10/05/15

IN CONVERSATION WITH SIMON HAYES

Over the last 20 years Production Sound Mixer Simon Hayes has worked on more than 45 feature films, including the acclaimed 2012 version of Les Misérables, which won him an Oscar, a BAFTA and a CAS Award in the sound and sound mixing categories.
After starting work as a runner for a Commercial production company when he was just 16, Simon moved into the sound department as an assistant and then boom operator, before mixing his first feature film at the age of 27. Since then he has collaborated with many directors including Matthew Vaughn (Kingsman: The Secret Service, Layer Cake, Stardust, Kick Ass and X-Men:First Class), James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy), Guy Ritchie (Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch, Revolver, King Arthur: Knights of the Round Table) David Yates (Tarzan), Ridley Scott (Prometheus, The Counselor) Danny Boyle (Trance), Daniel Barber (Harry Brown), Paul Greengrass (Green Zone), Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia!) and Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead).

One of the key innovations in production sound that Simon has pioneered is the use of DPA bodyworn lavalier microphones to record both dialogue and live singing, particularly in multi camera shooting environments. He first introduced this technique in 2008 on Mamma Mia!, primarily because he had recently discovered DPA lavalier microphones and was convinced they were sonically good enough for the task.

"At the planning stage, Benny Andersson from Abba and his longtime engineer Bernard Lohr told me that they had tried every lavalier on the market to try and achieve studio quality vocals on the stage show of Mamma Mia," Simon explains. "Eventually, they had arrived at DPA, which they considered to be the only lavalier microphone that could provide them with music studio quality.

"When judging different lavaliers up until that point I had always considered the differences in sound to be a matter of taste rather than a clear cut situation of one brand being superior. That was until I listened to a DPA up against the competition. In my opinion the DPA is better, more open sounding, less chesty and sounds more like a boom mic than any other lavaliers I have heard.”

This good experience with DPA bodyworn microphones meant that Simon had no concerns about using them four years later on the set of Les Misérables. Director Tom Hooper wanted 'truth and energy' from the casts’ performances and because of Simon’s confidence in DPA he was able to support Tom’s vision of no pre-recording or miming. Both Tom and Simon felt the best way to achieve a truly emotional performance was by recording live. However, this did present some challenges with the miking.

"Normally when I am recording a film I tend to use boom mics as a priority, especially if the scene is being shot with a single camera," Simon explains. "But with Les Misérables, Tom wanted all the angles covered from all sides to capture the perfect performance. This meant we couldn’t rely so heavily on the boom because the wider angle coverage would stop it getting close enough. Our solution was to come at the recording from a different angle and make DPA lavalier microphones our priority.”

In total Simon has over 60 DPA d:screet™ 4071 and 4061 lavalier microphones at his disposal, all of which were supplied by Richmond Films in conjunction with DPA’s UK distributor Sound Network. The results speak for themselves – the film was a huge hit and the sound was considered such an important element of this success that it won the sound team numerous awards.
In Conversation With Simon Hayes
​Simon Hayes is now a firm advocate of DPA technology and has used bodyworn d:screet™ 4061 and 4071 Miniature Microphones on many of his films. Their impact, he says, goes beyond the obvious and is actually making a big difference to the way many movies are recorded.

To learn more about his views, we caught up with Simon on the set of his latest film project (David Yate's Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, due out next year through Warner Bros.). We posed a number of questions and his answers give a fascinating insight into current state of film sound, how it is shaping up for the future and how DPA bodyworn microphones are helping to advance the cause of great cinema audio.

Since using DPA d:screet™ 4061 and 4071 Bodyworn Microphones on films such as Les Misérables and Guardians of the Galaxy, are you noticing a growing trend towards using sync sound in the final mix, rather than focusing on ADR?

Yes, I am noticing that. I think directors and producers are realising that it is possible, on all types of movie, to get good quality sync sound with the right production sound mixers using the right equipment. The major steps forward that have allowed production sound mixers to do a better job are the advent of multitracking and the ability to put better sounding microphones onto those multitracks. I use DPA lavaliers because they are the only microphones capable of closely matching the sound I get from a boom. This means multitracks created with boom mics and DPA lavaliers can easily be edited together in the final mix. Until I came across DPA, I wasn't comfortable prioritising lavaliers because they sounded either too chesty or too tinny depending on what brand I was using. When I first heard DPA's d:screet™ 4061 and 4071 microphones, the sound was so transparent and natural that I felt it could be cut with the boom without any uncomfortable shift in the timbre of the voice. Of course, we still need booms but we can now mix and match between the two depending on the requirements of the scene. 

