'Black Sails': Creating the sound of Starz's new series
Issue: March 1. 2014

'Black Sails': Creating the sound of Starz's new series

HOLLYWOOD — Starz’ ambitious new series Black Sails tells the story of the men and women building a community in 1715 pre-colonial Nassau, Bahamas, then known as “New Providence Island.”  Created as a prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic story, “Treasure Island,” the show creates a realistic portrayal of people living and working in the island town, while dealing with political, economic and social issues of the period. The show is produced by Michael Bay and was created by Robert Levine ( Human Target) and Jonathan Steinberg ( Jericho).

The Emmy award-winning sound team of supervising sound editor Benjamin Cook (The Pacific, Deadwood) of 424 Post and Todd-Soundelux’s re-recording mixers Onnalee Blank and Mathew Waters (Game of Thrones), brought the gritty, dirty reality of Black Sails to life sonically. Todd Soundelux and 424 Post announced a multi-year strategic relationship last December, building on a long, collaborative working relationship between the two companies. Here, the team shares its experience working on the series.

POST: How did you come up with the overall sound for the show?

BENJAMIN COOK: “You have to have a really good palette to start with, then find those little things that will bring out a level of authenticity that makes the track shine and stand out. We collected a vast assortment of original recordings for this show — everything from lantern creaks to a tall ship. I spent several days down in the Keys and Dry Tortugas (Florida) recording backgrounds, which was fantastic. Charles Maynes recorded cannons and muskets for us. My sound effects guy, Jeffrey Pitts, scoured eBay for hemp rope, antique nautical pulleys, and things of that nature. He built this home-brewed contraption that we used as an element for the sailing ships’ rigging. We also spent a couple of days in Foley, creating a library of material we could have at our fingertips. We did a lot of recording, all at 96kHz/24-bit.”

POST: So you research the materials of the time?

BENJAMIN COOK: “Yes, I love all the research and the background reading. I like doing period pieces just for that, researching the history and trying to immerse myself with the culture of the place and time.”

POST: What about going on-location?

BENJAMIN COOK: “What I try to do that with all my shows is to do some recording on-set, especially doors, props, wagons, anything people use a lot. It gives you a real base to work from that sits in well with the production track.”

POST: It seems like there is a lot of emphasis on realism?

BENJAMIN COOK: “The show creator, Jonathan Steinberg, was really adamant about wanting the show to sound realistic and has this real attention to detail and historical accuracy, and that was our guiding principal. He didn’t want anything stereotypical, over-the-top or comical. We really wanted to ground this in a reality that people hadn’t seen before.”

POST: Onnalee and Matt, how did this project, a period piece, differ from your work on Game of Thrones?

ONNALEE BLANK: “It’s a big show like Game of Thrones, so, on that aspect, it’s similar as far as business and complexity, but it’s a very different sort of sound. There’s no fantasy, no dragons; it’s very real. We try to keep it as real as we can.”

MATHEW WATERS: “We’re creating these whole environments where people have never been, and that’s fun. Here we’re on the ships and we have to make the ships sound different. We have to make the ships sound as if they’re moving. We have to make the town sound special. The real deal that we got from the show runners, and we totally agreed and [were] excited to do it like this, is “We don’t want to hear anything that’s stereotypically pirate.’”

POST: Michael Bay and the other producers, a lot of them come from film. How did that affect things?

BENJAMIN COOK: “With Michael Bay as the executive producer, the bar is set pretty high, not just in terms of the visual aspect, but also the audio. We really tried for a rich and layered sound scope, putting as much detail as we could cram into the show. Sonically, we wanted to achieve a theatrical experience.”

MATHEW WATERS: “What’s really fun about working on this show [is] we’ve been really blessed to work with people [who] really take an interest and care about the sound. They find that it is important. They think it’s as important as we do. That’s really fun to work in that environment.”

ONNALEE BLANK: “It’s rewarding.”

MATHEW WATERS: “On this show they say, ‘That sound, man it sounds good, but I just don’t believe it. It’s not real.’ So, we find a good sound that’s a bit more real.”

ONNALEE BLANK: “We’re picking and choosing for performance, not for technical purposes. At night, [Ben] goes home and records his own sounds for the show. He’s phenomenal.”

MATHEW WATERS: “There’s a great story — there was a ship in a big storm and the waves were hitting the window and I didn’t particularly like the sound of the water hitting the window. Ben agreed, so he went home that weekend and recorded the hose hitting the window at his house. He came back and it was perfect. That’s the kind of stuff you don’t get on every show, and it’s great to have that.”

POST: You’re mixing this in 7.1?

ONNALEE BLANK: “It’s just for the DVDs.”

MATHEW WATERS: “I don’t think anyone is broadcasting in 7.1?”

ONNALEE BLANK: “More and more people do have 7.1 systems. If you remember back, people were mixing 5.1 for TV before they could broadcast it.”

MATHEW WATERS: “What’s really fun with 7.1 is that you can get even more accurate in your panning and pinpointing, and [have] more fun with the surrounds because it’s not just the back. You have the sides and the back. Technically, from a mixing and deliverable standpoint, you have to watch the two-track fold down, because that’s two more tracks of energy trying to fit into a two-track hole.”

POST: Were there any particularly challenging aspects to the post?

ONNALEE BLANK: “What’s hard about this show is that we’re always going back and forth a lot as we’re moving along through the episodes. We’re put up Episode 7 and then it’s wait, let’s check this scene in Episode 1.”

MATHEW WATERS: “One downfall of being so far ahead of the airdate is that the creators get time to play. They might go to a screening and watch Episode 1 for the umpteenth time and come back and say, ‘We want to change a couple of things,’ which, again is great, because they care so much about the sound.”

BENJAMIN COOK: “With the largely international cast — primarily UK, Australian, South African, American — it made the ADR coordination and wrangling a bit of a job. But, it actually went surprisingly smooth. I was sometimes amazed myself.”

ONNALEE BLANK: “There was between 400 to 600 lines of ADR per episode. Whether it was because the dialog was unintelligible or a location was super noisy, they pretty much looped every scene. It was more ADR than I’ve ever mixed. That takes really good organization.”

MATHEW WATERS: “You can’t do a show of this magnitude without good editorial and a great supervisor.”

BENJAMIN COOK: “It helps that the people we’re working with share the same vision for the show and are very collaborative. [Co-producer] Jonathan Brytus, he’s the greatest, Dan Shotz, Robert Levine, Jonathan Steinberg, they’re all fun, funny, and super supportive.”

Black Sails (www.starz.com/originals/blacksails) airs on Starz, Saturdays at 9pm.