It’s a fact cherished by sound effect editors: out of 122 minutes of running time, Joel and Ethan Coen's No Country For Old Men comprises only 16 minutes of music.
Why is such an obscure fact interesting? Well, a lot of sonic ingredients blend to complete a feature film: dialogue, music, ADR, Foley, sound effects, and more. Each of these elements must be skillfully balanced by engineers. Invariably, though, creative choices are made that favour some elements and exclude others. On a good day, a sound effect editor's work is in the spotlight. On other days, it understandably takes a back seat to support other elements of the film.
This is why No Country For Old Men is particularly notable. There is almost no music in the film at all. Instead, the sound effect track takes centre stage. Sound legend Skip Lievsay uses the wind, the birds, and the weather to create a minimalist soundtrack that conveys mood and atmosphere. Often a handful of sounds create a subliminal, off-screen story in parallel to the onscreen drama. It's an incredibly rare technique that Lievsay and the Coen brothers use in varying degrees for all of their films, and one that warms the hearts of sound fx editors worldwide.
This is why I became quite curious when I discovered last summer that a good friend was wrapping up editing duties on the second season of FX's widely acclaimed TV series, Fargo. Paul Shikata is a sound effects editor with almost three decades of post production experience. Paul mentioned to me that he was working on Noah Hawley's television series, which is inspired by the Coen brothers' 1996 film.
I had known Paul produces excellent soundtracks. And, to my delight, I found he was in charge of crafting evocative background atmospheres for the episodes. I was curious to learn if showrunner Noah Hawley (Bones) and sound supervisor Nick Forshager (Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul) adopted Lievsay's and the Coen brothers' technique. Did the television series highlight the sound fx track? Did they encourage the use of atmospheres to tell a story? After all, the Coen brothers themselves had produced the series. I asked Paul Shikata if he would like to share his experiences with us. He kindly agreed.
So, Paul and I sat down to chat about the second season of Fargo. In today's article, Paul shares his experiences working on the crew of Fargo. He describes his technique of creating, choosing, and crafting backgrounds and "background specifics" with one mission in mind: to build a composition to create tension.
Please note: this post contains plot spoilers.
Also note: this article explores Paul’s experiences in depth. It should take you about 17 minutes to read. If you like, click the button below to email it to yourself to read later.
Beginning Editing Sound
Shikata’s roots in sound editing began as a musician. Paul explained that his background in music directly contributed to his film sound fx work when he began studying at Ryerson Film School in Toronto, Canada.
"Sound always came naturally to me," he told me. "I'm a musician, I was a musician then, too. I've always been picky about sound and tape decks and turntables and all sorts of things, so that part came really easy in film school. So, when we were making films, I started doing a lot of sound recording. I think we were doing a little bit of post-editing, but it was more of us getting into sound recording."
In the program, Paul had the opportunity to work on government-funded Canadian Film Centre films with what would be some of the greatest visionaries of Canadian cinema, including Bruce McDonald, Don McKellar, and David Cronenberg.
Since then, Paul has commonly cut sound for respected Canadian director Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter) with sound supervisor Steve Monroe. He has also contributed work to a number of David Cronenberg's (A History of Violence, The Fly) films, as well as prominent projects such as Saw, Copper, and Pinkertons. The project had the most impact on his career?
"Calendar," Shikata said. "That was the first thing I did working with Atom." He worked closely with Steve Monroe as his picture assistant along with Egoyan, and observed the effect of creative personalities on a project.
"I sometimes look back and feel like I've been lucky to work with a lot of like directors who are just very confident. Egoyan would ask me my opinion. I was young at that point, so I would tell him my opinion. I think he always appreciated that. So I got used to that. If I'm starting to feel fear or a certain trepidation on saying my opinion, that's not good, right?"
The value of an assertive creative opinion served him again, many years later: "Fargo was really excellent in that sense that I just clicked with the sensibilities of Nick, the supervisor, as well as Noah," he said. "I'd be watching the show and come up with an idea and he'd say, ‘Oh wait, they have a note for that.’ They would give us great notes every week, too. Nick would spot the show with Noah, and we get these fantastic notes. They're thinking deep, thinking really hard in terms of detail. The fridge has to make a certain kind of sound and all these things have life to them… When I make my spotting list, it's like a special effect. Something out of the ordinary."
A Cross-Continental Workflow
While Shikata's career has been bookended by projects involving strong, creative personalities, his involvement with Fargo began with a fluke of timing. Originally planning to take the summer off, fellow sound fx editor Rob Bertola (Eastern Promises, A History of Violence) told Paul he had been offered the job by Nelson Ferrera of Sound Dogs Toronto, and suggested Shikata to be part of the team. Paul seized the opportunity.
