Supernatural From Script to Screen: Producer Todd Aronauer
It’s the people that you work with, that you surround yourself with, that makes it fun and a great environment to work in every day... We’ve been fortunate to have the steady work, but it's also challenging and creative and it’s a great environment with great people.
– Todd Aronauer, Supernatural Producer in charge of Post Production
Supernatural From Script to Screen is a series of interviews with the crew of Supernatural by Jules Wilkinson, Supernatural Wiki Administrator.
What happens between when an episode is filmed and when it ends up on our TV? Individual shots and scenes must be edited together, visual effects and sound effects added, music scored and much more. This is the realm of post-production. The man in charge of all this for Supernatural is Producer Todd Aronauer, who I spoke to recently from the LA office while he was still sweaty from finishing his first triathlon.
If you enjoyed this interview you can tweet Todd at @TAronauer
POST-PRODUCTION – WHERE IT STARTS
Jules: When does the work for post-production start – I assume it’s before filming even begins?
Todd: It varies per episode, but generally Post production starts at the outline stage of a script with any material we need to deal with ahead of time. Our show involves a lot of research and development, visual effects and music and sound, anything that might need my help in finding the direction for the look of something, a voice for voiceover, playback footage, and music to license...
Jules: Don’t you usually use Bob Singer (laughs)?
Todd: Hey I've done voiceovers too – I was the voice of Plucky Pennywhistle!
In Dog Dean Afternoon I had to cast a few actors to voice our animals that only Dean could hear. That process began before we started shooting but it came down to the last minute for all the rolls to be cast. The voice of the little Yorkie was the most difficult. We kept going back and forth as to what this dog should sound like, what type of voice, accent, tone, the whole package. We received some great auditions but nothing seemed to blow us away. It was a last minute idea that Bob Singer had to get Leslie Jordan. Bob and Phil Sgriccia had worked with him awhile back on Lois & Clark so we asked if he’d be available as a favor to Bob. Leslie responded quickly and was happy to lend his voice but we had a very short window to record him because he was leaving town for a shoot on another series. My kick ass crew scrambled to schedule some studio time while he was still in town. We got him in the booth and he just nailed it. He’s such a talented actor and had a lot of fun with roll. He was great to work with.
THE TYRANNY OF DISTANCE, CHANGING TECHNOLOGY AND VFX
Jules: Of course the show is shot in Vancouver, as is Visual Effects, and then you have the writers and post-production in L.A. What sort of challenges does that create?
Todd: Every production has their own challenges and miscues whether they’re right next door or 1000 miles away. I’m just glad we’re in the same time zone. Obviously we’re not able to just walk right down the hall to discuss notes or be there for all the meetings that we’d like which is why I always try to emphasize communication. Especially the little details because those are the ones that can quickly snowball into bigger problems.
Jules: Has that changed over time? Has it got better or is it just inherent in the distance and changes in departments?
Todd: The industry is constantly changing so every season brings new challenges. There are new personnel, a new process or workflow or new equipment we're using. For example in the first three seasons we were shooting on film and during season 3 we shot the Episode Ghostfacers, which was the first episode which was shot almost entirely digital except for the very tail end of it. We used little consumer grade handicams. I still have mine and even used it to shoot the Web Series too.
We were joking when we were prepping and shooting the episode, that it was our test for switching over to the digital format. Studios were starting to ask their productions about the feasibility of digital capture on a TV series schedule– how it was going to impact the process, and the budget and it did have a lot of impacts. Some were expected, some not.
Jules: While that changeover to digital was probably inevitable, what sort of impact did it have on the business?
Todd: Every production is different. There are different people that are making it creatively, different requirements from the studio, network, distribution companies, or different international departments, different archiving requirements and different delivery requirements across the board. So what works for one show won’t necessarily work for the next, even if they are with the same studio or network.
Even though we changed over to digital in season four, we've changed our editing equipment and processes nearly every year. I think this season is the first year we haven’t had much change in equipment, aside from the first three where it was all film. Even personnel wise we are pretty much the same as last season. Even when we were on film, things changed significantly from season one to season two. We were using a VFX company – Stargate – in the first season, and then we ended up buying all the equipment and making it an in-house department.
It’s a big shift as a producer, looking at the budget, and as filmmakers, it changes how you look at things and how things can be done. Instead of every single shot becoming a number – there's a price tag on a muzzle flash, a wire removal, or a 3D effect – it ends up being more a budgeting of time as far as what can we get done in X amount of days. The VFX team is headed by Mark Meloche and he's done a fantastic job with the department.
Initially, when we built the department, we were anticipating, I think it was like 300 shoots for season 2. It's gone up incrementally and I think last year was about 1200 shots for the season. Anytime we think of something that might tell the story that much better, and cleaner, we'll call up visual effects and say "Hey Mark what do you think about this?” and usually he'll say "Yeah, let's do it!”
