PEN15 is a new show on Hulu from comedy duo Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle about the life of two young women in middle school during the early 2000s and James Parnell is the Supervising Sound Editor responsible for making every pencil tap, school bell, or video game sound sooo 19 years ago.

In five short years, James Parnell’s career as a sound editor and re-recording mixer include nearly 100 different film, television, and web projects. English born and Canadian-raised, James hit the ground running since arriving in Los Angeles in 2015, working on shows like the Scream: TV Series and The Mist and films such as Gerald’s Game and the Oscar-winning Moonlight.

PopAxiom exchanged vocal sounds over the phone with James to discuss his career thus far and the challenges he faced weaving sounds into PEN15’s soundscape.

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First Bell

A musician from an early age, James didn’t seek a high education involving sound at first “I was a political science student in Toronto and playing in a bunch of bands. I was recording and quickly realized I was a better engineer than I was a drummer. I took a class related to film, and it was one of those ‘Ah-ha!’ moments.”

Like any kid, James watched movies, and as his understanding of sound in film grew, he understood two significant influences “… Gary Rydstrom and Ben Burtt.”

James offers a few others who’ve left impressions “More recently, Erik Aadahl and Craig Henighan who is Oscar-nominated now for Roma.”

About PEN15

Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle didn’t only help create PEN15, but the 31-year-old comedians also star as 13-year-old versions of themselves. For James, the job entailed transporting viewers back to 2000-something “We had a big spotting session with Maya and Anne. We had creative talks about the sonic goal they wanted to achieve. And how best to stay true to the sounds of school in the early 2000s.”

Like a time-traveling fly-on-the-wall, we get a look into what those discussions were about “The creative talks we had were very specific about certain things like, how big we wanted the school hallways to sound or what kind of neighborhoods the kids lived in.

To achieve those goals “We have this giant library of sound recordings of suburban neighborhoods or high schools.”

Though taking place just under 20 years ago, times change “At the time the show takes place, certain technology didn’t exist. People still used fax machines and those big Nokia phones.

The Goal

There was a specific audio goal for PEN15 “We couldn’t make it sound like a modern high school drama. We had to make it sound more like those after-school specials or something like the old-school Degrassi.”

James shares another bit of insight about the sonic design of the Hulu series “In our talks with the creators the concept of de-tuning and pitching down the chatter and the school bell to make it seem more drab and melancholy.”

PEN15 is a comedy, but it’s also a heart-wrenching drama that hits you when you least expect it. A part of that effect is due to choices in sound “In one of the last episodes, instead of playing dialogue during a scene where you didn’t really need the words. You knew what was going on and just let the music fill in the moment and you feel for the character.”

Working With Sound

Sound is invisible which makes the artistry behind creating it even more mysterious and hard to grasp “Oh, so you make the music in the film? No, that’s the composer. Oh, so you make the sound effects? Well, I mix the sound effects and the dialogue.”

For the average moviegoer, it’s a struggle to understand the parts of the whole. The finished project looks so seamless. But James explains a bit more about his slice of the entertainment pie “I was the Supervising Sound Editor on the show which meant that I had a sound editing team; a dialogue editor, sound effects editor, etc.”

For James’ team to work there’s more required from more people “It’s always a struggle to deal with the raw materials and get them in-line perfectly. You’re recording on set with generators and lights. So many things that can throw off the process.”

As mentioned before, James’ career is only five years old, and he’s nearing working on his 100th project “I’m relatively new in the industry but I’ve seen big productions and small ones, and it’s incredible how many people it takes. You really appreciate the amount of work that goes into each project.”

Wrapping Up

Pen15 is wrapped and ready for Hulu subscribers to enjoy. So, what’s next for James? “I’m working on a William Shatner movie called Senior Moment.”

James is boldly going into another great project.

PEN15 starts February 8th, 2019 on Hulu
with all ten episodes available immediately.

Thanks to James Parnell and Impact24 Public Relations
for making this interview possible.

Ruben Diaz
Writer, film-fanatic, geek, gamer, info junkie & consummate Devil's advocate who has been fascinated by Earth since 1976. Classically trained in the ways of the future.