BURBANK, CA — Sound designer Scott Gershin helped create the original soundtrack for the FX on Hulu series Mrs. America. The limited series looks at the Equal Rights Amendment and the women’s movement of the 1970s.
Gershin serves as creative director and managing director at Sound Lab, which is part of the global creative services provider Keywords Studios (www.keywordsstudios.com). For Mrs. America, he was challenged with completing the series while under lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In some cases, he conducted remote recording sessions and used acoustics to transform the sound of a small group of actresses into much larger crowds.
Here, he shares with Post some of the details that went into finishing the show’s soundtrack.
How did you get involved in Mrs. America?
“I had a good friend recommend me, plus I had worked with the post producer previously. After several introductions and interviews, I was awarded the show.”
What services did you provide?
“My team and I, at Sound Lab, provided sound editorial for the show which included dialogue, ADR, Foley, sound design and the mix. As the supervising sound editor and sound designer for Mrs America, the unique challenge for this project was creating a diverse world of women in 1970s America. There were no pre-existing sound libraries of just women's voices. It all had to be created from scratch, so working with my walla group - The Loop Squad - I used the ADR stage at ToddAO and I brought in a bunch of microphones and recorded eight to 15 actresses, depending of the episode, using creative micing techniques and acoustical strategies within the room which transformed them into hundreds and sometimes thousands of female voices.
“When you see people and crowds talking, chanting or singing on screen (other than the principal actresses), they are just moving their mouths silently. All crowds and the vocal details had to be recreated. For the mix, I partnered with Christian Minkler, who mixed dialogue and music; Andy King, who mixed FX; and Andrew Silver, who was the music editor on the show.
“It got even more interesting once the pandemic broke out and I had to find alternative ways of working so we could finish the show. Lockdown had just come into effect and we hadn’t finished shooting the walla group for the last episode. I decided to have all the actors record themselves in closets at home. I ended up using Zoom to direct them. They then sent me their individual recordings, which I edited and manipulated to fit in different scenes in the show.
“In different scenes throughout the series, I had to try and recreate a variety of acoustic environments, which were a significant component in the creation of the crowds. I didn’t want to rely on reverb plug-ins. I wanted to capture these sounds within a physical space. Working on the last episode was especially challenging, since I couldn’t record in a big room. I had to do a little ‘smoke & mirrors’ to pull it off and make it sound like the rest of the series. Throughout both the editorial and mix process, I had to keep modifying and creating new workflows - sometimes daily - to make it all work, to keep our high level of quality and make our air dates.”
What tools were you using?
“We used Avid’s ProTools, which is standard in audio post production. As the pandemic started, early on we needed to find a way for many of us to work remotely, as well as creating a way to include everyone in the creative process. We ended up using Streambox HD, which sent realtime live feeds from the mix stage to everyone’s houses. We needed to make sure that all the technology was easily accessible and could be utilized on everyone’s laptops and computers at data speeds that were available at their homes. We only had a day or two to react to quickly come up with solutions. For recording the walla group, I brought in numerous mono, stereo and five-channels mics spread around the room.”
What was the directive as far as the sound of the show?
“It was a pretty easy process because we all had the same vision and style for the show. Since we all come from the film world, we wanted our approach to be more cinematic and understood the importance of using sound as tools to enrich the storytelling. But we also wanted to make it real, make it accurate.
“The challenge in regards to the sound design in Mrs. America was capturing the voice of the times; making sure that vernacular was correct and making sure, in any given scene, that any topics discussed by characters were relevant to the ERA movement.
“We constantly discussed where we could add subtle details. We wanted the audience to not only know they were in New York, but exactly which part of New York or Washington, DC. To this end, we tried to capture the differences between where each character lived, how people spoke, and the different energies of each environment, at conferences and conventions.
“Sometimes, sound and music would take the lead to create an emotional tapestry of sound. At other times, most importantly, we wanted to be minimalistic and use silence as a tool to support the actresses’ amazing performances, and let the scene breathe.”