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An article by Mark Ulano from his Pro Audio Review Column
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The Art of Zen-Boom (part one)

 

written by Mark Ulano
from his Pro Audio Review column

"You can always tell the Boom Operators. Generally, they're the best-looking people on the set, as well as the smartest and, usually, the most interesting."
Andy Rovins, Boom Operator

Among the job titles in the movie credit crawl you will find the Microphone Boom Operator. Who is the Boom Operator and what is the nature of his job? At the most basic level, the Boom Operator is the person responsible for interactive microphone placement as he floats his pole and microphone over the actors in a dynamic dialogue situation. This description, however, barely scratches the surface of what these people really do. These specialists are unsung performance artists more akin to the camera operator or focus puller in the kind of interface they must intuitively create with the on-camera talent.

As is much of the work of the sound crew, the responsibilities of the Boom Operator are ill understood even within the motion picture industry. The Sound Department is one of the few departments not hire-dependent on Camera. Every production may have different expectations of us, so there is a greyness and changability as to where we stand in the heirarchy. Maybe this has to do with the intangibility of sound as a medium or a vagueness to the general lexicon of sound. Or, maybe it is just because, technically, it is possible to defer solving the sound challenges to the post production phase. Whatever the case, eventually sound must be seamlessly incorporated into the final work and preference for the sound of the original performance is still dominant. It is within this environment that Boom Operators must work to achieve excellence, operating with stealth, dancing between the raindrops in a non-sound-centric work space among dynamic egos, many of whom are not remotely interested in the Boom Operator's professional mission.

I thought I would shed some light on these Njinskys of sound by talking to a few of them and getting some insight into their world. They tend to be a thoroughbred bunch, salty as buccaneers and serious as samurai. I have found that people in this line of work have some important qualities in common: a passionate pride in their work, finely honed team skills and well developed senses of humor. I believe that their answers can be of use to anyone attempting to understand what it takes to record quality production sound for film or tape.

Who Are They? - The Panel

Laurence Abrams: 2 decades and hundreds of commercials, television and one of the most in-demand Boom Operators in the L.A. commercial scene. Long time board member of the film sound union, IA local 695, he is also becoming well known as a commercial Web page author.

Rusty Amodeo: 5 years of staff work at NBC mixing news programming and booming soap operas. His sit-com work includes Drew Carrey Show, Designing Women and Golden Girls, as well as extended duty on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Rusty also swings over to the post side as a sound effects editor having recently completed Ring Master, the new Jerry Springer feature film.

Eric Carr: The front half of a 3 time Emmy award winning team with mixer, Russel Fager. ER, Chicago Hope, Tour of Duty (also won Emmy with Mixer Susie Chong-Moore), Young Riders, Jake & the Fatman.

Patrushkha Mierzwa: Over 70 feature films and television projects including The Big Easy, The Caine Mutiny Court-martial, Dusk till Dawn, Wings of the Apache, Pet Sematary, Cujo, Drug Wars: Camerena. One of the first women to really succeed in a historically male dominiated field, she is also my wife and the mother of our 3 year old daughter, Molly.

Andy Rovins: Multi-talented crossover boomer, and an ace on the Fisher Boom, he works on feature films, long-form television and 4 camera Sit-coms. Credits include Driving Miss Daisy, Doc Hollywood, Sugarhill, Breast Men, Foxfire, Moesha, Ned & Stacy, The George Carlin Show, The Nanny, etc.

Joel Shryack: Over 50 feature and TV projects, Frequent stick man with Mixer John Pritchett including multiple projects for Robert Altman. A switch hitter, Joel also supervises post production sound.

Jerome Vitucci: Stuart Little, Jackie Brown, The Patriot, Sleepers, Sliver, Waynes World, Reversal of Fortune, Cowboy Way, At Play in The Fields of the Lord, Crocodile Dundee and tons more. I have had the pleasure of working with Jerome for the last 2 years, he is one of the best in the business.

How would you describe the prime responsibility of your work?

