Make Way for Family GuyMIXING FOR EVERY WORD AT WILSHIRE STAGES 9/01/2005 8:00 AM Eastern
You wouldn't expect people who listen to Family Guy jokes all day to look so, well, normal. But in person, the post-production sound crew for Family Guy looks like any average group. This probably comes as a surprise to anyone familiar with the lightning-paced, over-the-top and screamingly funny (Huh?! Did he just actually really say what I think he said?!) animated TV series.
A little background for those who aren't (yet) into Stewie. Family Guy revolves around the lives of the majorly dysfunctional blue-collar Griffin family of Quahog, R.I.: dim-witted father Peter, sophisticated baby Stewie and the sardonically talkative, alcoholic family dog Brian — all voiced by show creator Seth MacFarlane — along with teenage sister Meg, brother Chris and Lois the mom. Although canceled in 2002 after three seasons, thanks to unprecedented DVD sales (reportedly more than 4 million units) and a top slot on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim block, Family Guy is back with a vengeance.
Holed up at Los Angeles' Wilshire Stages, the crew is immune to all of the hype, mostly because they have so much to do. They're mixing 35 episodes — quickly. An episode is mixed during a two-day period and then airs on Fox television the following Sunday. The same team also mixes American Dad!, the new animated series also by MacFarlane. They've also put together in surround — with all the usual commentary, deleted scenes, etc. — the DVD movie Family Guy Presents Stewie Griffin: The Untold Story, comprising three of the new episodes and the edited-out-for-network-TV material.
Wunderkind MacFarlane was only 24 when he created Family Guy; now, he oversees a franchise. And he still does the bulk of the voices, much of the time changing from character to character on-the-fly.
The scene recalls shades of the '50s, where Mel Blanc did the voices for Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Porky Pig. In fact, much of Family Guy's cutting-edge comedy is deeply rooted in classic television. For one thing, its music is recorded with live orchestra at Fox's Newman Stage, with venerable scoring mixer Armin Steiner at the controls. And one of the show's trademarks is rapid-fire cutaways, often to parodies of vintage movies and television.
Those cutaways are one of his biggest Family Guy challenges, comments supervising sound editor Bob Newlan. “We have to distill the essences of those TV and movie parodies,” he explains. “The bit might only take 10 seconds of screen time, but I've got to research the movie and figure out what went into its sound effects. We don't have much time and there are no effects predubs. We've just got to come up with something quickly.
“It's a challenge of animation in general: A character will fire a gun twice, jump in a car, peel out and hit a pedestrian — all in two seconds,” Newlan continues. “The effects can't hang on at all. But with the pace of this show, it's even more so. You've got to condense, condense, condense.”
At Wilshire's Stage C, three Pro Tools systems are used for the mix: one each for effects, music and dialog playback. The dialog rig also does double-duty with stem mixes routed back to it through Stage C's Harrison console for peak limiting.
“I use the console's faders to mix on,” says dialog and music mixer Jim Fitzpatrick. “I also do my sends, returns and panning on the board. All of the processing — EQ [except on music], compression and reverb — is in Pro Tools.”
For dialog, Fitzpatrick generally has seven tracks of principal voices and five to eight tracks of group walla. The vocals that arrive for the mix are, he says, “reasonably consistent. For a while, we got lines that were recorded in different environments with changing early reflections, which gave us some challenges. But things have settled down. Now I just deal with the different distances from which the actors are working their mics.”
In the mix, Fitzpatrick applies little compression to individual vocal tracks. “That sounded too crunched,” he explains. “I work more with overall levels in the traditional style where everything goes through a dialog chain. It's simple, really: a Waves Renaissance compressor adjusted gently for a soft knee and the Waves L1 set for brickwall limiting. Then I play with it, adding gain into the chain, lowering the threshold — tickling it all the time.”
Sound effects are plentiful and punchy, but, as sound effects mixer Sam Black notes, the directive on how they're used is unequivocal: “Dialog is king,” he states. “If a character is talking, effects don't play. There could be a gunshot behind a line of dialog, but they'd rather not have it at all than put it in at low volume. We had one scene where somebody puked on a wall. You see it dripping and we had sound effects for it. But during the first two drips, there was dialog so we didn't play the drips. The second two drips, no talking, so we played them.”
Black generally works with eight channels of Foley and 24 of effects. “Everything is covered,” he explains, “and almost all of the sounds I get have multiple elements. A face punch, for example, will have four or five elements to it. But it's either play it or don't play it. Stay out of the way of the dialog and then play it as big as you can. The same thing with backgrounds: We very seldom use any.”
Black and Fitzpatrick admit that Family Guy's mixing style took some getting used to. “They don't want processing and they want everything in-your-face,” notes Black. “If a character goes into a bathroom, your reaction as a mixer is to add some slap. But we do very little of that. Basically, everything is dry and loud.”
“Also, we seldom play ‘perspectives,’” adds Fitzpatrick. “If Stewie's yelling while he's carried up the stairs, instinctively you want to pull away and put some reverb on it. But he stays at one level. It's all part of the joke, so every word needs to be heard.”
