Tales From the Bottom of the Film Business

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Things Not To Do When You're Wired For Sound


Thanks but no thanks. No need to prove in between takes that you almost made it into the touring company of Spamalot.

Hit on all the PAs.
Because not only might the sound department be listening to you, we might be broadcasting to other people on wireless headsets, thereby sharing your little dalliances with a much wider audience. The mixer generally turns this feed off between takes, but heck, we're human, sometimes we forget, so
don't embarrass yourself.

Sweat, much.
I can ask, can't I? Mics don't like perspiration. This is why you will find condoms in the kits of many sound people, not because they're hoping for a quickie during the turnaround, they're actually useful for wrapping mics and wireless transmitter packs to protect them from moisture. They can do a fair amount, but it's also best if you don't

Go out in the rain, snow, sleet, jump in the surf fully clothed, etc.
See above, only more so.

Go really really far away.
There is no easier way to get a sound guy to freak out than to walk out of range of his receiver between takes so that your reception starts to go. I, with my subtle powers of perception, can tell this is happening when I start to hear static and pops on the line and the actor's voice going in and out, and the sound guy yelling, "WHERE IS SHE?! IS SHE IN THE TRAILER?!!" Because his concern is that you might actually still be on set and your microphone is crapping out and then he's screwed. Actually,
if you like to watch another human being have a meltdown, it can be fun to watch in a sort of fucked up way.

De-mic yourself.
Oh, okay, this might also rate as the easiest way to cause a sound guy to have a meltdown. Look, it's hard to wear a body mic all day, it can be uncomfortable and we understand the need for privacy, or the need to change your clothes, but heck, we don't like the damn things and aren't too fond of putting them on you either (not that there aren't some actors I would mic for free…). So we wouldn't be wiring you if we had a choice, we do it for a reason -- aka, so we can hear you during the shot -- so if you want it off for a little while, let us do it. If it were all that easy to do it and undo it, we'd be out of a job. And if they call out "Roll sound!" and your mic is in the trailer, we will be.
Plus, it's not that we don't trust you to take care of our high-priced audio equipment, but, well, we don't trust you to take care of our high-priced audio equipment.

Brawl, wrestle, do stunts, play sports, etc.
I know, again, this is not necessarily within your control, depending upon the role. But twisting, crushing, yanking on the cable, these activities are a guaranteed way to damage your average wireless mic -- and did I mention that these things are pricey? And that mic pack sure will dig into your back/side/groin if you fall on it, so if you want to play a little tackle football, or think something spontaneously violent is going to happen in the next shot that we may not be privy to despite all of our eavesdropping -- and this is one big reason why we eavesdrop, because nobody ever tells us anything -- give us a little heads up.

We want to get the sound of your lines. Not the sound of you moving around in that creaky chair, or playing with the wax paper around the hamburger the food stylist gave you, or the uncontrollable tap-dancing of your toes on the tile floor, or your chest hair rubbing against your starchy shirt because you just can't keep still. Are you 5? Do us both a favor and stop it.

Drop your pants
As I believe I might have said already, wireless microphones don't like to fall, and they don't like water. Well, they especially do not like to fall in the toilet. Plus, even if they don't fall, you don't really want us, and perhaps everyone else, to hear you doing your business. So come on over and visit the sound cart before you decide the visit the facilities. Although of course, there are other reasons for dropping your pants that might supercede rational thinking on your part.

Get a blow job
There's a story that I've heard so many times that I don't even know who told it to me or what film it happened on, and it may not even be true, but pretty much everyone knows it anyway, so here it is. One day on a film he was working on, Sylvester Stallone convinced a PA to give him a blow job. All well and good I suppose, only he was wired. And he also, apparently, kept saying over and over again the words, "Say my name" during the event. (This was way before American Pie, mind you -- like I said, this story is film business legend). Of course word spread like wildfire and it became such an in-joke on the production that, I'm told, they put "Say my name!" on the back of the t-shirts they made for the crew at the end of the job.

Talk about your sex life
In a lesser-known incident, I've been told that when Nicholas Cage was on Adaptation doing a driving scene, in between takes director Spike Jonze asked him why he seemed so tired. Well, it was soon after Cage's marriage to Lisa Marie Presley, and Cage responded that being a newlywed was taking its toll on him. Apparently, he started to go into some detail. Which would have been fine, except that he was wired, and not only were the normal people (writers, producers, script, boom) listening, but Jonze's parents had come to set that day, and they were also on cans. Oops.

