SFP: "The Office"FAUX DOCUMENTARY STYLE IS HARDER THAN IT LOOKS 10/01/2008 8:00 AM Eastern
Now entering its fifth season on NBC, The Office has developed a rabid following for its blend of silly and subtle comedy, and the spot-on timing of its enormously talented ensemble cast led by Steve Carell, Jenna Fischer, John Krasinski and Rainn Wilson. If you're at all familiar with the series (or its earlier British counterpart on which it is based), you know that the style of the show is faux documentary — we, the viewers, are essentially eavesdropping on the professional and personal goings-on at the Dunder-Mifflin paper company in Scranton, Penn., thanks to an unseen documentary film crew. Occasionally, characters even address the cameras directly in brief “interview” segments. This stylistic conceit gives The Office a feeling that is different from any other scripted show on network television, and it informs every aspect of the production, including the way sound is handled from shooting through post.
Production sound mixer Ben Patrick has been with the show since the pilot in 2005. A veteran of numerous — mostly indie — features and TV series, including The West Wing and Andy Barker, P.I., Patrick came to The Office through co-executive producer Kent Zbornak, with whom he'd worked on an unsold pilot. Asked if Zbornak, producer and occasional director Ken Kwapis and producer/director/co-creator Greg Daniels had any advice for him about the show's aesthetic, Patrick responds, “They didn't really explain anything to me; in fact, I sort of explained it to them because they didn't know documentary-style sound. Ken Kwapis was well-versed in the ways of television and filmmaking, but he wasn't really a doc guy. I've done a fair number of docs.”
The show is shot on the stages of the Chandler Valley Center Studios in Van Nuys, Calif. (a part of town that “we made to look like Scranton!” Patrick reveals). During the first season, however, the “office” scenes were shot in the actual production office for the show, with a stage being used only for the warehouse scenes. Since then, they've duplicated the look of that real office on one of the stages, which gives Patrick — and everyone else — a little more control. The show is shot with two handheld cameras for maximum flexibility, and Patrick notes that the camera operators are “incredibly agile. They come from reality TV, from Eco-Challenge and Survivor and things like that, and they're amazing to watch because they're so precise and good at what they do. They can shoot within inches of each other in a full room with no problem. My boom operator has to be agile, as well, because there's a lot of movement in this show within a somewhat confined space.”
Patrick captures the all-important dialog with a combination of a boom mic — always operated by Brian Wittle, with whom he has worked on and off for a dozen years now — and multiple Lectrosonics RF mics. The first year, the heart of Patrick's rig was a stereo DAT (with MiniDisc backup) and Cooper 106 mixer, and much of his production track went out on the air as he mixed it. But his setup has evolved considerably, now incorporating the Sound Devices 744T and MetaCorder multitrack recorders and a new mixer. “Today is the first day of shooting Season Five,” he reports, “and I'm working on my brand-new Yamaha 01V96V2 board, which is a big departure from my Cooper with seven channels that I had for years and years and years. I had no complaints with the Cooper — the guy [Andy Cooper] is local, he made a great board and it wasn't as expensive as a Sonosax; it was fantastic. But I needed more channels. I've just been recording a conference room scene and I've got 14 wires — radio mics — on, but when I only had seven pots, I either had to cascade another mixer in or we'd get crafty with plant mics or two booms and we'd be more selective in making things work. We'd really have to decide where the funny was — where the joke was — in those situations, and we wouldn't be as concerned with some other actors' lines. My boom man and I would make those decisions together.” Patrick credits fellow production mixer Mark Ulano (Iron Man and Disturbia are just two of his recent credits) with helping him set up the new 16-channel Yamaha board.
Typically, an episode is shot over five days, with work beginning at 7:05 a.m. sharp and stretching about 11-and-a-half hours — “pretty reasonable,” Patrick says. “When we start rolling, they'll roll the cameras, roll sound and we'll go for 22 minutes to 40 minutes, and in that time they might stop and talk a bit, but we'll keep the cameras rolling and the actors will do the scene again and again and again, with little variations usually. At first, there's not a whole lot of improvisation. We get a lot of takes because of that style of shooting, and there isn't a lot of time to go and fix someone's radio mic or turn off a fan or something, so you have to figure out how to fit it in between the acting.”
Might a character unexpectedly improvise a line mid-scene? “It used to happen all the time,” Patrick says. “The accountant, Kevin, was always coming up with little things, and you'd see him in the back and his lips were flapping, and you'd think, ‘Poor Kevin, he's not going to make the cut’ [because he wasn't covered by an RF or boom].” Patrick notes that the quasi-documentary style of the shoot gives him license to leave the sound a little rougher than he might ordinarily: “We can live with a little extraneous noise — like air conditioning — as long as we can still hear the actors clearly.”
When it comes to the brief “interview” segments, with characters speaking directly into the camera, “I let my microphones and my preamps do the work for me,” he says. “I put a beautiful Schoeps hyper[cardioid] right on top of them and I actually employ my old documentary trick of sticking it in a boom stand when it's going to be a long session because we'll shoot those up to an hour. There are all these nuances where they'll change a word, change the whole scenario, so it can go on for a while. Normally when you do a doc, you put a lavalier on the person and a microphone on top so you have two different options. Well, I don't do the lavalier here, but I like to have a warm interview mic. I tried the Oktavas a couple of times and they were almost too warm, so I went back to the brightness of the Schoeps. We just got the new Schoeps shotgun — the blue CMIT 5U — and that's wonderful. We used it almost exclusively on the last Sam Mendes picture we did.”
