The Director’s Guide to Sound Part 3: Why it’s hard to find a good production sound mixer (who’ll work for food and credit)
Smalltime indie filmmakers seem to have less trouble finding a Director of Photography (DP) who will work without pay than a production sound mixer. If you think about this purely from an economic standpoint, then considering the DP probably has invested two-to-three times as much in his equipment, it makes one wonder why this is so. Naturally, I have a few thoughts.
Economics aside, DP’s are the rock stars of the crew (after the director at least). The actors and other crew members look on them and their SUV’s full of exotic gear with reverence and awe. Cinematography is high art. Audio is engineering. Everyone wants to be a DP. It’s the sexiest crew position. They meet with the director and producer in the preproduction planning of shots over lattes, and then they meet after the shoot to review the raw footage—while the sound guy is home testing his cables and adapters.
As for the finished product? People notice great imagery captured on perfectly lit sets. And all those exotic camera moves: the dolly shots, the jib shots, the steadicam shots, pushing in and pulling out, rack focus… Most everyone walks away from a movie thinking about how beautifully shot it was. On the other hand, aside from having a great music score, people usually only notice the sound if it was terrible. Frankly, being the DP for a movie shoot is a high honor and privilege. Being the sound mixer is—well a job.
Production sound mixers in the indie world are a rather mixed breed. On the one hand, you have those knowledgeable, experienced and well-equipped mixers who actually find decent paid gigs now and then. A serious sound mixer probably owns a formidable arsenal of audio equipment including a timecode-enabled multitrack recorder, plus a field mixer, maybe a backup stereo recorder, at least three boom microphones: a long shotgun for outdoor distance work, a short shotgun for close-up outside work, and a hypercardoid for inside work, plus maybe three or more wireless body mikes. Then there are the accouterments like sound blankets, stands, memory cards, shock mounts, cables and adapters, good headphones, and scads of other bits of gear to aid in getting the location sound recorded. All told, even a small-market indie sound mixer might have invested between five and thousand dollars in his gear bag.
And on the other hand, there are those eager newbies just starting out, with maybe a single economy shotgun microphone and a cheap stereo pocket recorder and a boom pole in their gear arsenal. They’re hoping with enough unpaid gigs that they can start building credentials, acquiring more gear, and eventually start getting paid gigs and maybe just make it into a career. These are the guys who will gladly work for food and credit on almost any production—even with the cheesiest screenplay and the most pretentious director. But they might not get you that pristine dialogue you’re hoping for though. In fact, you might find out after the shoot that all the dialogue needs to be dubbed in post, perhaps because there was just too much noise and hiss in the recordings, or maybe some dreaded echoes from using the wrong microphone for the situation. It’s like hiring a guy with a $150 Handicam whose credits include a bunch of funny/silly home movies published on YouTube and shooting his sister’s wedding, to be your DP and hoping for good results.
Everyone who invests thousands of dollars of their savings into an equipment arsenal plans and expects to pay it all off eventually, and once they’ve built up enough creds, they deserve to do so. So they can begin to pick and choose which projects they will work on pro-bono, and which ones they expect to be paid for. The sound guys I know who will sometimes work for free, typically tell me there are several things they look for before giving up a free weekend (or three) to work on someone else’s production.
- It’s for a good cause. Everyone has an altruistic streak in them, including the guys with big equipment investments. If some filmmaker is trying to create a film to bring awareness to something like child abuse, bullying, poverty, discrimination, corporate greed, and so forth, even people who normally would expect to be paid for their time and equipment usage, might line up for a good cause pro-bono.
- They have to know or at least have heard good things about the director. Face it, nobody likes to work for an asshole—not in the nine-to-five world in which most small-market cast and crew live and breathe during the week, and not during their weekends and evenings. Directors who take advantage of the kindness and generosity of the people who are willing to kick in their services for free, soon enough find that nobody with any skill is going to want to sign on to work for them.
