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Boardwalk Empire


Currently in the midst of its second exciting season, the Prohibition-era drama Boardwalk Empire continues to draw plaudits from critics and large numbers of viewers to HBO. Set in Atlantic City in 1920-’21, the series follows the exploits of powerful but corrupt city treasurer “Nucky” Thompson (Steve Buscemi) and his interactions with organized crime figures of the day, federal agents intent on shutting down the city’s bootleggers and racketeers, and a wide range of fascinating characters, including prostitutes, politicians, cops and criminals of every stripe.

The series brilliantly captures the look and feel of its bygone era, from the Atlantic City Boardwalk to the unglamorous backrooms where deals are made (and broken) to desolate country roads where nefarious activities are perpetuated to dance halls where liquor still flows in abundance and the “Roaring ’20s” are being born.

Frank Stettner on location at Fort Tilden in the Gateway National Recreation Area in Brooklyn

Sound plays a vital role in conveying the world of Boardwalk Empire, with its vintage cars, telephones, Victrolas, guns and period music, which is used liberally in every episode. The series is shot around New York City—on indoor soundstages and outdoor sets in Brooklyn (mostly Steiner Studios); on location in old buildings in Brooklyn, Manhattan and Staten Island; and in more remote exterior locales on Long Island.

Frank Stettner has been the production mixer for both seasons. Audio post is done at Manhattan’s Soundtrack Studios and C5. Fred Rosenberg (dialog editor on numerous Martin Scorsese films, among others) is supervising sound editor. The mixer for the entire first season and the first five episodes of Season Two was Soundtrack’s Tom Fleischman (another Scorsese fixture and one of New York City’s top mixers since the late ’70s), but his commitment to work on Scorsese’s next feature, Hugo, prevented him from going deeper on the season so he was replaced by his extremely capable Soundtrack colleague Bob Chefalas (Sex in the City, et al). Each season comprises 12 episodes.

Scorsese is an executive producer on Boardwalk Empire, and his Emmy-winning direction of last year’s pilot set a very high standard for the show. But with executive producer/writer Terence Winter (The Sopranos) guiding the series and co-producer Steve Turner (Deadwood, Big Love) heavily involved with day-to-day workflow in both production and post, the show has remained true to Scorsese and Winter’s vision. And though the team doesn’t have the luxury of months of post time that a feature might, it has a fairly generous schedule for episodic television: 14 days of shooting for a typical 58-minute episode (vs. eight days for most 42-minute dramas on commercial television) and six days for sound editing, which includes all of the dialog editing, Foley and effects recording, and placement and integration of the music, which comprises old recordings from the period and newly recorded versions of vintage tunes. The latter are cut at producer/engineer Stewart Lerman’s studio, The Shinebox, in nearby Hoboken, N.J. Annette Kudrak is the music editor. Music supervisor Randall Poster consults with Winter, Turner and the film editor for each episode about different music possibilities.

It’s no accident that Rosenberg was tapped to be supervising sound editor—he’s a dialog specialist, and as production mixer Stettner notes, “This show is dialog-driven from the beginning. It starts with the written word on the page—and it’s brilliant—and those words and the acting inspire every craft involved with it. Not only me and camera, but the art department—everyone.”

Not surprisingly, Stettner has the most control over scenes shot on interior soundstages, while the many locations around town—including the Boardwalk set, which is in the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn, across the East River parallel to the Empire State Building—provide many challenges day-to-day because, well, it’s New York in 2010-’11, not 1920.

“We shoot a good deal of exteriors,” he says “and you have the age-old problem of contemporary sounds interfering. Like at the Boardwalk set: There’s a heliport right opposite on 34th Street, so if you’re shooting there, there are certain times of day that are worse than others. There’s a rush at 9:30 to 10 o’clock in the morning when the executives who get flown to work arrive. Then it quiets down, and then at noon there’s another surge of activity, and then again at 3 or 4 p.m. when those executive types go back home. When a helicopter passes, we hold it; we wait. The actors are very good about it—“Hold that thought, stay in character, back it up, okay, action!” They know they have to work around it, and they also know that if they do wait and we get it right, they won’t have to spend their days off doing ADR. They’re all great about projecting and cooperating.”

Does he have a say in the sonic appropriateness of certain locations. “No, we deal with what we have. Right before each episode starts, there’s a tech scout and I go on that, or if I can’t I’ll send one of my crew on it. So I do know what the locations are and I can see what the problems are going to be. I might say, ‘Hey, notice how close this interior is to this road that has buses? If we put a couple of bucks into putting plexi on these three windows, we’ll be able to do this better.’ Then whatever I do with the boom, I’m sure I’m going to back it up with radios in case it’s too noisy. Our goal is to limit the background as much as we can and control all the extraneous noise and really get the words that the actors say, especially if it’s one of those magic performances that really can’t be re-created [through ADR]. We want to give Fred [Rosenberg] and Tom [Fleischman] the best chance of making that work.”

