Tales From the Bottom of the Film Business

Sunday, January 08, 2006


So I've talked a little bit about the details of what I actually do on set. You know I hold the big pole over my head. You know I mike people, and sometimes plant microphones in cars, under tables, behind podiums, etc, mainly if nobody else wants to do it. Not that I mind miking and planting, it's just mixers are so darn picky and very often they'll go back and change what I’ve done after I do it, which hurts my feelings. Well, not really. So I'm not the best at miking, sue me. I'm also not always so great at listening for and finding sound problems – humming refrigerators or HMI ballasts, open windows letting in the sound of chainsaws – mainly because I often forget to do it with all the other things I have to worry about, like whether I’ll get home in time to watch Lost. Mixers forget to look for sound problems too, but they generally have the advantage of having me to blame for it. Ah, the joys of being the underling. And then I also generally help set up the equipment on the cart and break it down at the end of the day, plugging mics into cables and cables into mixers and mixers into DATs, etc. I know it doesn't sound exciting but it makes me feel technical. So these are the parts of the job that I like.

Then there are the demeaning aspects of my work. Like testing and tossing batteries - menial, and also bad for the environment – and handing out Comtek listening devices to clients, supposedly in a jocular way, like they’re stuffed mushrooms. Truth is I'm just not all that servile, that's why I make a lousy waitress. Something else I have to do that's really nasty is run a lot of cable, an activity guaranteed to transfer centuries of toxic grime on to your hands, which is why I try to always wear gloves, particularly in the Meat Packing District, or at least the way it was until a few years ago. Ah, the old New York, entrails in the streets. There’s also that disturbing white stuff all over Silvercup Studios. I used to think they never cleaned that place, but then someone told me that they actually do fairly often, that that stuff just accumulates at an alarming rate and it comes not off the insulation on the walls but OUT OF THE AIR. This did freak me out, but it also made me feel better knowing that I’m dying at the same rate as anyone else who spends a significant amount of time in Long Island City. I also now have a whole new respect for those people I see walking the streets of New York in surgical masks.

Anyway, then there's the manual labor. Like setting and sandbagging the c-stands with sound blankets on them that we use to deaden sound problems – which, although I have improved somewhat over the years, I'm really not good at. My sound blanket tents, the ones that I make to cover ballasts, tend to look like the tents I made with fitted sheets and the dining room chairs when I was a child. In other words, not extremely professional. Often when I’m trying to stop them from sagging, I'll turn around to see some grip standing behind me, shaking his head. Which of course I hate, so I’ll just continue to try to get the thing to stay in place, even if the whole thing’s built lefty-loosey (okay, usually I know better than that, but I’m not saying it’s never happened). If it’s a friend of mine and they ask me if I need help I will generally acquiesce, but by now, most of my friends know better than to ask. However, if something really heavy needs to be moved I will by all means allow assistance. At one time, back when I had knees, I thought I had something to prove with regard to that too, but now I’m more than happy to let a helpful PA lug that big black case up the stairs. Although I generally will wait for them to ask me if I need help since I, unused to having underlings, am not too good at giving orders. I much prefer having people read my mind.

Plus, there’s this whole thing about being a woman working with men on a film set where you have to ask for things in a certain way – aka, with a smile. Here’s something else I’m not good at: smiling on demand. While I think I generally have good “setiquette,” as one mixer once described it, if I’m in a hurry (which I generally am on set in the morning when we’re not sure how much time we have to set up), I do tend to skip the pleasantries and go straight to, “Hey, where are the Cardellini clamps?” And this is revealing of a whole other level of what’s hard about the sound person’s job: a lot of what we need to do our work belongs to other departments. Of course, most of it doesn’t technically “belong” to anyone but the stage or the rental house; but the hardware, the blankets, the power we need to run our sound equipment, even the lights and bells on soundstages that we use to let people know we're rolling and which are only used by sound people, it all falls under someone else’s purview. Aside from our equipment and the clothes on our backs, we pretty much have to ask for everything. And do it nicely, because anyone can say “no,’ although, more likely, they’ll ignore you or say they’re busy, which equates to the same thing. The truth is that often they are busy, there is a time and a place to ask for what you need, and this is actually a big part of why I do get hired (I knew you were starting to wonder) aside from the fact that I'm okay at swinging the pole: I know when to ask, because I know what needs to happen when. Which is good considering that even to do the very basics of my job – to figure out the frame, to help get rid of a bad shadow, to know when the actors are ready to be miked, sometimes for a hand from wardrobe or even hair in miking them – I have to ask for help. I just consider that working as part of a team. It's just unfortunate that a lot of people on set don’t. Why? Because we're the sound department. They have all these things and information we need to do our job and what have we got? Batteries. The only thing
grips and electrics come to us for are batteries for their pagers. And most people don’t even have pagers any more.