Jules: And it must change the relationship in a creative sense...
Todd: Absolutely, because it really opens up many possibilities of what can be done within our schedule. As opposed to trying to be economical in a dollar sense, you are doing it with time. You are trying to make the best show possible – you don’t want to do a visual effect just to do it. Just the same way a director might envision a really cool shot, but if it's not really telling the story it can negatively affect what you are trying to do.
Mark has been with us since the first season, and he’s very much in tune with the look and direction we’re going for. We’ve developed a bit of a shorthand in our daily conversations that might sound like gibberish or obscene or hilarious to an outsider but that’s just us doing our jobs.
Jules: So once the shooting of an episode begins, when does the editing process start?
Todd: Every day Production takes what they've shot and delivers the footage to our post house in Vancouver, who pipes it down overnight to LA. Then we pick up our dailies and start cutting.
Sometimes the editor might call up to set just to touch base with the Director, or the Director might have a question, because they might be going back to that set or they might be doing something else with a character and they want to be consistent or they might ask to see a sequence. So there is usually some communication between the editor and the director every day.
The editor has the script, with the script supervisor's notes. She might note if a line is changed from the script, or something is changed in the action for whatever reason, how many takes were shot, the angles that we have, what was shot from each angle, or if an insert shot is needed. They will also indicate the director’s preferences which we call circle takes – they literally circle which take is the preferred one. This is Season 9 for Supernatural and our editors have been here for so long, that our directors really trust our editors to use their creativity to piece it together.
Editing -- just like production or the writer or any other stage of the process -- we're trying to tell the best story we can and sometimes we're able to find a different way, with the pieces of the puzzle we've been given. We have three kickass editors so they get every third episode, and it’s great to see what these guys come up with.
One thing that's consistent in Supernatural, however, is that nothing is ever consistent. One episode can be totally different than another. Whether it’s The French Mistake or Changing Channels or Hunteri Heroici there's a handful in every season that totally take a left turn, and then the next one goes in an opposite direction. It’s a big reason why so many people have been with the show for so long. It keeps us on our toes and allows us to be creative.
Jules: What are some of the challenges that come up during editing?
Todd: I think the biggest challenge is getting an episode to the running time that we need to deliver to the network. Often, a rough cut of an episode is long so we need to find what to cut to get us to our target time. That’s a tough task trying to find what we can omit from the show but still tell the same story.
As you may have noticed from our DVDs, we don’t have many deleted scenes because we just trim a little here and there and try to maintain the original script. We end up having to try different versions and going over all the footage to find those trims.
Jules: What happens once shooting begins?
Todd: While the episode is shooting, the editor is getting dailies and cutting every day. Every show goes through the same process but the schedule is different for each episode depending on its airdate. Some episodes have more or less days to post and it can become a bit of a juggling act for the editors. They often have 2 different episodes at different stages of rough cuts that both need their attention so we have to prioritize.
After shooting is finished, the editor gets a couple of days with all the material to go over what they've done and put together the editor's cut. Then the director comes in and goes through all the material with the editor and they work together to put director's cut together.
So then the producers get in - that would be Phil Sgriccia, Bob Singer, Jeremy Carver, myself, the Editor and Assistant Editor. We have maybe 3-4 days – it all depends on schedules and airdates how much time or little time we have.
Todd: Before we have the official producers cut, we're on the phone with VFX and have a visual effects spotting session about every visual effect that’s going to be in the show.
A lot of time that varies very drastically from what was intended when they were shooting, what was intended in the script because we might've cut out a shot or edited a couple of shots for any given reason. We're seeing it from a different vantage point, a different perspective, and having fresh eyes on it you start to piece it together differently, as it goes through the different hands in the process. It changes. Sometimes scenes get shifted around, More VFX might help tell the story better, or less visual effects might help the dialogue play a little better or the action play a little better and make it that much more enjoyable for the audience.
When the producer's cut is done, we send that to the studio and network. They really trust us, and we work collaboratively with them through the whole process.
So once we’ve had our visual effects meeting, we’ve gotten our notes from the studio and network, at the point the picture’s locked, and we have a spotting session with our sound department.
MUSIC AND SOUND DESIGN
It’s a potpourri of audio goodness!
Jules: Music, both the classic rock, and the original score are integral to the show. How does the music for each episode get developed?
Todd: We have two composers, Jay Gruska and Christopher Lennertz, who delver great cues. Chris did the pilot and Jay scored Wendigo and they've been leap frogging episodes ever since. I don’t know of any other series that works this way this but it works great for us.
