Emmy-Nominated ‘Waco’ Sound Editing Team Bring a Sense of Realism to an Intense Fact-Based Drama


The Waco series on the Paramount Network tells the story of the 1993 raid on David Koresh’s religious compound in Waco, Texas. But the series creators — brothers Drew and John Dowdle, approach the subject with a sense of humanity towards the members of the religious community. They are able to tell the tale from both sides, as the series is a fact-based drama which draws on the real-life personal accounts of both an FBI negotiator outside the compound and a Branch Davidian member who was inside.

While it’s not a documentary, there is a sense of realism that permeates the production, from the purpose-built set that recreates Koresh’s Mount Carmel compound to how the post sound team orchestrates the notorious ATF raid that ultimately started the collapse of the Branch Davidian community. Here, supervising sound editors Kelly Oxford and Karen Triest, working from the Technicolor at Paramount facility talk about their approach to Waco Ep. 3 “Operation Showtime,” for which they’ve earned an Emmy nomination for ‘Outstanding Sound Editing for a Limited Series.’

S&P: What were the showrunners’ goals for sound? How were you able to help them tell this story through sound?

Supervising Sound Editor Kelly Oxford

Kelly Oxford (KO): Karen [Triest] and I have done multiple films with the Waco series creators Drew Dowdle and John Erick Dowdle.

Karen and I are there to support the action and the actors, and we try to bring the best sound that sounds real — nothing too Hollywood. The actors made it easy for us on this one. We had done this other project with Drew and John [Dowdle] called As Above, So Below and there was one 20-minute reel that was all set and it was dying by itself. Karen did amazing design and we played the temp for John and Drew and they said, “Oh my god, you saved the film for us.” We had to step up for that one, but Waco was different. In a way, it was harder because, to begin with, this was a great project and the sound work we added had to be real and authentic. They had two real-life participants from Waco helping them during the shoot — FBI Chief Negotiator at Waco Gary Noesner (portrayed by Michael Shannon in the series) and David Thibodeau, a Branch Davidian who was only 1 of 9 survivors from Waco. (The Waco series is actually based on both of their books.) They both came to the mix one day and they came to ADR. We were able to play our work for them, to make sure that what we were doing sounded authentic.

Supervising Sound Editor Karen Triest

Karen Triest (KT): Often, making things sound real is a lot more challenging than creating a bigger than life soundscape. The whole project is done from a very human aspect and we approached our sound to accent what the characters on both sides were experiencing. Ep. 3, “Operation Showtime,” offered great opportunity for sound effects and dialogue because they didn’t have any music playing during the siege and during some of the more desolate scenes (although the music definitely played a strong role as the aftermath unfolded and it was well-placed throughout the series).  With no score, the sound had to feel like you were being assaulted as a person and intimate to what was featured on the screen.

Another thing that helped create a realistic soundscape was the dialogue and ADR. Throughout, it was well-performed and recorded. Kelly [Oxford] and the dialogue mixers Craig Mann and Marc Fishman did an amazing job of cleaning and clarifying where there was a problem (such as wind on the set), preserving the original performances. When the details of the effects and ambiences were added in, they were able to complement the soundtrack.

KO:  A lot of research went into the sound. During the spotting session, we talked about how the ATF ran out of bullets in that initial siege. They just unloaded on that compound. Inside the compound, they were firing guns that were single shot whereas the ATF were firing multi-shot weapons. The ATF had to retreat because they ran through all their ammo.

S&P: How did you divide up the work on the series?

KO: Karen and I have been together for 10 years. I focus on dialogue, ADR, and then supervise the Foley. Karen does the heavy lifting for the design and effects. But we know each other so well that I can jump in and cut some stuff for her. But the creativity and design is mainly Karen and I handled the dialogue side.

KT: We definitely play off each other and we collaborate on what is the best thing to feature in each instance.

S&P: Ep. 3, “Operation Showtime,” opens up with the helicopter fly-in over the Waco compound. You can always hear the helicopter, and it’s played from different POVs. Can you talk about your approach to editing the helicopter sounds?