Fargo had a unique post structure. The sound editing crew cut in Toronto, supervised by Joe Bracciale (Resident Evil: Apocalypse). Bracciale would attend the mix in Toronto, while Nick would supervise from LA. All tracks would be sent to the premix in LA, even Foley. I asked Paul about the logistics of cutting with a trans-continental crew.
"We got picture, I think for maybe episode one, two, three," he said. He watched the episodes with Bertola, discussed, then planned a conference call with Nick. "We had … several conversations afterwards and would be on the phone or emailing each other throughout the edit afterwards."
While the physical distance between the teams was immense, the crew were tightly involved, with the LA team sending elaborate spotting notes.
Paul explained, "It would be something like "tension here" or "tension with the fluorescent lights," or, they would say "birds." The notes were detailed, but also two words like "feature quality.""
A Fluid Schedule
Various delays prior to the Shikata's involvement affected the sound edit schedule. Paul explained they had five days to deliver the tracks to LA. There was a bit of wiggle room, however. "Nick was generous with giving us – specifically me – a bit of extra time on certain episodes to deliver on Saturday night."
Bertola and Shikata were not required to attend the spotting sessions or the mix, and used the extra time cut richer tracks. There was an unusual side effect of this, though.
"It was kind of odd," Paul told me. "We didn't go to the mixes, we didn't know how it was sounding." Getting fx stems wasn't possible either, so the fx crew were cutting somewhat blindly. Shikata told me the mix crew reassured them that the tracks they were crafting – including the special elements requested in the spotting notes – were indeed making it to the final mix.
Much of this was possible due to the mix schedule. Shikata was thrilled to learn that the schedule allowed for two days of effects pre-mix. "That was one of the best feelings ever," he said. "How many times have people asked for feature soundtracks with one day of pre-mixing, including the Foley? So, I felt really confident that these guys were actually putting their money where their mouth was with that."
Nick touched up tracks himself as needed, further allowing Bertola and Shikata to continue editing later episodes to accommodate the schedule.
In addition to the two days of fx pre-mix, dialogue was given two days as well. The crew would final in one day to create a special version for Nick, then continue final playbacks throughout the week for two other mixes, including mixes for various groups or executives. The idea was to provide many of playbacks and continue polishing the final: "They would have two days jumpstart pre-mixing, and then they would go bang on the one day, and continue to massage it all the way to the end. So it was a whole week of mixing."
Sound Editing for Fargo
A sound effects edit is usually split into two categories: foreground, story-telling specifics ("specs") (e.g., cars, guns, animals), and atmospheric backgrounds ("BGs") (e.g., countrysides, rain, traffic). Originally Bertola and Shikata took a scattershot approach to completing the edit, dividing the specs between them.
"That just ultimately turned out to be inefficient," Paul said, "which is why naturally, on the second episode, I was doing the BGs. [Laughter]
"The first episode was just sort of a free-for-all, I did most of the BGs, Rob did some BGs, but I did more specs. I did a lot of specs in that first episode as well."
Paul dabbled in specific tracks for a key scene, as well: "Later I started doing guns. I cut the gun fight in the forest, the first gun fight.
"I was never stupid enough to say I'll do that again. Because that's what happened, I said, "Look dudes, I'm ready for this, I'm gonna do this one." I'm sure they were like, "Go for it, man." [Laughter]
"That was one of the episodes that went into Saturday. But, I was having so much fun. This show really just made me want to work and just do the best I could… Even that last big gunfight in the motel, the Sioux Falls Massacre, that was me and Rob together. Just to get that sucker done 'cause that was just huge."
In addition to the signature gunfights, Fargo required sound design for key plot devices, including the taser, the meat grinder, and the UFO seen in the show. Paul elaborated on how the team approached these important sound design elements.
"Those were all things that were always a concern to Nick, that he would actually be talking to Noah about," Paul said. The UFO scene generated much discussion amongst fans. Paul explained the sound design for the scene was tackled by the Nick as soon as work began. He sent the Toronto crew 5.1 stems of the key elements to work into their tracks.
Stylized BG Editing
Eventually, Paul and Rob's roles settled: "I ultimately did BGs and BG specs. And I basically took five days to do that."
While BGs are typically atmospheric sound fx that reside as secondary, background fx in the soundtrack, Shikata took a different approach. He cut backgrounds in a focused, pointed manner synchronized to picture, much like specific sound fx. These background specifics or "BG specs" were effects he used in the background to punctuate more subtle atmospheres.