JS: Job one is to record the Actor's dialogue in a clear and natural way.

PM: In its strictest sense, the person who operates the (boom) microphone is the on-set sound department representative who designs the strategy for placement and types of microphones. Furthermore, he interfaces with the director, the assistant director, and related departments.

EC: No dialogue replacement

JV: 1. My prime objective is to focus on getting the best possible sound product , often, under difficult circumstances ( physical and emotional). I try to create a comfortable and efficient working environment, within the sound department, as well as with the entire production, to achieve this goal.

AR: The prime responsibility is to conceive and execute a plan for miking the shot. This is based on observation of rehearsals, knowledge of the shot and the Director's plans for coverage of the scene, of the DP's [Director of Photography] preferences and lighting technique, of the sound mixer's philosophy of recording and observation of the environment.

RA: To place the microphone in just the right place so that the best quality sound can be recorded. This includes matching the background of the dialogue so that scenes may be cut without a drastic change in the background noise floor.

What should be the nature of your relationship with the Production Sound Mixer? The Director? The actors? the sound utility person? Others?

JV: The Boom Operator is the Sound Department's eyes and ears on the set. Shot after shot he or she performs on the front-line, in the trenches of film sound production. The efficiency and timing of my decisions are very important factors in gaining the trust of the mixer you are working with. I believe that the boom Operator is to the mixer like the Camera Operator is to the Director of Photography.
Directors: "don't piss them off"
Actors: "don't piss them off"
Utility person: Well, if the shot calls for it "piss them off", but take them out for drinks later.

PM: Inside the department you are the mixer's teammate, outside of the department you are his ambassador to the set. The mixer is the head of the department and it is his reputation or contacts that have procured the work.
Director: This depends on the Director's personality and style of work, how he likes to get information, if he does, and from whom. Some directors prefer you to communicate through their assistant director.
Actors: I try not to need anything from them at first. This is to give myself time to watch them interact with others and assess their state of calm or nervousness and their comfort level with the crew. You should be memorizing actors lines and movements, always being ready for ad-libs (some actors are chronic).
The Crew: lighting-you should know the names of the light units to be able to talk about adjustments with electricians and grips. The same is true for camera lenses. Be aware of the number of cameras being used, whether head or tail slates have been chosen and so on. It is also very helpful to have costuming knowledge to be able to discuss problematic fabrics, designs, and radio mic placements. Knowing enough about everyone's job to be able to tell when you're being bullshitted and to be able to offer suggestions.

JS: Directors, Actors, Producers, Extras, Assistant Directors, and even Production Mixers can, and will impede your efforts. So become a diplomat, eat humble pie, and get these people on your side. Nothing will happen for you if you fail in the set politics. Neither your technical prowess or memorization of the script will bridge the gap here. A key attitude in my politics was to try and understand everyone's job and enjoy their pursuit [of excellence] as well as your own.

AR: The Mixer: He's your boss, and what he wants is the right answer. It is good to work with a mixer who trusts you and grants you a certain level of autonomy.
The Director: Our basic mission is to help the Director realize his or her vision. If you relate well to a director you might get free drinks back at the hotel, or Christmas cards, or work on his next picture.
The actors: Actors are sensitive souls, even when they are raging egomaniacs. It's hard not to make friends with them, but have sex with them at your own risk.
The sound utility person: I treat the Utility person the way I would like my superiors on the set to treat me, short of the current nuttiness about sexual harassment.

EC: The mixer- I protect his mix and he covers my ass ...

