Tales From the Bottom of the Film Business

Saturday, October 28, 2006

In Your Ear

I mentioned a couple of blogs ago how mixers and boom ops have our own little, private conversations by talking to each other through the mic and the mixing board, which gives each of us a direct line into the other's headphones (and sometimes everyone else's). This results, frequently, in lots of strange looks from people who think I'm talking to myself, or interloping from others who try to get in on the conversation by coming over and sticking their face to the mic like they're Celine Dion, or maybe Dave Chappelle -- the most common joke is, "That Joe Shmo, he sure is a lousy mixer! Oh, is this thing on?" Yeah, we've heard that one. It's like when people come up to me and sing, "I'm being followed by a boom shadow, Boom shadow boom shadow." I'm not sure who did come up with this but it wasn't you and you're lucky it wasn't because if it were, I would kill you.

But mostly, people come up to me and ask, "What are you guys talking about?" Well, here's your chance to find out the answer.

Let me start out by saying that every sound guy –- or gal, but as I've said, generally they're guys, it's a male-dominated business or haven't you heard? –- is unique. What they seem to have in common is the very uniqueness of their singular personalities. In other words, unlike other departments, which seem to be a bit more normal (although I don't spend a large part of my waking hours in those departments, so what do I know?), sound people tend to be quirky. If I had to compose a list of the quirks that most sound people have, it'd go something like this:

1) Technogeekiness
To varying degrees, most sound mixers store a large amount of technical information in their heads, everything from how much voltage everything on their cart draws, to how to reprogram all of their digital gear via the complicated menus that I always need the manual to figure out, to how to take it all apart and put in back together with a little solder. Maybe this all isn't super technical, but it seems that way to me -- which is probably why I don't do all that much mixing, and when I do, I stick to the easy jobs: 2-3 mics, a little 4-channel mixer, maybe a DAT, that's enough, thanks. Ergo, I don't have any

2) Desire to acquire more and more gearhead toys for the sound package
Feature sound guys, especially, have this one bad. They want to have the newest and coolest, it's not enough to have eight perfectly good wireless, they need to get the smaller ones, the waterproof ones, the ones with the cool little flashing lights on the side, because, really, it's all about the little flashing lights. And oh yeah, maybe the ones that sound better, but that may well be secondary. Right now, everyone feels they must go to hard disk/DVD recording, so there's a race on to get the latest, greatest one of those too. Preferably with as many flashing lights in different colors as possible.

3) High strungedness
Right, not a word, but anyway, most sound work is low stress. We have lots of downtime, generally nobody monitoring what we're doing -- even when people are listening to the sound through Comteks (wireless headsets), they really don't pay attention to the quality, or else they just don't care. There are always, however, moments when everything goes awry and this is what makes sound people absolutely bonkers. They don't have a care in the world and then, BAM! They have to snap into damage-control mode, and sometimes they just plain snap, like dried-out rubber band that's been in a microphone shock mount a little too long. Truth is, you won't know the type of person you're working for until shit hits the fan, and then you really know. Do they flip out on you? Do they just get paralyzed by fear and completely unable to function? Or do they handle the situation in a good way -- not that there really is a good way to handle an AD getting on the walkie to let the entire set know about being able to see an actor's mic, or when, because of the inordinate amount of heat being generated by many high-powered lights, the air conditioning compressor for the entire building rumbles to life somewhere directly under your feet, utterly ruining any chance you had of getting good sound that day. You just have to do what you can, get on with it, and not let anyone catch you weeping in the bathroom when you go off to have a moment.

4) Paranoia
I think this also derives from the lethal combo of freelance work and being in a job where nobody really understands/cares about what you do. Whatever its origin, most sound people have a healthy dose of fear that they are about to lose their job to someone else, and that sort of bleeds into a slight, overall personality disorder. You'll see it in the micromanaging ("Did you figure out where you're going to boom from yet? I think you should go from camera left"), or in a bizarrely defensive posture toward other departments ("This key grip hates me, he's always trying to fuck me over"), or in a doomsday mentality like my friend Greg ("Oh, I've really done it this time, I'm never going to work again"), or in the compulsive competitive questioning, see next section, number 4.


5) Obliviousness
Which is better? Couldn't say. It's nice not to have someone on your case but on the other hand, then you have to take all the worry for the team. I don't know about you, but that isn't really my bag. Especially as a boom operator. A big reason I like booming?: minimal responsibility. And as a non-department head who gets no equipment rental, you make less money, so why should I be the one caring?


