Monday, March 24, 2014

Sun Tzu's Art of Boom Shadow

When I was trying to get my foot in the door in the industry, I PA'ed on some union features and TV shows. On one of those, I was chatting with the boom operator looking for advice from a seasoned vet. One of the things he told me to expect when you're a boom operator is, he told me, "I have to constantly teach G&E how to light." I wasn't too sure exactly what he meant and was surprised that union Gaffers, grips, electricians, etc. still have to be taught how to "light" by a boom operator.

Fast forward a few years and I think I'm starting to understand what he had told me. I've been mixing, and booming a variety of formats over the years including plenty of narrative. I've worked on some smaller shoots but lately, I've been privileged to work with some fantastic DPs, Gaffers, Grips, etc. Some of whom I've worked with on a handful of different projects. Once I got a pretty good amount of experience as a Boom Operator, I've learned the hard way and the easy way on how to avoid things like reflections, and boom shadows in frame. Working with a crew that has plenty of experience, and knowledge of how to light a scene, I've become a bit spoiled. It's become extremely rare for anyone to see my boom shadow in frames. It shouldn't happen if the shot is lit well and I have a clue of how to do my job. However, occasionally, I still find myself on smaller shoots with low budgets and a lesser experienced crew.

All of the sudden, boom shadows are a regular thing on rehearsals or take 1. Of course, pretty much everyone blames the boom operator for the boom shadow. Now, I've heard the joke, "It's not the pole the makes the shadow, it's the light." A joke it may be, but it's true. Look at the variables; experienced DP, Gaffer, grips, electricians, etc, plus a boom operator and no boom shadows. Now, keep the same boom operator, replace the DP, G&E crew, and possibly lighting kit, and all of the sudden we have boom shadows galore. Yet, it's still the Boom Operator that everyone blames, rather than the only changing variable.

Lets breakdown a boom shadow so we can understand a bit better, why we're seeing it and why we're not. First off, if there is a light, and if something is in its path in any kind of way (which there always is), there will be a shadow. There are always shadows. The key is to throw the shadows off screen. This is not usually too challenging, because it's my understanding that the standard set up for "good" lighting is to have a key light basically in front of, but mostly to the side of the subjects in frame, throwing shadows to the side, off screen. The same goes for the fill. It's also important to keep the subject far enough away from walls, especially white walls to avoid this. With this, we have dynamic looking lighting rather than a flat look, pointing lights straight into the subject's faces. If the key light is right above the camera pointing straight towards talent, they look flat, possibly blown out, and they don't pop from the background.

Boom poles are not the only thing that casts a shadow. Talent casts shadows as well, and their shadows move every time they move. So if the light is straight on enough to cast talent's shadows in frame, it'll likely cast boom shadow into frame as well, giving us poor lighting and distracting, ugly moving shadows from many things in the frame.

However, as a Boom Operator or Sound Mixer, I'm not going to walk up to the DP or Gaffer and say, "Your lighting sucks, fix it so I can do my job." I need to figure out a polite way of bringing it up. When I had little experience doing this, I was often too nervous to ask a Gaffer if he could help get rid of a boom shadow. But after working with some fantastic people, I've learned that often, if there's something that can help me do my job, it'll also help other departments. For example, if we see a boom shadow on the wall in the background, often, I can request from G&E that we can throw up a flag or some black wrap around a practical, or whatever light is casting the shadow and we only have this flag cut light off the wall which is where my boom shadow was. This helps me in being able to keep the boom close, getting good sound and it actually helps the visuals as well, because even a great crew will just light what they want to, and often not care about how the light hits other things in frame. I've had DPs and Gaffers tell me that the flag I requested helps them because it makes the background darker, which makes the talent pop out more. They never intended on throwing all that light on the wall in the back; it was just easy.

A few years ago, I gripped a few indie features and was a Grip PA on a network reality show. I asked tons of questions and picked up a lot from my department on all the crazy tools and resources they have and use to shape light. It's really helped me because on smaller shoots, and even a bit on bigger ones, when I see a boom shadow during rehearsal or beforehand, I can quickly request something very specific rather than "What can you do to get rid of my shadow?" I can notice a boom shadow, and a hot spot on talent's face during rehearsal, request from Gaffer, referring to the overhead practical casting a hotspot on talent's head when they walk underneath, "I'm getting a boom shadow from this light overheard. Are we able to put some diffusion on that or some black wrap so the light still hits talent, but doesn't hit the wall behind them, eliminating my shadow?" They then reply, "Oh, yeah, sure, that actually helps us, because we got to fix that hot spot anyways." Then I grab them a banana and gushers from crafty. :) Actually, I've noticed CapriSun and Twinkies are most popular amongst our G&E saviors.

