Awards and nominations have continuously rolled in for FX Networks’ series Fargo, and not just for the acting and writing. All three seasons have ‘below-the-line’ talent being recognized, from makeup and hairstyling to picture editing and music composition. The sound mixing team has been in the running for Emmy and CAS (Cinema Audio Society) awards for every season of the show. Last year, they won the CAS award and this year they have another shot to take it home, this time for Season 3, Episode 4 “The Narrow Escape Problem.”
Production sound mixer Michael Playfair has been a key member of that mixing team since the beginning. Through snow and wind and thick layers of clothes, the dialogue always comes through. He and his production sound team have expertly captured the cast’s performances, no matter how harsh the conditions or challenging the locations. Here, Playfair shares his thoughts on why the sound of the show has been so successful and talks about the solutions to challenges they’ve encountered to achieve continued success.
S&P: You’ve earned three Emmy nominations, two CAS nominations, and one CAS Award for the sound mixing on Fargo. In your opinion, what are some factors that contribute to the success of the sound on the show?
Michael Playfair (MP): There are numerous factors. One thing is that the show is blessed with wonderful writing. The dialogue is great and the cast was just wonderful. All of the cast projected really well and made their dialogue really clear. There were no surprises. They followed the script to the letter. That’s the way it goes with Noah Hawley’s projects. The actors don’t mess with it. They decide their character and they do their delivery and we know what we’re going to get. It was great to have had these actors and to work with the delivery that they give us. So, that was a big factor.
Also, the DPs were very favorable to us. We worked well with all the DPs. Dana Gonzales for one, he always has us in mind and knows what we need. We talk about things. We make sure that we get it and if we don’t get it, we ask for another shot. There were multiple cameras, so if we were doing a close-up at the same time as we’re getting something wider, and we’re not quite getting it on the boom, then we will talk about that and we will try to do a take where we do get the boom in. That just puts my mind at ease.
For exteriors, especially snowy exteriors, I like recording in them just because the snow makes a big difference in how quiet things are. We can really get wonderful dialogue in snowy scenes, provided that the wind is not blowing like crazy, which it sometimes does here.
S&P: What about the actors’ coats and layers? Did those make it difficult to get a good lavalier mic sound?
MP: I’m blessed with a very good sound utility person. Her name is Val Siu. She knows how to deal with radio mics in every condition. I never have to worry about her. She wires the actors and we talk about mic placement but she generally knows where the microphone has to go and where to mount it so that it’s going to be quiet. She knows how to put it on so that the wind won’t get to it.
The other great thing that Val does is that she puts the cast at ease in almost every case. She goes in and she makes them feel comfortable. She puts the wire on and if it is not good she has no problem running in at the beginning of a take or at the end of a take to fix whatever it is that we need to fix so that we get good, clean body mic tracks.
That’s my big backup — we wire every actor for every line of dialogue. That is just something that I do for a series like this because we often have multiple cameras and we’re not sure what we’re going to get with the boom mic. We can’t be guaranteed that we can get the boom near everything. So we have the wires there as a backup in case we can’t get the boom near the actors.
Also, we talk to the costume people and we work closely with them. That’s another thing that Val does; she’s the liaison with the on-set costume people and they work it out. They get the mic and the transmitter where they need to be. That’s a huge part of my day that’s taken care of.
Apart from that, we get the boom mic on everything no matter what the situation. I always try to get a boom mic on the set somewhere just so I have the sound of the environment, the sound of the space the cast is in — whether that’s a room or an exterior. I always get a boom somewhere in there so that I can blend the microphones and come up with a sound that is realistic. My goal is to get a realistic sounding track so that the environments play a role. One of my pet peeves is having a radio mic only sound, which you will find on a lot of TV shows. That’s not one of my favorites. I like to have a more feature film sound.
S&P: What boom mics and lav mics do you like to use? Also, what’s on your sound cart?
MP: For boom mic for interiors I use the Sennheiser MKH 50. I’ve had a lot of success with that mic. I will occasionally use it for exterior shots depending on where we are. If we are on a porch or in an enclosure, that mic performs very well and it matches up well with the body mics.
For body mics, I use the Sanken COS-11d paired with Lectrosonics transmitters and receivers.
For a boom mic on exteriors, I started using a Sanken CS-3e for the last year or so. On Fargo, I’ve been using that quite a bit for almost all of the exterior scenes. I even used it on the interiors occasionally, just for the extra reach that it has.
