Emmys: ‘Game of Thrones’ Re-recording Mixers Onnalee Blank & Mathew Waters on the Epic “Battle of the Bastards”

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got_online_header“Battle of the Bastards” (Season 6, Episode 9) was without a doubt the most anticipated and satisfying battle-focused installment of HBO’s Game of Thrones to date. The episode delivers a vengeful Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) in full command of her three dragons, which she unleashes upon the Masters in Meereen’s harbor. The episode also serves up justice at Winterfell, as Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) reclaims his family seat of the North by defeating Ramsay Bolton’s forces. Ramsay (Iwan Rheon), run down inside Winterfell’s walls, finally gets his comeuppance — retribution à la face tartare, presented by Sansa (Sophie Turner) and courtesy of Ramsay’s ravenous canine companions.

Re-recording mixers Onnalee Blank, CAS (dialogue and music) and Mathew Waters, CAS (sound effects, backgrounds and Foley) have shaped the soundtrack of Game of Thrones since Season 2. So far their skillful mixes on the series have won two Emmys and landed three more Emmy nominations, including this year’s nod for “Battle of the Bastards,” which they mixed in 7.1 at Formosa Group in West Hollywood. Here they share the details of how they crafted both the epic and intimate battles that are waged in this episode.

S&P: Episode 9 really plays with visual perspective. Starting out in Meereen, the viewer follows a fireball from the catapult on the ship to its explosion on the city wall. Next, the viewer sees the battle from inside the pyramid. How were you able to play with perspective from a mixing standpoint?

Mathew Waters: We have a great sound editorial team with Tim Kimmel and his crew. With that editorial team behind us, giving us great material, and then with Onnalee [Blank] cleaning up the dialogue so much, I can play sounds in perspective. On some shows you can’t because the dialogue is so noisy. You don’t have that much choice with the effects.

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S&P: When we’re inside the pyramid, the explosions start off loud and jarring. But as you get drawn into the conversation between Daenerys and Tyrion, the explosions seem more muted until the final explosion that causes the window to explode. Can you tell us about your mix on that scene?

MW: That was cool because we had to keep the battle alive outside, but it calms down as their conversation gets interesting. Another factor was we needed some room for that big explosion at the end to hit hard and surprise the audience.

Onnalee Blank: We did that on purpose so the audience would be shocked.

S&P: During the battle of Jon vs. Ramsey, after Rickon’s death, we see Jon’s men charge into battle. There’s initially music there, but then when we’re with Jon, we only hear sound effects. Why?

OB:  That shot was a oner, a single shot, and it’s a fantastic sequence. We wanted it to be as real, creepy, eerie, and disgusting as possible to show the contrast between the people standing on the sidelines and Jon in the middle of the battle.

S&P: Another prevalent sound in the battle was Jon’s breathing effects. Were those ADR or production?

OB: It’s a mixture of production and ADR. There is one sequence that was really cutty, so Matt and I cut all the breaths in a certain way to make it sound like Jon was stabbing and killing five more guys than he actually was.

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S&P: Throughout the battle we go back and forth from sound effects–only to music, or music with effects. How did you decide which elements to play in which moments?

OB: It was a lot of trial and error. Matt and I experimented the whole time, like, “Let’s try this,” or, “How about this way?” or, “Maybe we should bring that element in later.” It was a trial by doing.

MW: Onna and I have done enough of these battle sequences to know that we don’t want it to sound loud the whole time, with everything playing the whole time. We go through it and try things out. Like Onna said, we added all those breaths on Jon so it seems like he was really fighting a lot of people. Initially, when we watched it back we felt that one section wasn’t playing as well as it could, especially because the picture editor [Tim Porter] seemed to be telling a story by doing a lot of cutting. So we felt we should enhance that as well with sound. That’s how we made that moment. We don’t do just one pass and then we’re done. We don’t start off with an expectation to do it one way and that’s the way we do it. We try an idea out and then sit back and look at it. Then we critique ourselves.

OB: I don’t feel like we ever finished this episode. Every time we watched it we felt like we could’ve tried something else.

MW: Yeah, they tore it from our hands, basically [laughs]. But it is important to get to a spot in your career where you can critique yourself and know when a scene is working or not. So then we’re able to try something else.

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S&P: The mix phase is a process of elimination. Were there any scenes in this episode that you felt benefited from taking sounds out?

OB: The battle sequence for sure. We took music out of certain scenes and moved it later in the sequence. We did a lot with music. We really wanted to hit the cuts and enhance certain things. There is one scene that was challenging for Matt and me to work on, and that was the part where Jon is being suffocated by all of the soldiers. He is being stepped on; he can barely breathe. Then he climbs his way to the surface. It was a mob of guys crushed together. That was a challenging scene because we had to tell exactly what was going on using sound, because the picture didn’t fully portray it. It was really hard to understand what was going on just by watching the picture. I think Matt and I spent most of our time mixing that one particular scene. We had to figure out how to play it, like, what does suffocation sound like? Is it dull? Is it gritty? Should there be music?