But this doesn't stop at boom shadows. Some shoots I'm on have no budget for Art Department or Wardrobe Department, so I'll get talent wearing a transparent white shirt. I'm about to put a lav on them. Sound doesn't like white nor do we like transparent shirts. No one has brought anything up because it's not their job. But I'll ask the actor if this is their final wardrobe, expecting to get, "Of course it is, this white transparent shirt is my character." Rather, what I almost aways get is, "Oh, I guess. I don't know. I just brought this shirt. Maybe we should ask the Director if she likes it." Short pause. Yes, lets ask the Director, the Director says it looks bad, then asks the DP who says the white is no good for lighting, they change the wardrobe and I can easily hide a lav mic on them and everyone's happier. Or if we have no Art Department, we walk onto set to start shooting on location and we have unscripted mirrors that don't play, all over the place. Camera puts their camera in the only spot where we don't see their reflection. But if you ask yourself, If a Production Designer were to design and build this set from scratch, would they have any reason to place all these mirrors in the scene? No. Get rid of them before we start shooting and have to keep them for continuity by the time it's a real issue.

All of this goes back to my conversation with the union Boom Op I spoke with years ago. He also told me that when there's a boom shadow, people ask him, "Can't you just use the lavs?" He replied with a firm, "No. There's a reason the most expensive lav mic costs only a small fraction of the cost of a standard shotgun mic."

Saturday, January 18, 2014

3 Ways to Reduce Echo/Reverb on SOUNDTRACK Soundtrack soundtrack

Lately I've been doing a lot of shoots in Open Studio space; Green screen/black drop shoots. This is usually good for all departments since it's a controlled space often meant for this but unfortunately it doesn't seem to help sound as much as it does other departments. Even if air ventilation, compressors, etc are all controllable and/or off, these types of spaces are always so open and hollow, creating an echo which you wont see on screen.

If we were shooting in a cave or an abandoned warehouse, we see it's echoey, so echo wouldn't sound so bad with the image. However, when we see a plain white or black background from a green screen or black drop,  for example, our eyes don't see a "location" so our brain doesn't expect to hear a "location" such as the wide open studio space with hardwood floors, stone walls and 50 foot steel ceilings, especially since these shoots are usually all medium and tight shots. Unfortunately, it's not so easy to take that echoey location sound out of the soundtrack but I do have some tricks.

The good thing about these shoots is that the frame-lines are pretty much always haircuts, so I can get a boom in there real close, not to mention the general simplicity of the entire shoot and shots themselves. BUT, reducing echo on a shoot like this is by far the biggest challenge for sound and I feel like I earn most of my paycheck by doing so. Here are some of my tricks:

1) I use a cardioid shotgun microphone as opposed to a standard supercardioid which I know many mixers and boom ops still use indoors. As long as the environment isn't too noisy (traffic, AC, etc), a cardioid is a great microphone choice with tight shots to help reduce echo due to its pickup pattern. There's is a more dramatic dropoff for anything outside of its range. These microphones are my go to for interviews and small echoey rooms such as kitchens and sometimes large echoey rooms as long as I can get it within 4 feet of the mouth, preferably within 2 feet. The downside other than lack of range is they pickup more background noise since it's less direct. I also like cardioid for improvised conversational shoots since the axis is about twice as forgiving as a supercardioid so if you're a bit late in angling the mic on someone who decides to speak, you're halfway there and if not, it's a smoother transition. Schoeps makes incredible cardioid and omni boom mics such as the mk5 and mk41. Sennheiser also makes a more affordable yet solid cardioid mic best used for interviews, the MKH50.

2) Lav mics generally pick up less echo than shotgun mics, even a cardioid, so I usually have the boom real low in my mix and rely on the lavs. However, not all lavs are the same even if they are omnidirectional. A lot of mixers including myself love the Countryman lav mics, particularly the B6. However, the B6 was not made for interview, green screen, or black drop shoots. I mention its advantages in my earlier post with my review of it, but it's poor for these types of shoots because the B6 picks up the higher frequencies more than most lavs, more than any lav mic I've used. That's bad because when we breakdown the sound of echo, what is it, compared to echoless sound? Echo is produced in hollow reflective rooms. The sound bounces off these walls, windows, glass walls, glass doors, glass ceilings, steal beams, stone, etc which gives us a higher frequencied, quieter reproduction of sounds loud enough to reach the wall and bounce back into the microphone. So, an echo is higher frequency and since the B6 catches that more than most lavs, I like to give my B6s a break on these shoots and use a Countryman B3 which focuses more on the intimate sounding bass in the voice. Also, the Countrymans come with frequency capsules so I always make sure I'm using a flat capsule in echoey locations, as opposed to a +4 or +8db at 15kHz; that's just counterproductive on these shoots. I'm sure there's plenty other good lavs on the market that don't catch echo as much as a B6 or even a B3.