6) Super mellowness
I know only one sound person who I could say is genuinely calm all the time, and the downside of this is that he tends to fall asleep at the sound cart. He's kind of legendary for it. Everyone knows how he wears sunglasses, even indoors, to hide his drooping eyelids, how he props his head up behind his notes to keep in from nodding, how he inevitably wakes in time to roll sound and, generally, to cut the roll at the end of the take -- although according to one story, he woke up at the end of a take once and shouted "Speed!" It's not as big a deal as it sounds, most people at some point have fallen asleep on set, not too surprising when your job consists of sitting around a lot during days when you've had to get up really early and work until God knows when. Somebody once said to me that the key is just not to sleep in front of the producer. But at this point, everyone knows Theo isn't going to make it through a day with his eyes open and he still gets good sound, so what's the big deal?


7) Sense of humor
I like to put myself into this category. And thank God there are other sound people out there who know how not to take it all so seriously. Hopefully that's how they'll feel when they read this blog.

So, given these personality traits, here's what we talk about:

1) Technogeek equipment talk
In spite of what I just said about not wanting to spend my hard-earned cash on sound equipment instead of on clothes, movies, cable, and going out (come on, it's New York, these are dire necessities), I think it's fairly important to keep up with what's out there. For one thing, you have to know the basics of the equipment that the mixers you work for are using, both the stuff that you plug in/screw together/swing around/stick on somebody else on a daily basis and the stuff you may never have to touch but should have some idea how to operate in case of emergency. A mixer may be throwing up in the bathroom when they call "roll sound," they may not make it back from taking a smoke in time to roll playback, shit happens, and it happens to everyone, and even if my mantra is, again, "minimal responsibility," there are times when you need to step in. You also need to keep up because it makes you look like you really don't care if you don't know anything about what's going on in the sound world. My level of caring is none too high but I still need to get hired every once in a while, so I at least have to be able to fake it. And then the third reason I have learned how to walk the technogeek talk is that there are some mixers who are such social misfits that they simply cannot make conversation of any other kind. They are in the minority, but they're people too, they like to feel liked, and again, employment = money = consumer goods.

2) Strategy
This isn't as complicated as it sounds. It's usually just a relay of information about what's going on on set back to the sound cart -- is the wireless mic popping out of the tie, whose heels are making the racket, or what the hell is that damn crinkling sound?! -- and what should we do about it. Or it's about the mixer giving me a frame-line (aka where the boom should be so that it stays on the edge of the camera frame), which is great, unless they try to do it, in detail, during the shot. As you can imagine, it's kind of tough to concentrate, much less follow the dialogue, when there's this additional voice in your ear saying, "Okay, bring it in, bring it in -- No, no, now you're dangerous, back it off a bit, okay, now that's TV Safe, no, now you're back on Academy, okay, right there right there STAY RIGHT THERE!" And this usually continues because it's not so easy to stay right there. Frames change, actors move, it's tough to keep a microphone on a pole at an exact distance above their heads at all times. Not to mention that DPs have their own idea of what the frame is and they don't like a boom anywhere near it, much less in it, so they'll often lie and tell you to get out when you're not in. And when it comes down to who owns the frame, you think it's the sound person who's going to get the last word? Ha. But the sound person's the one who hires you and mutters in your ear all day. So being stuck in the middle can be miserable.

3) How everything in the business is going to hell
For a lot of people on set, since their job of mixing mics or laying dolly track or setting lights really only adds up to a part-time job, talking about this seems to be the other part: how we're getting screwed on our rates, how all the work is going to Canada, how they're able to screw us on our rates because all the work is going to Canada, how our health insurance and pensions are going in the toilet so we're all going to end up sick and penniless, etc. Yes, there is just an endless supply of stuff going on in our business to be unhappy about, so why discuss it? Or, rather, why discuss it over and over and over? I think it comes down, again, to the social misfit's fear of real conversational topics. Start a conversation about Flaubert and there's a good chance nobody will know what you're talking about. Start whining about the business, and at least five people are bound to join in.

4) Gossip
This, as you might imagine, is a staple. It's not always the salacious kind but let's face it, the people who get the most airtime are the ones who have the most going on -- the divorces, why so-and-so decided to stop hiring so-and-so, the disasters that have happened on set lately like whose cart tipped over, whose had the tent full of rain collapse all over it, whose got plugged into bad power and blew up. There's no news like bad news, especially when they're your competitors. But we also talk about the new babies and the cool stuff people do with their time off and who's made a film that's gotten into a festival and so on. We're human, but we're not evil.

