Emmy Watch 2016: 'Sense8' Deserves a Nomination for Music Direction

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Ethan Alter
·Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
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It’s never too early to start looking ahead to next year’s Emmys. That’s why we’re using this column to spotlight the award-worthy shows that premiered after the 2015 Emmy eligibility cut-off (May 31, 2015) and put them on the voters’ radar for 2016. And just to make things extra easy for the Academy, we’ve specified the category for which they should be recognized.

The Show: Sense8 (Netflix)

The Category: Outstanding Sound Editing for a Series

The Nominee(s): Ethan Stoller (Music Editor)

Suggested Episode Submission: Episode 4: “What’s Going On?”

Filmed in eight different countries and featuring a sprawling cast of eight main characters mentally and emotionally connected to one another, the globetrotting Netflix series Sense8 always represented a daunting logistical challenge for the show’s creative team, headed up by creators Lana and Andy Wachowski. It was a challenge that reaped big dividends though, as even critics who were mixed on the show (like Yahoo TV’s Ken Tucker) praised the international landscapes.

But even more impressive than the way the show looks is the way it sounds, from the dialogue to the sound effects to the music. Working behind the scenes, the Sense8 sound team ensured that the series had a soundscape that reflected the always-shifting setting without becoming a mishmash of global noise. The show’s music editor, Ethan Stoller, remembers watching an early version of a scene from the seventh episode where two of the characters — Berlin-based thief Wolfgang (Max Riemelt) and Mumbai soon-to-be bride, Kala (Tina Desai) — had a mental connection on a rainy rooftop. “Because of the rain, the dialogue from the production audio was unintelligible,” he says. But dialogue editor, Stephanie Flack, worked her magic and the actors’ words came into focus. “Viewers won’t realize how hard she worked to get the scene to sound that good. Only people in the business will know.”

And those people in the business should really get to know Sense8 and its hard-working sound crew, particularly since Netflix has recently ordered a second season. While the series may not yet have the pop culture imprint of House of Cards or Orange is the New Black, it does boast a passionate online fanbase. “The response I’m hearing on Twitter has been great,” says Stoller. (Tweet him at @ethanstoller if you agree.) “There are hundreds of YouTube fan videos as well. People love it.” Perhaps that will help fuel the show’s Emmy buzz next year, although Stoller says that’s not a priority in his mind. “It’s always nice to be recognized, but it’s not a driving factor. My mom would love it!”

In his role as music editor, Stoller helped facilitate one of the standout freshman season scenes that had fans raving: a multi-continent sing-a-long scored to the 1993 4 Non Blondes track, “What’s Up.” Coming toward the end of the fourth episode, “What’s Going On,” (a title inspired by the song’s earworm-ready chorus) the sequence marks one of the first times where almost all the characters are united in sharing the same experience at the same moment in time. So while Riley (Tuppence Middleton) is blasting the song on her iPod in London, Wolfgang is belting it out from a karaoke stage in Berlin and Capheus (Ami Ameen) is singing from behind the wheel of his minibus in Nairobi.

The resemblance to a similar moment in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1999 film Magnolia — where the entire cast joins together in singing Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up,” is unmistakable — but the scene also feels unique to the specific themes and ideas about human connection that run throughout Sense8’s first season. Lyrics like “And so I cry sometimes/When I’m lying in bed/Just to get it all out/What’s in my head/And I, I am feeling a little peculiar,” so perfectly encapsulate the series, it’s almost as if Linda Perry wrote the song specifically for Sense8.

Stoller, who lives and works in the Wachowskis’ hometown of Chicago and has known the siblings since high school, insists that he can’t take credit for selecting “What’s Up” to score that scene. “An early version of the script had ‘Crazy in Love,’ by Beyonce in it,” he reveals. “But that was a placeholder. Lana and Andy liked the lyrics of the 4 Non Blondes song so much, and they felt the lyrics were appropriate to the story.” Stoller also wasn’t present when the actors were filmed singing along to the track in one of the show’s many locations. His expertise came into play when the sequence was being assembled back in Chicago. While the picture editors worked on the visuals of the piece, he ensured that the song itself flowed naturally from cut to cut. “My job was to make it all sound smooth. The record company provided us with the instrumental and vocal tracks and we used both to smooth out the different sections of the song that we used.”

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Sense8 music editor, Ethan Stoller.

To avoid mistakes, he worked closely with the picture editing team to avoid gaps in the sync between sound and image, sometimes suggesting shots to use (for example, he campaigned to have a shot of Desai singing the words “feeling a little peculiar” because her delivery was so heartbreaking, although Miguel Angel Silvestre sings that line in the final cut) or asking the editors to hold a shot for a few extra frames to make sure he could construct an effective bridge. “It was a big collaboration, and a process of several days trying to get it perfect. We’re very happy with the result.”

Naturally, Stoller’s duties extended beyond the construction of that one montage; he also incorporated the show’s original compositions, penned by composers Johnny Klimek and Tom Tykwer (who also directed several installments), into the 12 individual episodes. “The Wachowskis are in love with writing themes first, so they recorded a bunch before filming started. A lot of times music editors have to cut in music from existing scores — like, say, John Williams music — but then you have to change it, and the directors get sad. With this system, the temp music is the actual music. Sometimes I’d cut a scene and the directors loved it and that’s the way you hear it in the show. And other times, I’d get it completely wrong and they’d go to Johnny and Tom and say, ‘We need something else here.’”

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Max Riemelt and Tina Desai singing along to “What’s Up”

Stoller says that he composed some of his own instrumental music for the series as well, earning an “Additional Music By” credit in the process. One of his compositions can be heard (briefly) in the first episode when Wolfgang is flipping through German television channels and stumbles upon an American Idol-like singing competition. “I wrote that show’s theme song. Instead of searching for music and seeing if we could relicense it, I just said ‘I can write this!’ And they loved it.” (In addition to hearing his music, you can also hear Stoller’s voice in another episode. “I’m the voice of a Chicago police dispatcher in one scene. I get to say, ‘Shots fired!’ I used to be a dispatcher, so I got to use my old Chicago accent.”)

With Season 2 yet to go before cameras, Stoller doesn’t know if the Wachowskis have another “What’s Up” mega-montage planned. Since he has the opportunity to select some of the previously recorded music heard on the show, though, he’s keeping his iPod handy in case inspiration strikes. “With this series, there’s always an opportunity to use crazy, weird music,” he says, adding that working on Sense8 turned him on to such disparate sounds as Swedish pop star Lykke Li and Bollywood film soundtracks. “I have a special star rating on my Shuffle, and if something comes up I tag it as being something we could use for the show.” Music fans take note: if that DJ career just isn’t panning out, “music editor” sounds like an ideal alternative.

Season 1 of Sense8 is available to stream on Netflix.