KT: The great thing about that whole sequence is that the Dowdle brothers wanted to keep it intimate to what the characters were experiencing. They wanted it as realistic as possible and they didn’t have driving music like you typically would for a gunfight. By not having music in that sequence, we were able to use the helicopter as our drumbeat as it was present during the entire siege.  The Blackhawk helicopter’s wide, four-blade rotor produces a heavy sound that can make your heart feel as if it is palpitating when you’re close and I chose the turbo whine high-pitched elements to add to the tension.  Both those sounds can cause people to feel unease very effectively.

KO: It was John and Drew’s intent to humanize the people in the compound and show what they went through.

KT: So many of the sound choices throughout the series, including the helicopters, was to make the audience feel like they are in that place in that moment and there’s this crazy situation happening. We really tried to capture the feeling of unease and tension. Our goal was to make you feel like you couldn’t breathe, that you had to hold your breath just to get through it.

KO: Karen and I went down to the cutting room to see the whole show, to understand the arc of what we were dealing with in Episodes 5 and 6, and then try to use that in the earlier episodes to create an arc that pays off in the end.

S&P: How did you want the audience to feel during the shootout, and how did you achieve that through sound?

KT: We wanted it to feel as authentic to the scenario as possible and used our own personal experiences of shooting guns to help guide the choices on the recordings. The Dowdle brothers provided a list of the actual weapons used during the conflict, what guns were modified, what they were capable of doing, and each side’s shooting approach (the ATF and FBI fired heavily and in bursts while the people inside the compound were doing single shots and were very focused). We had a vast amount of gun recordings that were specifically for those guns, and the recordings were from different perspectives. We kept the gunfire trained on exactly what was happening in the scene so that it didn’t turn into a Hollywood action film. We didn’t ever want it to be that way and neither did the showrunners. It was supposed to be intimate and related to the people in the scene. It was effective because it wasn’t about the gunfire; it was more about the debris flying around from the bullets.

It was challenging throughout that entire eight minutes to get the guns right as there were many different POVs and the ATF weren’t that far away from the compound.   Once we did it right, we knew it. We’d take out some element that made it sound cool instead of realistic and then all of a sudden it felt right and intimate to the experience of the character on screen.

KO: We tried not to have too much sound coming from outside of what was happening to the character on screen. We wanted to stay focused on what was happening with whoever was on camera.

KT: This episode took the most time out of all of them and that eight-minute shootout took an incredible amount of time because of the precision. Often, instead of letting a sound ring out, I’d do a hard edit so that the next sound could pierce through. Having it be precisely edited made it more effective and intimate. We tried to make all the sound have a different coloring and be placed to specifically match what was going on. There were very little trail-offs of the sounds. It was very precisely edited to match the location in the scene and the guns being used.

KO: We had a rough cut of that shootout for months. Karen and I would run the whole series, all the episodes, to see how that sequence worked with everything.

KT: Both of us read the books that the series was based on, the FBI side and the survivor side. Reading their memoirs about the incident really helped us to find what to focus on. It’s a human-driven series and we wanted to make sure that it felt as dangerous as possible to what was going on with the people, without it being overkill.

On my first pass of the scene, I made the guns sound big and ominous and scary, and that actually took away from the effectiveness. I found myself swapping out those big effects for tighter sounds. If you are at the trigger point of a gun, you don’t hear this huge report. It’s a big sound but it’s not the same as it would sound if you were 30 or 40 feet away. So the biggest challenge was finding recordings that were intimate and fit what was going on. Once we found those or created those, the sequence came together really nicely. The re-recording mixers Laura Wiest and Beau Borders made the gunfire even more appropriate for the space and focused on what is on screen.

S&P: There were great wood splintering, glass breaking, and impact sounds. Was Foley a big part of this design? Or, did you capture any custom recordings for the destruction sounds?

KO: Foley did do quite a bit of work and we also had tons of great recordings of bullets ripping through different materials that we could lean on too. Foley definitely accented a lot of that stuff.

KT: Foley helped a lot with the realistic debris. Mount Carmel was built out of plywood essentially so that has a different quality to it. A lot of the bullet sounds weren’t actually bullets. They were made from different recordings of impacts into various surfaces

KO: At Mount Carmel, all the floors were plywood and the walls had no drywall and no insulation. They had built it themselves.

KT: It was like a very large slapped together shack.

