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HomeCraftsSoundEmmy Nominee: Mrs. Davis Sound Supervising Editor Bryan Parker Goes Wile E....

Emmy Nominee: Mrs. Davis Sound Supervising Editor Bryan Parker Goes Wile E. Coyote-Style

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Betty Gilpin in Mrs. Davis (Credit: Peacock)

Peacock’s limited series, Mrs. Davis, is the brainchild of showrunners “The Big Bang Theory” writer Tara Hernandez and “Lost” co-creator Damon Lindelof about a nun (played by Betty Gilpin) who wages war against a seemingly benevolent AI. The series goes through plenty of twists and turns and sound supervising editor Bryan Parker and his sound team, who received an Emmy nomination for outstanding sound editing on the episode “Mother of Mercy: The Call of the Horse,” worked hard to capture the show’s ever-changing nature.

Below the Line: First off, congratulations on you and your team’s Emmy nomination for outstanding sound editing. How does it feel?

Bryan Parker: Thanks very much. I wasn’t sure how many people were actually watching the show and sometimes the nominations hinge a lot on viewership, so I was pleasantly surprised.

BTL: I’d love to hear a little about you and how you got started. How did you get your start in sound editing and sound design? What is it about the work that you enjoy?

Parker: I have been working in sound in various capacities for as long as I’ve been working. My first job when I was 14 was in a theater auditorium setting up various tech on the lights for productions where there’d be plays, literally, tap dance recitals. Live events and sound have been a part of what I do forever. I worked in touring sound for a while, and the company I was working for back in Ohio also employed a good friend of mine who actually came to Los Angeles and started applying some of the jobs we had learned in the world of sound for festivals, and making records with bands, and making silly movies at home with no support in Ohio. Talking with him, it became clear that LA was the weird job capital of the world and somewhere that I could better apply the combination of creative and technical that I like getting out of working in shows at various capacities, whether it’s a live show, or a planned medium with a post-production process.

I came out to LA 2006 and always had a hand in both indie features and TV, some years more one than another. Since I came out in 2006, I just started getting some traction right before the writers’ strike of 2007. A lot of the work at the time for sound folks was for reality TV and documentary TV—and that’s where I got really fast—and always kept a foot in indie film whenever I could. 

BTL: You’ve worked on more than a hundred projects in the sound department. Was there anything that stood out to you when you worked on Mrs. Davis compared to previous projects? 

Parker: The chaotic energy in Mrs. Davis is a first for me. There’s always something really interesting about toeing the line between a show that has serious, dramatic elements and very, very high stakes with a mood that ranges from sincere to utterly silly and well into wacky territory. That particular, tricky balance is not something that I have encountered before. I’ve worked on funny shows that were, but nothing quite compared to this. 

BTL: In the pilot episode, viewers are introduced to a lot, shifting from 1307 Paris to present day where artificial intelligence is prominent in society. What was the process like to make sure you and your team captured the sounds in the way it was intended? 

Parker: We worked on these episodes out of order. I read scripts ahead of time so we knew the general shape of the ride we were in for. We benefited from that quite a lot because we were able to draw from different moments that we’d already if not finished building, then we were able to draw from moments that we had already started cooking up the ideas for. The actual Mrs. Davis-like interface sounds, I had designed a couple months prior on a modular synthesizer, and went two or three rounds with the picture editor, Phil Fowler, and Tara Hernandez, the showrunner, and found the right aesthetic for the sounds, which is when a user starts a proxy session. 

In terms of the big set pieces, our show starts out in the 1300s when the Knights Templar are burned at the stake over an enormous sword fight and the way that those scenes have any relevance whatsoever to the current story aren’t revealed for another four episodes, right? We had to build those scenes with some variability as to how they would be perceived in the context of episode one and in the context of later episodes.

What I found over the years is that when you’re leaning into a certain genre trope, or you’re leaning into a reference, you’re making it an unknown in a specific piece of work or general genre. If you’re going for the comedy, then the work itself, in our case, the sound but definitely across departments, I think, the work itself has to take itself very seriously. If you have a sword battle that you want to be really funny then you have to lean into the violence in a very serious way. There are some very, very, very silly, cartoonish Wile E. Coyote-style moments in the show.

The enormous magnifying glass in episode one comes to mind, so we’re not afraid of using silly sounds or cartoon sounds. But in certain moments where we want to represent the iconic character of a clear reference then those can’t be the silly sounds. The comedy has derived itself from how seriously the moment has taken itself. And again, I think that’s true across all departments, but I’m obviously talking about sound.

During the sword battle, there’s some obvious Monty Python references and going with a sillier, cartoon blood spurt isn’t isn’t as funny as full force gore as we can make it in those moments, but because of the way that same moment is presented down the line, and the way that we change the lens through which that same scene is seen, we had to build it in layers to have serious layers ready to go, and the sillier layers read to go, so we just hear it a little bit as viewed in these different ways. 

Mrs. Davis
Betty Gilpin and Jake McDorman in Mrs. Davis (Credit: Peacock)

BTL: For a show like this, what are some of the things that you need to pay special attention to? Were there any challenges when it came to editing this show? 

Parker: The level of tricky parts and the consistency because so much changes episode over episode. It’s not like a lot of the show had backgrounds built for this location and we go between the character’s living room and his garage and we pull all the stuff for episode three, it’s hard to build. But we didn’t benefit from that at all because we were in a different country every episode. There are only two or three recurring locations in the whole show so a lot is changing, but the things that need to stay consistent need to feel consistent across episodes even when the actual nature of them must change for story reasons.

