychological reaction, and hopefully that’s there in the soundtrack. It’s a rich psychological interpretation of the drama and of what happens in Ennis, Alaska.

MH: Absolutely right. This is something that Issa wanted to have. And I’m glad we had the opportunity to discover that sound is a hidden character. It wasn’t there; it was a hidden actor.

The sound element is a character that is in the everyday life of the story – in the main characters, the things they dream, what they think, and also the things they perceive.

The sound element is a character that is in the everyday life of the story – in the main characters, the things they dream, what they think, and also the things they perceive. This is one part of the world that is already very unique and a very weird place. Eight months of the year it’s night and that plays tricks with minds. That is actually happening. And sound is part of that.

So our reference for sound belongs to our mental state; how we perceive sound depends on how we perceive the rest of the world through our minds. That’s one interesting discovery for the viewers of this season. They will see that as part of the narrative.

JF: I’m just proud to have worked on the show, and to have worked with this team. Everyone on the sound team worked towards the same vision and did an amazing job. I think the result is fantastic. It was also a great opportunity to use some of my own recordings that I’ve built up and edited over the past year or so. There was a water cooler in my studio in Oxford Circus where I was working on the show, and I recorded it and used it in Episode 4 I think. It made a great “fridge hum” sound – that was quite fun. It’s actually on the A Sound Effect store.

 

A big thanks to Martín Hernández, Stephen Griffiths, and Jake Fielding for giving us a behind-the-scenes look at the sound of True Detective: Night Country and to Jennifer Walden for the interview!

 

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