<I>Twisted Metal</I>: Supervising sound editor James Parnell goes inside the new Peacock series
Marc Loftus
July 26, 2023

Twisted Metal: Supervising sound editor James Parnell goes inside the new Peacock series

Peacock’s new half-hour, live-action series Twisted Metal is based on the classic PlayStation game. The high-octane action/comedy follows a motor-mouthed outsider (Anthony Mackie), who is offered a chance at a better life - though only if he can successfully deliver a mysterious package across a post-apocalyptic wasteland. The series also features an axe-wielding car thief and a deranged clown, who drives an ice cream truck.

In addition to Mackie, the show stars Stephanie Beatriz and Thomas Haden Church, with Will Arnett and Joe Seanoa also appearing. Kitao Sakurai directed multiple episodes, which begin streaming July 27th.

James Parnell (Get Out, Moonlight, The Mist, Happy Death Day, Pen15, Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings) served as supervising sound editor and re-recording mixer for the show, working tirelessly to make sure the sounds of the adaptation matched the hype of the game, which is on PlayStation’s “Greatest Hits” list. 
Parnell (pictured) focused on emulating the sounds of the game. In his sound design builds, each vehicle was given an individual sound, as were the weapons used by the characters. 

Parnell recently shared insight into working on the show with Post.
Hi James! As supervising sound editor and re-recording mixer, can you explain what your responsibilities were for Twisted Metal? 

“The two roles seem to be more intertwined today than ever before. There's often a blurring of lines between the jobs. As sound supervisor, you’re often making sonic choices that directly impact the final mix, and as re-recording mixer, you’re choosing which sounds from the editorial team that you want to utilize to tell a story. On Twisted Metal, there was a lot of role ‘hand-shaking.’

“Usually, on the first season of any show, there are a lot of sonic themes that need to be established. With Twisted Metal, we had an entire video game franchise that we needed to pay homage to sonically. As the sound supervisor, I contacted Sony PlayStation Studios and Sony’s Archival Department (shoutout to Michael Friend and Garrett Fredley) to provide us with the original audio from the video games. As the video games are decades old, the goal was to replicate and elaborate on the established franchise sound.

“Every week I would attend sound spotting sessions, where MJ Smith (showrunner), the picture editor other members of the team and I would discuss the sonic concepts for the episodes and make note of anything unique about the episode that needed special development. More often than not, I’d leave those sessions and head back to the studio and spend an afternoon mixing a sequence as a sort of proof-of-concept to send back to the team for approval. In that way, I was handling early parts of the re-recording mixer responsibilities.”

What tools were you using for recording, editing, mixing, etc.?

“The sessions were edited and mixed in Pro Tools Ultimate. On Twisted Metal, one of the first things I was tasked with was finding the right sound for Sweet Tooth’s vocal processing. Will Arnett brought such a dynamic performance to the role, often switching between pun-delivering comedic Sweet Tooth and psychopathic killer Sweet Tooth. I needed to develop a vocal processing chain that would both achieve the sonic quality of the video game franchise and allow us to manipulate the degree of processing that I applied to his voice to accommodate Will’s performance variations. I used a bunch of different plug-ins for this, including Soundtoy’s Little Altar Boy (for pitch), Radiator (for compression/distortion), a basic Waves plug-in for a subtle chorus effect, and Avid’s Pro Subharmonic to provide low end. MJ and I went through [approximately] 4 different iterations of Sweet Tooth’s vocal quality before landing on one that everyone loved.

“We also did some interesting recordings for several sequences, most notably the torture sequence set to the song ‘Barbie Girl’ by Aqua. In order to achieve the over-driven speaker effect for the song, we loosened the screws on the speaker driver enclosure in the ADR stage and blasted the song through the cabinets. This gave a unique rattling sound that complemented the distortion we were adding to the song using plug-ins.”

Is there a specific scene or sequence that you would call attention to? Maybe one where you faced an interesting or unique challenge?

“I think there are a lot of stand-out moments for sound in Twisted Metal. Every episode has high-octane chase/combat scenes, shootouts or bar fights. The battle royale in Episode 10 is one of the most intense sequences of the whole season. It’s a seven-minute car fight sequence packed with every car from the season, guns, missiles and explosions. Within this carnage, it was important to make sure that only the necessary sounds were being heard. When I was mixing complicated sequences in TM, it was often a process of reduction. In busy fight sequences, there can often be the temptation to play all the gunfire, all the car engines and all the explosions. Louder equals better, right? But this can cause a cluttered mix and often detracts from the important story beats. In Episode 10, John Doe starts the fight by launching a fire missile, and chaos ensues. It was really important to only play the sounds that needed to be heard to make sure the audience was tracking the location of all the cars and hearing the dialogue and story points within the action.”

What kind of deadline were you working under?

“The first sound spotting session for TM took place on September 16th, 2022. The first mix day took place on January 9th, 2023. We had a long lead time, given how intricate the sound design was. But barring a one-week break in the middle of the 10 episodes, we mixed an episode every week. We finished sound mixing in early April.”

How closely did you stay true to the style of the Twisted Metal video game? 

“Our goal from the start of this project was to pay homage to the original sounds of the video game franchise. As I mentioned, we reached out to Sony PlayStation Studios and Sony Archival for access to the original video game sound design. The issue we ran into was that 5th and 6th gen consoles needed as much of their data bandwidth to be used for visual graphics, leaving the sound the task of occupying as little space on the disks as possible. As a result, all the audio clips were compressed .mp3 files. We were, however, able to reference this audio and elaborate on the original sounds to make sure we stayed in line with the creative intent of the game creators. A lot of the missiles and gunfire were inspired by those original sound files. In the final episode, Sweet Tooth fires his Laughing Ghost missiles, which have this uniquely-pitched vocal laugh. This was directly inspired by the video games.”

What were some of the more unique sounds you developed for the series? 

“The opening scene in Episode 1 is one of my favorites. There was early discussion in the sound spotting sessions where MJ had expressed his desire to use animal sounds to enhance the visceral elements of the car engines. John’s car (Evelyn) was layered with big cat roars. The vultures chasing John through the mall utilized pitched-down birds of prey vocalizations. We blended these with the car engines for each respective vehicle. You can hear this throughout the series. During the kidnapping scene in Episode 4, the Juggernaut truck convoy was layered with whale groans/moans to give the 18-wheeler convoy size, as well as to convey a concept of communication between them.”

Where can we follow you on social media?

“I'm on Instagram and Twitter (jameswparnell) and on LinkedIn. Thanks for all the great questions!”