If you asked me what your last thirty minutes of television should ever be, I’d probably say Silicon Valley’s “Optimal Tip-to-Tip Efficiency”. Maybe an ep of Seinfeld, Curb, or Louie, but in the last few years, that episode was the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen on TV – and I watch a lot of television. It’s my job. I sat through episodes of For The Love Of Ray J and no one watched that show, not even Ray J.
Created by Mike Judge, John Altschuler, and Dave Krinsky, Silicon Valley finds a home on HBO and codes a storyline of tech startup Pied Piper who’s found a way to compress large file sizes into a very small package. The core team consists of Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch), Jared Dunn (Zach Woods), Dinesh Chugtai (Kumail Nanjiani), Betram Gilfoyle (Martin Starr) and Erlich Bachman (T.J. Miller) as the intellects trying to deliver the ground-breaking technology. What makes “Optimal Tip-to-Tip Efficiency” and other episodes so magnetic is how the comedy is treated. It’s not your typical sitcom where the story always seems to serve the joke, but the laughter rather sneaks up on you and you’ll immediately rewind to watch it again.
Now in its third season production sound mixer Benjamin Patrick, CAS, who nabbed an Emmy nom last year, is back recording the show’s tracks. “I remember the producers calling me for season two to see if I was interested and I was like uh, yes, one-hundred percent. I was a fan of the show, it was so unexpected, but something I really wanted to do. And then to get an Emmy nom was icing on the cake – it was something I never anticipated. I was just happy to be part of the project.”
Production of Silicon Valley is unique because it shoots all ten episodes before post even get their hands on the material. This leaves no time to adjust for error so before rolling Patrick meets with post sound to see what worked and what didn’t from the prior season. “I’ll check in with the sound supervisor and dialogue editor about our recording strategy. We’ll discuss what they liked, what they didn’t and we’ll address the changes on set.”
This season the mixer made a conscience effort to spend more time recording dialogue with the Sennheiser MKH 50. “I really liked the warmth of that mic for the personal story moments over the Schoeps CMIT-5U. It’s a great, thick sounding mic and post can take a lot of it out without it being degraded as much. We’d looked to the CMIT-5U when we needed speed.”
As a company Pied Piper has grown in each season and this year they move into a much larger office where new characters are introduced with new hurdles to climb. “The space they’re in is huge with tons of windows and sliding glass doors,” says Patrick. “Thankfully our production designer Richard Toyon and art director Oana Bogdan called me before we started shooting to say that I needed to go look at the space. When I got in there I realized there was going to be an enormous amount of reverb.”What the mixer ended up doing was asking the rigging grip department to build a special grid hidden in the ceiling so they could place thick fabric material in it to combat the issue. They also draped the corners to dampen some of the reverb as well. “Some of the offices are still really challenging so we try to stay on the MKH 50. While the mic doesn’t get rid of the reflection, it manages to even out the room and soften the reverb a bit.”
Working the boom were Chris Diamond and second boom Corey Woods. “Chris and Corey are amazing. They’re both such great technicians, they ran at this thing full speed and didn’t stop until we finished,” mentions Patrick. “This is such a challenging show because we have a larger cast that often ad-libs so we have to be on top of the dialogue and Chris and Corey are always there.”
Many of those unplanned dialogue moments happen in Bachman’s home where the guys live. “My number one strategy is to always get coverage on the boom. We run about 8-12 ISOs all day and have Lectrosonics transmitters and Sanken COS-11D lavs on the actors but I try not to open them up. We let the cast run and they build up this energy – and then – anything goes. Although improv may be the order on the day I always marvel to see how carefully crafted it becomes in the final product – our producers and editors are really sharp,” says Patrick.
When you watch the show you’ll notice the character Richard has a tendency to mumble through his lines because of his anxiety and unsure nature, which would certainly be cause a concern for a sound mixer. “Having watched season one I was aware of it,” notes Patrick. “You’ll always have actors that are going to be quiet. You never know how it’s going to pan out til you’re on set. Fortunately Richard, even though quiet, still was able to project and we made sure to have back up plans to catch what the boom couldn’t. The same with Gilfoyle, another character who speaks quietly but he cuts through exceptionally well. He’s the classic master of understatement, even to the point where he wouldn’t deliver a line but rather shoot a look – it’s really hilarious to see what he comes up with.”
Another aspect of the mixer’s day-to-day is coordinating with the cinematographer and director. “I know our DP our Tim Suhrstedt well, he’s a veteran and his job is to basically make up these incredible shots. I always want him to what he needs in order to make those great shots, because I am a fan of his work on this show.” Patrick explains. “Since we have an open dialogue we can negotiate camera angles for certain pieces of dialogue to get them on a boom instead of the wire. It takes looking at the purpose and intent of each shot to order them efficiently during the day – knowing what they were designed for helps tell you how to treat them. Some shots are not about dialogue and some shots are not about picture. Everyone just has to be on the same page. ”
There are circumstances where Patrick will even ask if the boom can be painted out by visual effects. “When they’re running wide and tights it’s sometimes hard to find a place for us. It’s easy to digitally erase a boom mic in the frame but there’s a hard cost. I have to coordinate with the producers to make sure they’re aware of the cost versus the impact value of the digital work. It is an interesting situation on set because only the sound department can make this call and make it happen, and, really, no other department will. So it takes a fair amount of getting a show ready to accept it.”
While boom placement is important to the mixer he realizes serving the show’s best interest takes priority. “I’ve sat in dialogue editing sessions where there would be lines I know we got perfect with the boom, but the lav has this little dryer quality to it which can make a joke sound a lot funnier or have more impact. Sometimes they’ll just put up the lav track to see if it punches better and sometimes it does. I would love for everything to sound as thick and sexy as it can but bottom line it has to be funny and engaging.”
Besides the office space to contend with episode three featured a never ending server room the cast navigated through. Production used a combination of practical sets and green screen with Barnstorm VFX finalizing the look. “I worked with Barnstorm pretty closely so we could hide our boom ops inside the mocked up servers aisles. We ended up recording the boom, lavs and plant mics for that sequence to make sure there was a sense of space as I’m a big believer in sound perspective,” Patrick says. “I respect that so much in film and in movies. When you get good intelligible dialogue so you can understand the story and then give it a sense of the look, it’s perfect. I think situating the story in the space is key for bringing the story, and especially the comedy, to life. Our re-recording mixers Elmo Ponsdomenech and Todd Beckett have a great sensibility and touch when handling those kinds of spaces.”
After mixing Silicon Valley for the past two seasons it’s easy for Patrick to admit how much he loves working on show. “Even though there’s a certain level of cover-your-ass that will never disappear, it’s a small price to pay to be amongst cast who are so funny and interesting. I really appreciate the attitude of the cast, as they have such great energy and really seem to like each other. I’ll never forget one night even after working a sixteen hour day, they were making plans to meet up afterwards for pizza and board games. It’s a show where everyone genuinely cares for each other and that sentiment sets the mood for the whole thing.”
Photos: John P. Fleenor/HBO