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Interview: Wiley Stateman Finds the Intensity of the ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ Through Sound

THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT Cr. PHIL BRAY/NETFLIX © 2020

The Queen’s Gambit was more than a series, it was a phenomenon that introduced many viewers to the ‘sport’ of chess. To capture the intensity of the game it took a team of creative people; the stellar cast, a visionary show runner, a talented editor and more. That includes a sound designer who was able to tie it all together in an auditory fashion. Wiley Stateman has been a sound designer and sound professional for quite a while working on projects both big and small. He’s been nominated for several Oscars and three Emmys as well as a host of Golden Reel awards. He took on the challenge of tapping into the intensity of The Queen’s Gambit and delivered with Emmy-nominated results. We spoke with him about his career, his process and more. It was a fascinating conversation.

Thomas Curley: Since you’ve been working in the analog sound arena, and things have changed quite a bit, how has the process changed for you since the days of using magnetic tape and digital tape?

Wiley Stateman: Well the physical tools are different, but the mental process hasn’t really changed much. Trying to use sound to tell stories and to support the filmmakers’ implications in terms of what kind of rhythms and what kind of soundtrack that they want for their film. Many filmmakers view the process as a picture and sound process, and they love the sound process. It’s very much adored by filmmakers. I’m just glad that over time I’ve got to work with some really talented people in a wide range of genres, romantic comedies to biopics to however you want to classify them. I don’t think that the tools make that much of a difference. What makes all the difference in the ability to sort of marry a picture with sound, and sound is some portion of dialogue, which is absolutely important, but it’s also music, and it’s also sound effects, and sound design. It’s just a whole package, and that art form has been around for a long time and it doesn’t really change that much with technology.

T: In the process of learning how to do what you do, did you have a mentor, or did you come up on your own? 

W: Great question, because I think mentors are essential in any craft in accomplishing what you might want to accomplish. It’s kind of that old cliché of standing on the shoulders of giants that helps us get to where we wanna go. My mentors were mostly filmmakers, directors, editors for sure. Paul Hirsch was truly one of the most influential people in my life, in terms of giving me the tools and the opportunity to express sound in a meaningful way. I worked with Paul on some dozen or more feature films that range from Footloose to Steel Magnolias to Warcraft. Paul was the Academy Award winner for Star Wars as a picture editor, and his son Eric is my partner, also on The Queen’s Gambit, Eric Hirsch, who I’ve known a very long time, and he carries on in the footsteps of just really great filmmaking talent in the Hirsch family. 

T: Now that you’ve worked on a whole host of feature films, as well as television shows, have you found that there’s much of a difference between the feature film process and the television process? 

W: I think of it more as a long form, and slightly shorter form. A feature film is basically two hours, and when it used to be on film, if you would’ve spooled two hours of film down the street, it’s about 2 miles of film. The Queen’s Gambit is probably closer to 4 miles of film. In the whole post production process, it’s really a frame by frame process. We literally go through those 4 miles one frame at a time, forwards and backwards, to study the edit points, to develop the rhythms, and pacing, and the design. You know it’s an interesting process, it doesn’t really change that much based on length. I bring to this streaming form which Netflix is doing, original content, but longer form content, the sensibility of a feature film maker. We’re not looking to make TV, we’re looking to make a really compelling story. The great characters and cinematography don’t change because you’re recording seven hours versus two. The people that I’m working with doing these long forms really appreciate having the extra time to develop the story, to develop the characters, to take a little bit more time to try things. It’s the cinematic form of our time, even though it may not ever be seen in the cinema. Where people consume this is only relevant to how we make that format, so I try and be conscious that people will be listening to our soundtracks on earbuds, or headphones, or off your laptop, or your desktop, or in their home theater. So we make format decisions, that’s a little new, but it’s also just a conscious effort to maximize the experience that the audience has with our story.

T: When I used to work in broadcast video, we would watch on consumer grade devices to quality check. Is that something that happens these days? Do you go out of the mix booth and take a listen on some consumer grade headphones?