Talk shit about the director
I had my first experience of this when I was still in the wireless-headset-free world of film school, where nobody was listening except me and my boom operator. Ah, life was simple then. Although insane. We were
shooting in a swamp in Virginia Beach in the middle of summer where we were constantly sweating and being feasted upon by nasty, unidentifiable insect life and eating cheese sandwiches for dinner if we were lucky -- sort of your worst student film nightmare, if you can imagine what that's like, and I know a few of you can. Anyway, on this particular film, one of the actors started saying negative things about the director, who, in all fairness, was kind of losing it. But this actor, who was doing a pretty miserable job of overacting himself, which was probably why he was in the position of doing a student film in a swamp, started talking about what a bad job the director was doing to one of the other actors. So I, none too happy myself from the humidity and the mud up to my knees and getting flirtation but no love from the gaffer I'd followed down there because he was cute (I know, I know, story of my life), went over to him:

"You know, I can hear everything you're saying," I said.
He tried to take it in stride. "I assume you'll be discreet."
"I guess," I said, "but I don't want to listen to it."
I walked away.
And he didn’t do it again.

But in a way, he was lucky he was on an idiotic student film. I myself have not always been so lucky. When I'm booming and the mixer and I need to communicate, I talk to him/her through the boom mic. We catch up, we plot strategy, we speculate about what and when lunch will be and whether it will be edible. Mind you, the mixer can blab up a storm because their line to me is always private, the bastards, so it's just my half of the conversation that everybody hears. I always hope that this gives me a little bit of room to mouth off, since whatever I say will be only half of a conversation, but I still don't watch it the way I should.

The first and worst time I got burned was when I was young and stupid and on a low-budget movie, and the DP and director changed the shot on me and I didn't find out until after we did a take which was completely different from the previous one. Pissed that I had screwed up, I pulled down the mic and growled into it, "They never fucking tell me when they change the fucking shot!" only to look up and see the script supervisor staring at me, appalled. I don't think the director was listening -- frequently directors are off in their own little worlds, and this can save your ass. But that taught me my lesson. Oh, who am I kidding, I'm always doing a lot of extracurricular chatting into the microphone, hoping that it's offline. But I don't bad-mouth the director, or

Talk shit about the agency or the client.
Most actors don't do this, but a lot of directors and producers do, and while they are never wired themselves, they will do it within a foot of people who are. For instance, they'll give direction to the actors that they know the agency won't like, or they'll tell them something like,
"I don't know why they want to do it this way, they're idiots, but just do it,"
or, "Just do it the way you were doing it, don't listen to them, they're idiots,"
or they'll just throw a general hissy fit along the lines of, "Those fucking idiots need to figure out what the fuck they want before we do another 50 takes!"

Now, I don't believe in directing by committee, I think directors should be allowed to direct the way they want, but the world of commercial production is not a perfect one in any sense of the word, and in this sense least of all. So if you want to converse privately with anyone within, say, 5 feet of a wired actor or 10 feet of the boom, think first, check with the sound department, usually we've got your back but I'd make sure the walls don't have ears connected to video village.

Talk to your agent on the phone
There's another famous story that involves a movie with Robert DeNiro, where he was having a private cell phone conversation with his agent. He was wired, but naturally he assumed, since he was off set, that his mic would be turned off and nobody would be listening. Only then he saw the sound guy looking at him. With his headphones on.

DeNiro looked at the sound guy and said, "Can you hear me?"
The sound guy shook his head.
De Niro said, "You're fired."

Actually, I think the moral of this story really applies to the sound person, aka, DUH. I mean, if you're going to eavesdrop, and you will, just don't be an idiot about it and blow it for the rest of us. Maybe a lot of these cautionary tales really apply to sound people, because you, the wired, should be able to trust us. But help us out a bit, show a little courtesy and respect. And oh yeah, don't

Talk shit about the sound department
Now you know: we can broadcast you to anyone who happens to be listening and pretend it was a mistake. We can also make it so nobody can hear your lines by, for instance, failing to point out the passing bus that just obliterated them and that somehow everyone else has failed to notice (this never ceases to amaze me). Although we probably would never do either of those things on purpose, we hate to do a bad job. Or really, we hate getting a reputation for doing a bad jo because let's face it, our work is not creative, it's not inspiring, it's mainly about not screwing up so we can keep working. But theoretically -- not that this is true of anyone I know -- we can do that and still find ways to get revenge. Like, additionally, "tweaking" your mic by coming over and sticking our hands down your pants or up your shirt, or pulling off the moleskin we stuck to your chest without much concern for your personal pain threshold, or "accidentally" pricking you with a vampire clip (that's a mic clip with little pins and, yes, they do draw blood), or just eavesdrop to our hearts' content until we know you better than your mother. These are rather unimpressive threats compared to rolling a dolly over your foot or using creative lighting to add 15 years to your age like other departments can, but still, do you really want to be wondering what we're smiling about?