S&P: It sounds like it was very cold…

KT:  That was another challenge on this series. Even though it doesn’t look like winter — there’s no snow on the ground, the nights especially get cold in February and March in this part of Texas. The weather during the night had temperatures below freezing.  In those temperatures and during this season, there aren’t a lot of bugs or birds to fill the track. Fortunately for me (but not necessarily for Kelly on dialogue), I could create a cold and desolate-feeling soundscape using wind, because we see a lot of wind activity and things in motion from the wind. There were flapping tents and laundry that was left on the lines for 51 days. For many shots and scenes, wind was the supplemental story enhancer as the showrunners often chose not to have any score dictating that feeling of isolation.

KO: The FBI tents were real tents on the set. And there was a lot of wind. iZotope’s RX saved us from having to loop a lot of lines. And Drew and John don’t like ADR. We only had about 30 or 40 lines per episode, which is really unusual. You expect music wall-to-wall on these shows — I worked on 12 Monkeys and there was music from the moment it started to the end. On Waco, the sound was carrying big moments. We hoped in some places there’d be music there, but it wasn’t needed.

S&P: Can you talk about how you handled the vocal processing on the show? For example, the processing on the radio DJ’s mic, which changes to ‘through the glass’ processing when he answers the call from Koresh, and then Koresh’s voice is both the phone futz and the ‘through the glass’ processing. What tools did you use to create those different vocal effects?

KO: We played with that a couple of times to find the proper level of futzing. We tried it once without futz and it didn’t work for us. I use Audio Ease’s Speakerphone a lot, and Altiverb. It’s just subtle and made it feel intimate with Koresh.

The DJ’s mic was actually that microphone. We didn’t add any low-end synthesis. That was an amazing scene. They had a shotgun mic in there and the lav mic on him. They also had that DJ mic right there. I had probably four different mics and they all sounded usable, but that DJ mic definitely had a special quality to it that we leaned on. Then, when the shot changes perspective and we see the DJ through the glass, I went to the boom mic so that the sound was thinned out a little.

 Of all the episodes in the Waco series, why did you choose Ep 3. “Operation Showtime” for Emmy consideration for sound editing?

KO: I would say because of the siege. There were lots of special moments in the other episodes, particularly Ep. 6 — you need a box of tissues for that one because it’s so emotional and well-acted and well-done sound-wise. But, I think the whole Waco experience is about the siege and what happens to the people inside during that siege. It’s a big moment and it’s very well-crafted. Sound-wise, I think that’s our shining moment.

KT: Overall, the episode goes through such extremes. The first eight minutes is a showcase on smart choices in sound effects and well-paced dialogue that keeps the audience with the characters. It feels precise and tight, as the showrunners made the choice to not have music during the siege. Then, through the rest of the episode, there are these intimate details, like supporting the desolation and having the Foley complimenting the terrain and poor construction of Mount Carmel. There’s the futzing on the phones. The music was used to support the action as opposed to leading the way, and they did an excellent job weaving in and out of this reality-based approach.

It’s really tense and frightening at times. We had to figure out how to play the presence of the kids without being inhumane or making it feel like a fabricated horror story. Then some moments were quiet and intimate, like the wind in the tents. It sounds barren. It’s cold outside, even though it doesn’t look like what people would expect winter to be on a TV show. It was a challenge to keep everything sparse but still have enough of a sound bed to feel like you are in a place.  You see this big open plain and you want to fill it up with life but there aren’t frogs or bugs because they’re not active when it’s 20° outside.   The wind made a lot of work for Kelly, so I wanted to make sure that my sound effects complemented what they cleaned up so that we didn’t re-create a mess. But, at the same time, the effects needed to make it feel like we were in that space.

KO:  Elliot Greenberg, the picture editor, shapes a track in his OMF [open media framework]and he gives us an amazing roadmap for each episode. It’s a template for sound that we follow, and we bring to the track better material. But we see the arc of what they’ve been working on for months and that helps us to create a much better product in sound.

KT:  The OMF is so well laid out that we can see that if they don’t have a sound somewhere it’s because they don’t want a sound there. It’s a decision they made and we don’t have to waste our time on it; we can focus on everything else and I do carry a lot of Elliot’s sound work forward.

The Dowdle brothers are great to work with. They know what they want to do with their movie or show and Kelly and I have an approach to sound that compliments their focus on the people in their stories. They find the most important aspect and try to focus on that and want the most appropriate sound for the right moment.

Learn more: http://www.paramountnetwork.com/shows/waco


Images courtesy of Paramount Network


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