Beyond Scared Straight

Behind The Bars: Week 27

Behind the Bars | Season 5, #3: Listen Up!

Listen Up!

By Paul J. Coyne, Executive Producer

On October 17, at 10pm on A&E, Beyond Scared Straight returns to one of our favorite locations, the Oklahoma County Jail. It is one of the most physically demanding tours we have ever encountered. It is designed that way by the jail to make these hardened teens vulnerable enough to be reached emotionally. It isn't always easy to break down the walls these teens have built up over time, but Oklahoma is almost always effective.

When I first visited the jail to witness their program, I couldn't believe how demanding it was. At one point, one of the teens threw up after running laps with inmates in a small exercise yard. I asked a deputy how many times that had happened.

"If realizing how tough jail is helps that kid change for the better, it happens just as often as it needs to," he said.

This week the deputies meet their match with two of the teens. Steven, 15, has an explosive temper and hangs out with drug dealers. He treats his adoptive, senior-citizen mother with disrespect and anger and has said he will drop out of school as soon as he turns 16.

When Steven enters the jail, he carries that attitude with him. Cornered by two deputies, he erupts into a "bleep-filled" rant, his face turning red, his veins throbbing on his forehead, tears of anger forming in his eyes. The deputies give it back to him in equal measure but nothing calms him down. Later, when he's had enough, Steven breaks free from the tour and runs off through the jail, with deputies in hot pursuit.

But there's really no place to run in jail, so that doesn't last long.

The deputies also encounter the female version of Steven in Jazzy, who, at 11 years old, is one of the youngest people we have ever featured on Beyond Scared Straight. Once we met her, though, we knew she would provide fireworks once the tour started--and she certainly does. How a person that young has gained enough bravado to face off against inmates is a total mystery to me: I barely speak up when the grocery store clerk gives me incorrect change; I just assume it's my fault.

One of the primary locations for the Oklahoma episodes is a small exercise yard surrounded by four towering concrete walls. It is technically "outside," and it is illuminated by skylight, but that sky is separated from the inmates by a wall made of fencing and barbed wire. When I first saw the location, I thought it was visually impressive but I was very concerned about the sound quality we would get. Those high walls created an overpowering echo that tended to make everything sound muddled.

It is often said, in the TV and film biz, that "sound is half the picture." I believe this whole-heartedly. Although viewers are very conscious of the images that roll before their eyes, they are usually less aware of the subconscious sonic experience.

The jail and prison locations we visit are treacherous for our sound mixers. Hard walls, steel and glass create lots of echo. Crowded cell blocks with screaming inmates can easily drown out the words being spoken by our teens and deputies. Often, our emotional kids aren't the loudest people on the planet, so capturing their sniffles and mutterings is a true art form.

Each jail day, the teens are wired with a small microphone just before filming begins. On more than a couple of occasions, you may have seen them throw off their mics, no longer willing to be part of the experience. These microphones are specifically designed to capture only the sounds closest to the mic so that even when a teen whispers, we can usually hear it--not that we can always make out what they say, since enunciation is a dying craft...

We also put microphones on the inmates who will feature prominently in each episode, the ones who speak to the teens one-on-one. So yes, at some point one of our sound guys is taping microphones to people like Diabla and Ice Mike. We get that close so you don't have to.

As we film, those sounds are fed into audio mixers that record everything that is happening. These mixers are slung over the shoulders of two sound recordists who stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the camera guys. It takes several hours the night before each shoot to prepare these mixers so that the microphones don't receive any kind of interference from each other or from things like prison walkie-talkies. It's highly technical and I can't begin to understand how it's done.

While we are filming, the recordists are constantly turning knobs on their mixers, deciding what dialogue we want to commit to tape. There are no second takes in a documentary series like ours, so there is only time to get it right the first time. And somehow, the recordists always do, while also holding a boom microphone as a backup to the hidden microphones.

Our four main audio mixers over the course of the series have been Kevin Parker, Richard Beare, Tony Jensen and Patrick Hurley. Their work is most likely taken for granted by our audience, and I just want you all to know how much work goes into their craft, and how much I value them as a crucial part of the success of our series. They are the best there is at what they do.

They deal with an ever-changing experience in difficult environments and have to make split-second decisions in order to capture what is being said without that sound being distorted or inaudible.

Sometimes, when the show is finally put together, we have to subtitle what is being said, but that is never because of their work. It is almost always because of a regional accent or lazy diction by whomever is speaking. We hear every word but we don't trust that you will all know what is being said, so we add the subtitles.

The audio mixers' job combines technical skill, storytelling ability and decisiveness. This week, when you watch Steven and the deputies going at it, take a good listen. What begins as a quiet conversation suddenly erupts into yelling, with no warning. Our mixers were able to anticipate and capture that explosion and now you at home get to see it.

And hear it.