Having already worked on WandaVision, Marvel’s first TV series for Disney Plus, production sound mixer Chris Giles is back in the MCU with Ms Marvel.
Giles started his career working in music, but after being asked to help rescue a small film project he discovered the opportunities available working in sound. “Something just clicked in my mind. Of course you need a sound person on set, but I never really thought about it,” he tells TVBEurope. “All I ever thought about was scoring films or doing jingles for commercials.
His journey eventually led him to WandaVision, which he admits turned out to have a bigger impact than first thought. “That show’s success put me on people’s radar, and then I was asked if I would be interested in looking at this project,” he explains. “As soon as it says Marvel on it, you have to repress your excitement a little bit. It’s a project that kind of speaks to what I really want to put out there, so of course I said yes.
“It’s really important to me that the intention behind the show is representing people that don’t get to see themselves on screen. I think that’s one of the beauties of what we do is getting to put something up there on the screen and have it seen by somebody who says ‘hey, this kind of looks like me or my brother or my sister’, they can relate more and start envisioning themselves. So that part of the project was really important.”
The role of the production sound mixer is to be in charge of all the show’s audio during the production phase of the project – that includes making sure the actors’ voices are recorded as cleanly as possible, liaising with the script supervisor, director and producer, and recording ambient sounds that will help the post production audio team tell the story on screen.
On Ms Marvel we travelled a fair amount and went to a lot of different locations. There are certain organic sounds that you just can’t reproduce in a studio so we had to capture those while we were on location,” explains Giles.
Asked to give an example, he cites ambulances. “Ambulances in different parts of the world sound completely different from each other,” he states. “It may not be as important as say, the colour combination on the screen, but there’s a subconscious layer there that helps build that environment.
“Sometimes I might capture the sound of a foreign police car that drives through the scene but maybe somebody was talking at that moment or whatever. The post production team now know exactly what they have to go capture and what they have to reproduce. Our effort is to get basically make that workload extremely light.”
To capture sound on set, Giles uses recorders from Aaton Digital in France. “I have their flagship recorders,” he explains. “I think they’re fantastic, they sound amazing. They take a beating and sometimes they work better than I do.
“I also use Shure Audio and also Zaxcom, which is a more boutique manufacturer based in the United States. I’m one of those very annoying sound people that I don’t have one or two mics. I have a drawer full of microphones and I get really geeky with it. There’s always a dialogue between me and my boom operators about which microphones will sound best. But it’s funny because as I do it more and more, I can actually kind of hear the space and hear the microphone in my brain. I can’t quite explain that very well, but it seems to work out,” he laughs.
That drawer of microphones includes technology from Sennheiser, Neumann, and DPA. Giles has adapted DPA’s mics that were originally intended for symphonic capture, to be used on TV and film sets. “Because they capture at that pristine level, I can use the Shure Audio transmitters and it’s full bitrate and everything just said sounds phenomenal.
“Everybody likes to focus on the boom microphones or the cardioid or hypercardioid microphones, but I would say that the largest advancement that we’ve had is literally the DPA miniature microphones,” he adds. “We hide them everywhere. Sometimes it’s not possible to put a lavalier on an actor for some reason, and you can’t use a boom mic for the shot. So we have literally hidden dozens of microphones all over set because I know they’re going to walk over to a coffee cup and say a line. The DPA mics have really helped us with that.”
In fact, there are some scenes in Ms Marvel where Giles has captured up to 24 channels of audio. In episode two, Kamala attends her mosque’s Eid celebration, which meant a lot of people were on set and in front of the camera. “Maybe someone only has one line, or maybe it’s a person that’s standing near something and they’re kind of a planted microphone because they’re near where the action takes place and I can’t put the microphones somewhere safe. Sometimes it’s better to be on the person that’s standing next to the action, silly little things like that.”
As well as the challenge of capturing multiple channels of audio, Giles and the whole Ms Marvel team had to also deal with Covid. “Usually these jobs are so busy that I’m focused on my specific task and maybe dealing directly with the producers or something to that effect. Sometimes we might not have enough people on set, or something unexpected might come up, and I would have to get involved,” he explains.
“But during the Covid era I haven’t been able to do that as much. It creates a lot of extra additional challenges. If Covid shuts down a project, that project may never come back. So it has changed quite a few things. I can’t go to certain places. I cannot physically wire cast members because I’m in a different section than the crew that does work directly with the cast members. It’s created a lot of additional logistics that we didn’t have before. One of the answers has been to bring more more people into the team, but you can’t get more people when you need them because they have to be tested! It’s just added to the planning. I like technical things, I like developing strategy and asking how am I going to figure out this puzzle piece? And that’s how we do it. We pay attention and we plan.”
Another challenge Giles had to overcome was filming overseas, including shooting in Bangkok. “I’ve spent a lot of time in New York City, Paris, Rome and such, and they’re big cities, but that was crazy,” he says.
“I went to Bangkok while they were still in a state of lockdown and I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many people in one place. It was a sight to see. That in itself is is another challenge because how do you get millions of people to be quiet? The answer is you can’t really! You have to come up with other ideas on how to do it and it’s a combination of technology and technique.”
Asked what he’s most proud of achieving with Ms Marvel, Giles laughs and says “finishing it”.
“There were so many different units and it was took place in multiple locations in the US and then overseas,” he adds. “We had to do a lot of pickups and reshoots just to get the things that we missed because of Covid. I made certain to make myself available through the whole process. That was very, very important to me that we got to see it through from start to finish. That’s the thing I’m most proud of.”