As for the sound cart on Fargo, I have a cart that I designed and built myself. It’s basically a small cart with big wheels that I can move around quickly and get it into small spaces. And I can get it into a small van that I use quite frequently because it’s convenient for me. For shooting in a parking garage or somewhere similar, I want to be able to drive right in and have all of my tools handy. I have all of my recording gear, my transmitters for production sound distribution to the set (about three of those on the cart), the receivers for the radio mics, chargers, and everything else I need on this one little cart. It’s all very compact and that is how I work generally.
I use an Aaton Cantar X1 multitrack recorder. I have two of those. I started using Cantar over 10 years ago, in 2006. It’s really my mainstay. I love that thing. I’ve never had a failure that wasn’t operator induced. I use the control surface that comes with it, the fader-module Cantarem, and that thing is just as smooth as silk. The Cantarem and the Cantar recorder are made to go together. I can use all the functions of the Cantar through that control surface. For me, it’s a marvelous machine. I did buy the Cantar X3, but I haven’t used it on a show yet. I’m looking forward to that but I’m going to have to learn how to use it first.
I also have a second Cantar X1 that I keep handy for car rigs and remote rigs. If I need to grab an over-the-shoulder rig and run out to record something quickly or if we’re shooting in someplace that’s really confined, then I can put that together really quickly in a bag and away I go.
S&P: What’s one piece of gear that you just couldn’t live without on Fargo?
MP: Apart from my Cantar, there’s another piece of gear that is really important that I never used to think about so much. That is a really good set of video monitors. Especially on Fargo, I really need to see what is going on. I asked the production team for the same monitor setup as the focus-pullers and the producers. I got the digital receivers and hooked them onto my monitors so that I can see exactly what the focus-pullers are seeing so I know exactly where the frame lines are and when people are coming and going out of frame so I can mix accordingly. I normally use multiple microphones – we always have a body mic on all of the actors, and I have a boom op and plant mics. I’m very comfortable with having three or six mics at my disposal. I like that so that I can have every option that I can cover. Also, I usually have a mic somewhere that is recording ambience as well.
MP: One challenge was that Ewan McGregor played two characters this season: Emmit and Ray Stussy. One thing we were concerned about was when the two characters had to play in the same frame.
That challenge actually got solved for us. We would’ve had to have Ewan wear an earwig so he could hear his lines playback from the other side. That was going to be a huge ball of wax. But as it turned out the visual effects people had that all handled with one of their machines, which I can’t remember what it was.
So we were concerned with that situation and similarly with the phone calls. Whenever we had to playback dialogue and match it up to an on-screen actor playing against it, that was a challenge. That happened quite a few times in this season.
The other challenge I have mentioned was having two cameras.
Some of the car scenes were tricky, particularly Ray’s Corvette. That was quite a noisy car and I was really concerned that we were going to have trouble getting usable dialogue in that thing. But somehow, we pulled it out. I think the re-recording mixers used a lot of our dialogue for those scenes.
The tractor-trailer interior was also tricky.
Generally, though, the season went fairly well for us. I have my wiring genius, Val, so she saved my butt a lot of times. I also have a very good boom operator, David Brown, who is very good at getting the microphone where it needs to be.
MP: I would say Emmit Stussy’s office, in the Stussy Lots building. We were in that set throughout the season and it was such a pain. The tower that we were in had air conditioning throughout the building that could not be shut off because there were other floors that were occupied. So we always had this very loud air conditioning sound and there was so much dialogue in that office. That was a really difficult place to shoot.
We had the locations department open up the walls where the noise was coming from and put stuffing in there. At one point, I stuffed my jacket into a vent just to try and knock down the ambient sound a little bit. We really had to be good with our wires in that location. Also, we had to make sure that our plant mics weren’t picking up too much of the air conditioning sound. So that was a difficult space to record in for sure and the location that I liked the least.
S&P: Looking at Season 3, Episode 4 —for which you’ve earned your most recent CAS nomination, what was a tricky scene for you on that one?
MP: The scene in Emmit Stussy’s mansion when Varga [David Thewlis] is there having dinner and then they go upstairs into the den and have this discussion about money. That was a long stretch of dialogue in there, and they were walking around and talking in the foreground and background. There was barely any room for the boom operator and barely enough space to get a boom out over. In the end, that scene turned out quite well, I thought. The room sounded good and we didn’t necessarily have to have the boom right over the actors. So we did well with that even though it was a bit of a nail-biter.
MP: There was a scene in the parole office when Ray Stussy decides he’s going to quit. He’s there with the other two parole officers. I’m really happy with how that scene turned out as well.
There are so many great scenes in this episode, just so much going on, and that was kind of exciting.
Images courtesy of FX Networks