During my filmmaking career, I've run the gambit on all different sides of production. Back in Baltimore, I worked with skeleton crews writing, directing, and doing sound on my own productions. Since moving to Los Angeles I've found a lot of work on set sound mixing, and I wanted to give some easy, actionable steps that can help all filmmakers, at every budget level, get the best sound possible.
My sound kit from “Sexy Dex.”
Most sound mixers start with what we call a “basic kit.”. This includes a mixer/recorder, a boom, and a couple of lavaliers (or lavs). This combination can work remarkably well in most situations.
One might ask: what type of sound do I need for my project?
If you are just starting out, generally making short films and posting them online, you can probably get away with a boom and a mixer. Both can be very cheap to purchase, and cheaper still to rent. Using them, rather than recording sound via the built-in camera microphones, can make a huge and noticeable difference in sound quality.
Any project above the entry level should have a crew member dedicated to sound. Who you hire can make a huge difference in the final product, and that’s why interviewing and finding a reliable sound person is so crucial.
In the Santa Monica mountains for “Running Shadow.”
There have been a number of times when I have gotten to set and other members of the crew will tell me, “Sorry, you are going to have a rough day.”
I arrive to the location and there is some unforeseen occurrence. I've dealt with 30 mph winds, being surrounded by highways, shooting under the approach to LAX, and many more. I always try and make the most of every situation, but sometimes there is no way to work around construction across the street, or the guy playing Winger at impossible volumes while doing metal work in his garage.
Something that I have done for my own films, which I borrowed from searching for apartments, is the habit of spending some quiet time at the location before I book it. I had an apartment directly across the street from Camden Yards once, before I signed the lease, I took a book and sat in a chair during the Orioles game to try and determine if this would be acceptable noise for where I would live.
You can, and should, do the same thing with your locations. Try and line it up the best you can with the time of your shoot, day of the week, etc. Perhaps with this technique, and a little luck, you won’t schedule the recording of the pivotal moment of your piece during the weekly meet-up from the biker gang. The one that happens every Thursday across the street from your “perfect location.”
On set for the feature film, “A Child’s Voice.”
It’ll be 6:00 and I’ll get a panicked call from someone saying, “Cory, I got your name from Joe and he said you are the best. (Thanks, Joe.) Can you come in tomorrow on a pick-up day?”
“I sure can, what are the details?” I reply.
“Well, we really don’t have a huge budget. Can you mix and boom?” the producer asks.
It will go on like this, and the next day I will be on set. I’ll look around and see five people in the camera department, six actors to mic up, and a partridge in a pear tree (a known nightmare for sound). In this clearly fictional scenario, I find myself at craft services sampling from an assortment of hummus and wondering why they didn’t think of bringing in a boom op?
I understand the logic that one less person is one less paycheck, but boom operators are just like the first AC: they help keep things in focus. I get to worry about levels and mixing, and the boom operator can focus on keeping the mic in the right spot.
I have mixed and boomed a lot, and I will continue to because I genuinely love working on small budget projects that rarely can afford any more crew members than necessary. However, take it from a professional sound person: it’s a rob Peter to pay Paul problem. A boom operator in production can, and will, save you money in post-production. There are some incredible craftsmen in post sound, but I think what everyone wants at the end of the day is getting it right on set.
I’m going to give you a little exercise. Put on one of your favorite movies and turn away from the screen. Instead of watching it for the 100th time, follow it with your ears.
In the best movies, you never even have to look. You can hear the pit of despair, you can hear New York City, and you even start picking up on little sound effects and foley.
Any time you turn around to try and figure out what’s happening, make a note. Did the movie fail to explain to me, on an auditory level, and now I have to see the picture to orient myself? How could you have improved it?
A movie I would really suggest for this exercise (and one which did a superb job in the sound department) is Baby Driver. This film melded all the different disciplines of sound so wonderfully. The first thing I thought, during my very first viewing, was that Edgar Wright really considered sound, even before production; and how it could elevate his movie to another level.
Going in to any production, think about the mise-en-scène as both a visual and audio exercise, and have a conversation with your sound person about how we can make that vision come to life.
On set with “Indigo Valley” a feature by Jaclyn Bethany. Starring Rosie Day and Brandon Sklenar. Cinematography by Irene Gomez-Emilsson
I wanted to give everyone a couple tips on my way out the door:
I love sound. It’s an amazing field with some great artists. To all filmmakers out there, befriend your sound department. Tell us about what you hope the final product sounds like, because with the right planning and a can-do attitude, we can make your story really sing. At the end of the day, sound is half the movie, and the more you work at it the better it can be.
Cory Baker is a writer/director and on-set sound mixer based in Los Angeles.
He just finished his most recent short film “Heaven is All Your Favorite Dogs,”
his 17th directorial effort. He welcomes all to join him on his website at
CoryBakerFilmmaker.com or his production company OTheAnthem.com
IMDB - imdb.me/CoryBaker
Facebook - facebook.com/CoryBakerFilm
Twitter - twitter.com/LegendCB5
Instagram - Instagram.com/LegendCB5
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