Nothing simple about mixing mega-docs

Multipart documentaries challenge sound designers

These are golden days for makers of multipart documentary series.

The HD format has helped attract larger audiences for these “prestige” productions, and that’s led to bigger budgets for both visuals and sound.

For sound mixers on mega-docs, the challenge is to create a stereo and 5.1 soundscape that is as evocative and detailed as the images onscreen.

Working out of Manhattan’s Sound One, re-recording mixer Dominick Tavella has mixed all of Ken Burns’ major documentary series since “Baseball,” including 2009’s acclaimed “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.”

Tavella is tasked with juggling multiple channels of narration, voiceover commentary, music, f/x tracks (created from sound libraries and original recordings) and Foley to bring life to sometimes static images.

In “National Parks,” Tavella says, “The mood might be contemplative — the sound of the wind in the trees in a park, or new-fallen snow. Or maybe it’s footage of construction in Yosemite in the 1930s, and there’s a song from that era playing, and we’re adding in the sound of building construction and showing that there was a lot of movement and action in the parks system. There’s a lot of variety in each of the shows.”

“America: The Story of Us” is this spring’s ambitious 12-hour Nutopia Prods./History Channel offering that combined artful re-creations of major events, extensive use of CGI and standard documentary approaches (talking head interviews, etc.) in an attempt to present America’s story in a new way.

It was mixed at Prime Focus in London by doc veteran Phitz Hearne, who remarks, “When we started on this, it was decided that we wanted to get good sounds and f/x that are of the era being depicted but have a modern sonic quality.

“You go from the first program, which is creaky wooden boats and all the Foley is on wood, to the last, which is the Second World War, and that’s completely different — very machine-oriented. But we wanted everything to sound both real and fresh, but also have some drama — so we also have these whooshes for transitions, and some other f/x that we treated as part of the music score.”

For the BBC/Discovery Channel series “Life,” sound editor/mixer Kate Hopkins, who did her work at Wounded Buffalo in London, says “Our biggest challenge was to bring as much detail and drama in the sound to match the picture, because it looks so special and it’s all HD. We spent a lot of time doing the sound edit, enhancing the Foley and finding the right effect. Fortunately we also had some very useful (location) sound. But because of amazing photography we had to really work hard on the atmospheres to always provide that sense of place.”