The Art of the Oner and Mixing
by Mathew Price CAS
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, created by Amy Sherman-Palladino (ASP) and her husband Daniel Palladino, starts in NYC in 1958. It follows the travails and adventures of Miriam ‘Midge’ Maisel (the extraordinary Rachel Brosnahan), a nice Jewish housewife living a seemingly perfect life with her husband Joel (Michael Zegen) and her two young children in a fabulous pre-war six-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. After Joel confesses to having an affair with his not-so-bright secretary (on the eve of Yom Kippur, no less), Midge, getting drunker by the minute on super sweet Manischewitz wine, finds herself back at the Gaslight Café, the seedy downtown comedy club where her soon-to-be ex spectacularly bombed earlier in the evening. There she delivers a profane and hilarious confessional stand-up set and catches the eye of Susie Myerson (Alex Borstein, always hilarious) who realizes she’s seeing raw talent unlike any who’s played there before. A career is launched. Hilarity ensues.
After years of mixing mostly heavy dramas like The Sopranos, through the gorefest of The Following and Season 2 of Marvel’s brooding Daredevil, I landed on this 1950’s Technicolor-movie musical-screwball-dramedy which is shot like a major motion picture. The Palladinos love their rat-a-tat, super rapid-fire dialog and Maisel does not disappoint. It’s brilliantly funny, a feast for the eyes and ears and a truly wonderful show to be a part of. It’s a very special set to be on and every day-playing actor and crew member who joins us remarks on how family-like and fun it all feels. It’s also the most challenging show I’ve ever mixed; the word “compromise” is not in anyone’s vocabulary.
I first heard of Maisel after the pilot had been shot and found out that Picture Editor Brian Kates, a friend of mine who had edited a couple of features I had mixed, had cut it. I reached out to him because it sounded like a fun show to work on. I loved the idea of mixing a musical comedy, especially since music is my first love, and we all need a good laugh, especially these days. It turned out that the pilot’s mixer had already committed to another show before Maisel got picked up for series and Brian had already told production they needed to hire me. The lesson being always be good to your post people!
As an Audio Ltd wireless user for more than twenty-five years, I finally made the switch and now my core equipment is all Zaxcom. I’m running a full RX-12 receiver unit, a Mix-12, and a Deva 16. With the latest sell off (again) of our frequencies, and the shrinking of the radio spectrum, I’m very glad to have frequency agility and the ability to record right on the Zaxcom transmitters. That has saved me many times! Their ZMT transmitters are tiny and our cast loves them. My primary boom mics are Schoeps CMIT’s and MK41’s. My lavs are generally Sonotrim’s, Sanken COS-11D’s, Countryman B6’s and the new Shure TL48 which I use exclusively for Rachel.
My approach to mixing Mrs. Maisel is the same as my approach to everything that I (and I’m sure all of you) mix, in that I strive for a clean, full, and very rich vocal quality. Maisel is ALL about the words (and music); our average script is approximately 85-90 pages for a show that runs just under an hour, and almost every word makes it in. There are no car chases, gunfights, or explosions, so there is no place to hide and they HATE looping! Because it’s a period show, whenever we’re exterior, I have to be extra diligent about any modern-day noises that might creep in.
Of course, we all prefer booms instead of wires, but wiring our cast is just safer for me, it gives me much more flexibility and, because of the show’s signature long take “oners,” we tend to see in all directions. Also, it helps me if the shot changes at the last minute or in case the actors get out of range of the boom. Since the dialog zips by so quickly, post loves all the wires as it helps with the clarity of the consonants, but there’s always a boom to keep the tracks alive. The Palladinos love their wide shots, often without tighter coverage. Many times, characters start very deep in the frame and come into close-ups or vice versa, or we’ll go from room to room and in and out of doorways. The mixing challenge there is finding the best spot to transition between the radios and the boom as seamlessly as possible.
For one of our crazy shots, in the S2E4 episode, “We’re Going to the Catskills!” we put a wide lens camera across the road from the Weissman’s summer cottage as they arrive and unpack for the summer. It was a half-dozen people yelling and overlapping to each other from all of the rooms while going from inside to outside and back. It was such a great challenge to just wire them all and hold on for dear life! On any given day, it’s pretty typical that I’m easily running between seven to twelve tracks (or more).
Our number 1, Midge, almost always gets wired at the beginning of the day, mostly because her corseted infrastructure makes it time-consuming to do at the last minute. Our great wardrobe people send me a photo of her costume and I pick what I think is the most appropriate lav for it; I’ve always felt that you wire the clothes, not the actor. They rough it in and when she gets to set, I’ll fine-tune it. We work so closely together that I think of us as the “SoundRobe” Department.
