Exploring The Sound Thinking Behind "Stranger Things"
Angelo Palazzo
Emmy-winning lead sound effects editor Angelo Palazzo reflects on season 4

Tasked with raising the creative bar on Stranger Things (Netflix) for season 4 was a tall order--including on the audio front when you consider that season 3 won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Sound Editing for a One Hour Comedy or Drama Series. Emmy recipients were lead sound effects editor Angelo Palazzo and his colleagues headed by sound designer/co-supervising editor Craig Henighan, along with co-supervising sound editor Will Files, dialogue supervisor Ryan Cole, sound editor Kerry Dean Williams, sound effects editor Katie Halliday, music editor David Klotz and foley artist Steve Baine. 

Season 3 was Palazzo’s first on Stranger Things, reuniting him with Henighan whom he had collaborated with on varied projects for more than 15 years. It was while they were working together on the Robert Rodriguez-directed feature Alita: Battle Angel that Henighan asked Palazzo if he’d be interested in taking on Stranger Things. “Craig had been working on it [Stranger Things] from the beginning and my response was simply ‘I love that show, let’s do it,’” recalled Palazzo. Henighan had assembled a new sound team for season 3 of Stranger Things and its members meshed well but those who were continuing couldn’t rest on their proverbial laurels for season 4, which now has them once again in the Emmy conversation.

“Coming into season 4, we had a show that already had such a huge fan base with established aesthetic and signature sounds,” said Palazzo. “How do you notch that up to the next level?”

In part that query was answered by the series creators, the Duffer brothers, who for season 4, explained Palazzo, decided to delve deeper into the horror elements of the narrative. “Craig and I had long talks and we decided to go heavier, more aggressive with grittier sounds, leaning into more distortions and feedback than before.”

But these more radical sounds were built on the foundational audio signature of the series, creating a version 2.0 of source material such as the original sounds for The Upside Down and the Demogorgons, for instance. And that source material had often been rooted in real-world sounds like wood bending, dragging cinder blocks and the like.

The sounds reinforce the storyline in which vicious creatures take hold. These creatures are reflected in the audio depictions which too are pushed to another level. Yet Palazzo observed that racheting things up a notch, getting more aggressive, doesn’t mean doing too much or going overboard. Season 4 of Stranger Things, he said, reinforced a lesson he learned some time ago--that “less can be more. Even though the scenes of big, spectacular, dramatic action are there, the big takeaway is to be bold with your sounds but very focused. If you have sounds in a session that aren’t helping a scene, get rid of them. It’s all about focusing on the strong, bold sounds that work. That can be a hard thing to do for any artist. We have incredible tools, unlimited tracks, can record anything we want. There are great commercial libraries where options are unlimited. But that can be a real downside, triggering an inability to go with the simple sounds that just work.”

Palazzo affirmed that he and his audio compatriots were bold and focused this whole season--while not falling into the trap of doing too much just for the sake of doing more.

Palazzo added that the sound ensemble adapted well to COVID pandemic concerns, transitioning effectively to remote collaboration. Palazzo was already well versed in that mode of working, noting that dating back a number of years he became involved in long-distance relationship building on movies directed by Rodriguez who resides in Texas. Palazzo would connect with him remotely from L.A. or another locale. This familiarity with a remote modus operandi served Palazzo in good stead. In fact during the pandemic, he shared, “I found myself turning out more work than ever.” 

The impact of COVID, Palazzo continued, carried a silver lining. “We showed that we can pull off large shows like this--and do it all from home. We may never get back to the studios. It’s an option but one we don’t have to do anymore,” related Palazzo, citing dialogue supevisor Cole who lives in New Zealand but remotely connected seamlessly with other members of the sound team.

On the audio score, Stranger Things has an impressive Emmy lineage, with seasons 1 and 2 winning Outstanding Sound Editing honors. And accompanying the season 3 win was a nomination for Outstanding Sound Mixing.

Palazzo’s Emmy recognition isn’t confined to season 3 of Stranger Things. He received his first primetime nomination in 2018 for his work on Star Trek: Discovery. And he’s a nine-time Motion Picture Sound Editors (MPSE) Golden Reel Award nominee for his television, feature and special venue project exploits, including for such movies as 2012, the animated Frozen and Frozen II, as well as a 2019 Stranger Things episode titled “The Battle of Starcourt.” 

As for what’s next, Palazzo at press time was working on the Rodriguez-directed feature Hypnotic, starring Ben Affleck. Also in the offing for Palazzo is another theatrical feature, The Tiger’s Apprentice.

This is the eighth installment of a 16-part weekly The Road To Emmy Series of feature stories which will explore the field of Emmy contenders and then nominees spanning such disciplines as directing, writing, producing, showrunning, cinematography, editing, production design, costume design, music, sound and visual effects. The Road To Emmy Series will then be followed by coverage of the Creative Arts Emmy winners on September 3 (Saturday) and 4 (Sunday), and then the Primetime Emmy Awards ceremony on Monday, September 12.

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