Does the change in how film sound is recorded reflect other changes in the film industry?

Certainly: the advent of digital cameras has brought about a massive shift in the way films are made, and this dovetails with the advances in production sound that have come about as a result of multitrack recording and high quality microphones. Shooting digitally means film stock costs are not so restrictive because you are using hard drives instead of 35mm or 16mm film. As a result, multi-camera shoots are increasingly common. The fact that we can now multitrack and use lavaliers more comfortably is a very welcome development because often if you are shooting multi-camera, the booms can't get close enough. If you are shooting wide and tight while trying to capture a close up, having a boom sitting on the edge of the wide shot isn't going to give you a sound that matches the close up. The way round this is to run the boom to match the wide shot perspective and use DPA lavaliers to capture the close up perspective. The two can then be cut together because the sound is so closely matched.

Are you aware of other sound recordists using miniature mics in the film world, and as an Oscar-winning sound mixer, do more people now ask for your advice?

The production sound film community is a lot more open with discussions now than it used to be, mainly due to the internet. Before the internet, people were quite guarded about their work and the tools they used, but nowadays there is more dialogue between production sound mixers and assistant sound technicians. Everyone talks on forums and certainly that has helped good microphones like the DPA range to get exposure. People are far more aware of which products are good because they are so often spoken about on the net.

My attitude is that when I find a good product, I'm quite happy to shout it from the rooftops. If production sound mixers are able to choose equipment that allows them to do a great job, directors and producers will have more confidence in what we do and we can all grow together as the whole industry gains confidence in what can be achieved on the set with the right sound team. There needs to be an education process so that producers and directors understand that we have now got better tools at our disposal and can supply a better product. Thanks to DPA, we are not stuck in the days of poor quality lavaliers that didn’t sound great being even more compromised by recording to only two tracks. This isn't about how much budget sound is given – it's more about how it is allotted. I'd like to think that as producers become more aware of what is possible on the set by using first class sound crews and equipment, they will be more likely to allot parts of the sound budget to production sound such as hiring a big enough production sound crew to run two booms at all times with a second assistant sound working full time with costume on the radio mics.Working in this way can seriously reduce the need for technical ADR and save a lot of money from the sound post budget but more importantly can make huge creative gains too by capturing those magical and unique on set performances by the actors.

You are well known for coming up with quirky microphone concealment/placement techniques - can you describe some of the methods you use to fit DPA bodyworn microphones to actors you have worked with?

Sometimes positioning microphones is very intricate, but on other occasions it's more conventional because we are placing them on the actor's costume. The secret is having a really collaborative relationship with the costume department – and knowing when it is better to sew mics into a costume and when you can just place them on the day. My ethos is to get it as close to the edge of frame as I can and have the minimum amount of fabric between my DPA lavalier and the mouth of the actor. If I follow these rules, the vocal timbre and sound will be natural and useable. If I have to start compromising and backing the microphone off behind the costume or covering it with fabric, then I know I'm preventing it from delivering the best sound it is capable of. Sometimes you have to make that compromise, but I try very hard not to.
In Conversation With Simon Hayes
As soon as we are offered a movie, we break the script down and look at the characters to work out what they are likely to be wearing. We have meetings with the costume and special make-up departments so that we can work out from a very early stage the right place to hide our DPA lavaliers. A good example is Guardians of the Galaxy where we knew that Dave Bautista, who played Drax the Destroyer, was going to be topless through the whole movie. As the film was being shot wide and tight, we knew we wouldn’t be able to get a boom in close enough, so fitting a lavalier to him was a major collaboration with the special effects make-up team. We used the scars all over his upper body to disguise a cable that we threaded from his hips to his central chest cavity where we positioned the microphone. The head of the DPA mic poked out of one of his scars to capture his dialogue, and this positioning has to be done every day in make up before shooting began, which was quite a task.

Another example is Les Misérables, where we used patches of material to disguise the mics. The DPA concealers were hidden behind these fabric swatches that were offcuts from the actors' costumes, supplied by the costume department. The technique worked so well that we are using the same workflow on a lot more films.