He said, "I think I have a real talent for doing these BG specs. Taking four or five different birds, or just one bird, but making it work in the scene, in the background."
Part of the reason this editing strategy worked because music was absent from the soundtrack, allowing the sound effects to dominate.
"There's scenes with no music at all," Paul explained. "And they want stuff in the background. Sometimes they would just leave it dead in the background, but they would actually ask for specs and want to hear it."
Sound Effects and Music
Shikata had an additional advantage to cutting his "BG specs": by the time the picture arrived, the music was already finalized or locked. How did this affect his editing work?
"It just made doing the BG specs that much better," he explained. "Usually I'm cutting them not exactly blindly, but sort of to the dialogue and any kind of visual emotion that's going on. So, there's a wildcard of not knowing where the music's going to come in and maybe it will render the sound effects unplayable, do I have to move that? So, it can be a time waster in the mix if they really want detail. I always try to get the music before the mix which is sometimes hard."
Paul first tried this technique while working on Pinkertons: "I would stay up late and see the music stems come in on the server around two in the morning and I'd do my BG specs right at the end. Pinkertons was easy for that because it was pretty much always outside and in the same location. So I just burned through them, but to the music."
The picture edit for Fargo had been in post for a long time, partially due to schedule changes. This was one reason why the music was locked and allowed Paul to cut backgrounds as specifics. "I think I only had one episode that wasn't locked, and it wasn't much of a change when they locked it."
Usually the elements of a sound edit are seen as distinct: dialogue, sound fx, Foley, and music. The sound work on each rarely overlap. Shikata – due to his experience as a musician – saw this differently. He explained that he sees background sound effects as music. He elaborated:
"The cues were almost like sort of motif cues, right? They're recognizable cues that are in different episodes in a way, with themes and things like that. And so it would be good cutting to that. It's so handy because ultimately when you've got a pulsating wave of sound and put a bird in the wrong place, you can kill the vibe of the scene. Whereas if you play together with the music and pick an interesting spot for a sound, it can become harmonious if that's what you need the scene to be. So, I did a lot of tension building with BGs and BG specs. You see the horns or birds, cars passing by, a lot of cars indoors. I like cutting those as well. I always thought of it as music."
The Hidden Impact of BGs
Cutting background sound fx with as much attention to detail as specific sound effects is not common. One of Paul's inspirations came the classic film Jaws. He described the scene where the mother of a boy killed by Jaws approaches Chief Brody on the dock after they have caught a tiger shark.
"The scene is quiet but you hear people and the breeze, and he's not sure what will happen. Then she slaps him, and everything goes Kwoh!, dramatically. Almost a real slapdown of the fader. Probably some air there, but it was really a very dramatic cutoff and I think they changed that in the new version. I found it really effective because it was using BGs in terms of manipulation of the audience to bring a dramatic point home. I've always loved that."
He mentioned another classic, The Exorcist: "It's got incredible backgrounds… It's beautiful, it's one of the most psychologically aggressive mixes that I've heard, really bone-tingling. If you've never heard it before or seen the film and just play it at the right volume, it's incredible. It starts off these alternating scenes of loud cacophony whether it's like an erratic "ch-ch-ch-ch" then they'll just cut it to a quiet scene somewhere where there's a clock ticking. And it's like that for about ten to twenty minutes and there's nothing scary about the shots at all, they're just quiet scenes and loud scenes, but really played so they're dynamically different. You're always feeling the cut. So by the time she starts vomiting shit, you're ready to explode because you've been sort of jerked around like this on normal stuff. So when something scary happens, you're already primed. I thought that was a great use of sound.
"It's like seeing a really busy traffic scene in India and then going to a pond or something. There's nothing really damaging about the picture, but you keep doing that loud soft, loud soft, loud soft, it does a good number on you. I think people were vomiting when they saw that film. They reported people running down the aisle puking because it was so disturbing. And I'm convinced a lot of it was the sound, too, helping that along.” [Laughter]
Shikata shared how he used a similar tactic to use background sound fx to create tension in Fargo.
"One of my favourite scenes to cut was the standoff at the sheriff's department. (“Rhinoceros,” episode 2×06, 36:49) They've got their son there and the boys have come for him. It's sort of a classic thing to do, the train squealing, but I still had a lot of fun doing that because there was no music in a lot of that, so you're sort of building up tension with sound effects which I like a lot. But it's a fine line where you get caught doing it, where you can sort of tell something's gonna happen because the train squeal thing is kind of classic."
He described another example: when Ted Danson's character stops the antagonists' car in the countryside. Shikata placed a subtle, edgy chainsaw grinding in the background of the scene:
"That was such a fun scene to cut because it was just so heavy-duty. I was really pleased just because it was such a juicy, beautiful scene that I could add something that would make it even better. Make it more tense. I enjoyed that kind of stuff."
