Run Silent, Run Deep
Sign posted on one of my show’s two Perambulator Booms.
The LA Times recently ran a short but interesting profile of two sound mixers who were both nominated for an Oscar this year. It's a good read on a number of levels: the human interest story of two old friends competing for the same gold statue, a revealing portrait of the kind of people drawn to work in sound, and as an example of the attitude and sense of humor it takes to put in year after year enduring such long hours of filming on set.
Lots of humor is generated behind the cameras on any decent show, particularly a comedy. Some of the funniest quips -- from actors and crew -- could never make it past network censors, even on a cable show. Sound crews tend to be pretty low-key (which is only fitting, since they always want the rest of us to remain hushed), but they have their own quiet ways of joining in the fun. The sound department seems to attract people who are smart and well-informed -- the former evidenced by their wisdom in choosing a career that does not requires lifting hundred-pound rolls of cable, the latter mostly because they have ample time to read newspapers and surf the web while everybody else does the real work.
Our sound crew fits that mold, doing their part to (quietly) keep us loose. They're a good crew, and fun to work with.
It wasn't always thus. Back in the bad old days of low-budget, non-union features – while toiling in the salt mines on undermanned, underpaid, and highly overworked lighting crews -- I suffered through endless battles with sound departments. The scenario was all too familiar: we'd take an early call for an hour of hard humping to lay out the cable runs, empty the equipment truck, and build the lamps, at which point the mixer would finally show up, then point to the generator and airily insist that it was much too noisy and much too close, and would have to be moved. Then he'd make a beeline for the catering truck to wolf down a nice hot breakfast none of us had yet been able to order, much less had time to eat.
And I'd go into a slow boil.
Between the heavily sound-proofed (but hardly silent) generators and humming HMI ballasts, life on set was a constant struggle between set lighting and sound.* The mixer would complain, then we'd have to fix it. Sometimes this was a simple matter of building a sound-dampening wall with C-stands and furni-pads (furniture blankets), but all too often we'd have to unhook the cable, hitch up the genny, tow it down the block and around a corner, then run several hundred feet (read: several hundred pounds) of additional cable to re-power the set -- and do it fast. At that point, we were already hopelessly behind the 8-Ball, doomed to play catch-up for the rest of the long day. When the Assistant Director finally called wrap (twelve, fourteen, or sixteen hours later), we'd have to coil and tie all that additional cable (along with the rest of our lighting equipment), then lug it back and load it into the truck, cursing the sound mixer every step of the way.
The mixer never heard us, though -- by then he was already long gone and heading for home.
To be fair, sound has a very tough job dealing with any location set. Not only must they contend with a cacophony of ambient noise -- airplanes, helicopters, lawn mowers, weed eaters, leaf blowers, cell phones, and the thumping bass beat of rap music from slowly passing cars -- but the rest of the film crew makes noise all day long. A set is essentially a construction site, where building just about anything creates a racket. With each department focused on their own task-at-hand, sound remains a distant afterthought for the rest of the crew. In truth, nobody really cares about it except the sound department, director, and the editor -- and the editor's not there. The director relies on the mixer's word as to whether the sound for any given take is acceptable, so the mixer has to get it right. His job is to deliver the cleanest sound and dialogue tracks possible. Indeed, his continued employment (present and future) depends on doing exactly that.
When you consider all they have to contend with, it's no wonder sound mixers are so anal about maintaining a quiet set.
Looking back now, it’s clear that most of our problems with sound stemmed directly from the low budgets we all labored under. With only a small set lighting crew to do all the work (rarely did we have a rigging crew), it was crucial to run as little cable as possible, thus minimizing the heavy lifting and cutting down on wrap time at the end of what was invariably a long, punishing day. On such low-budget projects, the Best Boy has to make sure his crew doesn't suffer unnecessary abuse, so from my standpoint, the closer to the set we put the genny, the better. Unfortunately -- but understandably -- this usually meant doing battle with the sound department.
Those were not good days.
Eventually it dawned on me that life might be easier on everyone if I took a glass-half-empty approach and assumed The Worst at every new location. It was better to run a little extra cable right from the get-go than have to move the genny later in the midst of an Oh-My-God-Time-Is-Money panic. But once I'd done all I could (or was willing to do...) and sound still complained, other tactics had to be employed.