W: Absolutely I have a collection of devices that range from ear buds that the airlines give away, to the most high end Dolby Atmos theater. In fact Dolby helped design and build a theater for me here at my home studio, and that’s where we did the final mix. We mixed here, and transmitted that mix to New York City, to Florida, and to producers in Upstate New York. We’re constantly conscious of the various formats that we’re gonna go out on, and we make decisions to optimize in each format. So the answer is yes it is an important issue, and a large majority of the people that are going to view The Queen’s Gambit are going to view it wherever they want to do it, and so we have to be really conscious, and make relevant decisions for that portion of the audience.

T: Talking about beaming your work to various parts of the world has me thinking that that’s something that you definitely could not have done in the analog days, and I’m sure that now with Covid being a thing that technology has allowed you to continue working, even though there’s a pandemic happening.

W: Yes, the remote workflow on this project was really fascinating. We really pushed the limits of the technology that we had two years ago. Collaborative software has really come a long way, and we can send audio, which is a fairly small file, have local picture in various destinations, and synchronize in real time with any host of participants in this process. So the idea of everybody coming together, working in a recording studio, while that’s interesting and traditional, in the case of The Queen’s Gambit we finished remotely, and in my opinion it was kind of a feature. It was exciting to experiment with, and it was even more exciting to try and draw a more straight line for the approval process. A big part of filmmaking is getting people to say yes, that’s how the world is going to see it, so the final cut has often been described as something of a milestone, but it’s really something that occurs throughout the process. We’re constantly prototyping ideas in terms of sound and then getting those approved and getting work into the cut. Michelle Tesoro, the film editor on The Queen’s Gambit is an amazing dialogue editor, music editor, sound designer, film editor. To do film editing today, you have to really be a master of all the crafts, and truly Michelle Tesoro is. She lead the team and allowed us to work very collaboratively, remotely.

T: How did you come to find this project, or did it find you?

W: I worked with Scott Frank on a number of projects, and at this point, I really gravitate towards writer-director-producers, or in this format you call him a showrunner. People like that are very much invested in telling their story in the most crafty way possible, where every department contains people that really care about material and really look to advance the entire process through collaborative work. Scott Frank, Writer-Director-Pproducer-Show Runner, Michelle Tesoro, somebody I’ve worked with in the past, and Carlos Rafael Rivera, great composer, my team in New York, Erik Hirsch and Greg Swiatlowski, and their team, Foley people, and dialog editing people were all brought together because they were the right people at the right time, who really wanted to make this project into a very craft intensive experience for the audience. Now, chess isn’t known for its dynamic sound, or being intensely visual either, but then Steven Meizler was able to photograph this in such a way that was really beautiful, with good camera work. The costumes and make up as well. The actors, Anya Taylor-Joy, did a really fantastic job. Watching her move through two decades of the story as an actor is just stunning, and that comes from Scott Frank so he brings the team together and ultimately he’s responsible for, and should take credit for really how extraordinary The Queen’s Gambit finished. 

T: It’s somewhat of a daunting task on the surface to make chess intense and exciting on the screen, and you’ve done that in a number of ways, through music, through ambience, through rhythm, and internal sound versus external sound. I’d like to hear how you approached the the atmosphere of The Queen’s Gambit?

W: Well first of all, the one benefit that we had from chess is that it’s often played against the clock, so we had this 60 bpm kind of thought process playing in the background, and we can speed that up or slow that down depending upon how we move in and out of the chess players heads. So, rather than to show the audience chess play, we show the audience the intensity behind the game itself; it’s a strategy game, it’s a warfare game. It’s a game of acquiring territory and trying to hold it. It’s a game forcing your opponent into a mistake and so, what’s interesting in terms of sound is that you just have these wonderful close-ups where the music can kind of sweep you into the characters’ mental state.

