Director/writer Ava DuVernay’s award-winning documentary 13th on Netflix explores a subject that’s currently at the forefront of our nation’s social conscience: racial inequality. Using archival footage, snippets of films, news clips, and expert interviews, the timeline of DuVernay’s film spans from the Civil War to the present day. Supervising sound editor Tim Boggs and re-recording mixer Jeffrey Perkins at Warner Bros. Sound in Burbank, CA talk about bringing all those disparate audio sources together to create a cohesive soundtrack. Their sound work has been nominated for two Emmys: Boggs in the category for Outstanding Sound Editing for a Nonfiction Program, and Perkins for Outstanding Sound Mixing for a Nonfiction Program.
S&P: How did you get involved with 13th?
Jeffrey Perkins (JP): I was assigned to a project called Queen Sugar for OWN Network, which was created for television by Ava DuVernay. About halfway through that project, the documentary 13th was brought up. Ava asked me to mix that for her, and that’s how I got involved.
Tim Boggs (TB): We are currently working on Queen Sugar, and we were working on it around this time last year. It was then that we got asked to do the sound for 13th. We were working by day on Queen Sugar until about 6 pm and then we’d turn around and start working on 13th. Ava was doing pre-production on A Wrinkle in Time over at Disney. So she’d finish up there and then come over to the mix stage here and have dinner and just work into the wee hours, like 3 am. Then we’d all go home and get a little sleep and come back and do the same thing over again. We did that for a week or so.
It was pretty grueling but with the opportunity to work on 13th, with its powerful message, we were all 100% behind it and wanted to do whatever we could to help Ava. We felt we were working on something special and it wasn’t about winning awards. We weren’t concerned about that. We just knew this film had something powerful to say that needed to get out into the world.
Any of the sound acclaim on this film comes from the work of Jeffrey Perkins. We did our part but Jeffrey is the master.
A lot of material covered in this film wasn’t necessarily new material. I’ve read or heard things about the old Jim Crow laws, the unfair incarceration of African American men compared to white men, and the for-profit prison system, etc… but this is the first time that all of that information was put together and you saw the timeline of things and how all the dots connected. For me, I felt like, “Oh my gosh. How could I have not seen this?” It made me angry. It made me want to throw things at the screen. And it gave us all such conviction to do our best and to work hard to do this film right, to do right by it.
S&P: What was DuVernay’s direction for the mix?
JP: When I first saw the cut, Christie Hooks, one of the producers on the film, showed me the cut and we all thought that we’d be on the project for about two days. That proved to be wrong. We ended up working on it much longer. The first pass we made on the mix was for Ava. She looked at it and was worried that her audience — after dinner at the Lincoln Center, would nod off. She felt that the picture did not drive enough and that was because the music needed to churn and pound more.
On our second pass, the composer Jason Moran broke out all of the 5.1 elements into stereo pairs so that we had more control over it and so that certain elements could be pushed forward and other elements could be held back so it didn’t conflict with dialogue. The film now moved along and pounded.
So we screened it for her again and she decided that the film needed sound effects because, on our first and second pass, there were no sound effects elements. Sound effects editor Alex Lee took a pass at it and he sweetened certain sequences and we mixed that. We were probably on the stage for a total of eight days which was much longer than we originally thought we’d be.
S&P: The dialogue and music are definitely the prominent features of the soundtrack. When it came to balancing the two, how did you approach that? Did you smooth out the dialogue first and then bring in the music? Or were you working with both simultaneously?
JP: I had to work with the dialogue first. As with many documentaries, there are so many different sources for the audio and they all had to be balanced first. There were a lot of interviews with different authorities but then there was a lot of stock footage that had to be integrated as well. Some of the problems we had with that were the elements within the clip that we couldn’t use, that weren’t cleared musically. I had to either filter it out or use spectral analysis, like iZotope’s RX, to try and obfuscate that element so that the clip overall could be used.
For example, there was an interview with Walter Cronkite that had some drums in the background that were not cleared musically. In one of our successive passes, I remember Spencer Averick (producer/picture editor) asking me if I could get rid of the drums. Fortunately, we were able to do that with filtration and the iZotope RX.
S&P: Tim, you seem like the perfect candidate to work on this film because it’s very dialogue driven and every word carries so much weight. You have such a strong background in dialogue editing and ADR. Your experience seems like a great fit for this.
TB: This is my first documentary. And while it’s definitely dialogue driven, I feel it’s the music more than the FX that helps enhance the dialogue, building tension and adding weight and emotion. The underlying tone is supported by the music. The music editors Julie Pearce and Lise Richardson did an amazing job of putting everything together. They had worked on it longer than we had.
On the sound effects side, there was great work from my effects editor Alex Lee. I may have been the sound supervisor on the film but my crew were really the ones who pulled the weight. I felt like I was there to be the cheerleader, to give them guidance, and in those late hours to make coffee.
I was always watching for places to improve the sound, to see where I could go in and improve the dialogue. This wasn’t like a normal TV show or movie where you have additional takes that you can go to for a clearer line or word. There were no other takes. The interviews were just the interviews. So if there was a line or word that was crunchy or whatever, we’d have to fix it. We’d have to figure out ways to mask it or to clean it up, and that’s where Jeffrey’s brilliance comes in. He used tools on the stage to clean up all the dialogue. My job was when there was a line or word that he couldn’t clean, I would go back and look for a word or part of a word that was a similar sound to Band-Aid the line. The dialogue still had to make sense but we had to get it cleaner. You go into your bag of tricks and pull everything out that you can to make things work.