Blogger Alcuin Bramerton said...

Do vampire clips draw blood from microphones? Or don't metaphors function like that?

12:22 AM

Blogger Bill said...

OMG the stories I could tell you. LOL. I'm tryiong to think if there were any that you and I experienced together...hmm. Oh well.

One thing I'd like to point out and here I'm wearing my acting not, not my sound man's hat but in regard to this paragraph:
"We want to get the sound of your lines. Not the sound of you moving around in that creaky chair, or playing with the wax paper around the hamburger the food stylist gave you, or the uncontrollable tap-dancing of your toes on the tile floor, or your chest hair rubbing against your starchy shirt because you just can't keep still. Are you 5? Do us both a favor and stop it. Just stop it."

What I would hope you'd appreciate is that the sound person should make every effort first to see how he or she can get the sound without interfering with an actor or actress's performance. Performers act not just by speaking words as I'm sure you understand, but also with the whole of their being, their whole bodies, and yes, this may mean that a perticular choice might happen to mean fidgeting. So for instance, in the very examples you cited the sound person should first try to treat the chair in such a way that it won't squeak so much but still allow the performer to move about. This might mean oiling the joints, switching the chair out with a duplicate that is perhaps less noisy. (It looks goofy that situation where the sound person sits in several identical chairs one after thge other and wiggling around, but it may just be the thing that saves you).

Anticipation is big help too, so maybe if you notice a paper prop and see from a rehearsal that the actor is making the choice of playing with it, you can maybe work with the props people in choosing a less noisy type of paper? Another trick is to mist the certain papermade props with a water spritzer. Many time sin the past I've spritzed brown paper supermarket bags with it or the paper that wraps a bouquet of flowers, and voila! The paper is dampened to a subtkle enough degree that it isn't crinkly noisy anymore. It takes a bit of finesse doing it so that you don't notice that the parer is visibly wet, but it's acvtually surprisingly easy when you get the hang of it.Hah! And you said we weren't artists! LOL.

As for the tapdancing toes that can't be seen? Yeah I hate that. If they just can't stop themselves (maybe it's helping them in some way that they can't explain or don't even know about) then I guess of course just put a sound blanket under those happy feet.

So next time you're about to go up to the actor or actress and say "hey knock it off," stop it. Just stop it.

2:48 AM

Blogger BTL said...

Well, yes, Bill, and wearing my director's hat (which I so seldom get to wear that I forget what it looks like -- is it a fez? Is it a little beanie with a propeller?), I respect the actor's craft and don't want to mess with it unnecessarily. Only after trying to fix the props and the furniture would I go up to an actor and say, not "Knock it off," but, "Would mind trying not to slide your fingernails across the blackboard on the other actor's lines?" or some such thing. And then they usually stop doing it for a couple of takes and then forget and start again. So it goes.

9:58 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Awesome stuff! Not only informative, but very fun to read.

On many of the films I've either produced or directed, the sound crew were the coolest department on set; they were focused on doing their job well, had very little attitude and generally had the best sense of humor. I often hang close to them because they are an island of sanity in a sea of chaos (remembering that "sanity" is relative, as we are talking about a film set after all).

But I have to admit that I myself have committed one of the "Thou Shall Not" sound sins. But hey, it was my wedding and I'm not usually wired for sound. The videographer showed up 5 minutes before the ceremony and, surprisingly, I was super pissed about this fact. After the wedding I was talking to my best man, who had to go and say something about the videographer's tardiness and I, forgetting I was still wearing a wireless, of course started talking trash. Okay, I'll be honest: I was talking pure and undiluted shit. And he was listening. D'oh!

But then again, he was a weddding videographer, not a true sound person. Does that lessen the sin?

10:14 AM

Blogger Jason Ashberg - Independant Film Director said...

awesome post!
I love chatting to the sound people cos youre mostly more relaxed than the other depts!
Thanks for the inspiration!

6:28 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that it proves that we're only calm on the outside.

Inside is sometimes a pool of seething frustration being churned up by a 99% visual only oriented crew.

12:52 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

The way I heard the Sly Stallone story, his words were, "Cradle the balls. Stroke the shaft. Say my name."

Over. And over. And over again. Although, that wouldn't be something you could put on a T-shirt, I suppose.

5:50 AM


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