Modern Family: Behind the Scenes with Stephen Tibbo

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ABC TV’s hit show, Modern Family, created by Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd, is genius meets hilarity. Gilarity. The show is set in a nameless suburban neighborhood and documents the lives of three families, each portraying a specific yet contemporary domestic lifestyle. The best part about the series is the connection between the families. They openly admit they’re dysfunctional and know each other’s short comings, but all that doesn’t matter because they still love each other in the end. This modern reality is why you might find that the show hits home so much (and it doesn’t hurt it’s funny — really funny).   

Near the back of Stage 5 on the 20th Century Fox lot, sound mixer, Stephen Tibbo, CAS, sat quietly illuminated from the glow of the two monitors on his cart. He was in the middle of a take. I could hear him giving notes to one of his boom ops telling him he could come down a little bit. Focused, it was like I wasn’t even there until the bell rang. Then instantly, he flipped his cans from his ears and switched into this thoughtful and polite conversationalist. “Hey, let’s get you some Comtek’s so you know what’s going on,” says Tibbo. 

Tibbo at his cart - color coded and in a mix

Our conversation is interrupted by frequent takes. Stephen, a California native, is a true sound techie. He built his own post sound studio at his house where his loving wife and two adorable girls stay. “Golf used to be my hobby, but when I started college, it changed to sound,” says Tibbo. His gear on Modern Family doesn’t take any shortcuts either. Chinhda built a special cart for him. The lower chassis is Chinhda’s standard design. The superstructure clamps an SKB case which has shock protected shelves and holds the recorders and mixer. This way when Stephen closes everything up, he doesn’t have to worry about his gear getting damaged. A Zaxcom Deva is Tibbo’s main recorder and he uses a Sound Devices 788T for back up. The show records at a 48K/24 bit rate. Yamaha’s O1V96 digital mixer is the backbone to Tibbo’s mix. His sound team, Dan Lipe (boom) and Preston Connor (boom) are always equipped with Schoeps CMIT-5Us onto K-Tek boom poles. “While we were shooting the beginning of the series, we realized there wouldn’t be too many close up shots or coverage to get clean audio. We tried using an MKH 50 or 60 but there wasn’t enough reach. So we went for the Schoeps shotgun which has an amazing amount of pull or presence from a distance. It has a perfect and natural sound for us,” says Tibbo. 

Dan Lipe pulled their radio case out, and a slew of Lectrosonics were nestled in foam compartments. They use a combination of UM400s for the boom poles and MMs SMs & SMQs for the actors. Attached to the wireless are Countryman’s B6 lavs, which in Lipe’s opinion, are the best at keeping clothing noise down. Comtek receivers are used for public communication and a Lectrosonics IFB system is used for private communication for the sound crew on set.  During driving scenes, Stephen records with a Deva, a Mix-8 and several Schoeps BML 03s. They usually place one in the front and rear of the vehicle’s ceiling. “The pick up pattern is just perfect so two is all we generally need,” mentions Lipe.

With a regular cast of ten that can be on screen at one time, eleven if you count Baby Lily, Tibbo and his crew have one of the hardest shows on TV to mix. “Being organized and ahead of the game are keys to being successful on this show,” says Tibbo. Everyday, Stephen has a morning routine where he powers on, color codes his sides, pops in the DVDs for the decks and slates everything. “You have to be ready, cause you never know if they’re going to need a quick wild line, promo or interview,” explains Tibbo. He’ll then layout the wireless for the first scene and labels them one by one. 

Gloria (Sofía Vergara) & Jay Pritchett (Ed O’Neill) laugh between takes

Since the cast can grow from ten people in one scene and up, Stephen groups his wires by family, assigning a specific color for each character. “It’s more logical for me this way,” says Tibbo. With such a talented group of actors, Tibbo kept an open dialogue with them from the beginning. The cast is wired all the time and before they go on set, they know to come to Stephen and his crew. “It’s great they’re willing to be wired. There’s nothing worse than shutting down production because you can’t get a line with the boom and need to wire someone,” explains Tibbo. 

When producer Jeff Morton first started developing the look and style of the show with Levitan and Lloyd, they had a very small budget. Determined to keep hours short and setups moving quickly, Modern Family’s main sets are not shot in practical locations. Rather, they are shot in sets designed a little bit bigger, which they treat like practical locations. No wild walls. Cinematographer, James Bagdonas, ASC was brought in to help create this “documentary” styled show where two cameras (Sony F35s) at almost opposing 45 degree angles would capture each family as if we were standing in the room watching their lives. The crew captures most scenes in just one two-camera setup, incorporating wide, medium and close up coverage.  Tibbo says, “You don’t get the opportunity to clean a line up in close ups on this show.” 

Constantly rolling two cameras at the same time made things a bit difficult at first for boom ops Lipe and Connor. Once they would position the length of the boom, they wouldn’t be able to shrink or expand it during a shot. Generally, what happens is they work in zones. One would take the short stuff, the other the deep stuff or they’ll work side to side in a set depending on how the actors play the scenes. “The only reason why working on this show is so perfect is because it’s a team effort. We move fast and it creates a lot of pressure. The key ingredients are having so much cooperation from our DP, camera operators, set lighting, grips and art department. They’re helping us all the time by putting up flags and doing other stuff,” says Tibbo. 

Preston, Stephen & Dan on set during rehearsal

Stephen mentions the relationship with post sound is no different. While working on Life, Victor Iorillo, the sound supervisor at the time, came up to Stephen and told him if he ever had trouble with a scene to give him a heads up. This ended up working beautifully so Stephen carried it over to Modern Family with supervising sound editor Lisa Varetakis and rerecording mixer Dean Okrand. Post sound only gets about a week to do everything for the episode, and Dean gets one day to re-record the episode. Since the show rarely loops lines, Stephen gives them a heads up which allows the team to mark it early and work on it a little longer. “Any input you can give them to speed up the process is really appreciated,” mentions Tibbo. Besides his mix track, Stephen provides additional ISOs that post can pull from. 

You can tell there is a lot of fun on this set… a lot of hilarious moments. But you also notice everyone is working very hard. The dialogue is constantly changing. There are so many overhanging beams that break up rooms, not to mention, the countless scenes or props that require special attention from the sound department. For instance, they shot an episode during season one in a working airport terminal. Another episode was shot during a Lakers game which became a frequency nightmare for Stephen, but he was able to work everything out. More recently, Luke Dunphy (Noland Gould) had to wear a helmet for an episode, and working with the producers, they were able to come up with a bubble helmet that was both sound friendly and funny. The art department even constructed an extra ceiling piece that was open to boom through the playhouse behind Cam and Mitchell’s home for the sound department. Everyone seems to be working as one on set. 

When I asked Stephen how he became a mixer, he recalled in college Pat Toma asked him to boom a short film she was mixing. Steve enjoyed booming, but realized he wanted to get his hands on the Nagra and record for himself.  When recording a few shorts and a feature while still in school, Stephen knew he wanted to mix movies for a living. After he graduated, Stephen bought $30,000 worth of sound equipment on credit cards and said to himself that he better sink or swim. It looks like he’s swimming just fine now.

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