Increasingly, it seems, The Office has been moving outside the confines of the Van Nuys soundstages to exterior locales or, in the case of one of the best episodes of Season Four, a busy New York nightclub (actually shot in a downtown L.A. bar called The Edison). Patrick says that off-set interiors like the club are still highly manageable from his perspective, but things get a little trickier outdoors. “We did an episode called ‘Survivor Man’ in which they were out in the forest, and I have a rig where I abandon the cart and throw what I can in a little chest pack with a harness with a 744T and a PSC [AlphaMix] 8-channel ENG mixer, and I was out there running after the camera guys. We'll have the boom out there, too, but we're all on foot and running around.” Surprisingly difficult, too, he notes, are scenes in the Dunder-Mifflin parking lot: “You might have nearly the entire cast out there, so it's tough. Normally the way I work with faders is if I open a pot, I close a pot so there's no phasing. But when I have 13 people talking and every single one of them has one line, and they've done it 28 times and now they're starting to ad lib, they want [to hear] it all and you have to give it to them, so then you're in this weird battle with phasing and trying to work it all out so everyone can be heard clearly.”
Though Episode One of Season Five was being shot on that day I interviewed Patrick — July 29 — it wasn't scheduled to reach re-recording mixers John W. Cook II and Peter J. Nusbaum until the second week of September. In between, the show's producers and the director of that particular episode (the show uses a number of different directors who work within the established template for the show, but still bring their unique vision to the proceedings) go through the many hours of takes and essentially assemble the program.
Cook and Nusbaum are both seasoned TV mixers — Cook, who handles dialog and music, goes back to The Larry Sanders Show and News Radio in the mid- and late '90s, while FX and Foley mixer Nusbaum cut his teeth working on Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the late '90s. Together, they've worked on a wide variety of series (and pilots), including The Bernie Mac Show, Grounded for Life, Scrubs and Samantha Who, and upcoming series Worst Week and The United States of Tara. (They were nominated — along with Patrick — for an Emmy for The Office in 2007 and 2008, and won one for Scrubs in 2007.)
Home for this busy and respected mixing team is Studio A in BlueWave Audio at Universal Studios in Universal City (L.A.), Calif., which is equipped with a 192-input Harrison Series 12 digital console. Unlike on a feature film, where the re-recording/mixing process can take weeks, Cook and Nusbaum can typically mix a half-hour show in a single day, and The Office is actually a little less time-consuming because of its format.
“The Office is a little bit different than many other shows because part of trying to pull off the documentary feel of the show is to keep some things a little less prepped, a little rawer,” Cook says. “Specifically, that means no ADR on my side. If we're looking for a better articulation on a take, then it's sifting through dailies, sometimes on the stage. With Scrubs and Samantha Who and the bulk of the other things we do, there's less variation how we pull it off: It goes through a week of prep — loop group, ADR, Foley, FX and dialog editorial. That's not the case here, for the most part.”
“As far as the FX and Foley go on The Office,” Nusbaum adds, “we use a lot of production sound effects to enhance the documentary feeling, and we try not to let anything sound sweetened because we want to keep it in that documentary vein. It's an interesting mix because we're trying to keep a subtle balance between the documentary realism and creating an engaging audio environment. So we're not inclined to replace sound from production that may not be perfect with perfect sounds. We want it to sound like it was recorded on the set; that's in line with the vision of the producers.”
Background FX are generally not at all obtrusive — in the office itself, perhaps phones, copy machines and such — “but we don't add a lot because we want to keep it raw,” Nusbaum says. For exteriors on most shows, “Normally, we'd put in birds and traffic-bys and wallas and all kinds of things, but on this show, not so much. We might add some very subtle winds and airs to the exteriors, maybe a bed of traffic, but nothing that would stand out as an added or sweetened effect.”
On Cook's end, “I have to work the dialog track a little harder than other shows because the track needs to be able to play on its own in a lot of ways. Not that it does all the time, but it's so featured and I don't have effects or music under — there's a little more exposure than on other shows.” Cook says he employs the usual tools of the trade to keep the noise floor of exteriors down and maximize the articulation of the dialog, including EQ, notching and noise reduction. Line producer Zbornak, post supervisor Jake Aust and the writer of the episode are usually on hand to oversee the mix, “which is interesting for us because the writers all have slightly different sensibilities,” Cook says.
“With all of our clients,” Nusbaum adds, “you just have to get to know what their likes and dislikes are. Some of them really like music played louder or backgrounds played quieter. At the beginning of the day, you just have to sit down, and say, ‘Okay, who am I working for today?’ and try to do the best work you can.”
“Our job is to serve the show and hopefully bring some consistency,” Cook says. “We want to adhere to the overall vision of the show and create the best possible end-product we can, within the constraints of what's in front of us.”
The bonus is that on a show like The Office, doing that is fun. “Everybody on this show has a can-do attitude,” Patrick concludes. “It's probably the nicest show I've ever worked on.”