You have just the sounds of the chess pieces in rhythm to a clock tick, which was very interesting. I would suggest the chess play, in this show, it’s a sport. A number of years ago we were doing some video game design, we were told that video game play will be a spectator sport someday to maybe even eclipse professional sports. And the fact is these are professional sports people that are playing video games. And so we kind of took this concept that, here’s an athlete, although it’s a very cerebral kind of sport, and we’re going to help her go both external and internal with the use of picture editing and of course sound. I think Michelle did an amazing job making these chess games interesting, even if you don’t know a thing about the game of chess, you know it’s kind of riveting, and it’s and it’s all over the actors faces. It’s done in a very clever way.

In the final episode, which is the big Russian grand champion, world champion chess match that she has with the character called Berghoff, you know she has to really go inside of herself to beat this fellow. He’s got the entire Russian chess association behind him and she’s just, at this point, a 30-something year old woman who just wants to win. So it’s that dynamic that’s really interesting. In terms of sound, those kinds of rhythms, the ability to go in tight, and drop back to a beautiful wide shot, to go inside of her head and have some very very simple visual effects, I think really served this process in this project. The Queen’s Gambit is a very visual, very stylistic project and we owe that to Scott Frank and the entire team at Netflix, who insisted that this be a really high-quality story told in the most ambitious way possible, through music and sound; beautiful source music in this. Jazz pieces, classical jazz, it’s really got a great soundtrack.

T: During the production process it’s become common these days to shoot multi camera, and as you may know, that can affect the ability for the production sound mixer to get quality tracks. Can you speak about how that was handled, and what methods were employed there?

W: Yeah, the bulk of the project was filmed in Berlin, and Roland Winke was production mixer and he did a beautiful job. Production sound is gathered in two ways, they put radio mics on people, and they use boom mics, which is just a pole with a microphone on the end. They try and get in as close as the camera will allow, and when you’re in a wide shot, the camera would see the microphone, so  you’re really relying on the radio mics that are buried in the actors’ costumes. So Roland, and thank you to him, he really took the extra effort to not only do what’s typical which is radio and boom, but he also laid out these ambient tracks with what’s called a Decca, as in Decca records tree, and a Decca tree is a series of three microphones that can be put out in this configuration where the microphones could be anywhere from 2 to 4 to 6 feet apart but in a T-formation.

He would fly that way above the sets, so in a lot of these auditoriums where we had chess matches, he was using the Decca tree for ambient sound, and it gave us just really beautiful room sound. I think one of the most often overlooked things in terms of sound is the acoustical environment that you can capture, and that’s that three-dimensional environment that every space has, so we can define a phone booth differently than we define a large auditorium. And the way we define that is by the acoustical space, the depth of field within the sound stage, and so Roland really helped us dramatically capture really great examples of what each of those sets, and a lot of them are practical locations, what the ambient sound was in those environments.

And today with technology, often people do what they call impulse responses, where they just ping the room and then they get the reverb time. I don’t wanna get too far in the weeds, but that’s how you can define the size of the room, is by just having a ping like a sonar ping, and then just measuring the echo within the room. Even better though, is when you put the Decca tree out, you get the  wallah, you get the movement you get the sound of slapping the big chess clocks from 40 feet above the actors, and I got to say how remarkably handy that was for us in the final mix to really understand acoustically the spaces that the film was shot in.

T: Awesome. Since we’re in those weeds, I’ll just mention a different way that the IR sweep has been helpful for my career. When I worked on Whiplash, we did playback for all of the musical elements except for the drumming, and they used IR sweeps to successfully marry the production sound with the playback, so that it all sounded like it was in the same space. Having a Decca tree would’ve been nice but it wouldn’t have worked the same because of the playback element. So there are multiple methods of achieving these things, and it’s such a fun challenge sometimes to figure out the best way to approach them. And, to that end, I was wondering if you could talk about what your biggest challenges were in this process or maybe your most creative use of your talents in working out the sound scape of The Queen’s Gambit

