Ava DuVernay’s ground-breaking limited series When They See Us details the struggles, incarceration and ultimate freedom of the Exonerated Five. Awards Daily talks to the sound team that created the impressionistic urban sounds of “Part Four.”
John Benson, Sound Supervisor – Nominated for Outstanding Sound Editing For A Limited Series, Movie Or Special
Joe DeAngelis, Re-Recording Mixer – Nominated for Outstanding Sound Mixing For A Limited Series Or Movie
Chris Carpenter, Re-Recording Mixer – Nominated for Outstanding Sound Mixing For A Limited Series Or Movie
Netflix’s When They See Us‘s “Part Four” fully breaks away from the more procedural aspects of the first two chapters in director Ava DuVernay’s 4-part saga about the Exonerated Five. The episode largely focuses on Korey Wise (the brilliant and Emmy-nominated Jharrel Jerome), incarcerated and isolated in adult prison. Over the chapter, he looks back on his life and imagines his life had he never made the fateful choice to accompany friend Yusef Salaam (Ethan Herisse) to his interrogation. We see Korey teeter on the edge of madness, crushed by the walls of solitary and his visions of a life not lived.
The episode boasts a robust and Emmy-nominated sound design. Given the impressionistic nature of the episode, the sound team was able to organically create a tapestry of sound. They captured the sounds of a bustling Harlem city street, the reserved atmosphere of the Manhattan legal district, and the intense and often terrifying sounds of maximum security. All components blended together without sacrificing the most important aspect – the critical dialogue that helps tell the central story.
Why “Part Four”
John Benson: I chose “Part Four” because it’s what we might call a bottle episode. It’s an episode where the whole story is encapsulated in the single episode. It’s the story of Korey Wise throughout the episode. It also addresses the experience of prison and solitary. In that regard, it’s less reality based than other episodes. It becomes more subjective as it illustrates Korey Wise in solitary confinement and how that feels for him. That’s a very interesting challenge to support with sound.
Chris Carpenter: We thought it was going to be the most difficult, but it was the most organic. It just flowed. Maybe one of the easier ones to mix, but only because it felt so organic to us.
Joe DeAngelis: The picture cut was really great. The story flowed well. It had a happy ending – as much as you can have a happy ending with this kind of story. We just felt like it was a just a story really well told.
Highlights of the Soundtrack
John Benson: One interesting sound that recurs several times when Korey, back before the arrest, is with his girlfriend in a chicken restaurant with his girlfriend, and Yusef bangs on the window and calls him to come with him into the park. We hear Yusef’s voice and that banging on the window several times in the cell. One of the early transitions goes from him banging on the window to a guard banging on the door to deliver his food. I think those kinds of connections are really interesting in the design of that sequence.
Joe DeAngelis: I’m a big fan of the Coney Island scene. It’s really an interesting blend between the effects and the dialogue. We have reverbed dialogue coming out of the prison into the surreal situation where he’s imagining what it might have been like had I not gone to the park that night. It’s very surreal, very heady. We have a hard cut where a roller coaster segue ways into the closing of a prison door. To me, that’s my favorite piece.
Collaborating with Ava DuVernay
John Benson: We started with a spotting session with the director (Ava of course), the editor of the episode, and the writer (also Ava). We discuss the feel of certain themes, the overall arc of the episode, problems with dialogue, requests for sounds, designs… We go through the whole episode discussing these things. Then, the editorial work begins. I oversee the mix, having understood what everyone is thinking and asking for. I interpret that to the mixers – Joe DeAngelis and Chris Carpenter in this case. Then, we play back for Ava when we have a rough pass with everything mixed together and take her notes, refining the work we’ve already done and getting new insights into the work she wants done. I like to refer to these as dramatic beats. Some of this is instinctual, and some of it comes directly from Ava.
Chris Carpenter: Originally, Ava told us she wanted an “urban” feel to the sound design, and we created what I thought was a really live track. When Ava first heard it, I’ll admit that she wanted two or three times that much. Much more color. Much more yin and yang and playing Harlem different than Manhattan. We ended up going that way and really livened it up. When the real [Exonerated Five] saw the finished product, they commented that the scenes we created felt like real locations, real places they played in. That, I think, was another reason that Ava wanted to give things a little more color. She wanted to give audience to experience the different environments for themselves.
Joe DeAngelis: When Ava watches it, she truly watches it on an emotional basis. She doesn’t care about the technicalities. She doesn’t care about how bad the production is. She would rather save the performances than ADR them. When you go into a scene, it needs to affect her emotionally. If you come into a scene, and it’s not making her feel like she’s there or it’s not making her feel a certain way, then you work at it until you do.