No, actually, there is one thing we have that they all need: the slate. We provide the sync slate used to mark every take with a new scene, shot and take number and time code, so that the film and the sound can be synched up in post-production. If it goes missing, all work comes to a halt.

And this brings me to what I am somewhat embarrassed to admit is my favorite part of my job: calling “speed.”
Sound mixers can talk to me through my headphones, so they give me a speed call to let me know when they are rolling. (By the way, the term “speed” is still used despite that we are no longer actually waiting for the tape on the machine to come up to speed, as with the old analog recorders. Instead, we have to get a 10-second time code pre-roll for digital editing purposes – and you’ll be sorry if you ask me to get more technical than that). Then, my job is to call it out for the rest of the set to hear so we can roll camera. For those of you who don’t know, when we do a take, this is how it goes:

1st AD: Picture’s up!…Lock it up, please!…And…roll sound!
Boom: Speed!
2nd AC: Scene 42 Apple (“Apple” means “A”), Take 3.
(1st AC rolls the camera)
1st AC: Mark it.
The 2nd AC claps the slate closed with a loud “WHACK!” Or a soft “whack,” hopefully, if it’s close to the actor’s nose. And at the end of the take, the AD yells “That’s a cut!”

This is the basic rigmarole, although there are variations. Some ADs like to put their own, personal stamp on the day or else reveal that they are complete control freaks (which most ADs are. Sorry, guys) by adding something unique to the sequence:

“Sound is rolling!”
“Sound rolls!”
“Roll the sound!”
“Roll camera!”
“Camera at will!”
(All the camera calls being totally unnecessary because any AC worth a damn knows that once they hear "speed" it’s time to do their thing. I also particularly hate ADs who continually say “roll camera” instead of “roll sound” when it’s a sound shot and I’m standing right in front of them. Hello, do you think I’m hoisting this microphone stick into the air for my health?? This is not a music video you hack!)
“Camera cuts!”
“And we are cut!”

You can also find different ways to communicate "speed” if you want to get creative. Some of the ways in which certain mixers I've worked with like to do this are as follows:

“You got speed.”
BOOP BOOP (this is a sound guy who doesn’t like to actually have to say "speed," and will instead use the tone button as an indicator)
And the ever popular
“___,” which happens when somebody doesn’t push their slate mic button down enough or is too far away from it for me to hear them say “speed,” and so I miss it altogether, or hear something and just hope that they actually meant to say “speed,” and not “Stand by,” which means, “Don’t call speed yet.” Not a mistake you want to make. If camera rolls and you’re not rolling sound, you’d better start rolling, fast. Although not rolling by mistake has happened probably to every single mixer I know, including me. Hopefully you realize it right away. Of course, it’s embarrassing to contradict yourself when you’ve already called “speed” and say, “Wait, no, we don’t have speed, hold on.” That’s the time when everyone really looks at you like you’re an idiot. But it’s better than missing a few takes and not realizing until later. That’s when you get fired and nobody ever hears from you again, except when they’re having a conversation like, “Hey, remember that mixer who always forgot to roll? What was his/her name?”

Anyway, I never do anything but yell, “Speed!” at varying volumes. Why? Because it’s not appropriate, really, to get up and shout something like, “Speed, motherfuckers!” which is the sort of thing that would be really entertaining. And I also just don’t feel the need to draw any more attention to myself. Particularly because I have, at times, screwed up the speed call. I’ve had to call “speed” when I was losing my voice, which didn’t keep people from making fun of how I sounded, despite the fact that I had the flu. Once I actually yawned “speed.” I didn’t even realize I was doing it until I saw everyone staring at me. Luckily, the director was someone I worked with fairly often at the time and who had better things to do than take it personally, so his reaction was an amused, “And a very tired ‘speed,’ and action!”

When I first started doing commercials, I also once had a boss who pointed out to me that I did not call “speed” well. Of course, he was a model of tact about it.

