<I>100 Foot Wave</I>: Details from the Emmy-nominated sound editing team
August 14, 2023

100 Foot Wave: Details from the Emmy-nominated sound editing team

100 Foot Wave, HBO’s documentary series about big-wave legend Garrett McNamara and his surfing peers, returned for its second season in April, with stops in Portugal, Hawaii and California. The extreme athletes lead unpredictable lives in which big waves affect their personal stories. The series received several Emmy nominations, including recognition for Documentary or Nonfiction Series, Cinematography, Picture Editing, Writing, Sound Mixing and Sound Editing.

The sound editing team of Max Holland (dialogue editor/sound editor), Eric Di Stefano (sound effects editor/sound designer), and Kevin Senzaki, MPSE (sound designer), recently shared their experience working on the series. We begin with insight from Kevin Senzaki, who says his biggest challenge was embodying the sheer power of the monstrous ocean waves through sound, and the surfers experience such a deadly force of nature up close. 

“Real ocean sounds are mostly white noise and didn't translate particularly well in terms of dramatic impact, so I layered in a variety of additional elements to create the appropriate level of intensity,” Senzaki explains. “These elements included fire whooshes, explosions, thunder rumbles, wind buffets, synthesized bass tones, noise phase sweeps and animal growls, creating a more visceral feeling of motion, build-up and impact.”

Many of the waves are so large, that when they crash down, it looks like a series of explosions.

“I made a point of matching the visuals with impacts in rapid succession,” Senzaki notes. “The sound design was a balance between being true to every shot's camera perspective, while also considering the emotional energy of each scene. I wanted to put the audience right in there with the surfers, not just in a literal sense of place, but emotionally too. During intense life or death moments, like Justine's horrific injury in Episode 3 and CJ being sucked underwater in Episode 5, I introduced more stylized elements, like ghostly screams, tonal drones and risers to express their subjective mental states in these desperate situations.”

Another rule Senzaki followed was to "always hear the surfer.” This meant that even in wide shots, there were always sounds for board splashes and body falls into the water, which helped keep the audience involved in what these surfers were experiencing.

As the sound effects editor and sound designer, Eric Di Stefano says he had the challenge of creating a sonic landscape that was as dynamic, immersive, and unpredictable as the ocean itself. 

“The series demanded a rich tapestry of sound that could capture the raw power and majesty of the waves, the thrill of the ride, and the intimate, visceral experiences of the surfers,” says Di Stefano. “To achieve this, I heavily relied on Krotos Reformer and Krotos Weaponizer, which allowed me to create a vast array of organic and unique sounds for the surfing, jetskis, waves crashing, and even the slap of boat hulls and surfboards against the water.”

The goal was to avoid repetition and to ensure that each sound effect was as unique and individual as the moments they were designed to represent.

“One of the most significant challenges was creating a unique ocean soundscape for the various camera angles frequently used throughout the series,” Di Stefano notes. “Recorded ocean ambience can often sound like white noise or static, so to give each camera angle and wave its own unique character, I had to get creative.”

He incorporated dramatic elements, such as hurricane and tsunami winds, waterfalls and rivers, as well as thunder and explosions, animal roars and growls. In addition, Di Stefano used designed elements, such as whooshes, impacts and drones. 

“This approach was not just about creating a realistic soundscape, but also about conveying the emotional energy of each scene. Crafting the sound design was a balancing act. It involved faithfully representing the visual perspective of each shot, amplifying the emotional heartbeat of each scene and plunging the audience into the surfers' world as if they were riding the waves themselves. This immersive and emotive sound design, I believe, is what sets 100 Foot Wave apart and makes it a worthy contender for an Emmy.”

Max Holland served as dialog/sound editor for 100 Foot Wave, and says one challenging aspect of the dialog edit was that the primary exterior shoot locations were almost always by the beach, and not just any beach, but one with the some of the largest waves in the world constantly roaring.

“From a technical standpoint, you want to clean up the source material as much as you can and make it intelligible, but the creative direction on this show meant leaving things a bit raw so the viewer really feels what it is like to be in that environment, immersed in its chaos and power,” Holland explains. “Our director, Chris Smith, is very hands-on with the sound edit and mix, and we worked together to strike a balance that lets you feel like you are right there in the moment, in that deafening wash of sound on the cliffs of Nazare, while also treating the dialog so it is clear and drives the story forward.”

Beyond those locations, Holland also tried to find the best balance for the more intimate and quiet moments as the viewer goes inside the homes of the surfers and experience their daily life. This allowed those smaller moments to feel natural and provided dynamics to balance out against the more intense sound moments of the series.
“Thankfully, with our post audio team being so close-knit and experienced, the demands of the series and the deadlines were met head on and we are all very proud of our work. Clearly the Emmy nomination in both sound editing and mixing reflects that.”
Holland relied on the Izotope RX suite, Waves Clarity, Accentize DeRoom and the Fabfilter EQs and compressors to complete his work on the series.