‘When They See Us’: How Production Sound Mixer Jan McLaughlin Tracked Ava DuVernay’s Compelling New Series

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According to Netflix, their limited series When They See Us is based on a true story of the notorious case of five teenagers from Harlem, labeled the Central Park Five, who were convicted of a rape they did not commit. The four-part limited series focuses on the five falsely-accused teenagers — Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise. The series spans 25 years, from the spring of 1989 — when the teenagers were first questioned about the incident — through to their exoneration in 2002 and the settlement reached with the city of New York in 2014.

Director Ava DuVernay, who received an Oscar nomination for her documentary 13th, worked with DP Bradford Young (Oscar-nominated for his cinematography on Arrival) to create a signature look for When They See Us. They used interesting angles (typically shooting upward at the characters) and extreme wide shots. These visual decisions ultimately changed the way that Emmy-winning production sound mixer Jan McLaughlin approached the show.

Here, McLaughlin talks about her challenges, her technical approach, and her experience of capturing dialogue on When They See Us.

Production sound mixer Jan McLaughlin (Photo by Atsushi Nishijima)

S&P: Director Ava DuVernay and DP Bradford Young use a lot of interesting camera angles, especially low angles pointed up at the characters. How did that impact your approach to capturing the sound?

Jan McLaughlin (JM): It impacted my approach a lot. I had to use many plant mics for sure.

The other creative choice that impacted my approach was that they had three or four cameras rolling at all times.

Behind the scenes: Director Ava Durvernay on set

S&P: That must have been really tough to get a boom in…

JM: I might as well have sent my boom operator on vacation!

For the courtroom scenes, we would try to get the boom in there. Ultimately, I’m not sure which mics the post sound team chose because, to my ear, they all seemed awful for one reason or another. I’m surprised it turned out as well as it did. I’m pleased with the final result.

Honestly, just maintaining all the wires in the courtroom scenes was taking up a lot of my brain space. My critical listening of the overall scenario was not able to engage. My experience has never included doing a production with so many lav mics. I was able to get them all to work, sound as good as they could, and that was about all I was able to accomplish. It was a mystery to me whether or not they would be able to pull it together in post.

S&P: As you were preparing your gear list, did you know what the camera angles were going to be like? Were you able to prepare for that or just react to it?

JM: We were on the defensive a lot. When I spoke with Executive Producer Berry Welsh initially, he thought it was going to be a two-camera shoot, which is squarely in my area of experience. But it turned out to be three and four cameras, which was outside of my expertise. I had a lot of getting up to speed to do. For the narrative work that I typically get, I don’t need to add much or change my gear. But, I did have to change my workflow because of the additional cameras every day.

Jan McLaughlin’s cart in Central Park

S&P: How did your workflow change?

JM: I do all of my own wiring and for the courtroom scenes I’d have 8 to 10 wires out. I had to get some help from the team in prepping wires for each scene. The first thing I would do in the morning was to prep all of the wireless mics — not just for the forthcoming scene but for the entire day. Everyone in the courtroom scenes who spoke was wearing a wire because we didn’t know what was going to happen and we had to prepare for anything and everything in advance.

I’m exclusively Zaxcom for wireless. I use DPA 4060 and 4063 lav mics. I used the 4063s for the detectives because they had great voices and I wanted that larger diaphragm mic for them.

The plant mics were Sanken CUB-01s and a bunch of DPA 4098s. You see the 4098s on-screen and I thought I would be able to use those in the courtroom, but they really only picked up the sound of the judge and the witness. Once those mics were established, we couldn’t move them around as much as I would want to move them around, to get them closer. The actors were quieter than you’d expect in a courtroom. So, the 4098s were set up every day but I wasn’t actually able to use them for the lawyers’ defense and prosecution teams.

For a recorder, I had the Zaxcom Nomad with their Oasis mixer/controller. I had enough tracks for all but one day, which was an exterior scene near the end of the show when the boys are exonerated. I had about 12 or more lavs out because we were simultaneously shooting a bunch of people giving their speeches. That was a big scene. For that, I ended up taking my second Nomad and doing a sub-mix on that.

S&P:  Did you also have a run-and-gun style kit for the action scenes, like when the kids are running through Central Park? I’m guessing you didn’t have a cart there…

JM: Actually, I did have my cart for the Central Park scene. I was disappointed not to hear more of the tracks that we captured for that sequence. I used the 4098s planted all the way up the hill — 4 or 5 mics — to get the ambient sound of the boys’ glee. We also boomed that sequence.  Boom operator Brendan J. O’Brien was using the Schoeps CMIT 5U shotgun most of the time. I felt like that was really important, to catch the sound of their happiness.  It really sounded wonderful and I was pleased as pie.

S&P: Were the locations mainly practical? Or were they set?

JM: It was mostly in the field. The courtroom was a set. Some of the apartment interiors were sets, although several were practical locations. Korey’s (Jharrel Jerome) solitary jail cell at Rikers Island was a set.

S&P: What was your most challenging location for sound?

 JM: The barbershop was within 30 feet of an elevated train with construction happening underneath. There were several jackhammers. We couldn’t even hear each other speak. The producers knew. They apologized to me in advance for it, but that was a horrible location for sound.

Technically challenging were the many practical prison locations that presented RF reflection issues. This was solved with Zaxcom’s excellent ZHD96 modulation option designed to deal with reflective RF environments.

The other interesting challenge was the propensity to lump two and three scenes together that included time jumps and costume adjustments (loosening of ties/removal of jackets and shirts).

S&P: During Korey’s time in jail, there’s a guy a few cells down singing “Moon River.” Was that performance captured on set or something they created in post?

JM: That was captured on set. I used the DPA 4098 as a plant there because it was a practical location, an unused confinement facility. The reverb there sounded so very good. I wanted to capture that. So I set the plant mic up to capture that very unique sound consistently and Brendan caught the singing on the boom from the camera perspective.

S&P: There are numerous fight sequences that happen with Korey in prison. What were some of your challenges in capturing the sound of the fights?

JM: It wasn’t too much of a challenge because there were a lot of high-level verbalizations from the actors. Between the DPA mics that can handle the higher SPL’s and the Zaxcom transmitters, there were no overload issues. Everything held very well.

For the fight scenes, they weren’t wearing lavs. For some of the rooms in the prison, with the cameras in there, we weren’t able to get a boom in sometimes — except maybe peeking inside the room. So, I used a lot of 4098s as plant mics.

S&P: Korey spends a lot of time in solitary confinement. What were some of your challenges in capturing those scenes?

JM: That was a set but we didn’t pull walls (if I recall). Those walls were two stories high. There’s a scene in which Korey is looking up and speaking through the vent when the air conditioning breaks. Brendan was on a lift and pointing the boom over the edge of the set.

There was one sequence where Korey takes off some of his costume and speaks a few lines. He climbs up from the bed to look out the window and then he falls. We captured that with a lav because there was no other way to catch it. We used hot glue (thanks, Whit Norris) to affix a Countryman B6 to the inside of his tank top and prayed. Even with him falling, it stayed in place. I was very pleased with how that turned out.

When Korey gets completely naked (because it’s hot in there and the air-conditioning is not working), we did not put a lav on him. We were able to get in a boom in those shots.

S&P:  In terms of production sound, what are you most proud of on When They See Us?

JM:  I was probably proudest that the post sound team was able to make it sound right!

I’m very proud that this limited series will change some hearts and minds, and change the conversation about the injustice of our justice system. This is my fondest hope.

Learn more: https://www.netflix.com/title/80200549

-S&P-

Images courtesy of Netflix

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