Beach Party

The visual appeal of the Baywatch TV series belies the problems implicit in capturing audio against a backdrop of surf and traffic. Richard Buskin asks where they put the radio mics

by Richard Buskin

ss1097uu015Being assigned to write about Baywatch from the perspective of sound recording and postproduction is practically like being born a triplet to Pamela Anderson--and ending up as the one on the bottle. Such is the lot of the audio journalist.

Shot almost entirely on the beach at Temescal Canyon, where the surf comes crashing on one side and Pacific Coast Highway vehicles come close to crashing on the other, Baywatch represents a potential nightmare for any sound crew. In reality, however, it comprises a slick and fairly straightforward operation.

'When 200 hours of a show have been produced over the course of eight seasons, there are not a whole lot of surprises,' says supervising producer, David Hagar. 'If I was going to start a new series tomorrow I would take more time looping, pay more attention to the performances and spend more time mixing in order to find the right sound. Baywatch found that sound in its first season of syndication.'

Hagar has been with the show ever since its inception nine years ago, when, alongside Greg Bonnan, he helped sell it to the American NBC. As the initial script about California lifeguards hadn't exactly set the networks on fire, they had decided to shoot what amounted to a music video in order to sell the concept. And it worked.

Some 22 episodes later, NBC dropped Baywatch and British London Weekend Television--keen to please its viewers--put up enough money to keep the show in production. Although sufficient, the budget wasn't enormous, and so this meant the tightening of belts, doubling-up of jobs and setting up of a small independent studio.

'If anything, being away from NBC gave us more freedom,' Hagar recalls. 'We were totally responsible for the look of the show and there was no outside influence controlling us. In terms of the sound, for instance, when we were at NBC we had to deal with what is known as the studio mix. That's where your associate producer mixes it, then another producer comes in and mixes it, and then another producer over him comes in and mixes it again, and then the studio mixes it. As a result, by the time you get done you end up with a flat, totally predictable soundtrack which is all perfectly balanced, nothing sticks out and no statement is made.

'On the other hand, when we went into our first year of syndication I was the only person who I had to please. I was responsible for mixing the sound, and I like to experiment a little bit. I like the music and effects to be a little louder, instead of going for a safe mix. Iwant to push the storyline as you would normally do with a movie, and I feel that being independent has allowed us to set the standard in that way. The only thing is, because of the time slot when Baywatch is shown in England, we have to refrain from the sort of mainstream violence that is now popular in this country.'

Hagar produces, does some of the editing and, along with show producers Doug Schwartz and Greg Bonnan, is one of a team of five people who take turns at directing. His wife Cathy, who came onboard during the first season, is a producer and she oversees all of the post audio work. Given the joke that Baywatch is just as enjoyable with the sound turned down, how much emphasis is actually placed on this aspect of the production?

'We've always maintained that, if the dollars are going to be put anywhere, they should go into the quality of the picture and the audio,' says Hagar. 'That way, instead of everything being spent on expensive actors, writers or directors, the finished product looks and sounds like a network show, and that's paid off for us big time. In fact, we've had people from the networks poke their noses in to see how we do what we do, because, whether you like Baywatch or not, the show is of an impeccable quality.'

'There are two music montages in every show, and it takes quite a big budget to secure great contemporary music for that,' Cathy Hagar points out. 'It's pretty unusual to devote so much money in that respect, but David really created that whole style.'

'We have a special team devoted to picking, preparing and editing the music for the video sequences in Baywatch,' David Hagar adds. 'That was the concept that grabbed NBC, and when we tried to drop it halfway through the first season NBC said that, if there were no music videos in the shows, they didn't want them. That's how important it became, and now it's carried over into the syndicated version and been copied by other shows.'

In fact, according to Cathy Dwyer-Hagar, the songs are picked based on the storylines, and sometimes the stories are even based on the songs. The first unit shooting for each show usually takes about five days, with another two afforded for second unit filming of the music video and water-related action sequences. From all of this, about 75% of the production dialogue is retained, which is good going considering the mainly outdoor locations. Nevertheless, given that there are 13 cast members, the remaining 25% still amounts to about ten hours of looping--quite a lot of work.

'For the past couple of years we've used NoNoise, and that's been a lifesaver for us,' says Cathy (with no pun intended). 'We can take scenes that we either used to have to loop or live with and NoNoise them, and I've really been surprised at how well that has worked. We use between three and five hours of NoNoise per episode, and I think the success associated with it has a lot to do with the technician operating it.