RA: Mixer: Some mixers want the boomer to be their eyes, ears, AND voice on the set. If notes are to be passed on to the Director/Actor/Script Supervisor, etc., some mixers want the Boom Operator to perform this task. Others want to be the sole person who interacts with the other department heads.
Director: Obviously, the director looks to the Boom Operator on the film set as the voice of the mixer during a take. Is the plane flying over head OK or is it unusable? Hopefully, if it is bad for sound, it may have been bad for the acting of the scene as well. There is a time and place for everything, however, and knowing the right moment to get the Directors attention for a much needed communiqué takes patience and an acute sense of timing.
Actor: The actor's first impression of you as a boomer is the most important. If they don't feel comfortable with you placing a mic on their person, you'll have a difficult time with them for the rest of the shoot. Not to mention the fact that they'll tell other actors, the director, executive producers, and the assistant directors about their concerns with your job responsibilities. In the case of Barbara Walters on a last minute interview shoot at Jay Leno's house, the simple approach of "I need to place this mic on you," didn't work. Barbara is a very elegant woman and entered with an entourage of people showing her wardrobe for selection. She said, "Give me the mic and I'll do it. " I responded by showing her exactly where I wanted her to place the mic, where the cable was to be run and how. She gave the mic back to me and asked me to do it. As I placed the mic on her I mentioned that working with her was like working with Nancy. She said, "Nancy who?" and I responded with "Nancy Reagan." I had previously worked with Mrs. Reagan on a Bob Hope Special. At that point I had her trust and had no problems asking her for time to readjust her microphone for the rest of the shoot. She knew that I was a professional interested in getting the best sound possible for the occasion.

How do you prepare for your work?

PM: It is very helpful for the Boom Operator to observe the rehearsals, although you must always be prepared to wing it. I swear by a full workout every morning before a job, no matter what the call time. I sometimes attend technical scouts learning about the politics and personalities in the process. I chat with friends who have worked with the upcoming crew/cast, if I don't know them to get a better idea of the human dynamic. I also read the script before the first day and I offer my thoughts and concerns to the mixer.

AR: Read the script. Maintain my gear. Get enough sleep. Pay attention.

JV: Reading and memorizing the script ( although I frequently find myself doing this simultaneously with watching the first rehearsal) , have prep discussions with the mixer, have prep discussions with the utility person, prep my equipment. Meet with production office staff to discuss deal and do my paperwork. Meet if possible certain members of the AD, Camera, Electric, Grip, Prop, and Wardrobe Depts. to resolve any issues directly related to my job function, e.g., Safety, Rigs, Costumes and radio mics etc.

LA: Get as much sleep as possible.

EC: Stoned as a race horse.

RA: First, I want a good nights sleep. Then, I walk around the house with a broom handle with a bucket on the end. Each night I add weights progressively to build up the sustaining of holding a pole above your head for long shots.

What do you need to know about lighting and lenses?

LA: I would like to expand the scope of this question because I think that booming, and sound in general, requires a broad understanding and awareness of virtually all the elements that go into production. And in this, I think we are unique amongst our brothers and sisters on the crew. Typically, wardrobe doesn't care or need to understand what the grips do, and electrical doesn't need to be involved in what the script supervisor does. But we need to know the lighting and we need to understand how lights are controlled so we can communicate our needs about cutting or controlling lights that produce shadows. We need to know the lenses and we need to understand what the camera operator is doing so we can adjust our movements as the camera dollies, zooms, pans and tilts. We need to tune into the director and into the specifics of the actors' performance so we know the blocking and know when the timing or the dialogue is changing. We need to know how the script supervisor assigns numbers to scenes as much as how to communicate with wardrobe over issues that involve placement of radio microphones on the actors. We need to work with the prop and set dressing departments to solve noise-making problems and create opportunities for planting microphones in the set. Even the location manager will hear from us while we work out issues that involve unwanted sounds from the building or location where we are shooting. I believe that when they are doing their job well, the Sound Department becomes far more involved with and knows far more about all the other jobs on the set than any of them know about ours.

JV: You need to know where the light is coming from, who or what is it lighting? Does the light(s) cause problems with shadows or reflections that I can't resolve? Will they prevent me from getting good sound? What do I need to do to get it adjusted so that I can do a good job, e.g., Request flags or cutters, speak to the DP or Gaffer. It is worth making a few of your colleagues uncomfortable, for the moment, in order to solve the problem, than for all of us [the sound department] to be in the hot seat at dailies. Knowing what lenses are seeing, and how their imaginary frame lines change with every move of the camera, and the actors. I don't have the advantage of keeping my eye up to the eyepiece, while the shot is taking place. Although I will occasionally use a small video monitor, during the take. Also, being instinctual is helpful.

