Sound on The West Wing

I ride the streetcar to work almost every morning, usually far too early in the morning. The streetcar loops through the Alphabet District, where I live, down through the Peal District and into downtown Portland, where I work. There’s a lot of little shops along the way, but two in particular – a running clothes store and a Videorama – have been catching my eye for a while now. So, when Saturday rolled around, I dragged Dave on a shopping trip and ended up with new running tights and a rented copy of The West Wing: Season 3, which I am currently watching as I type this.

The first episode of Season 3 is called “Issac and Ishmael”, and it was written in the aftermath of the  September 11, 2001 attacks. Arabic politics aren’t really the subject this blog touches upon, interesting though they are, and I’d like to try and keep things on topic for as long as I can before the inevitable derail. So let’s instead talk about The West Wing and sound!

The West Wing is written by Aaron Sorkin, a man famous for his fast and witty dialogue. His dialogue is phenomenal, but as any woman who’s seen the Star Wars prequels knows, people sitting around and talking to each other does not good cinema make. So, in order to keep things dynamic, Sorkin and his directors make heavy use of a technique called “the walk and talk.”

The walk and talk, as described by Wikipedia, is “a distinctive storytelling-technique used in filmmaking and television production in which a number of characters have a conversation en route.” While a great technique to use in tandem with Sorkin’s witty dialogue, it can make a sound person’s life a living hell. While I can’t actually provide concrete details on The West Wing’s recording techniques – 15 minutes of Googling turned up almost nothing on the show’s production, which made me sigh into my cocoa – I can make a few educated guesses after listening to many, many episodes.

Let’s take this scene from “Issac and Ishmael”. It’s worth noting that this episode was shot and edited in about two weeks, and thus is less polished than regular season episodes:

My educated guess here: Normally, I’d say Josh and Donna both have lavalier mics on them – and in this case, Josh definitely does. Josh’s mic is probably hiding under his lapel –  you can hear his suit’s fabric rustle the lav’s cable when he moves, and his voice is slightly more muffled than Donna’s voice, particularly when he talks toward the whiteboard while writing his SAT question. Donna’s mic, I’m less sure about. Her sound is a bit clearer, and because she’s sitting down in a controlled environment,  an overhead boom would probably work fine. The children are the same – they don’t speak enough to warrant being hooked up, and they’re seated in a controlled environment. Boom the kiddies.

Now, in contrast, here’s a more polished and more chaotic scene from the next fourth season episode, “Game On”:

Now, there is a LOT more going on in this clip, but the sound is more polished. So let’s guess where the microphones are – in the beginning with Abby and President Bartlett, I think both Abby and the President are lavved up. The background noises of the audience clapping, phones ringing, and general “buzz” of people talking was almost definitely added in post-production, but the actual chaotic dialogue with the White House staffers as the President struggles to put on his new tie is probably live, boomed overhead as the operator walks behind the steadycam cameraman, or to the side of the group. During the actual debate, it would be cool if the mixers were using the actual microphones on the podium, but it’s hard to tell without getting a good look at them. Oh, and how about that loud ass slap, ladies and gentlemen? It’s like a cherry on top of the scene – I never thought I’d be breaking down the sound for a scene that features an ass slap, but I guess I am doing something with my life after all.

It says a lot about the audio technicians on a show when I can hear a surly soft-spoken Jew growl “Write me a speech that doesn’t make me think I’m sitting shiva” while a large marching band plays in the background. There’s a lot of technical prowess on this show, that makes the already meaty story even more impressive.

…Also, this has nothing to do with sound, but Margaret cracks my shit up.

"Do I need to explain the rules about making appointments again? Should I write them down?"

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One thought on “Sound on The West Wing

  1. Love it! I remember you talking a little bit about the sound techniques you thought they were using when we were watching some episodes together. One particular actor – a guest star who is VERY overweight and show up end of season 4/beginning of season 5 (I DON’T REMEMBER IF I HAD YOU WATCH THESE SO DON’T YOU *DARE* GOOGLE/WIKIPEDIA/YOUTUBE IT OR YOU SHALL REGRET IT) is definitely lavved up, since you can hear his labored breathing very clearly, and his voice seems a little extra-deep. Kinda interesting.

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