We also match actors' voices to the DPA microphone range so that we get the one that is best suited to them. If someone has a very bass heavy voice we use a d:screet™ 4071 to reduce unnatural swell in the lower frequencies, while for some women who have more shrill voices we tend to use a d:screet™ 4061 because it is a little bit flatter in the response. Likewise, if we are miking up someone's head or hat we go with a 4061 and if we are using a mic on the chest then generally it’s the 4071 we try first, only turning to a 4061 if we feel we need a bit more bass response.

Have you ever been faced with a situation where there is nowhere to hide a DPA bodyworn mic?

The simple answer is very rarely, because I've usually been able to find somewhere to place it so that it can't be seen. If someone is topless you can usually hide it in their hair and hang transmitter packs down their backs. The only time when it's not a great idea to use a lavalier is for scenes shot in bed. It's not a question of nakedness and hiding them, but more to do with the rustle of bed clothes, which just doesn't work. Even if the actors are simply having breakfast in bed and wearing night clothes, it is difficult to get good sound from lavaliers because the noise of the bedding is prohibitive. Traditionally we use a boom only for those scenes.

What about Tarzan? That must have presented some challenges in terms of mic placement, especially for the jungle shots. How did you manage those?

Most of the jungle shots and action sequences were filmed against green screens so we didn’t have to put lavaliers onto Tarzan who had minimal dialogue when he was topless because the booms could work closely in the greenscreens. In the scenes where he is dressed as an English gentleman he was wearing DPA lavaliers hidden by his clothes. 

More and more films, like Tarzan, are shot in 3D. Does this involve you in recording surround sync sound or is it all done in post?

My priority is always to record the cleanest possible dialogue so that the post production sound editors can really shape the dialogue around the effects and music. We do this by recording multitrack mono using a Zaxcom DEVA 16-track recorder and 24 bit broadcast WAV files. We don’t record in a surround sound format – surround mixing needs to be committed to in post. We provide the re-recording mixer with stems so that he can carefully place various sounds on different speakers. My responsibility is to make sure the re-recording mixer has all the choices he wants so he is not locked into any particular workflow and can mix the sound in the context of the finished scene. Often when we are shooting, we won’t know exactly how the editor is going to finish the scenes and what choices with music and sound FX will be made. With the best laid intentions, scenes can change in the cutting room so it is important that we give the sound post team complete and utter flexibility at all times.

What do you think of the new 3D Sound formats like Dolby Atmos – does that impact on how you work?

Dolby Atmos has been a huge step forward for production, post production and movie sound in general, because now we aren’t just listening to 7.1 channels, you actually have speakers all around the cinema that can receive separate signals of music, dialogue and effects everywhere, even across the ceiling and multiple speakers behind the screen meaning voices can be placed in different locations within the screen. This is an amazing development and we need producers and directors to be more aware that better production sound is available so they can maximise their ability to use original performances. Directors have always used sound to tell their stories but we have reached a stage with Dolby Atmos that is even more immersive for the cinema audience. The combination of production dialogue recorded on the set with high quality microphones and post production sound design means that you Directors, Re-recording mixers and Sound editors can really sculpt incredibly intricate soundtracks.

Do you ever record sound effects?

We record a lot of wild tracks and if there are any on-set effects we think are useful, we will record them, too. Clean dialogue is my priority but spot effects are also my responsibility and I tend to use a boom mic to record those. DPA's tiny lavalier microphones come in handy when you are trying to record in very small spaces such as inside a car because you can hide them within the vehicle. And when it comes to capturing the sound of cars and motorbikes for action sequences, DPA are without doubt the market leader because their lavalier microphones can handle such SPLs. Other lavaliers distort when presented with the kind of SPLs you get when you strap a mic to an exhaust pipe or hide it inside an engine compartment. But the DPAs handle this perfectly and that's why they are the only ones we use.

So what word would you use to sum up your experience of DPA microphones?

Transparent – because that’s what DPA lavaliers are. They don’t add their own stamp to a vocal, so if you record a voice it sounds exactly as you would hear it, not like a voice that has been picked up by a microphone. By being completely natural and crystal clear, they make it easier for sound teams to provide really effective immersive soundtracks for cinema audiences because production dialogue is useable as part of the final mix.

 

About Simon Hayes

Simon Hayes is a British sound engineer. He won an Academy Award for Best Sound at the 85th Academy Awards for his work on Les Misérables. He has worked on more than 40 films since 1995.

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