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Thursday, June 17, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Hear, Hear: Sound Effects Win Emmys -- `Nye The Science Guy' Team Go To Great Lengths

Seattle Times Eastside Bureau

WOODINVILLE / REDMOND

The sounds of success? How about boink, ka-runch and ker-splat?

Tom McGurk, Mike McAuliffe and Dave Howe thought they were on top of the world when they picked up a Daytime Emmy last month for their sound-editing work on "Disney Presents Bill Nye the Science Guy."

It was the fourth year in a row the team won an Emmy - television's version of an Oscar - and this year's win brought their Emmy total to 15.

But things just got sweeter for the sound-industry upstarts: Steve Lawson, their boss at the Seattle audio post-production company Bad Animals, has sold them the company.

"It's amazing how life works," said Howe, 42, a sound designer who lives in Woodinville.

McAuliffe and McGurk said getting the job to record background tracks for "Bill Nye the Science Guy" during the show's first season, 1993, was an unbelievable break. The next year they took over for Jim Wilson, the sound editor credited with creating the show's sound soul.

Nye credited the team with making the show better.

"They're key," he said. "It makes the show more engaging, more watchable, more fun. Sounds are often able to convey meanings more quickly than what you see.

". . . Those guys are brilliant. They're just fantastic."

A bruising business

Sometimes sound design is a bruising business. Recalling a show where he fell, Nye described the research that went into getting the sound of the fall just right.

"Jim Wilson threw himself down the steps at Bad Animals to get the sound right," Nye said.

The first time wasn't satisfactory, Nye recalled, so the wired-for-sound Wilson took a second tumble.

"The audio has always added a whole other level of humor," said Erren Gottlieb, one of the show's executive producers. "A lot of times our show wasn't that funny until it came out of audio post (production)."

Where does the team find sources for their sounds? Pretty much everywhere. When the Blue Angels came to the Seattle area, the three made sure to put a microphone on a rooftop.

But more standard sounds, like someone walking on gravel, can be mimicked by using Grape Nuts in a wooden box. Fruit and vegetables make great squishy effects. A wad of audiotape can be shaken to sound like someone moving through tall grass.

There have been times when it took a trip to a home-supply store to find the right sound. Imagine three guys holding a variety of hand drills and other tools up to their ears, spinning and turning gadgets and handles, with looks of intense concentration.

The show is unusual because of the number of sounds it requires, the team said.

"If we've done our job right, you don't realize we've done anything at all," Howe said. "It just looks natural, feels natural, sounds natural."

Cross-country odyssey

A management major in college, Howe first worked for a small recording studio in Phoenix. That job led to a six-year stint as a production manager at a radio station. Most recently, he was a lead re-recording mixer at Universal Studios in Orlando, Fla.

After four-plus years of 60- to 80-hour weeks working on TV shows such as "Swamp Thing" and "The Adventures of Superboy," Howe moved to the Northwest to pursue a less hectic lifestyle with his wife, Karen.

McAuliffe, a Redmond resident, landed a job at Bad Animals by just walking in the door and sitting down at the reception desk. With no real job interview or internship offer, he hung around until the company started paying him to be the receptionist.

And McAuliffe, Bad Animal's "resident wildman," was almost sacked before he made it big. He scorched the rug in a late-night mountain-bike race down the studio's main hallway.

"I was ready to fire him," Lawson said. "All the guys pulled me aside and said, `Oh, don't fire Mike. He's the future. He's what's coming up.'

"I took a breath and said, `OK.' "

McAuliffe, a sound engineer, grew up in Redding, Calif., and moved south to Los Angeles after high school. He worked for two studios, Warner Bros. and CBS.

He came to the Northwest and cut halibut in a fish house for a year, then went back to school in Florida at Full Sail School for the Performing Arts.

From receptionist to fish

"Doing sound effects - it's a great job," said McAuliffe, 31. "It's more or less eight hours of laughing. You're just basically goofing off. And you get paid for this. This is definitely not work."

While answering the front-desk phones as an intern at Bad Animals, his distinctive voice - some musician friends once nicknamed him "Squeak" - landed McAuliffe the part of Luther the fish, the wise-cracking companion to the title character in "Freddy the Fish," an interactive children's computer game.

"This lady called up and said, `You've got an interesting voice. Why don't you try out?' " he said. "Now I'm a famous fish."

McGurk traces much of his good fortune back to "Bill Nye the Science Guy."

"We were really, really lucky to get the show," McGurk said. "It's like getting to work on `Star Wars' for your first movie."

McGurk lives with his wife, Danielle, in Seattle. He became an accounting major to make his father happy, he said, but started taking music classes secretly on the side.

To buy Bad Animals, the three teamed up with Charlie Nordstrom, from the famous family of retailers.

"He's a really great guy," McGurk said. "He has the nicest shoes."

Nordstrom, 33, bought Bad Animal's Studio X two years ago with Reed Ruddy, the company's former studio manager.

`They're just really bright, fun, creative people," Nordstrom said of the sound crew. `"here's a certain sense of humor they have that I really appreciate and I like being around."

Brian Kelly's phone message number is 206-515-5629. His e-mail address is bkelly@seattletimes.com

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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