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October 10, 2014
Online Originals

Member Profile: Walter Newman

In a notoriously transient business, acclaimed supervising sound editor Walter Newman has crafted a career of more than three decades at one home base. What does a Walking Dead zombie sound like? Walt knows.

Libby Slate

Even people who work in the entertainment industry often don’t comprehend what sound editors do.

Sound is ephemeral, invisible – how does one edit something that can’t be seen?

Walter Newman has certainly figured it out: He’s won five Emmy Awards as a supervising sound editor, four for ER (including three consecutively, 1998-2000) and one for Third Watch. He’s been nominated a total of 18 times, all but once as a supervising sound editor (the exception: effects mixer for ER), most recently for AMC’s The Walking Dead in 2011.

“Nobody understands what a dialogue editor is,” Newman says of one of the key positions in sound editing. “You’ll talk to people, and they’ll think [the programs as seen on TV] are all filmed like that.”

In reality, much of the sound is added in post-production: Newman heads a team, including his longtime dialogue editor Darleen Stoker and sound effects editor Kenneth Young, to make appropriate sonic choices and improve what’s been recorded on set.

A graduate of Hollywood High and Cal State Northridge, Newman started working in the Warner Bros. post-production sound department in 1979, when the lot was known as The Burbank Studios, and has been there ever since, moving up the sonic career ladder.

He took a break from his work on two upcoming series, American Crime on ABC and CSI: Cyber on CBS, to talk to with for this edition of Spotlight.

So what do you do as a supervising sound editor?

I’m handed a television show that’s a blank palette. The job is basically to create a sound environment for that show. The film editor will give us a track to guide us. Generally, I’ll go through the show with Ken Young before we actually get started – he cuts and tweaks it.

When we “spot” a show, I’ll go in with the producer or director and go through the show, and make suggestions. The sound effects editor tries to recreate everything. Darleen cleans up the dialogue, which is an incredibly tedious job: Every single line has to be cleaned up, and the sound has to match from angle to angle when people are talking.

I do the ADR [automated dialogue replacement, with the actor re-recording his or her dialogue to match the picture on screen] and Foley [sound] effects. The dialogue is replaced either for performance or technical reasons.

Part of my job is to get that actor there and make [the re-recording] sound as it had the day it was done. It’s up to the mixer to then fold that in. 

I’m the supervising sound editor but in real life, it’s very collaborative. My way is not the only way.

How do producers bring you into the process? Does the sound environment differ depending on the show?

They have a certain idea of how things should sound. You’ve got to read the room, know the vibe.

Under the Dome [the CBS summer thriller from Stephen King] was big, huge, the bigger the better. We loved it. There would be weather systems – you’d have to manufacture a hurricane in the dome. But there weren’t supposed to be birds in the dome, so Darleen spent hours taking out the birds [which were recorded during filming].

American Crime is from John Ridley, who won the Oscar for writing 12 Years a Slave. It’s not action, it’s not car chases. It’s story. The show is all dialogue. So you want to protect the dialogue, and not go over it.

Sometimes, you have to guess what they want. For The Walking Dead, there were different kinds of zombies, and nobody really knew what kind they were. [Original showrunner] Frank Darabont wasn’t there to spot it. I thought that they would still be humanistic. We loop-grouped [did ADR for] hundreds of zombies.

Has sound changed through the years?

It’s pretty much the same, but the technology has made it quite a bit faster. There are more bells and whistles to make it sound better.

The producers are much more aware, more sophisticated. They’ve seen the Indiana Jones and X-Men movies, they know what sounds good, and they want that.

There used to be all kinds of sound effects recorded on tape. Now that everything’s digital, do you still use those?

You always keep stuff that’s good. But now it’s going to be sweetened.

If you have someone kicking in a door, now there could be the sound of splintering wood, the metal lock breaking. You layer it with something different, to make it sound different.

My pet peeve is: Don’t use the same thing twice.

Obviously, with five Emmy Awards, you know how to make things sound good. What’s it like to have so many Emmys? And where do you keep them all?

I like the Emmys! I’m a competitive person. If I’m nominated, I want to win. The Emmys are in my living room, in an entertainment center, over the television.

Does the Television Academy play any other role in your life?

I’m on the peer group executive committee for Sound Editors, which I enjoy.

What do you do in your free time?

I used to play a lot of basketball, but my body’s going – too many surgeries! I take my Harley out – I ride in the desert or the mountains, with my wife on the back. I find it very therapeutic. And I play a lot of golf. 

I have kids who are grown now; I used to purposely take summers off, to rejuvenate. Now it’s a continuous season, which keeps everybody working.

And you’ve had a remarkably continuous season in the same department, for more than 30 years. 

I’ve been really lucky to work on incredibly successful shows. The credibility adds weight to what you do. I never dreamed I’d be here. To get on a show like ER – that’s lucky.

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