- They have seen the script and feel it is a good one. Usually (though not always), the prospective sound mixer as well as prospective DP, want to know something about the production in advance. As director, you have to do a little pitch of your concept. Nobody wants to waste their time on a poorly scripted, ill-laid out film project. If any senior crew asks to see the script before deciding, think of it along the same lines as if some studio exec was interested in financing you and asked you to present to them enough information to make a decision. If a DP or sound guy are willing to work for you for free, then they are in fact making an implicit investment in you. Everyone who pours their heart and soul into a production, wants to believe it is going to be a good one, and maybe, just maybe one that will get recognized at a festival (or get a zillion hits on YouTube)
- The cast and crew on board so far are good. Just as nobody wants to work for an asshole, no one really wants to work side-by-side with lots of other assholes either. On the sets I’ve been on, the cast and crew tend to reflect the director to an extent, ergo, a skilled and affable crew don’t usually gravitate onto sets overseen by unpleasant and/or incompetent directors. So don’t be surprised if a prospective sound guy asks who else is already on board.
- It seems like it should be fun. This one applies to everyone on the cast and crew really. Twelve-hour days can grind anyone down. Many of the people you meet on set work at a day job to feed and clothe a family perhaps, and then work on filmmaking on weekends and evenings to fulfill their artistic passions and maybe find an opportunity to switch careers if things go well. If the shoot can be broken down into a few more shorter days, then make it so. If an expensive location has been secured for an entire Sunday from dawn till dusk, then the director and or producer needs to find ways (within the budget) to keep stress levels down and make things pleasant and even fun.
Craft services is one of those make or break niceties for the cast and crew that should not be overlooked. It is often in fact the biggest part of the budget. When people say they’ll work for food and credit, the quality of the craft services table is one of those things they’re talking about. One of my peeves is the pizza and soda for every single meal thing. Yes it’s cheap and easy, but after a while it just becomes a part of the grind, rather than a break from it. There are other cheap and quick ways to do meal breaks. And beyond bottles of water and bags of chips, you make things like tissues, aspirin, antacids, granola bars, caffeinated and un-caffeinated drinks, and other comfort things available. And where’s the frakking coffee? Most everyone likes to have a decent cup of hot coffee on set now and then. You’ll end up sending a production assistant out during the shoot anyway, so just plan on it. Have a big pump thermos or two of coffee available at all times! One thing that irks me is getting the munchies after lunch, and looking over at the table and seeing a couple of bottles of water and maybe one little bag of Fritos left over. You’re better off buying too much stuff and taking it home for your family, than having a poorly-stocked table. Trust me on this one.
Don’t skimp on taking good care of people who are actually saving you loads of money by NOT charging you. Some filmmakers provide little mementos of the shoot like keychains or tee-shirts to the people who slaved away for several days. Others invite the cast and crew to a pre-screening. This is a really nice touch. Whatever you do as a filmmaker, do not take lightly your implicit obligation to make the cast and crew as comfortable and happy as is in your power.
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So to the question of how to attract a knowledgeable and skilled sound mixer with good quality equipment without paying him? Beyond the prerequisites: known/good director, quality screenplay, good bunch of folks also on board, etc. Here are a few thoughts gleaned from sound mixer acquaintances that filmmakers should pay attention to:
- Treat the sound mixer with the same respect as the DP. Treat him or her as a valued senior crew lead. Don’t treat him as you would the production assistants who move things around and fetch food and drinks. Don’t just send him or her a crew call sheet saying to show up at 7:30 a.m. for a twelve-hour day broken up only by a break for pizza and soda. Invite him to the preproduction shot planning meetings out of courtesy (or at least send him the shot plan so he can study them and prepare). Ditto if he asks you for an advance copy of the script. You shouldn’t even wait for him to ask for these, since it is in your best interest not to wait until just before calling “action” to have to tell him what the setup is: the lines, the blocking, that this is a dolly shot and the actor is walking left to right and whispering and then shouting. A good sound guy is going to ask for all this info in advance anyway, so if he doesn’t, he might not have all that much experience after all. Invite him to view the dailies if you show them to the producer and DP. Assessing if the production sound is good is just as important as the picture. Introduce him, along with your senior production people at festivals, if you get that far.