After we lock the show, there’s a Spotting Session where we discuss all aspects of sound design and score for every scene and every moment of the episode. In that meeting are Bob, Jeremy, Phil and myself along with the Composer, Dino Moriana (Music Editor), Alex Patsavas Rosenfeld (Music Supervisor), Michael Lawshe (Sound Supervisor), the Editor (Nicole Baer, Don Koch or Jimmy Pickel), and other members of my Post crew - PJ Tancinco (Associate Producer), Shawn Wagoner ( Post Production Supervisor] and Hilary Brinkman (Post Production Coordinator).
We discuss everything from where a music cue should start, what sort of sound or emotional tone the cue should have and where it should end. Sometimes certain instruments are requested depending on what we want the cue to bring to the scene. Color correction is also talked about.
Those meetings take an hour and a half, two hours. After so many seasons, the meetings have gotten shorter. Sometimes it's simple because it's “the boys on the job” or “the boys doing research. Essentially what it is – it's themes. The family theme, the action theme. It's okay to dial up that theme because that’s the storyline we want the audience to get right away.
Mike Lawshe has been on the show since the pilot and has created the sound world that we live in. He does an amazing job in the short time we give him and his crew to cut the dialogue and sound effects as well as cue, record and cut the foley and ADR. There’s many occasions in the spotting session where we get to a big action and VFX heavy sequence, turn to Mike and just say “Good luck, we’re all counting on you” and he delivers every time.
It takes about 5 days to a week to cut all the sound- they’re cutting dialogue, sound effects, backgrounds, recording ADR and loop group and designing the sound for what we want to hear for that episode, and for any given scene and even for any set that we’re in. We want the Men of Letters library to sound different than the Men of Letters’ dungeon. They’re subtle differences that not a lot of people may hear but as long as they don’t feel that things are just stagnant.
While the sound department is off editing all the sound, the composer is off writing and recording all the music. In Editorial, we’re working on several different episodes at any given time. We can be working on 3-5 or 6 different episodes at different stages of dailies and rough cut.
After the music is written and recorded, and all of the audio has been cut then it's delivered to the dub stage where I sit there for two days with our mixers (Dennis Kirk, Todd Orr and Daniel Nakamura) Michael Lashwe and Dino Moriana. We go thru the entire show sound by sound, line by line cue by cue and “mix” everything in. Every sound, every piece of dialogue, every music cue, whether its score whether hearing loop group or foley or ADR or production dialogue, every piece has to be mixed, equalized and levels set just right. We need to make sure we can hear the individual pieces of audio, but also the background foley noises that we need to hear, make sure the music is all playing underneath and we can hear everything over it. It’s a potpourri of audio goodness!
Within the time of all the audio being cut before we get to the dub stage, on the picture side there’s the colour correction that’s happening, there’s the visual effects being delivered, viewing and giving notes and dropping those in, there’s titling, any other drop-ins and fixes that need to happen. If we’re waiting on inserts, we got to shoot those and cut them in. Generally by the time we lock a show and have that spotting session, within a day or two that same editor is getting the dailies for their next episode if they haven’t started receiving them already.
Once we’ve put everything in to our liking we “playback” the show for Jeremy, Bob, Phil and myself, and give notes, and make some quick adjustments to the sound. Then we take that final audio track and lay it back to the final picture in the layback session.
From there our final picture with final sound goes to our post house to make our delivery dubs. We’re usual delivering it the day before it airs, so now that we air on a Tuesday, we’re delivering Monday morning.
Jules: In 2012, you and Chris Lennertz were part of a panel about music in TV at Comic Con.
Todd: Yes! “The Anatomy of a Soundtrack”. That was a lot of fun. The panel was for the composers, so I was there in support of Chris. There were a number of producers and composers who were on the panel as well, and it was great to meet all of them and talk about their projects and how they collaborated with one another. It was also a thrill being there and talking to fans firsthand. When they announced me, nobody knows me, but they mention Supernatural and Ghostfacers and the place erupted! It was cool.
Jules: So how to you get into the business?
Todd: As a child I watched a tremendous amount of television, to my parent's dismay. I always said it was their fault for putting a TV in my bedroom. I always considered it research.
Jules: What were you watching?
Todd: ‘70s and ‘80s sitcoms mostly. So much so that the lullabies I would sing to my kids (now 6 and 4) – well you always want to sing songs you know the lyrics too. So I would sing theme songs from TV shows to them – The Facts of Life, Greatest American Hero, Diff’rent Strokes, Growing Pains.... [Note: it was Todd suggestion to have Castiel sing the theme to "Greatest American hero" in 9.06 Heaven Can't Wait, after they couldn't get clearance for AC/DC song "Highway to Hell" that writer Robert Berens had suggested.
Jules: I do think it's sad that we've lost theme songs from TV shows.
