Why the production sound guy is like the DP, but for sound (and why he isn’t).

The comparisons are obvious. The sound mixer is responsible for recording the sound for a film just as the Director of Photography is responsible for recording the picture. There are similar technical issues involved. Whenever I have to train a new boom operator, I tell him or her to think of the boom microphone as a “camera for sound”—you aim it correctly to frame the sound properly. And you move in and out, sideways, up and down, back and forth, with the camera to match the perspective. You have close up dialogue and wide angle dialog. It might not be as technically complex as being a camera operator, but the finished film quality is very dependent on the boom operator doing his or her job well.

And just as stray light can ruin a camera shot, stray sound can ruin the dialog. The sound mixer needs to scout the set, listening for air conditioner rumble, refrigerator hum, exterior traffic noises, and so on, and then think up solutions using sound blankets, or perhaps attaching omnidirectional body mics to get a closer, cleaner sound than the boom could get. Sometimes the choice of microphones and microphone locations can be daunting. The sound mixer has to come up with a sound plan, just as the DP helps the director come up with a shot plan. Sometimes, the perfect shot would put the actors in a position where a sound problem cannot be fixed (e.g. in front of a window where there is a dog barking outside in a neighbor’s yard). The director might decide to move to a secondary choice or might opt to shoot as is and loop the dialog later in an ADR session.

When I do production mixing on an unpaid gig, I tell the director I want to be including in pre-production meetings, and I want to see the shot list and storyboards so I can prepare. I do not want to just show up at crew call time and then have to ask the director or assistant director or DP just moments before the director calls for quiet on the set, what the blocking is, who the principal speaking actor is for a particular shot, and so on. If I’m being paid, I politely suggest this, but in the end, my reaction will be yes sir/no sir. Money does talk.

And speaking of money, I hear all the time that one reason DP’s should be paid is because of the substantial equipment investment they have made. Now I don’t disagree with that one, but have to tell you filmmakers that the production sound guy is right behind the DP in terms of equipment investment. Here’s a personal short list of mine (doesn’t include the innumerable cables, adapters, sound cart, folding chair, etc., and expendables like batteries):

  • Four-Track timecode enabled recorder: $2,200
  • Bag for recorder and mixer: $200
  • 4×2 Field Mixer: $600
  • Backup two-track timecode enabled recorder: $800
  • Wireless Lavalier Microphones(4): $2,400
  • Wired lavalier microphones(4) $1,200
  • Long shotgun microphone: $700
  • Short shotgun microphone: $300
  • Hypercardoid boom microphone: $700
  • Boompole, zeppelin and dead cat $400
  • Sound blankets(12) and stands: $500
  • ————————————————-
  • Total major equipment expenditure: $10,000
  • Ten grand worth of gear to do a good job recording production sound on a variety of production types. And as mentioned, this doesn’t include all the miscellaneous accessories, adapters, cables, stands, cart, chair, batteries, etc. So we’re well over ten grand for a moderately sophisticated non-Hollywood production sound setup. And you do need this stuff to do a decent job. And sound guys have a lot of technical details to learn and to take care of. So when I argue that the sound guy should be paid if the DP is being paid, there is a very good reason for it. Now granted, a good DP possibly spends 2-3 times that much for his cameras, lenses and all those lights. But the issue is the same, if to a differing degree.

    My own personal rationale for doing production sound (and I tell everyone who asks if I’ll work sound for them) boils down to one of three reasons:

      (a) I’m being paid for it.
      (b) It’s for a good friend who has done favors for me in the biz (found me paid work, etc.)
      (c) It’s a great script, it tells a wonderful story and/or sends an important message, the director treats me as a respected senior crew chief, includes me in pre-production planning meetings, location scouting, shot planning and/or other creative capacity such as script review, or maybe throws me an acting part (I am an aspiring actor as well). The one thing I don’t tolerate well is a director who lumps me in with the guy who brings the coffee or the gal who moves the chairs around.

    For this latter option, it sort of implies I know the director and know he or she is talented and respectful. I always ask to see the script before I decide. I don’t want to waste my time and gear on a crappy home movie-ish shoot with a crappy script. And I will send my comments on the script back to the director to see what his or her response is (I am a writer as well). I am absolutely prepared to have a director tell me that they just want someone to do sound only and nothing more. That’s perfectly fine with me, but I will generally pass on working for free under those conditions.

    In essence, a director can pay me in one of three ways: cash; being a good friend who has done favors for me; or including me as a respected senior creative team member or giving me an acting part. I don’t work for free, but I do have alternative payment plans.

    Truth be told, I do see the Director of Photographer as far more of an artist than the sound guy. The DP really creates the image the director is looking for in telling the story. He or she uses light, exposure, camera motion, focus pulling, and a myriad of other techniques to set a mood and evoke a feeling in the viewer. The production sound guy just works tirelessly to faithfully record the on-set dialog and sound effects. So the latter (though invaluable to the finished art form) is more technician than artist.

    But my parting thought is that any director who thinks he or she can get good production sound by having an idle production assistant aim a $150 shotgun mic screwed onto a boom pole and plugged into a Radio Shack pocket recorder is delusional. You will get what you pay for. That beautifully framed and lighted shot, that acting moment that took twelve takes to get right, that touching story beat, might just be destroyed by having the dialog sound like it was shot inside a tunnel.

    -RG

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    About Robert Gordon

    Robert Gordon is a writer, musician and audio engineer based in the Raleigh, North Carolina area. He has written short stories and screenplays for short films and is currently working on his first full-length novel. Check out his Audio Engineer page on Linked in as "Rob Gordon".

    Posted on March 1, 2013, in Film and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

    1. Loving these! Keep them coming 🙂

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