Friday, April 12, 2013

Behind the Scenes 11: The Sound Department

The only thing I remember from my years in film school (at least, the only thing I remember learning inside a lecture hall) is that the audience only notices the soundtrack when it's done wrong.

A good movie soundtrack should be so realistic and integral to the scene that you never even notice it's there. Footsteps, bird song, doors opening and closing, background traffic... all those normal sounds we hear every day and take for granted.

The on-set sound recordist's job is to capture all the different audio elements as cleanly as possible for the Sound Designer. Aside from capturing all the background elements (sometimes recorded separately as 'wild' takes), he or she also needs to record those elements while also ensuring the actors' dialogue is audible at at all times (preferably with no unseen aeroplanes flying overhead, or crew members chatting about the weather in the background).
Of course, this isn't always possible.


Imagine shooting a street scene in Manhattan... You can hardly ask all traffic in a three block radius to stop so you can hear the actors talk. Or when ther are big SFX explosions going off. So that's where re-recording comes in. The audio for most big budget movies is almost entirely put together in a studio once the picture has been edited, a job so big it definitely deserves it's own blog post.

On smaller jobs, like the ones I work on, almost all the audio is recorded live on set and only minor adjustments are done in post production.

In this post I'm just going to concentrate on the on-set recordists, those poor slobs who are on set at the crack of dawn, usually are parked the furthest away from set and have to schlep ther gear the greatest distance, spend all day out in the elements, either baking hot or freezing cold (because it's always one extreme or the other), usually over-looked by the Director and DOP who only have eyes for what the camera is doing...
Yeah, whoever thinks film work is glamorous has never been on a real film set.

The Sound Department is one of the smallest departments on any film set, seldom more than three people, and on most of the TV commercials I shoot it's a 'one man band'.

The head of the department is the Sound Mixer, who places the microphones on set, then monitors the audio levels, quality etc during takes, and liases with the AD when another take needs to be done because the audio was not 'clean enough' on the previous take. He will also let the Lighting team know if he needs baffles (great big screens of cloth) erected to reduce extraneous sound.

On bigger shoots, the Sound Mixer will be assisted by a Boomswinger. This is the guy (or gal) you see most often in movies about movies, the one holding a big stick over the heads of the actors with a big grey fluffy sock on the end. The boom pole is used whenever microphones cannot be placed on the actors themselves. Boomswinging is an art in itself, as the operator not only has to keep moving the microphone to whoever is speaking, but also needs to watch that his pole (or its shadow) aren't in shot, even when the camera is on the move. (BTW, the grey fluffy sock dampens wind noise).

On even bigger shoots, the third and most junior team member, often an apprentice, is the Cable Basher, sometimes very boringly known as the Sound Utility Technician. Apart from assisting the team in everything else they do, changing batteries, perhaps operating a second boom, he also keeps track of the microphone cables, making sure they don't get snagged, tripped over, wound too tight etc. He's also the Sound Mixer's personal tea boy.

In this digital age, with radio mics and other equipment working wirelessly, cables are no longer such a big thing. But there are still many instances when wireless doesn't work, such as when there is too much wireless interference, no clear line of sight between the microphone and the sound recordist, or when the actors cannot be 'wired' or 'mic-ed' because of their clothing or action.


So what does it take to be a sound recordist?
Aside from excellent hearing, a good awareness of the world around you, technical knowledge of audio equipment and the science of sound, years and years of experience, there's also a certain amount of artistry and talent involved. Sound, so often take for granted, can heighten the emotion of a scene, and catching just the right sounds on set can make the sound editor or designer's life so much easier.

From next week I'll be looking at the more creative departments of a film unit, starting with the Art Department.

1 comment:

  1. OMG, that boom swinger looks like a good friend of mine, too weird! x Abby