Writer // Janelle Morrison Photography // Laura Arick
The next time that you sit down and watch NBC’s “Chicago Fire” or when you watch the box office hit “A Star is Born” with Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, stop for a moment and listen to the audio and background sound effects. You’ll be listening to some of the work of Carmel’s own Frederick (Fred) Stahly.
Stahly is a dialogue editor whose resume consists of well over 100 films – many award-winning films and TV shows – that include the aforementioned award-winning NBC series and Oscar-nominated film.
A Purdue graduate and native of South Bend, Stahly originally studied engineering before changing his major, which led him to work with Purdue’s Theater department.
“As a teenager in high school, I was always interested in audio and music,” Stahly shared. “I probably spend 90 percent of my time [at Purdue] in my professor’s basement studio. I learned most of my education from him. He had the first digital workstation in the local area, and he recorded Indy bands and commercials. This was in the early ‘90s when digital was just becoming affordable.”
After graduating from Purdue in 1993, Stahly followed his dream to Orlando, Florida, where he enrolled at Full Sail University and successfully completed the university’s Recording Arts bachelor’s degree.
“It wasn’t until I was at Full Sail that I realized that I wanted to do post-sound [production],” Stahly said. “I remember I had a post-production project that I loved doing and spent more time on than I should have. I was also working in one of the technical offices fixing equipment because I can solder and all that stuff. There was a graduate of Full Sail who had graduated before me who worked in the same office and got an internship for a company called Soundeluxe in Orlando. He was like, ‘You’ve got to check this out,’ so late one night, he let me in and I got to see all the stuff they were doing, all the digital equipment. I was like, ‘I’ve got to be here.’”
Stahly wasted no time turning in his resume to Soundeluxe where he was granted access and permission to “hang out,” but they did not hire him until he had completed his program at Full Sail.
“I developed my hacky sack skills with the other editors,” Stahly quipped. “And as soon as I graduated, I did an internship with them [Soundeluxe]. They would get spillover work from LA if LA got too busy. I got to work on movies like ‘True Lies,’ ‘Braveheart,’ ‘Pocahontas,’ ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ and stuff like that right out of school.”
He added, “We worked on a lot of low budget stuff like student films and independent films, and that’s where you really learn your chops and technique.”
Fast forward, Stahly married and is raising a family in Carmel while he continues to work on film and television projects – a balance that he admits can be challenging. But with the support of his family and the advancement of technology, he can work a lot of the time in his own studio basement.
He went on to explain in more detail just exactly what it is he does and how it goes from his laptop to the final product with seamless dialogue audio and sound effects that audiences enjoy without thinking about the painstaking processes that go on behind-the-scenes.
“We [dialogue editors] are on the backside of production,” Stahly explained. “At the point that we get it, the picture editor is editing the film, and he or she cuts together the scenes that he or she wants. During or after that process, they give us those scenes of the movie.”
Perhaps you are familiar with Foley Art? Foley (named after sound effects artist Jack Foley) is the reproduction of everyday sound effects that are added to film or video in post-production to enhance audio quality. Before the digital age, these effects were created by hand with various props. Today, modern technology has vastly improved capabilities but has also set production standards at an all-time high throughout the film and television industries.
“Our tools have gotten a lot better, but the expectation has gotten higher. The work must be done better and faster,” Stahly expressed. “Even with better tools, there’s only so much you can fix sometimes. If your noise level is higher than your speaking level, it’s not going to work.”
Stahly shared that there are a lot of little details that go into his editing in terms of sound effects and background ambiance. Every detail from wind and birds to jets flying overhead, there are a lot of sounds that either need to be projected or, in some cases, completely eliminated from the scene.
“There might be a production scene that is really noisy, and the production team wants to save it, so we have to ‘denoise’ it,” he explained. “I worked on the film ‘The Hateful Eight’ directed by Quentin Tarantino, and it was shot in modern day but was supposed to take place in the 1850s. They shot some of the scenes in a commercial freezer because they wanted the actors’ faces to be cold and numb and wanted that natural breath that comes from being in frigid air instead of using CGI (computer-generated imagery) breath.”
According to Stahly, the freezers were kept at 25 degrees and were creating a buzz or hum in the background. He added, “That was one of the most challenging films because of having to remove that.”
While Stahly can enjoy the luxury of working from his laptop and headphones pretty much anywhere there is a solid Wi-Fi connection, there are projects that, for security purposes, require him to fly out to LA and work at whatever studio has hired him.
“Technically, I can do everything from my house in Carmel,” he said. “But security-wise, with the bigger budget films, the studios want more control of the content that goes in and comes out. I probably do three to four major projects a year and go back to LA for two to three weeks at a time.”
Currently, Stahly is working on the award-winning NBC series “Chicago Fire” and is able to work remotely from his home in Carmel.
“It’s a big show with viewership of something like seven million viewers a week,” he said. “The timeline and the scale of this show is huge, and sometimes the production value isn’t there, so a lot of things need to be fixed in post-production. The production team has seven days to shoot it, 10-14 days to edit the picture and we’ve [sound department] has seven days to edit that and three days to mix it. Each scene is challenging, and there are several scenes that are noisy.”
He explained that many of the scenes are shot on location throughout Chicago, so you’ve got jets flying overhead, boats in Lake Michigan, sirens in the background and other on-site audio challenges that involve the actor’s microphone or lack-thereof that call for the actor’s voice to be “revoiced.”
Stahly added, “All of the fire scenes are revoiced because the actors have on masks and breathing apparatuses.”
Over the decades, Stahly has worked on films ranging in every genre, like comedy (“The Proposal”), action/adventure (“Divergent”), action/thriller (“Fast and Furious”), action/sci-fi (“Green Lantern”), horror (“Halloween II”), drama/romance (“The Lake House”) and so many more. He received a 2003 Primetime Emmy Awards nomination for Outstanding Sound Editing for a Miniseries, Movie or a Special for “Live from Baghdad” and has received a Golden Reel in 2002 for Best Sound Editing for “A Texas Funeral,” another in 2008 for Best Sound Editing for “The Bourne Ultimatum” and received another Golden Reel in 2012 for Best Sound Editing for his work on “Need for Speed: The Run.”
Perhaps we will see another nomination or award presented to Stahly and his colleagues for their recent work on last year’s releases: “Instant Family” starring Mark Wahlberg and “A Star is Born” directed by and starring Bradley Cooper and co-starring Lady Gaga.
“I came into the tail of that film [A Star is Born],” Stahl humbly stated. “Kira Roessler was the main ADR/dialogue supervisor. She called me by the time they had completed most of the sound and editorial.”
Nonetheless, Stahly’s keen ear contributed to the final product, and he got to see the chemistry created by Cooper and Gaga in scenes that never made the final cut. Lucky him!
“Bradley [Cooper] was very specific about how he wanted his vocal quality as the director as well as an actor,” Stahly shared. “I can tell you that all the performances were unbelievable and outstanding.”
When asked if he thinks his choice of occupation is any more or less challenging, he replied, “I am technically a freelancer, but I am in a union in California and have worked with the same group of people for the last 15-20 years through different incarnations of companies. The Formosa Group came out of Soundeluxe, so I’ve been working with a lot of people from that same group. I bounce from Formosa, Universal Studios, Technicolor VFX, Sony, etc. In my line of work, it’s who you know and what you know that keeps you there. It’s not really any different from any other line of work.”