Anatomy of a Scene: Mike James Gallagher on Weird: The Al Yankovic Story

Published on in Exclusive Interviews

Mike James Gallagher is an Emmy-nominated sound designer from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Most recently he was the sound designer of Weird: The Al Yankovic Story. Mike worked with his frequent collaborator Supervising Sound Editor Anthony Vanchure to bring the Weird soundtrack to life". 

Mike is currently sound designing on multiple features including a film for The Sundance Institute as well as commercials for Kristen Bell’s creative studio, Dunshire Productions, for which he also is a re-recording mixer.

Mike is also the creator of INDEPTH Sound Design, a popular audio education platform which uses notable film and television to demonstrate the craft of sound design. His videos have been used in institutions of higher learning as well as featured in many mainstream and global publications.

Mike and Anthony were also nominated for MPSE Golden Reel Awards for these projects: 

  • Weird: The Al Yankovic Story - Outstanding Achievement in Sound Editing - Non-Theatrical Documentary 
  • Selena Gomez: My Mind and Me - Outstanding Achievement in Sound Editing - Non-Theatrical Documentary
  • Lucy and Desi - Outstanding Achievement in Sound Editing - Non-Theatrical Documentary

PH: Which scene was your favorite to work on in Weird: The Al Yankovic Story?

Mike James Gallagher: By far the most fun and challenging scene was the LSD trip sequence.

PH: Describe this scene and the significance it has to the rest of the Weird: The Al Yankovic Story.

Mike James Gallagher: Dr. Demento (Rainn Wilson) offers Weird Al guacamole tainted with LSD which triggers a wild drug trip. This ultimately inspires Weird Al into the most successful phase of his career after he writes the entirely original composition, “Eat It” which is not based on anyone else’s song in any way. The sequence also features an industrial shredder that consumes Weird Al and causes him to be reborn. The shredder is mentioned throughout the film and ties in thematically with Weird Al’s relationship with his father.

PH: What tools, plugins, or instruments did you use in your production of this scene?

Mike James Gallagher: The sound of the industrial shredder was key. A distinct sound effect element ended up being a very closely mic’d spoon running along the edge of a serrated knife. It gave a lot of brightness, texture, and color. The shredder shows up later in the film as a real machine and, at first, I was having trouble coming up with a signature sound for it. I remember the Supervising Sound Editor on Weird, and a frequent collaborator of mine, Anthony Vanchure, called me while I was working on it and I told him that I’d probably have to revisit that sound a few times. I was going a little too literal with the machinery aspect. So I actually designed the sound for the shredder in the LSD hallucination first. I gave it a monstrous, abstract, musical sound with growls and metal screams. This abstract approach ended up working perfectly in the real-world scene that happens later. It’s a good lesson in how being too literal with sound design isn’t usually the most cinematically interesting way to go.

I have a vast library of sound effects. I really love the company Pro Sound Effects. There’s also a plugin that Boom Library makes called UBERLOUD that makes it really easy to add edge and loudness to sounds that need to poke through a dense mix. I also used Soundtoys EchoBoy and Little AlterBoy for vocal effects. A fun couple of plugins I use a lot for stereo recordings are both by Sound Particles- Energy Panner and Brightness Panner. I love plugins that do random and inspiring things. They’re great for adding interesting stereo movement to recordings, particularly on the fire for this sequence. You want to keep things moving and evolving and give something to the listener to hold onto. You don’t want to create an overall wash of indistinct sounds that have no structure.

PH: What technical challenges did you encounter while working on this scene?

Mike James Gallagher: There is a ton of fire in the sequence. The trouble with something like fire is that you don’t want it to just be a big mess of mid-range whooshes and white noise. So the trick was to highlight all the fire bursts with very distinct sounds and using contrast to highlight low-frequency and high-frequency moments. It takes a lot of layering and a wide variety of sounds in the palette to make something like that work. It’s also helpful to use sounds that aren’t based on fire at all, like cloth whooshes and transient impacts, to give the sounds a more distinct edge. A single fire burst might be 7 or 8 sounds all in succession that go from low frequency to high frequency or vice versa. In doing that, I’m creating an organic pitch bend, which can help grab the listener’s ear in particularly noisy scenes.

PH: What was the dialogue like between you and Weird: The Al Yankovic Story’s director regarding this scene?

Mike James Gallagher: At this point in the film, I realized that Eric Appel, the director, was willing to go really bold with the sound design. The editor Jamie Kennedy, and assistant editor Peter Dudgeon, did a fantastic job filling out the soundtrack during the offline picture edit and Eric was willing to go even further with it during sound editorial. It was also really fun shaping this particular scene with our re-recording mixer, Tony Solis.

There is a moment during the sequence when Dr. Demento (Rainn Wilson) magically taps a cereal bowl twice with a spoon. I realized it was a fantastic opportunity to incorporate the music of Weird Al’s “Eat It” into the LSD trip. The opening notes to that song are famously sampled from a Synclavier which is exactly what I did. (A comprehensive video about this is on Alex Ball’s YouTube channel)

There was a great moment during the mix when Eric first heard that I alluded to “Eat It” in my sound design. It was such a bold decision on my part, that I was worried he would shoot the idea down. But he seemed blown away that I was able to take advantage of that opportunity to incorporate the actual music of “Eat It” into the scene. I also pitched those notes to the score so it all integrates perfectly. It’s a really great example of when the story, the visuals, and the “cool” sound design all line up for a memorable cinematic moment.

PH: How did this scene advance the story or reveal something important about the character/storytelling?

Mike James Gallagher: I love how the film hits you over the head with this pivotal “Eat It” plot point in such a creative and entertaining way. It’s so great how it sets up the following scene at the record company. After all this madness, there’s a simple dialogue scene that is so, so funny and one of my favorites. I hope I haven’t spoiled it too much. Go watch it on Roku now.

PH: Did this scene come together on screen the way it was creatively envisioned initially, or did you make creative changes to have it flow with the film better?

Mike James Gallagher: When the Supervising Sound Editor, Anthony Vanchure and I first saw the film we knew that the specific moment when Weird Al gets eaten by the shredder and is revealed as an egg on a desolate storm planet was going to be incredibly cinematic in terms of contrast. Contrast from moment to moment in a film is what sound designers crave. Contrast in pitch. Contrast in volume. Contrast in scale. It’s what cinematic moments are made of. In this particular scene, we go from the fiery pits of hell to Dr. Demento’s paradise, back to hell, etc.

At this point, we go from the loudest part of the movie to the quietest part of the movie when Weird Al gets eaten and then is revealed as an egg about to be reborn. We almost hit digital silence. Silence is so much fun to play with, by the way, but that’s a whole other topic. After that, the thunder and Weird Al’s heartbeat slowly build into a literally face-melting musical moment that transitions perfectly into the next scene at the record company office. As a sound designer, I’m always trying to identify the structure of a scene or sequence and then bring it to the next level using sound to highlight it, and I’m super happy with how it turned out.

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