AR: Your freedom of movement is limited by the lighting, so a knowledge of the basic physics of light and shadows as well the characteristics of point source and diffusion are essential.

What is your philosophy of microphone placement?

PM: To create a "natural" interpretation of the dialogue and effects present at the time of shooting while minimizing noise factors.

JV: The magic of microphone placement is consistently finding your microphone's sweetest sounding spot in the most unobtrusive manner. In other words, if you (as any part of the production) have no awareness of my presence (and you loved dailies) I have succeeded.

AR: There's no one right answer. I like to mike in a nearly vertical position because it's allows the easiest adjustments for head turns and other movements of the actors. It also permits smooth cueing to the other actors with a minimum of change in the background. But this can all vary with the lighting, the actor's physicality, the physical limitations of the set , the noise of the location, and the frequency response patterns of the mike. Plant mikes work where you can find a natural-sounding place. Lavs are best in mid-sternum, but this can also be a function of the wardrobe and the actor's predilection for talking to his feet or somebody behind him.

RA: There are many tricks to the trade. If you have an actor who frequently whips his head around, play the mic in front without too much movement to keep the sound of the dialogue consistent, and therefore the background consistent as well. This technique was especially useful on Designing Women when I boomed Meeshack Taylor. His head whips were never in the same place twice so I needed to play a middle field position so as not to miss any dialogue. Check with wardrobe in advance of the scene, or the day for that matter, to look at the clothing actors are wearing to determine type of material (problems with silk), pockets for hiding transmitters, pre-cut holes for running of mic wires or antennas, hard soled shoes for padding heavy hoofers. If the scene is between two actors and one is louder than the other, place the mic closer to the low level person and aim at the higher level person when they talk, thus evening out the overall level. An old rule of thumb is while booming a person that is on-mic, look at the other actors for they will telegraph with body gestures just before they are about to speak. This is especially helpful while booming Soap Operas since many times, at the end of the day when time is a factor, NO rehearsal of the scene takes place. Usually, at the network Soap Operas, scripts are not used by the boomers. At the end of the day, you find yourself rehearsing on tape, so the body gestures really help to make sure there isn't an off-mic situation. Sometimes, the booth buys the one and only take made for that scene.

What are the tools of your trade? What equipment do you prefer and why?

JS: It is not necessary to get picky about brand names and pick up patterns, all professional microphones have good quality, like all hammers will hammer, it's the carpenter who puts the touch to it. The subtleties of technical details will come with experience.

EC: Boom poles and common sense.

PM: My favorite boompole, wired inside, a loose-fitting pair of head phones so I can shrug off/on the ear closest to the camera. I loved my Sony DRM5s into oblivion for that reason, but they stopped making them years ago. I like comfortable, loose, but not too loose, clothing with pockets, often in black to avoid reflections. I prefer sweats and tennis shoes with quiet and good thick soles. There is a lot of walking/running/running backwards involved.

AR: My tools include headphones, mikes, Fisher booms, wireless mikes, fishpoles, connectors, gadgets, Leatherman tools, Velcro. As far as equipment is concerned, I believe that the main difference in microphone selection is actually a function of ease of operation. If you can watch a movie and tell what mike was used there's a problem. That being said, I prefer Schoeps mikes because they are still the most transparent mikes made. I like Fisher booms because they are a great tool. It helps keep up the awareness that you are performing highly skilled work.

JV: The tools of my trade, aside from the obvious, are a high end Espresso machine and CD Player. Everything else belongs to the Mixer. I prefer to have a large heated and air conditioned trailer.

In the second part of our ode to the boomers we will look into the politics of the film set, the technical and physical requirements, the Fisher Boom, radio mics and advice to those who might want to pursue boom operating as a career.

Last update : May 9th, 2000

 

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