In that same episode, there was another big set piece that’s a good example of the show’s approach. It’s set in the main hall of the Steiner Family Resort, a place meant to typify the old Jewish Catskills—the land of canoes and knishes—where families would go and spend the whole summer away from the sweltering city. It’s also where some of our funniest comics like Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Sid Caesar, and Mort Sahl, among so many others, honed their comic chops.
In the episode, Steiner director Pauly (Saul Rubinek) introduces our MC, Buzz Goldberg (Brandon Uranowitz), who starts the “Initial Dance Challenge,” where you can only dance if it’s with someone with your same initials. Pretty silly stuff. There was a big band pre-recorded by our Music Producer, Stewart Lerman, and about thirty to forty highly choreographed, spinning and stomping couples, swing dancing on a wooden floor to Benny Goodman’s classic, “Sing Sing Sing.” Midge Maisel dances and talks with a number of them while the Steadicam swirls around the dance floor in a big, unedited nine page oner. In addition, Rose (Marin Hinkle) and Abe Weissman (Tony Shalhoub) had dialog and there were eight dancing talkers, along with the host, and MC (both wired and also on a live stage mic). I also had a boom out and took music and timecode feeds from our Pro Tools operator.
To handle all of that, we had a six-person Sound Department which is always fun since we’re usually overwhelmed by seemingly dozens of camera people. My crew included my Boom Op, Carmine Picarello, and my Utility, Spyros Poulos, who had been a Music Producer for many years, and works with me planning much of the mic placement for our live music recordings. There were more tracks than I had radio mics for at the time, so I brought in an additional mixer, Julian Townsend, to handle the overflow. I assigned him specific cast and he fed his sub-mix to me which I then folded into the rest of my mono mix for dailies. In addition, we used more than thirty earwigs and had a thump track ready to go.
Unlike many comedies I’ve mixed where you wire everyone, let them go and the actors all ad-lib, I’m at a real advantage with Maisel in that we tend to get a few rehearsals. They’re needed because many of our shots are elaborately choreographed. Mixing as much episodic TV as I have, the dreaded “Let’s just shoot the rehearsal and see what happens” approach rarely applies, and I’ve gotten pretty spoiled by that. In addition, Amy and Dan insist that the scripts be very strictly adhered to—every word, comma, and pause. Our principal cast understands that, but I’ve seen an actor terrified of flubbing a word or two near the end of a big, multi-page oner, knowing we would have to reset to the top, especially after multiple takes. I once had a wire on an actor who was so thin, I was faintly picking up her heartbeat and I could hear it beating faster the closer we got to the end of the scene. It even stresses me out!
They’re so adamant about it, we even have TWO script supervisors at all times, one to watch for continuity and the other just to listen to the words! That’s another first for me, but it speaks to the highest level of quality they demand, and the time and money they pour into this unique show.
All of our stand-up performances are filmed with at least three cameras. They are lit with hard spots so, for consistency from shot to shot, we don’t even try to boom them. I always wire Midge but keeping it clean is challenging because of her custom-made wardrobe, and hyper-critical because if it’s at all scratchy, it will get into the reverb that’s always added when they “worldize” every set we shoot in. Ron Bochar, our Re-recording Mixer, swears by Altiverb. By the start of Season 2, at my request, our Prop Department, along with Gotham Sound, started to modify many of the on-camera vintage mic shells with Shure lav elements from their new TL series. They sound really great with nice, smooth off-axis response. We always hard wire them and I use them as my primary source.
In the show, Midge Maisel is what we call a “stalker,” in that she roams the stage holding the mic during her set so her relationship to the mic is pretty consistent. Lenny Bruce (Luke Kirby), however, leaves it on the stand when he performs so I always have my finger on his lav fader for the times when he turns his head or backs away from the mic and I’ll blend the two while trying to avoid any potential phasing. Sara Stern, our Dialog Editor, uses Auto Align Post to help. On the other hand, it often sounds very natural to lose him a little when he does go off mic.
Another challenge, though more for editorial than for me, is in getting clean performances without too much of the audience’s reactions bleeding in. As production mixers, capturing the performance and keeping the dialog tracks clean are our primary directives. I remember mixing scenes on The Sopranos when all of the guys would get together in a room and we’d do wide masters where everyone is having a blast and joking and laughing, then when we would go in for singles, I would try to limit any off-screen overlaps in order to keep the on-camera tracks clean. It would suck the air right out of the room and the performances would just go south. On Maisel, Rachel and Jane Lynch (Sophie Lennon) understand, and are amazingly good at faking it. When we bring in actors for the day to play some of the old-time comedians, they can get really thrown by the quiet background and you can see how it can affect their performance. For the sake of a good performance, I let the background go, strive for the punchiest dialog and just hope post can fix it when they lay in all the background.