5) Compulsive, competitive questioning about other jobs and sound people
"So, you've been working with John a lot? What production company were you working for? Who was the PM? Shit, I think she stopped calling me after than Coca Cola job. What's he recording on these days? Oh, he's got that new hard disk recorder…Does it look pretty cool with all the flashing lights?"

I've finally trained myself, after many, many years, to stop asking who's working with who on what job because I don't really want to know who's getting the jobs I'm not getting. I'm not getting them, what else is there to know? The afore-mentioned reduced level of caring really helps in this department; once it's not about raking in the most jobs or the most prestigious ones and it's simply about making enough money to buy groceries and the occasional pair of tall leather boots, your level of angst goes way down.

6) Random, time-filling flotsam
See previous blog.

7) Weirdly intimate shit
There is something about being piped directly into each other's heads that can bring out the personal. And sometimes it can be a little too personal. It's often the mixer who gets into that territory, because, again, they have a line which is always private, whereas I never know when my tidbits of information are being broadcast to the entire agency, sometimes literally broadcast if the VTR guy decides to leave the speaker in video village open (if you hate listening to your voice on the answering machine, you should try listening to it coming back at you in high volume stereo with a slight delay). Plus, when I drag myself in to work, I try not to drag my baggage along with me. So I have been on the receiving end of, "Yeah, I was fucking the production manager and I just didn't care if my wife found out…" and even, "Is that what you say to your boyfriend when you get naked?" Yeah, it can get inappropriate and I don't like it, but in an all-male environment, people often don't know when they cross the line, especially because they might talk to me the same way if I were a guy, or it might be even worse. But it happens to be my opinion that if you're interested in that kind of private line, there's a 1-900 number you can call.

8) Stuff that makes us laugh
The top reason people ask, "What are you guys talking about?" isn't that we're yelling or crying. It's because we're giggling. We're under pressure or we're bored and we've got just this one other person who is, at least in commercials, the whole rest of our department. The least we can do is amuse each other. It's often the only alternative to losing our minds. I used to have a whole repertoire of stupid jokes I would tell, which I've allowed myself to forget now that I'm no longer on features, but we can usually come up with a funny story or two from our last few jobs, or some good, snarky comments about the dialogue, or just banter, sometimes flirtatious if we're in that kind of mood. Generally it's kind of silly stuff that wouldn't get a laugh anywhere else, but it gets us to the other side of the day and that's really the goal.

So the next time you see us laughing and talking to ourselves, don't worry, we're not crazy, we're just doing our jobs -- which includes staying awake and staying sane, at least until they tell us we can go home. Oh, and we're not talking about you. Probably.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

More of the ridiculous stuff we talk about when we have too much downtime on set

AC (eating craft service candy): You know what this tastes like? Those purple and green things we used to eat when we were kids, in the cellophane package, that tasted like chalk –
me: Necco wafers?
AC: Yes!
me: Yuck.
AC: Well, yes, they were kind of awful but you had to respect them.
me: Why?
Make-up: What are you talking about?
AC: Necco wafers.
Make-up: Oh, those are terrible.
AC: Okay, yes, but there was something about them –
me: That they tasted like chalk?
AC: No.
me: You're just nostalgic.
Make-up: You know what I love? That Blackjack gum. The grape or cherry kind.
AC: I can still get that near me.
Make-up: Really? Not the black kind, the –
me: Licorice.
Make-up: Yeah, not that.
AC: No, we have it. I'll bring you some Monday. The grape, right?
Make-up: I used to love that.
AC: You know what else? That lavender gum.
me: Oh, you can still get that.
AC: Really? So much of that stuff is gone. I used to love Lucky Charms –
me: Yeah, I used to love Cap'n Crunch.
AC: With crunchberries?
me: No, I thought the crunchberries were kind of gross.
AC: Really? I loved the crunchberries. I used to finish everything else and just leave the bowl of crunchberries to eat last. But you know, cereal's not as good now because it's not made with sugar, it's made with high-fructose corn syrup.
me: There's a difference?
AC: It's completely different! My kids eat it. It's not nearly as good.
Make-up: I just think those things don't taste as good because we've gotten old and they were kind of disgusting to begin with.
me: Though I had a deep-fried Twinkie the other day and it was damn good.
AC: A deep-fried Twinkie?
me: Yeah, there's this fish and chips place near me and they make deep-fried candy bars, Twinkies, whatever they want to throw in the fryer I guess.
Make-up: Do they batter it?
me: I don't think so.
AC: And they're good?
me: Yeah, they're really good, because it just gets all molten inside, and –
Sound guy: Aren't we supposed to be doing something?
AC: They forgot the monitor at the other set.
Sound mixer: Oh…What are you guys talking about?