“You know, you really sound bad when you do that. Do you listen to yourself?”
“I can’t believe you’re telling me how to call ‘speed’! Do I tell you how to do your job?”
“Sometimes, yeah.”
“Well, that’s irrelevant.”

Of course, once I did listen to myself, I realized I called “speed” like a little boy whose voice is changing. So I started working on it, eventually getting to the point where I can now call it in a strong, clear voice, the way they tell you to call for help if you’re attacked. I’ve noticed that this doesn’t apply, for me, to other, authoritative raising of the voice situations or public speaking. I’ve always been one of those maladjusted wallflowers who secretly wants to be noticed but who dissolves into a red-faced puddle of goo with a dead fish handshake when they are (not that people shake your hand when you’re a woman anyway, they always go in for the kiss). I’ve done a bunch of teaching and my voice still cracks when I’m trying to speak to the back row, which is a real confidence builder. And in those situations where I’m talking with Important Film People about my work, I tend to get short of breath and blurt out my logline in such a way that it’s impossible to understand yet they are too uncomfortable to ask me to repeat it.

But the thing about calling “speed” that I love is that it is my moment. It’s the time when everyone else has to wait without bitching – largely because they don’t know that they’re waiting because they don’t know whether or not we actually have speed – when, if I’m not ready, I can take a whole, oh, five or six seconds for myself. Yes, it’s a real moment of leisure. And, to a certain extent, it’s a moment of power. But more importantly, it’s the moment when everyone knows I’m there, when I actually know exactly what I’m supposed to do and how to do it. I don’t get that role too often in life at the moment so why not enjoy it?

Speed, motherfuckers.


Blogger P said...

Found this by reading a comment (with link) you left on the filmhacks.blogspot.com blog some weeks back. Yours is similar, yes, but vastly superior. Wonderful writing style. And the sporadic nature of the posts makes them so much more rewarding. But…

You wrote “sound can be sunk up” instead of synched (as in synchronized).

I would never, ever take the time to comment on something as insignificant as grammar, but this particular time, I feel, is essential (as is correcting the oft-mispronounced abbreviation for Lavalier microphones).

Keep up the magnificent work here.

All best.

3:42 AM

Blogger BTL said...

Okay, between you and my mother catching my typos, we'll get this thing right yet (although "sunk" is what we generally say). Anyway, thanks for the nice comment!

9:58 AM

Blogger Robert Hogan said...

Regardless of grammer errors, great post. Boy could I use someone like you on my upcoming short (hint hint, nudge nudge).


8:10 PM

Anonymous Bill said...

I especially enjoy the necessity of sometimes being clairvoyant as a mixer--that is, knowing ahead of time when they might unexpectedly call 'Roll Sound!' so that I can roll early enough so that they're not looking at me impatiently as I wait for enough pre-roll. I was just kidding, I don't actually enjoy needing to develop clairvoyance. At least not for that purpose. I'd much rather develop it for picking Super Bowl winners or knowing when a safe might fall from a building and hit me on the head.
Great essay as usual 'You Know Who!'
My best,

2:00 PM

Blogger Peggy Archer said...

I think the "vastly superior" statement is more than a little unfair.

The writing styles on this blog and mine are very, very different - I love this blog and totally relate to it, but it's not written in the same style as mine, and I'm not sure the two should be compared at all.

We're all slave to our influences, after all!

Oh, and I almost never ask the sound guys for batteries anymore - We keep them in our workbox nowadays :)

12:57 AM

Blogger BTL said...

Great. Now we really are of no use to you whatsoever.

You're right, diff'rent blogs for diff'rent folks...I can't even think about coming up with something clever every day, especially after a day of work. Thanks for reading, Peggy.

7:13 PM

Anonymous K.M. said...

I like what you wrote about having to ask 'with a smile' I'm one of the'rare woman dps' and you wouldn't believe how difficult it is to find people for my team who are willing to put up with my style of command: demanding and brusque. Far friendlier than some guys I've worked for, but, as you said: if you're female...
I usually don't read blogs, yours was recommended on shootingpeople in the UK. I like it and will keep peeping into it.
Bottoms up, girls!

6:54 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Came across this blog accidentally looking on Google to find if its Synched or sunk. I laughed out loud at the accuracy of your writing.
Well done!


9:40 AM


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