At the end of episode one, the actual handling of the Holy Grail, the weight of it had to sound very different from the prop on stage. And the importance of that object had to be conveyed a little bit with just some extra sound, some extra gravity centered around it, without making it like it was never it’s never supposed to feel like a magical thing with like, some sort of magical energy to it. It always wanted to feel like a physical artifact, but it needed to carry more weight than the prop. The same sound in a sparse or quiet scene might sound heavier than the weight the same sound plugged into a denser theme does depends on environmental sound, or music, or whatever. So always starting with the same recording of different articulations of handling the Holy Grail, but also adding weight where necessary to punch through music. That ended up being a challenge on this one. 

Just the sheer time of building all these pieces with the exception of those recurring scenes I mentioned earlier. In episode one, it goes from an angry crowd at stake burning and then an enormous sword fight, and then the fireworks display that gets set off, and then we’re off to a completely different world. Exploding strawberry jams. Motorcycles. One has nothing to do with, like, an entire rodeo episode. The time of building these different pieces ended up being a challenge for us, but that’s TV. That’s absolutely making the most of the resources you got and just smarter prioritization of the time and efficiency of the sound work itself, and coordinating schedules for [Automated Dialogue Replacement] for actors on a bunch of different time zones ended up being its own challenge. Shout out to Terri Murphy for managing all that effectively.

BTL: What was your favorite part about working on Mrs. Davis?

Parker: I honestly loved how riffy the spotting sessions were especially once we got to spot in person. Just being in the room with Tara and the picture editor and everyone, I really feel like they cleared some space in their brains about ideas. Some spotting sessions on other sets are straightforward, and do things to do and they just convey that the goals are the same. I kind of take note of those and apply my own sound ideas to them and see what works late in the process and review or maybe even in the mix, and that’s fine. That’s a completely valid way to work. But the Mrs. Davis spotting sessions felt a little different because it feels like I felt like everyone really cleared some space in their brains to to think about sound and drill down into the best way that sound could add to the moments, and we just generated a lot of ideas in a two hour chunk, or two and a half hour chunk, per episode.

BTL: Is there a difference between doing sound editing in TV versus film?

Parker: The biggest difference as a sound supervisor and as a sound designer is that there are distinct advantages to both. The longer time frame in films means that you get to read scripts early, start generating ideas early, and try things early. You get to start to build ideas for how the sound is going to contribute best early and in my case, that means I have more time to take the field recording kit out and grab some sound I want as starter ingredients for the recipe.

In my case, that also means that I get to start building patches on the modular synthesizer or something that I have an idea for how a couple sounds might combine together, just just an extra exploration to where I don’t have to come up with the solution today. But I can start today. And then let the early failures get out of your head fast so that the later successes can be better. But a longer arc is great for that reason. 

There’s a lot of merit in paying very close attention to what a TV showrunner wants especially in the first few episodes that you do and really pay attention to what they key in on and look for patterns so that hopefully by episode three, episode four, or if you mix them out of order, by the third or fourth episode that you do, you’re already pushing their priorities to the forefront and not spending too much time on the stuff they don’t care about as much.

There’s also the tighter feedback loop. On network TV, you get feedback loops every week. Streaming services vary a lot, but that’s ok. You get a feedback loop that informs your decision for the next episode a lot of times. The calendar is kind of messy right now. In the streaming model, you might have four or five episodes built before you mix the first one, so that sort of complicates that feedback loop, but it’s still in there. That way, you get to serve them what they want before they ask for it and that’s a very satisfying thing in TV when you establish the aesthetic for the project together, but putting your best ideas forward and getting feedback from the showrunner.

When you present something that’s already 90% of the way toward that aesthetic, and you just have some tweaks or music shaping or whatever and mixing and supplements social…It seems like that’s a very, very satisfying thing to do on film; it can be years before you see that director again so it’s not quite the same thing, even though you do get more time to prep. They’re different rhythms and that’s a reason why I continue to pursue both of them.

BTL: Looking at the show’s themes, a big part of it is about technology and how it’s always quickly advancing and changing. How has sound editing and mixing changed over the last 20 years or so that you’ve worked in the industry? 

Parker: One of the biggest ways that things have changed is that something that I used to do manually as a high service element for my clients now exists in plugin form. It used to be that for indie films, with really quiet dialogue, really delicate performances, where someone couldn’t be bothered to turn off air conditioning, you know, those used to be almost unsalvageable. But I would take the time to align the boom mic and the lav, sample accurate, zoom, weigh-in and align every syllable moving around the timing difference between the boom mic and a lot of mic would change. So, I would align every syllable and get them all just right so that we could get a more focused sound than a single boom would offer but also a better tone. I would go through this as late as 2015/16, and it would take hours. Now, that’s a plugin and you can move with your life, which is fine by me.

I’m sure that there are folks who got used to being paid for a certain number of hours to perform tests like that and who might feel replaced by the plugin, but for me, that wasn’t the fun part of the film. It was just something I had to start with to preserve these performances and avoid ADR. I’m thinking specifically of the film “Newness” by Drake Doremus, who will do anything to avoid shooting ADR, even when I’m like “Drake, we’re going to shoot so we have it and I’m only going to use what we need, whether that’s like a ‘T’ here or a ‘K’ there just to get clarity into the scene.” The approach back ended up being very successful. Once you’ve got it shot, you might still need little snippets of ADR.  Drake would go to great lengths to avoid shooting for those tech reasons and really wanted to preserve the intimacy of these performances captured and those allow labor. It used to be a lot of labor to get those mics aligned to just right and now it’s super fast.

Mrs. Davis is now available to stream on Peacock.

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