S&P: So Jeffrey handled all of the dialogue clean-up on the stage? There were some sections of archival footage from the 70s, with Assata Shakur’s on-camera interview, and the Angela Davis street scene following that. All of that cleaning was handled by Jeffrey?
TB: Yes, and here’s why. When we first got the film, it was just to be a quick mix. We weren’t contracted to do the full on sound work. There wasn’t anything in the budget for a dialogue editor. The film originally came to Jeffrey.
I wanted to put him down as dialogue editor because he basically spent a weekend cleaning up the tracks. Then once we started getting into the mix, that was when it became evident that they needed more and they wanted more. They wanted to bring on the entire crew and to start going through the film and having us do what we do, sweetening with effects and so forth.
So more than me, Jeffrey did a lot of work with the dialogue.
S&P: Jeffrey, what processing did you use on the stage to help out the dialogue?
JP: Once the dialogue reached the stage, I did a lot of declicking, noise reduction, getting rid of thumps and bumps. I think that dialogue needs to be king. It needs to be the most prominent. If you lose the dialogue, then you’ve lost your audience. If there’s a line of dialogue and the audience doesn’t hear it, then they’re going to be taken out of the moment and they’ll be wondering what they missed. For myself, if I miss a line of dialogue I can be pulled out of the film for a few minutes. That ruins the experience and so my main purpose in mixing the film was to make sure that the audience understood every word.
On this film, I learned a lot that I didn’t know before. It was quite shocking. After talking to people who had seen the film, they concurred that they didn’t know a lot of the things that were going on in the prison system. It was an eye-opening, shocking, sad experience. Interestingly enough, I think the particular storyline of the prison system being a money maker was used in an episode of Queen Sugar. A reporter was meeting with another character and they were talking about the financial aspect of how the prison system is making money on the inmates.
S&P: What was the most challenging scene to mix on 13th?
JP: We have people who are not actors — they are teachers, philosophers, politicians, etc. They are professionals in their fields but they’re not actors. They were brought in to do loops, and that was the hardest thing, to try and get match their camera track that was recorded on location with what they recorded in the studio. They were brought in to record lines to clarify their statements. So matching the two was tough. They are not used to this process of trying to match back into the moment, to match their original performance. So that was the hardest part.
During the interviews, the interviewee would say something that wasn’t quite right and so they would want to come back and fix it so that everything was correct. They would have to replace a word or phrase to make something accurate or clearer. I don’t think I’ve ever worked on a documentary where they’ve done that before. That was challenging because they are not used to the process.
S&P: I’m surprised there was additional dialogue recorded for the documentary…
TB: Producer Howard Barish organized all of that, and producer/picture editor Spencer Averick cut some of that. Then I did some last-minute work with those recordings.
That additional dialogue almost acts as narration but there is no true narration in the documentary. So we had to edit in the lines in a way that made it feel like it was part of the interview but really it was exposition. It was used to link things together.
We had to weave those clean recordings in with the production recordings. I’ve worked with Jeffrey for years and I always tell him to dirty up my ADR, because if the line is too clean it pops out. I always try to mic things as close as possible to how it was done in production. You don’t want the ADR too pristine. You want it to match the lines around it so you have to dirty it up a little bit. Jeffrey does a really good job of matching and cleaning. He is a wizard. I try to thank him after every mix for improving my work.
S&P: What opportunities did you have for creative sound design or sound editing?
TB: Every time the ticker rolls we have sound for that. In the archival footage you might hear voices or footsteps or a door slamming. The effects are very subtle because we didn’t want to put anything in your face. Everything was used to just enhance the story. Also, there are sounds in the music that you don’t want to compete with. So it was about finding that balance of music and effects. Do the effects work here or are they distracting? The question was where can we use sound effectively?
The effects are running throughout, but the music usually carries the scene. The music does an excellent job of carrying the emotion.
S&P: In terms of sound editorial, what are you most proud of on 13th? What would you like audiences to tune into on the soundtrack?
TB: I really just want viewers to start from the beginning and stay with it all the way through. We had to pick scenes that we thought were the best part of the sound in the film to present it for the Emmy nomination. I remember when it came time to do that, I watched the film again but there were no weak spots. There was no place that I am more or less proud of. The film is so strong that I hope that whoever is going to watch it and judge it, that they start from the beginning and watch the first 40 minutes or hour of it that they can, and then go home and finish the film. It’s so compelling. This is possibly the greatest thing that I have ever worked on and I’ve done sound for The Sopranos and Breaking Bad and a number of other shows. But for me, this has the most power. This has a chance to do some real good in the world. It’s not just to entertain. It really is to make a change and the only way that’s going to happen is by people seeing it and feeling it and understanding the history behind all of this. Then, using their voices to speak up and make change.
S&P: In terms of the mix, what are you most proud of on 13th?
JP: I’m just so proud to be associated with the film at all. I think it is an important message that needs to be put out there. I think that everybody should see this film. I think it should be played in schools and colleges. Working on it myself I have learned a great deal about the prison system and politics. To be part of this film was such an honor. Working with Ava, who is such a smart filmmaker, was incredible. She is articulate and she knows what she wants. I think that she does films that are important, about things that people need to hear.
Images courtesy of Netflix