- Talk to him. Pay attention. When he shows up, go over and say hello and talk about what’s going on and where you need him. Let him know that just as the DP is the head of the production picture department, the mixer is the head of production sound. Don’t make him feel like a commodity. Unless you are behind schedule and very much need to deal with a crisis, at least take a few minutes to make the sound guy feel like an important senior member of the crew. Know that there are sound issues just as their are picture issues. While you’re asking the DP how stray light coming through a window might affect an interior shot next to that window, ask the sound mixer if any exterior sounds (distant dog barking, large air-conditioning unit, traffic, etc) will either. The dialogue can be dubbed in later if the shot is really needed, but the location sound is compromised. Ask the sound guy his opinion.
- Have a boom operator at his disposal. Mixing production sound requires a lot of focus on selecting the right microphones, placing them well, and then monitoring levels while the recording is in progress. Expecting the sound mixer to also hold the microphone boom pole really detracts from his other responsibilities and it shows. You cannot perform either task well if you have to perform both tasks. Those behind-the-scenes photos you see of an all-in-one sound man holding a boom and with the recorder in a bag over his shoulder are typical signs of an ultra-small crew production. Unless you’re doing a documentary or a guerrilla shoot, and intentionally need a very small crew, don’t take chances on this. Trust me again on this one: if he looks down to check his levels, his aim with the microphone may drift. And if he has to adjust a level, he needs to hold the boom with one hand. And if he doesn’t pay attention to the levels, then he might get some things recorded too hot (clipped out) and others beneath the noise floor. One more time: it is a risk to have one guy do both. And don’t just offer up a totally inexperienced and unmotivated production assistant merely because he or she is unoccupied at the time. If the sound mixer wasn’t able to bring his own boom operator, then find someone who really wants to operate the boom and learn more about production sound. There’s nothing worse on set audio-wise than having a first-time boom operator who would rather be on the camera crew, who doesn’t pay attention, and lets the boom mic drift away from the speaking actor’s mouth and face toward the wall (or worse).
- Offer him leading credits.The leading credits are where the important people go. Even the costume designers and production designers who invest little or nothing out-of-pocket, and don’t really have any more hard-earned skill than sound mixers, get leading credit. In a Hollywood movie, with the hierarchy and all, the production mixer gets lumped in on the final credit roll with the rest of the sound guys (and there are a lot of them). But in your little indie flick, you could just put “Sound………JOE BLOW” on the same page as the Costume Designer and Set Decorator. If you don’t want to put it in the leading credits, give him a static page by himself early in the trailing credits. Hey, he’s working for credit only after all, so try to give him better than you do to the production assistants who go out for the pizza. He wants to have his name recognition for the next prospective filmmaker looking for a sound guy.
Word gets around about various filmmakers and how they treat the crew. Directors who treat unpaid crew like day laborers eventually get a reputation, and find not many experienced and skilled crew willing to work for long unpaid hours for a person that doesn’t seem to care about anyone else. Realize that other than a run-and-gun or documentary, you really can’t make a film without a number of crew members. And you really cannot make a great indie film without having both a top-flite cinematographer and sound recordist on the team.
Consider this: a Hollywood sound mixer makes about $325 a day and then charges you rental on his equipment. This is likely to add up to around $500 per day to hire a sound mixer and his gear. An experienced Hollywood boom operator makes about $250 a day. If they opt to work for you without pay, these guys are literally saving you thousands of dollars for a short, and many thousands of dollars for a feature (even at a much lower non-Hollywood scale rate). Don’t take them for granted. Make them feel important. Don’t forget the little things like respect, politeness, a please and a thank you here and there. It goes a long way. If you take them for granted, then for your next production, you might just find yourself accepting that inexperienced newbie with his Radio Shack pocket recorder and $99 microphone and untrained ear, and wind up with dialogue that sounds like it was recorded over a telephone.