When I am given the time to get a take with the background actors silent we then record wild tracks with all manner of reactions, from chuckles, guffaws, and swelling laughter to different levels of applause. Some of Mrs. Maisel’s jokes are directed at the women in the audience so we’ll also get reactions just from them. Post now has a well-trained loop group that are brought in to supplement and fill out the tracks because ASP is very specific about what she wants to hear.
Amy Sherman-Palladino was originally a dancer and watching her move through a space as she choreographs all of our oners with our incredible Steadicam Operator Jim McConkey is a joy. We don’t just have our AD’s move background through a scene, we bring in a choreographer for that. We’ll even play music on set just for McConkey to Steadicam to the music. ASP is very musical, has brilliant ears, and she’s incredibly sound-conscious.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel has won multiple awards for music supervision and we upped the ante for Season 3 by sending our eponymous Mrs. Maisel on tour as the opening act for the Johnny Mathis-like singer, Shy Baldwin. He’s acted by LeRoy McClain, but his gorgeous singing vocals were voiced by Darius de Haas.
When it comes to the musical performances, we do something I’ve never done before. I call it “live to tape.” ASP is very specific that all of the recordings happen in the actual locations we film in because she wants the music to sound “right” in the space. For some of the smaller combos, my team and I will get an hour or so pre-call on the day to pre-record the band. Then we turn it over to Egor Panchenko, our Pro Tools Operator, for playback. We’ll use the usual combination of straight playback, earwigs, and/or a thump track in order to get the dialog as clean as possible. But the show gets pretty big sometimes and as the season progressed, ASP wanted more than pre-record playback, she wanted us to record the music live during filming.
This is made all the more challenging because LeRoy isn’t a singer. In S3 E3 “Panty Pose,” I experienced another first. After bombing on stage at one of her first big gigs, Midge’s manager Susie pushes Midge to get back on stage to regain her momentum. At some point, after the crowd grows and Midge gets her groove back, Shy, his manager Reggie (Sterling K. Brown), and his whole entourage show up. Midge cedes the mic to Shy but when his piano player starts “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby,” Reggie takes the lead vocal and Shy sits in on harmonies.
Amy wanted it all recorded live, so Reggie stepped up to the live stage mic (a modified vintage shell) that Midge had been using for her set, and my utility hid two Schoeps MK41’s on the underside of the piano. Where it got fun was when we placed Shy’s real vocalist, Darius de Haas, off stage with a clear line of sight, a Shure SM58 on a stand and a couple of sound blankets on either side of him to help isolate his vocals. He sang Shy’s harmonies live, while LeRoy nailed a perfect lip sync. I had never done live lip syncing before that.
Another live recording we did was in S3 E5, “It’s Comedy or Cabbage.” We recreated a classic Playboy After Dark episode that featured Lenny Bruce as a guest (you can find it on YouTube). It was a nine-and-a-half-page oner with ten talkers, dancers, and a jazz quartet with a vocalist who also has dialog. Although shots were cut in after the fact, we initially did it as another single-shot set piece. Everyone was wired of course, but we were told no mics could be seen except for a vintage prop mic on an overhead boom stand. My Utility, Spyros Poulos, devised a stealth mic’ing plan that worked really well. We hid a MK41 under the piano, the vocalist was wired, we snuck a bidirectional capsule between the tom and the snare, hid a Schoeps on a Collette cable behind the overhead prop mic and above the drum kit, another Schoeps MK41 hidden behind a piano leg facing the upright bass, and we wired the trumpeter’s sleeve. All in a day’s work!
One thing I’ve learned from Maisel is to embrace the wires. I started my career with a mono Nagra and a 416 and would love to be able to boom everything. Yet it’s just not practical and often not even possible to do that with the way films and TV shows are shot today. My advice is to really hone your wiring skills. I cannot tell you how many scenes we do on Maisel that are all wires, although I always mix in the boom to bring it alive.
The show wouldn’t sound anywhere near as good as it does without my crew, the miraculous work of our Dialog Editor, Sara Stern, and our very talented Re-recording Mixer, Ron Bochar CAS, who believes that “post production begins on the first day of production … the first time you open a mic on set.” A major benefit of a multi-season show is the deeper relationships and easier communication with our friends in Post, and we all know how important that relationship is. They can sometimes make or break us, and I’ve been very fortunate to be welcomed into the spotting sessions and final mix anytime I want.
Finally, the amazing vocal skills of every single one of our cast cannot be overemphasized. Tony Shalhoub is a national treasure, and everyone else is just a joy to work with. I have never heard anyone speak so fast and enunciate as well as Rachel Brosnahan. I am very fortunate to not have any mumblers or whisperers, so low signal-to-noise is never an issue. I cannot wait to start up Season 4 to see what kind of crazy challenges they’re going to throw at us. One thing for sure? Hilarity will ensue!