The Art of Background Sound FX
What's the best way to craft backgrounds for a project soundtrack? Shikata shared his approach in laying in general backgrounds in Fargo:
"Out in the wilderness, out in the wind, I look for two tracks, two or three depending on how complex it is, that the mixer can use the high frequency, mid, and low of that. So if it's a wind, you might have aspects of all of them. You want to bring up a fader and you say "I want more high end of the wind to play that off the fader than the lower end," so you sort of have it broken down into frequencies.
"I will do that with crowds, or instead of just tonality, I might just think in terms of closeness. So, I'll have a track that's close people … and then something that's maybe more full, frequency-wise, and then go off into more ambient stuff, because I really like just hearing ambiance, I don't like hearing everything very close unless it's intended that way. So, if there's a phone off-screen down the hall, I don't want it to sound like a dry phone with the fader down. I want to hear the room. And if I'm going to get really nitpicky, I want to hear it coming from there and I want to hear the slap off of the speaker. If something just comes in and it's dead, it just sounds wrong. Which is why any kind of stereo recording, panned, sounds so much better. Although that's harder to manipulate, I think, during a mix. Those are things that they don't even do in feature films sometimes. You gotta have the director thinking in that vein."
And his approach to the unusual "BG specs?" It begins with with considering the elements of the project.
"For me there are three elements," he explained. "If there's music, that's an element. If there's dialogue, that's another element. And – this is a trade secret – I also cut to movement on the screen sometimes. If someone's eyes are moving, I think about that. You don't want a bird chirp on someone's eye blink. I watch for it. That's why it's time consuming, because you play the scene over and over and you start to figure out where you want to stick something, then you try it, and hopefully it works that way. But if it doesn't, then you're going to have to start moving it around. It's not about filling all the holes. It's not about placing a bird chirp every time there's a hole. We want a bird chirp in a certain place because it actually does something – subtle even – in the background. Or it creates a certain kind of continuity. When something's cut that way where you hear a wind… it's just like music sometimes. It's perfect."
Editing for the Coen Brothers
Fargo is not a typical television series. The Coen Brothers are known for their attention to sound design. In addition, sound supervisor Skip Lievsay is one of the most respected godfathers of the craft of sound editing. How did this affect Paul's approach? Was it a challenge? Was it intimidating?
Shikata: "Total challenge. To me it was like, "Okay, my work is going to be heard!" You know, finally! [Laughter] It's very exciting. I love the Coen brothers' work… I thought, "Ok, great, the bar is set high." … At some point, those dudes are going to be listening to your work… I knew that's what was at stake was you're either going to impress the guys in Los Angeles and Nick, or you're not. I don't want to be on a list where they think, "Yeah, he was good, but that's all.""
Now, the first season had been critical success. I asked Paul his thoughts on becoming involved with the team after the wild success of the first season of the series, and among a trans-continental crew as well.
"I don't know why they changed crews. Because they did a fabulous job," he said. "I think the switch involved some trepidation for Nick. I remember he was just really pleased after it all went down, how well it worked. I think he thought, "Can we do this? Can we work this way?" And yeah, he was totally happy."
Shikata was thrilled at his feedback after the team delivered the first episode.
"It was just praise right from the get-go. It's really gracious, he was really good with the feedback and that helped us just keep going. It's good to hear, "Hey, that was awesome," from the higher-ups. I sort of know when I do something good, but it's nicer when someone else can see and they say, "Yeah this is good, oh this is great, I can see you put some work into this." A certain kind of recognition."
"Nick said that that season he had to do the least as a sound supervisor, in terms of touch-ups or any kind of adds or sweeteners and things like that. I think what he did with my gunfight in the forest was added just a bunch of sweeteners with extra oomph to send certain ones off, but left everything else the same, so it was fine."
Of course, not every sound effect track will be played up in the mix. Backgrounds are typically diminished in the final mix to allow other elements to shine. Paul's entire role was to craft BGs. Did Nick and team in LA recognize Shikata's approach to the atmospheres?
"You know, the backgrounds were live and he just understood, "Yeah, this is fantastic stuff."… It was a pleasure to work for him and for the whole show. It's sort of bizarre, the Coen brothers are sort of out in the mist. You don't even think about it much because it's Noah's show, he's got their blessing. I'm not sure if they looked at any of the scripts for season two. I think they just wanted to know whether he was going to do something interesting and I think he surpassed that…”
Many thanks to Paul Shikata for sharing his experiences with us.
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