Stettner’s sound cart is the same whether he’s working on a soundstage or out on location. He uses a pair of Fostex 824 8-track digital recorders, “so there’s 100-percent redundancy.” There are two hard drives and they simultaneously burn two DVDs. That’s what gets sent in for dailies—a master and a backup for Telecine.” His mixer is a Cooper Sound D208 8-channel that he’s used for years and calls “extremely stable.” His main boom mics are Sennheiser 416s—some scenes will employ two booms—and his radio mics are Lectrosonics Venue receivers and SMQ transmitters, and SonoTrim and tiny Countryman B6 lavs. “We’re lucky that nearly every man in that era wore a tie, so we can have a lav right in the knot of the tie, almost in the open,” he says. Stettner’s boom operators—Sam Perry and Peter Fonda—alternate by episode, and his trusty sound utility (or “third”) is Toussaint Kotright.

As for post, sound supervisor Rosenberg says, “The way each episode starts is that we have a screening [of the edited episode] with co-producer Steve Turner and the picture editor for the individual show, and they give me notes about what has been discussed with them and Terry Winter—their collective idea of how they want things to be. I make notes on everything except for music, which goes through different channels.

“When I come onto a show, 90 percent of the music has been decided, or where there will be music has been decided, if not the exact piece. So I’m learning about what kind of sounds they’re interested in, and when we’re spotting the show there’s some back and forth about ideas and what to do. They also have a list of ADR they want done, either for content reasons—like if a line has been changed—or they find that something is hard to understand or because some of the characters have accents, or if they need some group [ADR]. So I take those notes, I listen to the show carefully and add additional notes, and then distribute them to the various sound editors.” Jeffrey Stern and Alexa Zimmerman have been the primary dialog editors; Rosenberg himself does the ADR editing; Steve Visscher is Foley editor; the principal FX editor for the first season was Eugene Gearty, while Ruy Garcia has done Season Two.

When it comes to capturing the ’20s aurally, Rosenberg says, “We try to be as authentic as we can without being slavish about it. For instance, in the first season, Jimmy [one of Nucky’s henchmen] gives his wife a vacuum cleaner, and the prop guy for the show found this beautiful, working 1920s vacuum cleaner so we went to the set and recorded that vacuum cleaner. But I didn’t go and research that it still had the original, authentic 1920s motor in it.”

“What type of telephone ring do you use?” mixer Tom Fleischman asks. “And what do you do with the telephone voices? Because there are a lot of conversations that happen through phones. How squeezed, how futzed do we want to make the voice coming through the phone?”

Fleischman (and then Chefalas) mixed the show on Soundtrack’s Euphonix System 5 digital console, combining sessions from four Pro Tools|HD rigs loaded with dialog tracks, Foley, FX and music—a job usually handled by two re-recording mixers on most feature films.

Fleischman notes, “One of the biggest challenges for me was dealing with the music. The set pieces [in which singers are performing in front of bands in a ballroom/nightclub setting] were difficult because they were done in a studio with pre-recorded music, and the scenes were shot to playback. So integrating that and mixing it and making that feel like it was in a real space was a challenge. There’s the scene where Nucky dances with [his girlfriend] Margaret. It was hard getting the movement of the other people, the footsteps, the atmosphere in the club, the perspectives of the vocals and music in different parts of the club to sound natural. We also couldn’t treat any of it as if it was coming through a loudspeaker because loudspeakers hadn’t been invented yet. It had to sound as though it was being performed in the room. That’s a lot to juggle.

“It was also tough deciding how the source music should be treated,” he adds. “There are a lot of scenes where music is playing and it’s purportedly from a Victrola, even though it’s really being used as score. In the later episodes, when the character Richard Harrow is introduced, there are scenes where he’s got this scrapbook he’s putting together, and we hear these pieces of music…He doesn’t actually have a Victrola in his apartment, but we played it as that, in terms of EQ. I tried to put the music in the room with him, as opposed to letting it play as underscore or overscore.”

Then there are all the period cars, the haunting calliope music we can hear out the windows of Nucky’s office, machine guns and pistols, and other assorted mayhem. And ambiences ranging from the seaside to dank basements to large meeting halls. “This show has got a lot of sound,” Rosenberg comments. “It’s not just talking heads, people talking back and forth in a conversation. There’s a lot of different locations and showing things, and that requires a lot of sound.”