The Netflix miniseries The Queen’s Gambit ranks among the best shows of the year thanks to its abundance of amazing characters, terrific performances — notably Anya Taylor-Joy — and riveting storyline. The series was nominated for 18 Emmy awards and took home Golden Globe awards for Best Limited Series or Television Film and Best Actress — Miniseries or Television Film.
Included among the Emmy nominations was sound effects editor James David Redding, whose amazing work on The Queen’s Gambit contributed to its overwhelming success.
Redding was kind enough to speak with ComingSoon to discuss sound, his career, and ultimately his feelings on that Emmy nomination.
Jeff Ames: First off, congrats on the series! It was absolutely fantastic and probably the best thing I’ve watched this year! What ultimately drew you to this project?
James David Redding: Thanks. It was a great project to work on. What initially brought me to it were the people I was going to be working with, my colleagues Greg Swiatlowski and Eric Hirsch. I knew nothing else about it except they said it was about chess and should be pretty cool. I had worked with Greg on previous projects (Like Father, Hustlers), but I hadn’t worked with Eric before. After discussing the unique workflow that was being planned, with sound editing and mixing happening at the same time as some of the picture editorial, we thought it would be a great project to all collaborate on. A great way to blend our artistic nature and technical proficiency. Altogether it sounded very interesting and I looked forward to working with them.
What got you interested in sound in the first place?
As a child, I used to get easily scared by loud noises. My family still teases me about that. I think, though, we are all interested in sound, we just don’t know how to explore it. Sound affects us in so many ways. Most of us can relate through music, which is kind of where I started. I wanted to be in a band as a kid. Then I got more into the technical side – wanting to figure out how to get the best recordings. I went to Ithaca College and became a Television and Radio Major with a concentration in audio at the Roy H. Park School of Communication. Luckily while I was in school, through their L.A. program, I got to meet and work with Dane A. Davis at Danetracks while they were working with the Wachowskis on The Matrix. That experience helped me focus on my goal. I decided I wanted to create sound that helped tell a story.
Can you describe what the job of a sound effects editor entails? What does a typical day of work look like?
The job of a sound effects editor can entail many things, but the main goal, I believe, is to help emotionally support and elevate a story. We help make the world of the story more believable and tangible to the audience.
At the beginning of every project, whether it’s a podcast, video game, documentary or scripted piece, it is good to have conversations about the tone and sonic palette in which the project takes place. Discussing how sound can affect and expand the sense of the story (in the case of doing it with picture, expand the screen). From there, a typical day is applying these ideas through sonic manipulation and crafting the team’s vision for the project.
I have a library of sounds, tools for manipulating them, and the ability to try to capture new sounds to support the story realistically and emotionally. So everyday can be slightly new and different depending on what kind of scenes I plan on doing that day. Some days I sit in my studio listening to different types of doors opening and closing. Some days I am trying to figure out how to make a slow car chase intense. Some days I am putting the guttural growl of a Tyrannosaurus Rex into a documentary to emphasize the evil of war crimes.
There’s usually also coffee involved.
How have advancements in technology made your job easier/harder? Are there specific tools you lean on?
Technology has done both, made it easier and harder, just for different reasons. It’s made it easier to gather, edit, and manipulate sounds in innumerable ways. That in a way has also made it harder because you can come up with so many different variations, but eventually, you need to choose. It has also become easier to change those choices and move things and add things and… well I think you get the idea. The ability to constantly tweak a scene has its pros and cons, but you still have parameters, like deadlines, that you have to be able to work in.
Mostly I use a Mac OS-based computer running a digital audio workstation (DAW) called Pro Tools. Within that, I have plugins from Waves, iZotope, Krotos, Sound Particles, Native Instruments, and others to help me create, manipulate and mangle sounds. I have a sound effects library that I keep organized and search within with a program called Soundminer. I also have a portable recorder from Zoom that I carry with me to capture new and interesting things that I hear.
When you look back on a finished production, what makes you most proud?
When I look back on a project the thing I am usually most proud of is the collaboration/the teamwork. The producers, directors, editors, colorist, and sound team are all working their craft to bring the best experience to the audience and there is no better feeling than when you hit that perfect stride together to do it.
I mean of course, I like it when people mention that they like a sound I created, or they tell me how a certain situation made them feel in a project – especially when it’s something I’ve worked hard on to evoke that feeling. As a sound designer though, I feel I’m there, honestly, to be heard but not thought about. If I’m doing my job, the audience should feel the story without them knowing/considering why. I’ve spent my career so far learning how sound can affect a situation. That if a project is well received, even if sound isn’t specifically mentioned, I know I had a part in it that helped people enjoy it.
What drew you to The Queen’s Gambit? And how familiar were you with the world of chess, and did that impact your approach to the sound effects on the show?
I really didn’t know much about it before I signed on. I did know a bit about the chess world, as I had worked on a documentary about Bobby Fischer (Bobby Fischer Against the World) and my nephews were very into chess. I never really got into it though until I started working on The Queen’s Gambit. When I started editing effects I also started teaching myself a little bit about the game, probably like many other fans of the series.
It only affected my approach in that I knew the chess world can be intense and we needed to provide that to the audience. We needed them to feel it.
There are a number of moments in which players engage in very intense chess matches; and the sound effects ensure you always hear the moment when each piece hits the board — some harder than others. Was that a specific directive given to you or a creative decision you decided to run with?
It was specific and creative at the same time. We can control so much of what you hear or don’t hear, that rarely are things by chance. We use this control to help the sonic emotional storytelling.
What was the most challenging scene (or scenes) to work on?
There were a number of challenges, though the chess matches were probably the most challenging for sound effects and atmosphere. They can be intense, but they also tend to not be very large or loud. The crowd isn’t cheering throughout, so you need to build the sound of the crowd on the sidelines quietly anticipating and noting the moves. The sound of the pieces, the way they are put on the board. The clock. The whispers. The shuffling. All of that builds to help the audience feel the emotion the actors and the story is conveying. Then the cheers and the tension release at the end so the audience can breathe again.
You earned an Emmy nomination for your work, what’s it like to be recognized by your peers? Were you surprised by the nomination?
It’s always great to be recognized by your peers. I feel honored especially on a show like The Queen’s Gambit. I was surprised and not at the same time. Not surprised, because Wylie Statement, Eric Hirsch, Greg Swiatlowski, Eric Hoehn, Patrick Cicero, Mary Ellen Porto, Leo Marcil, Rachel Chancey, and the whole team did excellent work and made something that sounded amazing. I was surprised because usually a show like this, one with such quiet intensity, does not get noticed for its sound work. The acting, yes. The editing, yes. The directing and score, yes (which were also all brilliant). Bringing intensity with chess pieces… I’m honored that we were recognized with so many other esteemed colleagues.