Our very first day of filming one of those low-budget features took place way out in the woods, shooting a scene by a pond. Far from any human habitation, it was still and quiet out there -- library quiet – which meant any mechanical sound would travel a long way. If ever there was a time to put the genny as far away as possible, this was it. That's what I did, and when the mixer stalked over to tell me that it was too noisy and would have to move, I explained that I’d already run out every last inch of cable we had.
"Can't you get more cable?" he asked.
Rather than advise him exactly how and where to go fuck himself, I took a different tack. With an apologetic smile, I told him I understood how quiet this location was, and what a problem it presented for him -- which is why I’d gone to the trouble of locating the genny so far away. With a limited production budget for equipment and very little prep time, we'd come in blind and were doing the best we could. Given that we’d be filming in such a remote area (with the nearest equipment rental facility several hours away), there was nothing more we could do that day.
"I'll talk to production about getting more cable," I said, "but meanwhile, we'll have construction make a baffle to put around the genny's exhaust vent. That'll drive the noise straight up rather than out, and should make it a lot quieter for you."
Girded for the usual take-no-prisoners battle, the mixer stared at me for a moment, then walked away with a slightly stunned look on his face. I made the measurements and sent a scale drawing to the UPM. Two days later, a big wooden box – open at the top and bottom -- was dropped off at our truck. From that day on, I dutifully (and very visibly) placed that baffle over the genny's exhaust vent every morning. Although it helped reduce the genny's noise output somewhat, the baffle's primary purpose was to demonstrate to the sound mixer that I understood his problems and was on his side – and in that, it worked perfectly.
The next eight weeks were brutal -- with only a three man crew (plus a PA we'd drafted to help us), we got our asses thoroughly kicked shooting six-day, 100+ hour weeks in sub-freezing temperatures -- but we never had any trouble with that sound mixer. At the wrap party, he thanked us profusely, said we were the best lighting crew he'd ever worked with, and handed us each a carefully wrapped packet of high-octane marijuana as a thank-you gift. Since neither the gaffer nor I still smoked the stuff, our lone juicer ended up the beneficiary, and one very happy camper.
And at the cast and crew screening several months later, I paid close attention to that scene we’d shot by the pond. There wasn't the slightest whisper of generator noise.**
Everything's different now. Securely nestled in the bosom of the union world, I work mostly on sound stages where we enjoy the silent luxury of city power rather than relying on mobile generators. Sometimes a lamp will start humming as the 60 cycle frequency of AC power resonates within, but that can usually be cured with a sharp whack, or -- if it's really bad -- swapping out the head. The worst problem we pose for sound nowadays is an occasional boom shadow on a wall, but the grips can usually fix that simply by lowering a flag or teaser. No heavy lifting required.
Even location jobs with generators present no real problems. If a long cable run is required to keep the mixer happy, the rigging crew takes care of it – or at the very least, production will authorize a pre-call with a small army of additional juicers to make it happen in a stress-free manner.
As Cyndi Lauper sang back in the 80’s: “money changes everything".
Well, almost everything -- the sound department still shows up late and leaves early, and the lowest-paid utility person in their department still makes a fatter hourly rate than anybody in set lighting -- but I can't remember the last time we had a serious problem with sound, and that’s a good thing.
It really does take a village to make any show, with everyone doing their part. Although the sound crews remain hidden in the shadows, their work is just as important as everyone else's in ushering a project on on the long journey from the page to the screen.
Me, I'm just glad I don't have to fight with them anymore.
* In the early days of HMI lamps, a sound man once buried two of our 4K ballasts under a thick layer of furni-pads to quiet them, without informing the electric crew. By the time the lamps started shutting down half an hour later, those ballasts were all but toasted. Needless to say, that clown never did it again...
** In my experience, mixers generally ask for more quiet than they really need. I can't blame them for that -- ask for less and you'll get less -- but it's something to remember. Depending on the nature of the scene being filmed, there’s a certain level of noise the post production process can handle. Jackhammers and car alarms are way off the charts, but the soft, steady hum of a generator far in the background isn't necessarily a deal-breaker. A good mixer knows the limits and understands what post-production can live with. When a mixer like that (read: a reasonable person) needed our help, I was happy to oblige, but every now and then we'd get a fanatic who was impossible to satisfy. That kind of mixer could hear a bee fart a hundred yards away...