'I mean, if the NoNoise works you're just amazed, because it will turn around a scene that you really couldn't hear before. You see, a lot of times we shoot inside towers, so we've got the ocean coming into the tower, the Pacific Coast Highway behind us, and it all kind of bounces around on three walls. Now, it's very hard to loop a dramatic or emotional scene, but we've taken some of those and, with the NoNoise, just made them wonderful. Sometimes if the NoNoise isn't good it sounds a little tinny, so often we'll do both--loop and use NoNoise--and then go with what sounds best.'

Actually, one of the advantages of working mainly outdoors is that there aren't a lot of creaking sets. At the same time, working on Baywatch, there aren't too many heavy costumes either, which is both a blessing and a potential curse. After all, where do you put the radio mics?

'It's a tough show to do, but our production sound mixer, Hal Whitby, is really exceptional,' says David Hagar. 'If you think about it, when all of the cast members are wearing bathing suits he's got to capture most of his sound with an overhead boom. On the other hand, while the lifeguard uniforms permit miking on the body, the white noise from the ocean on one side and the PCH traffic on the other, together with someone speaking very softly, don't help to make his life any easier. It's therefore amazing what he does get.'

'Hal's a great guy,' adds Cathy. 'He's very suntanned.' 'It's true,' says David. 'When you think about it, the crew spend the entire summer, ten to 14 hours a day, outside on the sand, so they look like a bunch of hippy surfers. They push a 50-foot crane around out there, and these guys are experts at getting the show done out there on the beach. They're on schedule every time.' Their annual schedule amounts to 22shows which are filmed from July through to the end of November.

'With his Nagra, Hal tends to record the dialogue pretty hot, and occasionally we have some distortion,' says Cathy. 'However, it's much better to loop some distortion every now and again or to live with it and still have more to work with.'

'At the same time, to save on overheads, almost everything that the second unit shoots is without sound. Sometimes these are huge scenes, with boats racing and various other types of action, and it's really amazing to see these come in silent. They once shot this 6-minute or 7-minute roller hockey sequence with no sound at all. It was incredible.

'We have two sound supervisors, Mark and Bob, and they go through everything frame, by frame, by frame to make sure that we add all that we need to add in looping. I split up the shows between them, and in the past I've even used two separate studios; Sony for half of the shows and Modern Sound for the other half. The whole reason for this is that they want six days to re-edit the sound and prepare for the mix, and the longer that you go with that 6-day turnaround then the further it pushes your postproduction. Now, I've been asked over the years as to how we can deliver shows faster. We're a syndicated show and, unlike at a network, we get paid when we deliver. However, we certainly didn't want to turn things around in five days because then we'd end up with a show that doesn't sound so good.

'So we decided to use the two separate facilities, and although I had to rush back and forth like a crazy person, mixing and looping, at each place that I went I had a person who was dedicated to the show and who wasn't rushed. This year we kept the whole thing here at Sony, but we've still got the two guys working separately on the show.'

For between five to eight hours each week The Baywatch Production Company uses The Loop Group, comprising the services of six people who take care of much of the ADR. Then there is the looping trailer--an idea of Cathy's--which the Baywatch team pulls up into its studio parking lot so that, while the actors are on a break, they can do some on-the-spot dubbing.

'It's spectacular,' says David Hagar with regard to the trailer. 'You cannot tell the difference between what is done at the studio or in the parking lot.' The trailer is generally utilised one day a week, while another day is allotted to The Loop Group whose six-strong team can't be fitted into said trailer.

'We have a flat rate that we pay for sound work and we never exceed that,' says Cathy. 'In that way we're able to make money. We loop hourly but we keep it within range, and the people have always come through for us. Every time we've delivered a sequence with no sound they've always made it sound great. I don't know how they do it but I've never been unhappy.'

As mentioned, the sound for Baywatch has been pretty much nailed down since the first season that it went into syndication. Aside from the advent of NoNoise the other major advancement has been with regard to the switch from an  alogue to digital.

