Jane Tattersall on Scaring Up ‘Penny Dreadful’s’ Spooky Sounds

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Courtesy of Showtime

Sometimes sound work means finding a way to recreate a time period. Sometimes it means bringing the spectral to life. With Showtime’s “Penny Dreadful,” it means both.

“The pilot, and all of ‘Penny Dreadful,’ have straddled supernatural worlds with a very real Victorian world,” says Jane Tattersall, the supervising sound designer who has been with the show since episode one, “Nightwork,” and helps craft the eerie illusion of the 19th century-set horror-drama since the first episode. “The goal and the challenge in the pilot was to figure out how real the supernatural should appear. [Creator] John Logan wanted to make sure it seemed really believable. He wanted to root the story in Victorian London and all the sounds and mechanisms.”

Logan also wanted “Penny Dreadful” to relate to today’s outsourcing boom, as the Industrial Revolution saw cities suddenly overflowing with rural denizens seeking work.

“It’s kind of a comment on society,” says Tattersall, who landed a pair of Emmy noms for sound editing in 2013. “[Logan] didn’t want it to be preachy. The idea was there are these supernatural creatures that we had to make sound for and it therefore had to be real. It couldn’t just be fantasy. He wanted it to be believable for the audience, even though everybody knows these creatures don’t exist.”

As the series went on, the team learned by trial and error what sounds would create this effect. They eschewed the obvious choice of horses and buggies for factory sounds because they “weren’t necessarily going to invoke a grime-y sound and would just invoke a traditional, old-fashioned London.”

They also dismissed BBC recordings of sounds from previous eras because Logan felt they sounded too cliche.

“We got all these sounds which were people selling their wares … your ear goes to them and you automatically think this is Dickens or something,” Tattersall says. “He wanted it to be much more deliberate.”

This also meant not introducing the sounds of steam engines and other new-to-the-era machinery until they’ve been established on screen.

“As time goes by in the first season, the viewer gets to go around different parts of London and you actually see things being invented,” she says.

She loves that “Penny Dreadful” sources material familiar to most viewers — characters are named Dorian Gray and Victor Frankenstein — and enjoys spotting historical references, such as what appears to be a J.M.W. Turner painting hanging in a quarantined boat.

Despite all the ghouls and guts involved in the show, Tattersall doesn’t scare easily.

“There’s a scene in the pilot where all of our main characters are going on a night job,” she says. “The characters go into an abattoir where people are receiving dead bodies. I liked it because it’s got a bit of sawing bones and washing bodies to get rid of the congealed blood. It’s a touch of reality because that probably sounds like what would have actually happened.”

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