I got some positive feedback and also a little eyebrow raising from some of my director friends who read my previous blog entry “How much power should a director have over a production”. Now I have a vested interest as a writer and aspiring actor, as well as experienced sound guy, to maintain good relationships with local filmmakers, so I have to resist the urge to tone down my thoughts and opinions in order to avoid being ostracized. But I feel I can and must be honest and open in my blogging. To do otherwise would constitute a commercial sellout for which I would deserve to be completely squelched out by my readership here and on Twitter. How can I champion art over commerce, and then abandon my principles in order to land parts and and crew work? So I tell myself that I wouldn’t want to work for or with any local filmmaker who cannot take some constructive criticism and look in the mirror once in a while. I do it every day! And much of what I say here is tongue-in-cheek, and I will mock myself just as quickly and easily as I’ll mock anyone else.
One of my colleagues told me in no uncertain terms that until I’ve walked the walk, I should refrain from criticizing anyone else. Well, my first short is in post, and as soon as I finish the editing, I will put it out for the world to see (and criticize!). But as I stated in a previous blog, I do not believe that one needs to be an expert practitioner to be able to nor allowed to critique the work of others. And furthermore, there is a benefit to having one’s efforts objectively critiqued. A filmmaker’s close friends and co-workers are going to be hesitant to tell him what’s not right about what he’s doing or make strong suggestions for improvement (not if they want to continue to be friends and work on productions). That’s what the outside set of ears and eyes is for. That’s what I do. (takes a deep breath)…
Let me state for the record, that while there are some good indie directors who can also write, being a good director neither implies nor guarantees being a good writer. These guys need to study the craft just as we dedicated writers do. They need to read books and take classes, and practice just as diligently as any other writer. They should have friends review their screenplays and solicit honest feedback, just as any smart writer would do. And they should (if they aren’t already doing it) be reading lots of Hollywood screenplays and watching lots of movies.
I think I struck a few raw nerves when I insinuated that ego was possibly the reason many indie directors only want to direct their own scripts, even if (as I had originally put it) they were just so-so writers. And I think that is a shame, since there are a lot of great writers (who don’t pretend they can also direct) with some great scripts to offer up. It seems to be the nature of the (indie) beast though that most of the filmmaking is done by combination writer/directors.
There are a lot of brilliantly-photographed, wonderfully-acted, beautifully-scored films where objective viewers are left scratching their heads at vague themes, lack of character development and arcs, trite dialog, thin plots and predicable endings: the hallmark of poor writing. Now, it’s not all as bad as that. There are some great small budget indie films and web series’ out there (and I know some of the people who have made them and will interview a few of the top area filmmakers in the near future). I’m just saying that there is also a great deal of poor storytelling (yes even in Hollywood and even on Netflix): thinly-disguised with interesting camera work, sensational special effects, and catchy music. It’s pandemic though in the indie world. We should all strive to rise above that.
I wrote in an earlier blog about how indie filmmaking had become a much more accessible medium with the advent of inexpensive video cameras, and free or cheap distribution channels such as YouTube, but that this had created an over-saturation of mediocre quality material (what I, when wearing my sound guy hat, refer to as a low signal-to-noise ratio). I am a firm believer that for a film to rise above and apart from the noise floor, it needs to have more than beautiful shots, a lovely musical score, and photogenic and talented actors. It needs a great story. I can’t see anyone arguing with that point.
I sort of hope that one of the main outcomes of any constructive criticism, will be that the cream of the low-budget indie filmmakers would self-reflect more and would raise their own standards even higher. There are some really talented local filmmakers. A good screenplay is one of the things that a low-budget filmmaker can afford in the indie world (as opposed to helicopter shots, exploding cars, and shots of actors walking on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange at midday). I also would hope that those who are endlessly churning out fluff, and then begging incessantly for people to view and like their stuff, would be encouraged to put their inexpensive camcorders aside for a little while, and study and read and reflect, and pay attention to the good stuff out there. Maybe they should consider even hooking up in a supporting capacity for a period of time with a truly talented filmmaker to really learn what goes into the making of a good film.
My parting advice to everyone is to dial down the egos a little: there’s room for improvement for everyone. I know that my writing can certainly stand improvement. That’s one of the reasons I blog. And it’s one of the reasons I heartily welcome your feedback.