From actors scrambling to record ADR in their cars, to showrunners editing episodes over Zoom, the coronavirus pandemic has thrown some of the biggest, most high-budget shows into post-production chaos.
Some like “Westworld” were lucky enough to complete shooting their next season before the pandemic caused every set across the country to shut down. However, when a series like the HBO behemoth relies heavily on mind-bending special effects and incredibly detailed, futuristic visuals, things have been even more complicated than usual in the post-production stage.
Both creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy pride themselves on the show’s polished look, and were committed to maintaining it as best as possible despite major disruptions.
“It’s been extremely challenging,” Nolan tells Variety. “We were done with photography, which is very lucky, but the post-production process on this show is very elaborate, very involved, there are a lot of people working on it. We started realizing in late February that this could be a real problem, so we tried to get out in front of it.”
However, no level of foresight could have prepared them for the scale of the shutdown, giving way to plenty of improvisation and compromise. For instance, almost all of the core “Westworld” cast were asked to finish up ADR on their iPhones, and according to Nolan, Thandie Newton even resorted to recording audio and video footage in her car.
“Turns out that a car can be a pretty good sound booth in a pinch,” Nolan says.
“Westworld” would usually carry out sound mixing in Atmos on a giant sound stage, but for season 3, Nolan and Joy had to mix in stereo because such facilities were no longer available. Nolan says he finds coloring to be the hardest part of post-production at the best of times (mostly because he’s partially color blind), but completing the process “over a slightly shoddy internet connection” made things even more complicated.
Nolan admits that while they have been able to “execute post to the very high standards” that the show demands, minor sacrifices had to be made.
“We’re allowing dust and scratches on the film to go through, where usually we would get in there and clean them up a little bit. The last couple episodes, I’m very proud of them, I think they came together very nicely, but we don’t have the luxury of all the different toys we would get to play with. But the VFX team, the sound team, everyone has been incredible in pulling this off in a somewhat improvised fashion,” Nolan says.
While “Westworld” has a strong foundation of fans who will watch the show no matter how dusty it may look, Showtime’s upcoming “The Good Lord Bird,” starring Ethan Hawke, is having to find its visual style on the fly amid the chaotic situation.
“Showtime was very concerned that we could maintain the quality for a premium limited series with everything going on,” says Marci Wiseman, co-president of Blumhouse Television which is producing the James McBride adaptation. “But we have been able to build a delivery schedule where we will be able to deliver the show for when they want it and that took a lot of ingenuity, particularly in the sound area. A lot of things can be done remotely, but sound is particularly challenging and we were able to figure it out.”
Sound mixing has proven the biggest hurdle to jump over, explains Wiseman’s fellow co-president Jeremy Gold, because it requires recreating the complex audio formats that mixers would have been presenting to the producers on a normal mixing stage.
“We were able to build a soundproofed, calibrated, 5.1 room for Pat (McKinley, our editor) – a ‘mini-mixing stage’ of sorts – allowing him to continue supervising sound mixes and to remain working closely, but remotely with the sound team,” says Gold.
As far as editing goes, Wiseman, Gold and Hawke have been working remotely with executive producer McKinley, who is holed up in his bungalow workspace in Venice. Ensuring that the “language of the series feels like a seven or eight-part piece” is key, Wiseman says, especially given the fact that Hawke is an artist who is “always pushing everything he works on to the very edge.”
David Caspe and Jordan Cahan, the showrunners of another Showtime series, “Black Monday,” are becoming all too familiar with the intricacies of editing a show in self-isolation.
“Black Monday” managed to dodge one bullet by wrapping production on Season 2 before the shutdown, but then ran straight into another when it came to post-production. As a result of the disruption, Showtime has been forced to split the season into two, airing the first six episodes as planned, and then the final four from June 28.
“We had finished editing everything with the exception of the finale, we were so close, but we couldn’t do full post-production on the last four,” explains Caspe. “We weren’t able to mix them because that takes a room of five people. We weren’t able to get ADR either because the actors have to go into a studio, I know people are figuring ways to do it at home, but it’s not the same as having a full sound stage.”
Caspe and Cahan are having to finish editing season 2 via Zoom, which the former describes as an “eye-opening” experience, in a good way.
“What’s happening with this Zoom editing situation is, if you can imagine, I’m sitting at home looking at my computer monitor, and I’m seeing the entire editor’s screen on the other end. At first I thought I would be seeing a bad, time delayed Zoom of the back of my editor’s head, or she would have to point at the monitor over Facetime. There’s a little bit of a lag at the beginning, so things take a little longer, but I’ve been really impressed,” Caspe says.
Cahan adds that working during self-isolation has been “an amazing distraction,” a sentiment echoed by Rick Famuyiwa, one of the directors on season 2 of “The Mandalorian.”
Being another big-budget, effects-heavy show like “Westworld,” post-production on the Disney Plus series during the coronavirus has been “more all-consuming than usual,” Famuyiwa says.
“We’ve been hunkered down in the post process, it’s been a challenging and great experience so far, but it’s good to have that to take my mind away from the daily madness that we’re living at the moment,” the director says.
The show’s animation supervisor, Hal Hickel, agrees that throwing himself into post-production for season 2 has been cathartic, but also stresses that the mountain of work he and his team have to carry out has only grown bigger because of the circumstances.
“A big tentpole summer film, like say ‘Avengers,’ might be around 2,000 visual effects shots, and these series are a little shy of 4,000 visual effects shots for season 1, and season 2 is no different,” Hickel says. “We’re doing them in around the same amount of time, maybe even less time, than a big summer film, plus we all have to work remotely. We’re in the middle of that tsunami now, but we’re going to get it all done, people are going to get their Baby Yoda, I promise.”