There are many truths (and some myths) about working on a sound crew in the film industry. It is a challenging environment, so I have gathered some of my thoughts, tips and tricks that I have learned throughout my years in the business.
By Antoin Cox, Recording Engineer & DPA Master
1. Sound is often a low priority
You often hear the sound crew talk about how sound is a low priority on a film set. However, is this true? Yes, it really feels like it, but is sound really thought so little of, or are other departments' budgets also going down? Big question!
The problem is that many people on set should know something about sound – the production and camera crew, directors, etc. The truth is that, usually, only the sound crew understands sound – the other crewmembers don’t really hear the sound. They're all focused on the visual quality on set and they leave the sound, which they don’t understand, to us sound people.
The film crew has to trust the sound engineer. Over the last years, I have worked with many directors. Some like sound; some hate sound. Some think it’s easy; some think it’s difficult. Some understand it; some don’t have a clue.
Personally, I like to work with directors and producers who like sound, need sound, see the advantage of good recorded sound and understand sound. These individuals don’t roll if sound is not ready or if nature is not cooperating. If they do have to roll, they talk to you about it and they apologize, knowing that the sound captured will not be optimal.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are individuals who think they can solve everything in post. They prefer to roll and assume that they can fix it later. Often, in postproduction, they are mad at the sound crew due to the horrible audio recorded.
Sometimes, the postproduction people ask me why some projects I've recorded sound better than others do. I explain that I cannot create great sound on my own. I need the director, the director of photography, production designer and 1st assistant director for real sound quality!
2. You will need extra ‘non-authorized’ accessories
On a daily basis, my crew and I need to get creative to ensure that we have properly placed our mics to both optimize sound capture and ensure invisibility.
Plant mics: Mounting is always an issue with these types of mics. They need to be placed safely and securely, they need to be in the right place to capture the best sound, they need to be hidden and they have to be aimed correctly. Making sure each of the needs is optimized is very difficult. To make sure I always have what I need, I bring two crates filled with 'grip' materials everywhere I go. I also use many acoustic materials like carpets, drapes, foam, felt, etc.
Radio mics: Miking an actor up takes a lot of skills beyond understanding sound. You need to be socially competent, inventive and quick. Almost everything I use for mounting purposes on set is non-authorized gear – body tape, belts, double- sided tape, straps, paperclips, etc. Remember, a big toolbox with a wide range of material is your friend on set.
3. Not enough time to place mics
When the cast is ready, they are ready … to shoot. Once they come from costume and make up, we have very little time to get them miked up. Most of the cast and crew always feel that sound takes too much time. There is almost never enough time to test properly before shooting or rehearsal, so we are often running around fixing things in between takes.
In my opinion, it is often better to go the trailers and wire the cast there. Get your fourth sound crew member for wiring, it has many benefits! S/he can stay at the village to wire everybody before they travel to set, so when they arrive on set they are ready.
Before I start a new project, I invest time in getting to know the costume department to make sure we have a good relationship and are ready to collaborate. Always make sure to wire the cast after they are entirely in costume, if possible. This way you know what you are going to get. This saves time on set – no surprises, no adjustments.