MacFarlane is adamant about using orchestra, calling that type of recording one of the “most fun parts” of the production process, citing “a big, fat, quality of sound that you can't get from electronics.” Almost all of the show's music, composed by Walter Murphy and Ron Jones, is recorded live.
“We've used up to 55 players,” comments music editor Stan Jones, who's worked on Family Guy since the first season. “Or it might be just brass with no strings, or guitar, bass and drums. It depends upon the show. We record 24-bit, 48k, and Armin does 5.1 mixes that get delivered to the dub stage.”
Although a session may run just four hours, prep time is extensive. “We figure out where the music will be,” says Jones. “Then the music editing department does a full breakdown of timings — every laugh, smile and cut. There's click track and streamer [visual timing cues that run with picture] preparation. There are a bunch of guys working on arrangements who need notes and copyists who break it down and write out the parts for the different musicians. Files are sent back and forth — iChat, iDisk and FTP — between the composers and arrangers, and we get MIDI files so we have the exact tempos. Each cue gets a Pro Tools file, then they're merged into a session that has all of the cues.”
Anywhere from 12 to 24 tracks of music arrives for the dub, where Fitzpatrick brings them up on the console. “It's such a pleasure to have the live music,” he says. “I rarely have to do anything except get the levels right.”
In addition to The Untold Story DVD, the TV episodes also get 5.1 mixes. The focus, for them, however, has to be on stereo for the immediate airdate. “We take our first pass through on the big JBL speakers in 5.1 just to get everything in place,” explains Fitzpatrick. “After that, we do our playbacks through smaller Audix speakers, just listening in left and right. It's Dolby surround — encoded LCRS, but we stick with the left/right and work with what we hear on the small speakers. When Seth comes in, we turn the level even lower; that's how he likes to listen.”
Family Guy episodes make an unusually seamless sonic transition between program and commercials. “It's not hard to get it loud enough; getting it loud enough without having it sound squashed is the problem,” offers Fitzpatrick, who also relies, at this final stage of the mix, on the L1 and Renaissance compressors in his Pro Tools. “For the discrete stems, I just use clip protection. For the Lt/Rt stems, I use a combination of compression before the Dolby encoders and limiting to Fox's requirements after the encoders. It took a lot of experimenting, but the system works well. In a traditional studio, I never had enough compressors to do all this. But here, even though we're doing so many mixes simultaneously [5.1 stems, Lt/Rt, M&E], I have the tools that help me tame all of this at once while optimizing for the air signal.”
“We get our first finished pass of the show on day 1,” notes Black, “and we make a DVD for Seth. He gives us changes and then comes in to view. He's got really sharp ears and a great memory. He can say, ‘I hate that cue, play one from show 103,’ which was five weeks ago.”
So is there time to laugh at the jokes? You bet. “It's the writing that makes this show,” says Black. “I've worked on a lot of comedies, but this one has the most concentrated jokes I've ever seen. They slap you in the face and your mouth drops open. You can't believe what you heard: ‘What did they say?!’ and — boom — they're on to the next joke. It's an animated feature, but it's a writer's soundtrack.”
Maybe it's the smaller, friendlier, indie-style vibe. Maybe it's the talented staff. Or maybe it's the fact that getting in and out is no hassle — unlike at many of the major film studios these days where just getting on the lot and parking can take half-an-hour. Whatever the reason, Wilshire Stages (www.wilshirestages.com) in the centrally located midtown section of Los Angeles has become known as a low-key, unpretentious and extremely tech-savvy place for film and television post-production and mixing.
With its three main Harrison console — equipped dubbing stages, ADR and Foley stages, and sound editorial rooms, Wilshire has amassed a string of cool credits and staked a claim as the foremost independent in town. “What's interesting about us is that, under one roof, we do so many different kinds of work,” comments senior VP Paul Rodriguez, “from IMAX movies to features to episodic television and ISDN ADR.”
“We're kind of under the radar,” adds chief technician Mike Morongell. “In our Studio B, we do feature film work and some of the higher-profile TV shows with more complicated sound. Our mixers have film backgrounds that they've adapted to television. A lot of TV shows have tons of effects these days, so that gives them an edge.
“With TV, it's about getting the level,” Morongell continues. “You've got to be able to not just mix, but also control dynamics and meet the criteria of the broadcasters and their different rules. Our mixers are really good at that. Also, everybody wants to make 5.1 stems for their DVDs, but shows are often broadcast in Lt/Rt stereo. Here, they can record and monitor in all of the different ways.
“There's a lot of information and media to be managed. The audio technician role has changed, in many ways, to being an IT job. We do all that, but we also really want our projects to sound great. I go to the movie theater and listen to all of our shows on the air. What comes out of here definitely holds up.”
Wilshire Stages' credits include feature films such as The Fast & The Furious, Far From Heaven, Disclosure and The Mighty Wind, as well as TV's The Shield and Las Vegas. Recent projects have included mixing for TV's The Inside, Family Guy and American Dad; on the film side, work includes ADR for War of the Worlds and mixing for The Wendell Baker Story, Mike Judge's Idiocracy and My Life in Idlewild.