This is Us

by Michael Krikorian CAS

This Is Us is an hour-long single-camera episodic TV show produced by 20th Century Fox for NBC with wall-to-wall dialog. I received a call to work on the pilot last year late February and was blown away when I read the script. I’m a tough critic when I read through scripts but the pilot moved me. It was by far one of the best scripts I have read and I was extremely excited to be working on it.

I called Erin Paul to boom and Tim O’Malley for utility and lucky for me, they both were available. Erin, Tim and I had worked with each other on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., American Horror Story and a few other shows on their double-up units. We became fast friends, worked well together and got along great, which to me is a godsend. I can’t recall ever having a disagreement with Erin or Tim, except when Tim doesn’t let Erin and I know that crafty brought some hot food onstage. Erin and I give Tim the works but of course, it is all in fun.

The show was picked up with a scheduled start date for the and of July. We had a pickup order for thirteen episodes, but after our first episode aired, we received an order for sixteen episodes, then shortly after that, they bumped it up to eighteen.

As with most TV shows, it is important that we capture the dialog with the best means possible in the environment we are given. Boom Operator Erin Paul is the frontman, he reads through the sides and nails down his cues. Erin is solid and smooth with the mic and in full communication with our camera operators working out the framing. Tim, sound utility, preps the wireless mics and handles all the wiring of our actors. His wiring skills are spot on and he is familiar with all the current equipment, making him invaluable to our sound team. On top of that, the actors love him. Erin, Tim and I talk through the scene after we have seen a marking rehearsal, and we stay alert and pay attention to what is up next. A well-informed crew will always be ahead of the curveball.

Our first season was shot on the Paramount lot on two stages and a swing stage. Randall (Sterling K. Brown) and Beth’s (Susan Kelechi Watson) house is on one stage while Jack and Rebecca’s (played by Milo Ventimiglia and Mandy Moore) house is on another. The exterior scenes of the houses are shot on location, while most of the Pennsylvania and New York exterior scenes are on the backlot.

It is a fast-paced show, with lots of moves per day, and because of that, we have to have everything on the follow cart for our next location. To make our moves quicker, we often load up on a stake bed. Luckily for us, we have an AD Department that keeps us well informed.

There are times we need to take a stand for sound. In keeping with the style of the show that the producers want, Yasu Tanida, the Director of Photography, uses hard lighting and some practicals to light the set. The show is full of time jumps, flashbacks and present-day scenes, so the lighting changes depending on what time period we are in. For the most part, Yasu does accommodate our requests and stays away from wide and tights and helps with the lighting where he can. When Erin can’t get what is needed with one boom because he will have to cross through some lights, Tim will come in and utilize a second boom. We zone-out the booms and at times, fl y a wire in the mix until the actor crosses the lighting threshold into our booming zones. It gets tricky in the larger scenes but we are always able to come up with some creative way to get what is needed. I find we can get the dialog a bit tighter sounding with two booms, especially with all the overlapping we do. Our directors like the natural feel of the acting with overlaps. We don’t stop or redo a take for sound, though there are times when I’ll request to record a certain line clean. I’ll bring up my concerns to the director if the line gets buried and more often than not, we will do another take to get the line cleaner. This is a show with wallto- wall dialog and our objective is keeping the actors out of the ADR stage. If we can make a simple adjustment to get what we need, I’ll be sure to request it. Yasu and our directors have been pretty fl exible and easy to work with.

We wire everyone who has scripted lines when we aren’t restricted by wardrobe or a shirtless actor and on occasion, we will wire actors even if they don’t have any lines. We communicate with our directors to see if they are expecting any dialog adjustments and try to get a jump on it and wire that actor. We often get some great reaction sounds that make it to air. When it comes to mixing the show, the actors generally stick to the script but when they change it up, we have enough time to make the needed adjustments. The actors have been great to work with and we have had no pushback when it comes to putting mics on them.

While This Is Us is a straightforward show when it comes to recording the dialog, we sometimes have music playback with our Pro Tools 11 rig. The playback cart has a MacBook Pro running PT11 with a MOTU 828x interface. We use a Mackie 1204, Phonak Earwigs, QSC 2450 amps and JBL SRX715 passive speakers. We’ve had Jeff Haddad, Mark Agostino and Gary Raymond in to run the playback. For non-sync atmosphere, we get a handful of stems to suit what our actor wants to hear. Primarily, it is Mandy Moore needing playback, but we also had a live record with Chrissy Metz (Kate) and also Brian Tyree Henry (William’s cousin Ricky). We use speakers onstage and earwigs for the band during scenes that have dialog over music. This gets us the best results for capturing the band and the dialog simultaneously. I started in music recording, so anytime we do live music records, it makes for a fun time and a great challenge.

When we do driving scenes, it is a mix of free driving and process trailers. I’ll pull my recorder off the cart and Tim will start wiring up the car. I love the sound of my trusted Schoeps BLM. We mount it to the header between the two actors in the front seats. It works well in our modernday vehicles but not so great on our vintage automobiles, which tend to be louder and less helpful acoustically. Randall’s current Mercedes-Benz sounds like a sound booth. It is one of the quietest cars in which I have ever recorded. I wish that were true for the older vehicles because they are noisy! We make sure we give Post the options they need to make the scene work.

In the episode after William’s death (played by Ron Cephas Jones), the cast had a celebration of his life. The whole family decided to go on a long walk down Randall’s street, because that was something William did every day. We wired all eight actors with Erin and Tim booming. I got together with our transpo team and the grips, and they helped me rig my sound cart in the back of our video village Sprinter van with the antennas on top of the roof. We were able to drive the van far enough in front of the action to keep the van’s engine out of our mics. We got everything that was needed for the scene to work and I was really happy with the outcome. There are also those moments when going mobile is the only way to go. We had a subway scene with Kevin (Justin Hartley) and Sophie (Alexandra Breckenridge) that had them going on and off a subway car. Production closed down the track around Wilshire and Western. We had to squeeze into the back of the subway car. I used my upright Magliner with two shelves, putting my recorder on top and wireless mics below. It made moving in and out of the subway car much easier.

My sound package isn’t out of the norm, except for one piece of equipment that I added last year to my sound cart: the Aaton Cantar X3 with the Cantarem II. Having this brought me a level of security and allows me to not worry about track count since the X3 can record up to twentyfour tracks. On average, we will have between two to six actors wired. There are times when we will have eight to twelve actors wired as well as music playback. Our Thanksgiving episode had twelve actors wired, three booms and music playback for a total of eighteen tracks, the most I have had to record that season. It was nice to be able to accommodate the scene without having to piecemeal the wireless mics or rent more gear.

This Is Us is a fast-paced show shooting seven-day to eight-day episodes with reasonable hours. There are no late calls with maybe two to three split days all season, which for me is gold. I like to see my family at night and sometimes, I even make it home for dinner. This Is Us is a fun and enjoyable show and I’m hoping it has a long run. I can’t wait to see what season two brings.