Todd: Yes and main title sequences too. Even Supernatural – we have that seven second card. We had a discussion early on when we were trying to come up with a main title sequence, and everything that we were trying – 30 seconds felt too long, so we were doing things for 20 seconds and then 15 and then we asked ourselves “what do we need it for? Don't we want to get more show, more content?" At some point, we asked what we are trying to tell with a title sequence. A lot of shows from the 70s and 80s used that time for the theme song which would set up the story for you. That actually led us to our first recaps which the network calls “Saga Sells” to help, well, sell the saga actually. So for us it was "Saving people; hunting things. The family business."
Jules: So what happened after watching all that TV...
Todd: I grew up in New York, and went to college at The Ohio State University where I graduated with a degree in Communications. I just always knew I wanted to move out to LA and try to get into the entertainment business. I never really considered post-production until I actually was in it. The opportunity just came my way; I found it to be educational. It's an ever changing process especially now, with digital capture, file deliveries, every season it's an ever-moving target. As I said before, every show is doing it differently, and there’s nobody out there that can say a show is doing it wrong. Unless they are actually doing it wrong!
Jules: How did you end up on Supernatural?
Todd: Two of the first people I met when I came to LA was Eric Kripke and Chris Lennertz. Eric and I had a mutual friend who introduced us and we became friends. You can actually see the back of our buddy’s head in a crowd shot at the end of the pilot.
Eric and I never connected professionally previously but when Supernatural came up, the job I was working on for Warner Brothers was wrapping up, and he asked if I was available to jump over and help him out with the pilot. So I did. And he hasn’t fired me so here I am.
Chris Lennertz and Eric went to college together. Chris and I had always crossed paths on different projects, working at the same studios and finding each other at Christmas parties or wrap parties but never having worked on a project together. And when Supernatural came up, it was great that we were all able to work together.
Jules: What's kept you working on the show for nine years?
Todd: It’s the people that you work with, that you surround yourself with, that makes it fun and a great environment to work in every day. Both in Vancouver and in LA people have been with Show since early on and even people who have gone off to work on other things have found themselves coming back. We’ve been fortunate to have the steady work, but it's also challenging and creative and it’s a great environment with great people. There’s not an asshole among us (unless I’m the asshole!).
Jules: And that's included directing the Ghostfacers Web Series. How did that come about?
Todd: I was very involved during the Ghostfacers episode - prepping, camera tests, finding out what the story was about, what cameras would they use, and jumping into that aspect of it. I was also thinking about the characters - what would they be using, what would they be wearing, so I got close to the characters.
I’d been directing inserts for the show, and when the web series came up I threw my hat into the ring and said I’d love to be a part of it in any way possible and it was blast.
Jules: What's a good day for you?
Todd: A busy day. A day that flies by and its 6 or 7 o'clock and you look up and you don’t even realise what time it was and you’ve got so much work done, and you feel accomplished.
Jules: By the time an episode airs, you've seen it all so many times – do you ever watch it on TV?
Todd: Absolutely. I always record it at home and if I’m not watching the entire episode, I’ll definitely jump to scenes that I want to see or hear how it comes across on the broadcast. Every room we work in is the best we’re ever going to see or hear it so I always like to check to see how it plays for me at home. Once we deliver an episode, it’s out of our hands. The Network does their thing before beaming it for the cable or satellite providers to pull in down and put it in their system and get it ready for the East and West coast feeds. An episode goes through quite a process before its available to the viewers and we as producers have no control over that.
Jules: What got you onto Twitter and what's it like having such direct contact with the Show's fans?
Todd: Just two years ago I was watching one of our episodes, and the promo said that we'd be airing the following week, but our schedule had just changed that afternoon. I don’t think I'd ever tweeted before, but I felt the need to tweet a correction to the fans and let them know that there was a last second schedule change. And within 24 hours I had maybe 500 followers asking questions about the show and saying how much they love what we do.
Having that openness, that volume of responses, whether it's negative or positive, criticism or love, just being able to reach the fans, it's fantastic. In the years before Twitter and the easy access of social media, you had to seek it out and it wasn’t so readily available.
Our fan base is huge and very loyal and very defensive over the characters, the story lines and what we do. And we love them for all the love, thoughts and comments that we get from them.
Supernatural From Script to Screen is a series of interviews with the crew of Supernatural by Jules Wilkinson, Supernatural Wiki Administrator.
Many thanks to Todd Aronauer for his generosity in doing this interview.
Nothing in fandom is a solo activity, and this work was made better by a thorough betaing by counteragent, with additional editing by Todd.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Please link back to this article if quoting from it.
- Supernatural From Script to Screen: VFX Supervisor Mark Meloche
- Supernatural From Script to Screen: First Assistant Director Kevin Parks
- Supernatural From Script to Screen: Director's Commentary on "Trial and Error" with Kevin Parks
For inquiries about the Supernatural Wiki, you can contact Jules at firstname.lastname@example.org
Interview posted November 2013