The Sound of Silence: Darryl L. Frank

As Breaking Bad comes to an end, the Emmy Award-nominated production sound mixer discusses why the show's lack of audio gimmicks is one of its greatest weapons.

 

Despite its unlikely premise, Breaking Bad’s commitment to making the morally complex world of lead character Walter White real is what makes the series palatable to audiences who don’t have a background in dealing meth. The show’s production sound mixer, Darryl L. Frank, is a vital part of that authenticity. Working with an on-set sound crew of just two other people, Frank ensures that the show feels as real to the ears as it does to the eyes. That means relying less on the music and sound effects that other shows lean on, and focusing instead on capturing the perfect pitch even in the most acoustically unfriendly of places. 

Frank started his career by making music. After graduating from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., Frank cold called local production studios until he found one that was desperate for a sound tech fill-in over Independence Day weekend. Turning a short-term assignment into a full-time job, Frank spent his early years making corporate spots in Rochester for companies like Kodak and Xerox before moving to San Diego.

When I got out to California, I hooked up with a small production company and with a small production company, every day you’re doing something different,” he says. “You might have to go out and shoot something. You might have to edit something. You might have to do sound on something or you might be doing lighting. If you can do all those skills, you’re a better asset.”

Frank credits his varied production background as the reason he’s been able to land jobs ranging from a camera operator gig on the reality series Temptation Island, to sound mixing work on series like Wildfire, Easy Money, and Comanche Moon, which garnered him a Primetime Emmy nomination. But Breaking Bad has, by far, been his most popular project to date. Frank and crew have nabbed two Cinema Audio Society nominations, a Primetime Emmy nomination and a Technical Excellence & Creativity (TEC) award for sound work while the show has won seven Emmys since 2008. As it was announced recently, Frank is nominated for yet another Emmy with colleagues Jeff Perkins and Eric Justen for last seasons’ “Dead Freight” episode.

Get In Media: How did Breaking Bad come about for you?

Darry L. Frank: Breaking Bad basically came to New Mexico to do a pilot. I was like “Boy, this show is never going to go anywhere. We’ll do a pilot and we’ll never see or hear of this show ever again.” That’s kind of what everybody thought because it was so crazy. And then boom! When it came back, I didn’t work on it. I was working on another show. I basically just did the pilot and then it went to the third season and then I came back on the beginning of the third season. I’ve been on it since then.

GIM: I’ve read that the show uses less music and sound effects than some other things out there. Is that the case?

DLF: Up until, I would say it was the beginning of Season Four, they didn’t use any music other than the theme music or a song for a montage or something, but they didn’t put any sound effects hardly. They didn’t use any music and a lot of people were saying that’s what we needed for the show to step it up a level and make it a notch higher. Our creator, Vince [Gilligan], didn’t want to do it. He fought it for three seasons because he liked the reality of natural sound and not [using ADR for] lines and basically what we get is what we use type of thing.

When you look at a wide shot, if you really listen to it, what we record on the wide shot is a lot of times what they use on the production audio. That is really amazing because on most shows, they use the best quality of the sound, which is your really tight, covered shots. But when you’re shooting a Breaking Bad wide shot, looking down on the corner with a 12mm lens, looking through a window or something, it doesn’t sound like that. It sounds roomy. It sounds like what it looks like, and a lot of shows don’t do that. We shoot it that way and we record it that way and they use it that way, which is really amazing. I think it adds to putting you in there rather than making it fake.

GIM: Does that put more pressure on you?

DLF: Oh yeah. It’s huge pressure. It’s huge pressure everyday. Because basically [there are] three people, maybe four with a director, with a pair of headphones on their head listening to the sound or caring about the sound. Everybody else is trying to do their job; moving big heavy equipment around, taking care of the lights, whatever. [They are] making noises that you would think “That’s not a big deal,” but then when you put a pair of headphones on you’re like, “What the heck is that noise?” You can’t hear the person talk. You’re trying to fight for every bit of silence you can get, and on location that can be tough.

We were shooting at a car wash, that’s always fun. Not to mention that it’s very wet and damp, but it’s also very loud and it’s hard to shoot in these loud locations. A lot of good locations that we shoot at, not good, but pretty is what I mean, are very amazing visual locations, like the junkyard. You want to shoot sound in a junkyard with a big magnet lifting? Yes! And that’s what we did and it sounded pretty good, but it was really hard. A lot of shows, they will fix it later. “We know it’s a problem, move on,” and then they bring in the actors and they do it in the studio and it sounds like it. It doesn’t sound like they’re even on the set because they’re not. I mean, they’re standing on the set, but they’re not talking on the set. We don’t do that with Breaking Bad, which is great. I think it just helps the story that much more, as well as visually, it helps it audibly because it puts you into the story.

GIM: Do you have any say in [where you shoot]?

DLF: Usually not, because we don’t get to go on location scouts. Traditionally, on a location scout, all the department heads go to all of the locations and they’ll talk about what we’re going to do and we’re going to see through these windows and we’re going to drive down these roads or whatever. Then everybody can make their notes for the crews to make it happen and that’s usually my opportunity to say, “Can we move away from the freeway? Can we get the hell out of here?” They usually look at me and laugh. 

With our schedule, we’ll stop halfway through the day and start on a new episode with a new director, so there is no prep time. You’re literally going “Ok! Thank you! Goodbye! Hello, new episode,” literally that quickly. It’s not like you’re going on a location scout. You’re picking up another script and starting to shoot it. Other departments, it’s easier because they have more people so they can take somebody and send them on these meetings and scouts, but we don’t have that luxury. We’re busy doing the stuff on the day to day of what we’re shooting.

GIM: Breaking Bad shoots a new episode every eight days. Could you walk me through what you’re doing during those eight days?

DLF: Basically, everyday it’s the same thing. We show up. An hour after we show up, we’re shooting something and two hours later, we’re shooting another scene and three hours later, we’re at lunch and on to another location. We’ll do that for three or four days and then we might end up on the stage for a couple days. We have very few things on the stage, in a studio environment. It’s all on location, practical locations, so it’s a lot like a big carnival circus running around Albuquerque. A rule of thumb in television is that if you don’t get your first shot off in the first hour, you’re not going to make your day. It’s not like feature films where you show up and maybe later this afternoon we’re going to shoot something and maybe tomorrow we’ll shoot this scene or whatever. You can’t do that because you don’t have the time or the money because we’re all locked into a schedule of editing and delivering to networks and stuff like that. If we delay production, it delays everything.

GIM: What would you recommend for someone who wants to break into your job?

DLF: It’s hard. Education is great, but you’ve got to make sure it’s technical and it’s hands on. You can’t go to a school that’s going to let you just tell stories to death. Those are fun and they’re great, but you’re not going to get a job out of those things. You’re going to get a job out of those things when someone says, “What can you do? What can you use? What pieces of equipment can you make it do its thing? Show me your craft.” If you can volunteer on student films or whatever, that’s how to do it. Just follow your passions. That’s what I did.

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