It’s a fact cherished by sound effect editors: out of 122 minutes of running time, Joel and Ethan Coen's No Country For Old Men comprises only 16 minutes of music.
Why is such an obscure fact interesting? Well, a lot of sonic ingredients blend to complete a feature film: dialogue, music, ADR, Foley, sound effects, and more. Each of these elements must be skillfully balanced by engineers. Invariably, though, creative choices are made that favour some elements and exclude others. On a good day, a sound effect editor's work is in the spotlight. On other days, it understandably takes a back seat to support other elements of the film.
This is why No Country For Old Men is particularly notable. There is almost no music in the film at all. Instead, the sound effect track takes centre stage. Sound legend Skip Lievsay uses the wind, the birds, and the weather to create a minimalist soundtrack that conveys mood and atmosphere. Often a handful of sounds create a subliminal, off-screen story in parallel to the onscreen drama. It's an incredibly rare technique that Lievsay and the Coen brothers use in varying degrees for all of their films, and one that warms the hearts of sound fx editors worldwide.
This is why I became quite curious when I discovered last summer that a good friend was wrapping up editing duties on the second season of FX's widely acclaimed TV series, Fargo. Paul Shikata is a sound effects editor with almost three decades of post production experience. Paul mentioned to me that he was working on Noah Hawley's television series, which is inspired by the Coen brothers' 1996 film.
I had known Paul produces excellent soundtracks. And, to my delight, I found he was in charge of crafting evocative background atmospheres for the episodes. I was curious to learn if showrunner Noah Hawley (Bones) and sound supervisor Nick Forshager (Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul) adopted Lievsay's and the Coen brothers' technique. Did the television series highlight the sound fx track? Did they encourage the use of atmospheres to tell a story? After all, the Coen brothers themselves had produced the series. I asked Paul Shikata if he would like to share his experiences with us. He kindly agreed.
So, Paul and I sat down to chat about the second season of Fargo. In today's article, Paul shares his experiences working on the crew of Fargo. He describes his technique of creating, choosing, and crafting backgrounds and "background specifics" with one mission in mind: to build a composition to create tension.
Please note: this post contains plot spoilers.
Also note: this article explores Paul’s experiences in depth. It should take you about 17 minutes to read. If you like, click the button below to email it to yourself to read later.