MW: We tried adding more effects in there. Also, there was this great music thread that we tried making louder, and then lower. Then Onna found a great section of the music that just tugs at your heartstrings. On the effects side, it came down to just getting out of the way of the music. I think what most mixers do, and what we always try to do, is to find the best way to tell the story. When we cut to Jon and he’s being run down by all of those horses in the beginning of the battle, it was important to understand how chaotic that is. But when he is being suffocated, and Onna brought in that violin, then that was awesome. I pulled the effects out. I didn’t want to get in the way. You don’t approach it like, “Oh, I have to hear the music,” or “I have to hear the effects.” You approach it from the standpoint of what works best for the scene. You have to be open to what is working, what works for you as a mixer. It’s all feeling.

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S&P: There was some EQ happening on the effects there. Can you tell me about your processing on it?

MW: With the help of Tim [Kimmel], our sound supervisor, we just kept asking for more sounds there. When Jon is inside the mass of guys getting suffocated, we needed to add gobs more people, just stepping on him, and pounding him, and crushing him. We started hot and then came down low. When Jon comes up and he’s no longer being crushed under everyone, then we bring it back up to let the audience know that he’s out of that hole. That was Onna doing that.

S&P: Did you use the console EQ?

OB: On Jon’s voice there I used the FabFilter Pro-Q and a Pultec EQ.

MW: There I used the System 5 plug-in from Pro Tools for EQ. One thing I don’t do with EQ is use a low-pass filter and roll everything off the top to dull the sound. I will notch out specific frequencies but still keep some of them up top. I found that rolling everything off with a low-pass filter takes the character out of the sound. I like to notch out some of the upper-mids, and really sit on them. That way I will still know what it is I am hearing but it is dulled.

S&P: Did you have a favorite scene to mix?

MW: The battle with Jon and Ramsey is amazing because it is filled with different scenes. For example, when we are standing with Jon and the horses are coming, everything is so quiet. We could’ve played that so many different ways. We could’ve had just the pounding of the horses coming at him. But again, remaining with music was fantastic because that allows us to get loud right on the cut to Jon.

OB: We just played the horses breathing in opposite sync with the music so that it almost sounds like music, but it is actually design.

MW: It blends so well right there. One thing we always try to do is be cohesive, and not hear things separately — not hear only the dialogue, or just hear the effects, and not hear the music. We try as best we can to make it all seem like one continuous piece.

OB: It’s nice when you don’t consciously hear one thing come in. We like being graceful. One cool part in the dragon sequence in the beginning of the episode was there was wall-to-wall music. There was a part when the dragons fly over and the Sons of the Harpy are killing people in the street. The music was just blasting. Then one of the Sons of the Harpy turns around. And I asked, “What makes him turn around?” So Tim [Kimmel] found me a whole bunch of elements from Season 2 and Season 3. From that, we cut together this chant and that is what makes the one Son of the Harpy turn around. We dropped the music there because it makes it more eerie when you can hear a whole bunch more people coming. That was really fun and challenging to mix, just that little 20-second segment. It’s fun because you’ll have one 20-second segment that is really hard, and then you finally get it right and you move on to the next 20-second segment.

MW: Every scene is its own little story that we need to tell. Just as the picture editors do and the directors and the writers do, sound people are no different. We’re trying to help tell each and every story. What’s good about that scene too, is when the music does come in it is very heroic. It’s like, “O.K., let’s kick some booty!” Whereas when the music ran through the whole scene, you didn’t get that energy.

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S&P: Let’s talk about that end scene, with Sansa, Ramsay, and the dogs. Any details you can share about the mix there?

MW: Onna really had to clean up the dialogue. That dialogue was ferociously tough.

OB: You can hear car-bys going through the dialogue, and they are whispering.

MW: When Onna first started that scene I thought, “Oh man, what are we going to do?” But when she got done it sounded awesome. You really want that scene to be so intimate and Onna nailed it.

S&P: How did you clean it up?

OB: I used the Avid Q10 EQ because it is good for notching. I just went frame by frame and notched things out. That scene is great. The dogs sound so good.

MW: We liked the good skull crush when he got eaten. But again the real key for that scene was Onna cleaning it up and making it feel intimate. Sansa’s performance and Ramsay’s performance were so fantastic there. The audience is just waiting for the moment to come, and so you want to stay with them and just get everything else out of the way. For example, there were torches in that scene and I just dumped them. I didn’t want them to be anywhere near the dialogue.

OB: When I first heard the dialogue, I told Matt that maybe we could use those torches.

MW: That’s funny, because when Onna was working with the dialogue I told her that if she needed something back in the mix to let me know, but I was headed toward just getting out of the way of the dialogue. She was able to really get the dialogue clean and we didn’t end up needing to put anything back in.

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S&P: It seems like you two make a really strong mix team. How long have you been working together?

MW: About six years, I think. It’s fun mixing where you can talk with one another and build the track together.

OB: It’s fun to bounce ideas off of other people, and to be free with your creative ideas.

MW: Onna and I try to make a conscious effort to be open to everyone’s creative ideas because sometimes great ideas can blossom that way.

-S&P-

Photos courtesy of HBO

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