'I love the ability to move effects and music cues faster,' says David Hagar. 'It's been marvellous for us.' For the past 21/2 years the audio post work on Baywatch has taken place at Sony Studios, on the legendary Culver City lot that once belonged to MGM. Dubbing Stage 6 houses a Harrison MPC console with 76 inputs on the A side, 76 on the B side and 12 8-channel gain faders. For recording there are two 24-track Otari's, while for playback there's a pair of ATR 24s in addition to five DA-88s.

Baywatch is mixed in surround format, but it isn't mixed to Surround. Taking care of music in this regard is Tony D'Amico; John Taylor is the dialogue mixer; and Carlos de Larios
'He puts all of the loud noises in,' jokes Taylor.

'Obviously it's really great to have the automation,' says Cathy Hagar, 'but, having mixed on a whole bunch of different stages with lots of different consoles, we've found that what you end up with really has to do with the talent; the people you have working on the music and dialogue. We've mixed with two and three mixers--it was great when we worked with two, but it was a little more hectic. Nevertheless, we still got the show done and it still sounded great.

'We usually spend two days, or 18 hours, on the looping and ADR, and then we mix the show in one day, which is pretty unusual for an hour of action and adventure. The next day we do a temporary layback and take that to the executive producers who make some changes, and then a couple of days after that we usually do fixes for about two hours, and shortly afterwards we're out.

'In all, it takes us four to six weeks from the time that we begin shooting until we online, and then it's another three weeks until delivery. Both processes could be shortened, but the four to six weeks until we online gives us time to look at the episodes, make adjustments and change scenes. Sometimes we'll even take a storyline out of one show and put it in another, so it really gives us time to tinker with it and make sure we're happy. Because the thing we don't want to do is spend money after the fact or spend money poorly.

'You hear about a lot of shows that start fooling around with onlines after they've onlined them, or they go to the mix and they decide they want to change a scene, but we don't do that. Once we online a show it's live. It goes to sound, we spot it with the sound supervisor immediately the day after it onlines, we loop the very next week, we mix the week after that, and then I always allow myself six days from when I do the mix until I have to deliver the episode. A lot of shows mix an episode and satellite it out the next day, but I'd have a heart attack if I had to do that! When you do it faster I don't think you really gain anything in terms of creativity. Instead I think you lose in terms of creativity, because you don't have an opportunity to look at it with perspective.'

ss1097uu014Going back to the looping, much of this is necessitated by the producers' philosophy of having water in nearly every shot. 'When you're on the beach you want to see water,' asserts David Hagar. 'Sometimes, as much as I yell and holler, they'll go right down to where the waves crash on the sands and do dialogue scenes. So, you can rest assured that pretty much every scene where the characters walk and talk down by the shoreline is looped.'

In terms of the Foley and effects, there are helicopters and boats, as well as plenty of running and heavy panting, and some extra sounds of the surf in order to help smooth out the dialogue.

'Basically, it's such a noisy show,' says Cathy. 'We've got music, we've got waves, we've got boats, we've got helicopters, we've got cars, and in the mix we really try to find what works and allow that to breath for a moment. It's very tempting to bring everything up, but all of it together doesn't work. You really have to make some kind of choices all the way through, and you have a lot of choices because there's a lot of stuff.

'The question that I always ask is, "Are there any backgrounds that we can lose?", and the answer is always "No, we want that". All of the people who work on the show really work hard, and I think they all want to hear their stuff. I mean, the music guys want to hear their music, the effects people want to hear their effects, and logistically it can be difficult sometimes giving everyone a moment in which to show what they've done.

'So, you see, the sound on Baywatch is really a big deal. We're really conscientious about producing a good show without over-producing it. Especially when there are new cast members, what we don't want to do is reloop everything for the sake of performance. That doesn't make things a whole lot better. We want to give them an opportunity to grow and to only loop out of necessity.'

'Getting the actors to speak properly is the major objective,' adds David Hagar. 'David [Hasselhoff] is no problem, because he's professional and he cuts through, and he's a father-figure on the set, coaching the other cast members. Most of them learn something pretty quick: If you mumble you're going to find yourself in front of a screen with beeps. Well, they're not crazy on having to drive back and forth for the looping at the studio, so they learn to project a little differently.'

Talking of which, as we come to the end of our interview sitting in the Rita Hayworth restaurant on the Sony studio lot, who should walk up to our table but Pamela Anderson. A pleasant coincidence. There again, as she left the show at the end of last season I don't think it's fair to ask her about the sound...

Studio Sound, Oct 97

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