W: Well as you were just describing with Whiplash, it’s all about problem-solving and I like to think that every film project has a novel idea. Why are we making this film, and how are we going to tell the story? Every scene maybe has a novel idea of how we can approach this particular scene. Do you know where the camera is gonna approach it, and are they going to do it all in wide shots or close ups? Then sometimes down to every shot has a novel idea, so I think the hardest part is really not that it’s hard it’s that you stay sort of in tune with the material. We had scenes where Beth is having these flashbacks, whether it’s to her mother that left this terrible impression on her and the events of her early childhood, she was orphaned, and then her ability to seek out this game and to get great at the game.

She has a head for math, she has even a greater ability to sort of dynamically understand the movements of these pieces in many moves down the line to force her opponents into mistakes, all while abusing drugs and alcohol. it’s a very complex story but then the most challenging thing is to constantly keep an open mind about this idea that every shot might have a novel idea, every sequence of shots has a novel idea, and then weaving the music and the dialogue and the sound design so that it’s a minimalist approach. The thing that I love, and the reason why I still am excited about doing this kind of work is that there is a novel idea and a novel idea needs to be reduced to its most simple form so that the audience can track it without a lot of clutter, so I guess the answer to your question is to try and maintain this minimalist idea where the audience only contract maybe one sound path at a time maybe two if you’re lucky.

It’s really the job of the sound designer and mixers and everybody on the sound crew to produce very clear material but then to take the most clear path through that material that flatters the story in the most substantial sort of way. I don’t think you start by deducting material from the from the screen, I think it’s an additive process, and say is there one thing I can do to this particular sequence to make it more interesting, or to explore more of that in more precise terms, that novel idea, and then go for that, but just be very simple and know when to say when to say no, know where to stop. Because clutter is the enemy of sound. It’s a known fact that too many things at the same time in terms of audio mix result in a lack of understanding. 

T: It becomes overwhelming to the audience.

W: Yes, and since it’s a married soundtrack, meaning the level of the dialogue the level of the music and the level of the sound effects are fixed by the mixer since that is a fixed soundtrack you don’t have the ability to edit with your brain and suppress certain things that are in the soundtrack so the idea of minimalism serves the purpose of clarity and ultimate enjoyment in the audience.

T: Are there any questions that I haven’t asked that you’d like to answer?

W: Yeah I guess that the only question I have for each project is what’s the path to fall in love with this particular project? The path with something like The Queen’s Gambit was really the people. I had mentioned several of them, and again we can’t do this kind of work without a really cooperative studio in Netflix. Their executives really give Scott the free rein to live up to his commitment to them to make great content. The producers of this project were good listeners, which I love. These are people that really care, and some of them are unsung heroes that won’t be going to the Emmy awards. But I think that the success of The Queen’s Gambit is really on the shoulders of the great editorial crew, and Michelle’s crew is just fantastic, and so a big thank you and shout out to them.

T: Nice. I thought of one one more question. Since you’ve been to many awards ceremonies in the past, how is this one different, being with Covid and all that? Is there going to be a big dance, are you getting ready in any special way or is it just gonna be something at home, where you’re on a video call?

W: We’re going to go to the event and we got to a place to stay at a downtown hotel that’s hosting the event. It’s a great opportunity to just get together with our group, and hopefully to celebrate victories. Somebody once said to me a long time ago, it’s kind of like a bull fight. Fun for everybody but the bull. So there you go. I know a lot of people that think you just get nominated for awards, and you get the award. For me I’m constantly challenging myself, and the awards are not all that important, other than I love to do high-quality work that stands out on an annual basis, and it’s really the people, and it’s really the support from the studio. Netflix has been very generous with us and they truly value the level of craftsmanship that it takes to pull together an international production like The Queen’s Gambit.

T: Wiley well this has been a great conversation. I wish you the best of luck! Lots of people love the show and hopefully The Academy will as well.

W: Thank you, Tom. Much appreciated. 

Thomas Curley, CAS

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