June 15, 1998
By Barbara McKenna
Students, faculty, and staff bore witness recently to an exorcism, an alien assassination, and a grisly death by vampire bite. The man sharing this unearthly montage was Paul Rabwin. Rabwin, who graduated from UCSC with a degree in English literature in 1970, is one of the six producers of the popular TV show, The X-Files. He came to campus this spring as Cowell College's 1997-98 Chapman-Hall lecturer.
While on campus Rabwin presented two lectures, discussing television production and sharing footage from his work on the five seasons of one of television's top-rated shows.
Rabwin is responsible for all postfilming production, including the audio and visual effects that have pulled in three of the show's nine Emmy Awards. By way of explaining his job, Rabwin showed his audience a scene from a recent show: Agent Scully is pursued by a helicopter. Lights blaring, the chopper lands. Soldiers run at Scully, pull out their guns, pull her out of the car. A brief conversation ensues. Her trunk is searched. The soldiers run back to the chopper and, to the fading whack-whack sound of helicopter blades, they disappear into the murky night. Scully, hair whipping in the wake of the helicopter's departure, watches them go with a perturbed look on her face.
Rabwin freezes the scene and turns to his audience--mainly UCSC film students. "In that entire segment we used, maybe, 15 seconds of sound from the actual filming of the scene. We created all the rest. There are hundreds of details that we capture and add. You may never notice them, but if they were missing you would notice that." And then he lists the sounds: the helicopter blades, the engine, the clank of metal as a gun is pulled from a holster, a car door opening, the sound of a folder (well, yes, a file) being pulled from a briefcase in the trunk, running army boots hitting the pavement.
Such labor is standard for X-Files, Rabwin says. Production values for the show are unusually high, and every moment of sound requires some studio work. "We spend three days putting sound into a show like this," he explains.
Rabwin tells his audience of his greatest claim to X-Files fame. "I'm famous in X-Files circles for having created a sound effect. We had a show in which an alien bounty hunter gets stabbed in the pineal gland by a space-age instrument (of course, everyone knows this is how you incapacitate an alien--with a space age gadget thrust into the pineal gland). But the question came up, what sound does this gadget make? Because we knew we were going to use the sound a lot, we needed to make it a good one.
"I invested about two hours trying to find this one little sound effect. And nothing was working. Finally, it's three in the morning and I'm at my studio, sending sounds to them, so they can't see what I'm doing. I'm on the phone talking to Chris [creator/executive producer Chris Carter] and I've about had it. It's at this point that I walk over the microphone and say 'pffft.' That was it. It was perfect. And when the blade is retracted, we play the sound in reverse."
Such creativity is the norm in Rabwin's line of work. It was this same creative spark that led to the discovery that breaking Shredded Wheat into a microphone produces exactly the sound one would expect a dehydrated arm to make as it is broken off (something every X-Files producer needs to know).
"This is a great field," says Rabwin. "There is no stability, but it's as satisfying as it gets. People who make it have to be determined. Your education is a good start. And after that you need hands-on experience," he advises.
"I've toured the facilities today and seen they give you the opportunity to get experience in the process of editing. Most people get 95 percent of their training on the job. But the other 5 percent--knowledge of the basic language and concepts--is extremely important. I hired my current assistant because of his work at school," he says.
When asked how the government feels about The X-Files, Rabwin says there is little conflict and, in fact, the show has a huge following at the FBI. "They love us. Every once in a while we have to go back there and shoot the building for background shots. Now when we shoot we are constantly having to avoid windows where fans have taped big Xs in them."
The X-Files will go into its sixth season this fall, viewed by 20 million fans in 60 countries. Rabwin believes a large factor in the success of the show is that, "We think up extreme possibilities and run with them. The stories work because there is a grain of truth, a believable possibility, in each of them. Chris does a good job of making his ideas believable and scaring the hell out of the rest of us and that's one of the reasons the show works."
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