Do you ever stop and think about why Netflix’s hit show Stranger Things became an overnight success? Is it the iconic ‘80s motif that captivates the viewer? Is it the intrigue of the unknown? Or maybe it’s the band of clever characters perfectly placed within the show’s plot. Then there’s the opening credit sequence. In under a minute, the intro sucks you into the sci-fi mystery with the slow build of synthesizers and neon-red graphics. We would argue that the show’s distinctive sound design and careful editing carries equal weight in its overall success.
For the SFX enthusiasts reading this post, we’re tapping the shoulder of Jordan Wilby who was the Lead Sound Effects Editor for Stranger Things Seasons 1 and 2. Jordan is a graduate of The Los Angeles Recording School, a division of The Los Angeles Film School, and has worked in sound effects for over a decade. As a key player on the show’s editorial team, Jordan is no stranger to the editing pipeline. Before Stranger Things, Jordan worked on a multitude of Marvel productions including The Punisher, Jessica Jones and Daredevil. His dedication to sound and post-production audio landed him multiple Emmy nominations and two wins for his work on Stranger Things.
It Takes A Village
If you aren’t familiar with the sound editing process, there are many people who make up the editing team. Jordan Wilby worked on Technicolor’s sound team for Stranger Things, which included Lead Sound Designer Craig Henighan, Supervising Sound Editor Brad North, several Foley artists, a music editor and a dialogue editor. Jordan felt very fortunate to work with and learn from Henighan, who designed the “big ticket” sound items that most people associate with Stranger Things. The distant, howling sound of the Demogorgon. The extra-terrestrial echoes used in the parallel dimension better known as the Upside Down. And so on. Additional sound design, audio creative direction and editing were all done by the Emmy-winning sound team at Technicolor.
Fun Fact: Technicolor is located on Sunset Blvd., right down the street from The Los Angeles Film School and The Los Angeles Recording School.
Take us through the sound design process and the work you contribute to the editorial team.
First off, this answer will vary depending on what type of content the sound designer is working on (theatrical feature, broadcast/streaming, video game, etc.). My experience is primarily in the area of broadcast/streaming, but there’s a fair amount of crossover in regard to how the work is approached and executed. It should also be noted that completed sound design is often subjective in nature and should be treated as such.
In my experience, the most important component of sound design is to help sonically execute the vision of the producer, director, mixers and your supervising sound editor—on time, within budget, sounding great— with a smile on your face. There’s a tendency for new editors/designers to creatively approach their projects/scenes/sequences with their creative preferences first and supervisors + clients second, which is understandable, but should be corrected sooner than later.
So, once I’m clear with what the goal is creatively, I begin asking questions (and answering them as quickly as possible) as to how to reach that goal, and when does my material need to be delivered to the mix tech/mix stage by.
Key Questions to Ask Yourself When Sound Editing
Do I have a relationship with the FX mixer and know how he likes his sessions set up and laid out? If not, what is the best way to contact him and how soon? The sooner the better. Do I have the material (sound FX) I need to cover all of the basic content in the project? If not, do I have time and recording equipment that I can use to record new material, which is ideal although not always possible? Do I have plugins that I might need for “design-y”/non-terrestrial type sequences? Also, if I have several ongoing projects, do I have a supporting editor/designer that I need to rely on? If so, are they clear on what the creative vision/goals are and how to execute them in the time I need them?
Once those questions are answered, and I’m organized, I can go about sitting down and cutting sounds into a scene, which is often the fun part most people visualize when they think of sound design.
Long story short, these sounds need to support the story + vision (see above) and be organized properly in your session (VERY IMPORTANT). You could have to the greatest sounds in the world, but if they’re not organized in such a way that the mixer can access quickly and easily, then you’ll get grief and eventually a cold shoulder if your sessions aren’t cleaned up over time.
At this point I’m confident that my source material is accessible, my work is organized, and on-point with regards to creative direction from above. THEN I can add my own personal flourishes within scope of the project as I see fit. And these flourishes help make up my distinctive sound, my signature, my “sonic voice” if you will. And this usually takes YEARS to flesh out, and often is a result of one’s life experiences, which is pretty cool if you stop to think about it.
Once my session is complete, I’ll watch it down against picture, production dialogue and music, and pick up any loose ends I missed. Then I deliver it to the mix stage via a shared, in-house network server, let the mix tech know it’s ready to go, and then start from the top with the next episode, reel, etc.
What did you contribute to Seasons 1 and 2 of Stranger Things?
In regard to my specific contribution to Stranger Things, it was building out all of the non-dialogue aspects of the show. That includes terrestrial elements like backgrounds, ambiences, car crashes, fight scenes, bicycles pedaling, etc.
Do you have a favorite software that you use for editing?
Avid Pro Tools has been the industry standard for feature and broadcast/streaming for some time now and is what I’m most experienced with. In regard to plugins, I’ve made a point of sticking with the fundamentals (eq+reverb, maybe a bit of compression) as opposed to crazy long chains (especially ones that might not be supported on stage). The Pro Tools EQ3 7 Band and Altiverb 7 has covered most of my needs in that respect. I’d much prefer to start with and layer the right source material as opposed to processing something to death that was poorly recorded to begin with.
What got you into sound design/effects and how did you transition into working on major productions like Stranger Things?
I was very much interested in electronic music in the ‘90s and early 2000s around the time I started (and still am). I remember being at The Los Angeles Recording School around the time the whole Napster/LimeWire/file-sharing thing was just starting to blow up, and people were stressing as to what the future might hold. I honestly didn’t have the courage at the time to try and crack the music business in that environment, especially without prior music training nor connections. I still really wanted to get into sound, and post-production was the next logical choice. It seemed like a pretty exciting career to get into. Toward the end of my time at The Los Angeles Recording School, I lucked into an unpaid internship at a boutique theatrical studio, did that for a year, and was offered a runner job at Technicolor for something like $8 an hour. After about 12+ years of blood, sweat and tears working on various projects, I had positioned myself as one of a handful of in-house sound designers who could handle high-profile projects such as Stranger Things and the Marvel/Netflix stuff, and I got the call.
An old friend once said that “great work finds its way to people who will appreciate it,” and I still believe that to be true.
Where does the sound inspiration for “Stranger Things” come from?
The haunting, ‘80s synth-based score pays homage to movies like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. and many other classic sci-fi thrillers from that era. I also tapped into childhood memories and experiences from the early-to-mid ‘80s when working on the show.
What’s your advice to anyone interested in audio or music production?
I would suggest that you really focus on your interpersonal communication skills in a studio environment. Post-production sound is a collaborative process, which requires you to communicate what you bring to the table, and how it will improve the project as a whole, while sometimes being just a piece of the puzzle when a less visible presence is required.
In regard to the more “technical,” try different things (dialogue, FX, Foley, mixing, designing/editing, etc.), and ideally try to settle on one that suits your personality! Work as hard as you can prior to your big break so that you’re ready when it comes along.
Develop a love of learning. Develop a desire to constantly improve yourself. Don’t be afraid to fail, or at least do your best to keep that fear in check.
Jordan is currently working on the Twilight Zone reboot and will start work on HBO’s new show Watchmen early summer 2019.
If you would like to ask Jordan more about his work and experiences in sound editing, you can find him on Twitter at @jbw3e. DMs are open.
If you are interested in post-production sound effects editing, check out our Audio Production Degree Program. You can choose from either a Bachelor’s of Science or an Associate of Science in Audio Production.
Thank you, Jordan!