3) The biggest thing I do to help reduce echo on a shoot like this is to build a sound blanket fort. Like I said, the problem with these locations is the reflective walls, the open space, the high reflective ceilings. Things that reduce that echo are as simple as carpet, furniture, people in the room, curtains, and those cheap foamy ceiling blocks you often see in offices and schools. But the thing that I can add to a big open space like this are sound blankets. It's tough since I cant put them behind the talent since it will be in the shot, but I can put it in front of, to the side of, usually beneath and sometimes above the talent. When I can, I coordinate with the DP and Key Grip on where to and building sound blanket walls, ceilings and gaffing down sound blanket rugs. I have a 10 foot long, 10 foot tall green screen stand which I use solely for this purpose. I set that up as a wall and clamp two sound blankets on it, dampening the echo sound and stopping that sound from bouncing back into the mics. When I can, I also set up a blanket above the talent using a 10x10 frame and C-stands with help from everyone's best friend, the Grip department :-). Sometimes flags or a scrim on the 10x are easier though. I surround the microphone with these blankets to prevent the voice from bouncing back into the microphone.

People often think that speaking louder always helps sound. Not always, I'll assure you of that. In a room like this, it likely sounds good, so I can raise the levels higher so they can speak real soft and still sound good on my end. It's when the talent gets excited and speaks loudly, yells, and ends their spiel loudly that hurts us because those are the sounds that are loud enough to reach the glass walls in the way back and the steel ceiling way up there and bounce all the way back. With all this work, it's frustrating because it's still very difficult to reduce echo; it's a lot of work for a minimal effect, although anything we can do, we will.

Now, I'm not a post-guy, but there are some plug-ins that help reduce reverb; keywords "help" and "reduce", not get rid of. One trick I know of and have experimented with is using a noise gate. The reverb that bounces back which we don't want is a lot quieter than the voice which we do want. So, with a noise gate, you can select a db threshold where the echo does not go over, lets say -16db, so anything under -16db, you lower by another 32db perhaps. It also includes an attack and delay to help isolate this effect only to the reverb but it doesn't do much. I've tried this effect and you can only reduce a very small amount of quiet echo before you start seriously messing with the talent's voice which you never want to do. Either way, there are other tricks out there, likely better, but all in all, echo needs to be reduced on location as much as possible and unfortunately even as a sound mixer or sound utility, there is only so much we can do. Be careful when selecting cheap studio spaces for important shoots and please be sure to advise the Sound Mixer of the location beforehand if there is no tech scout. Happy Shooting y'all!

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

I Don't Want to Hear Your Voice!


As the Location Sound Mixer, sometimes it's not dialogue I need to capture, but other sync sounds. Of course, often, some sound guys might lav up an actor who has no dialogue or boom from above when the only sounds in the scene are footsteps. These might be dumbfounded moments, but when an entire scene has no dialogue or any sounds from actor's mouths, you need to think what sounds do we want and what sounds don't we want?

Last week I wrapped mixing a feature film in NYC. One night, we had a scene with a few characters riding a bicycle through NYC, particularly Times Square. I was told to mic the actors but I knew they were not saying anything and since it was a bit of a chase scene on bikes, even if I missed some panting sounds, those are easily added in post as "Efforts." So, what sounds did I want? We spoke about not recording sync sound on this, rather recording foley sounds of the bike upside down recording the wheels spinning. But that plus many other sounds on the road, screeching of stopping, turning, riding over sewer tops, moving NYC street ambience, it would be quite a project. So I took a look at the bike and saw a spot where I could hide the lav mic close to the wheels and the pedals out of sight (under the bike seat) along with hiding the transmitter beneath the seat as well. The helmet-like shape of the seat and a foam windscreen protected the lav mic from wind noise. I also used a Countryman b3 rather than my main B6s because they are less susceptible to wind noise and other unwanted high frequencied cars driving by which we don't want too much of. We are fighting other traffic sounds so getting it close to the wheels and pedals is ideal. Fortunately, we shot this at 3am on a weekday, so traffic and other ambience was minimal- something more ADs shooting in NY should consider.

We lead the bike in an Action Camera Truck with lights, camera, video village and myself on the back of the truck shooting the cyclists. We also did some shots with the camera on the front of the truck following the cyclists from behind. I got sync sound of the bike ride throughout Times Square and it sounded much better than I thought it would. I didn't hear the spinning of the wheels as much as I thought I would but that was natural. Just add some more NYC street/Times Square ambience in the background which I had recorded earlier and you have a nice effective natural sync sound of that scene. We did have a few takes where the actors panted a bit which my lav did not pick up well (the rider in the back sounded OK, but the lead cyclist in the front seat of the bike was muffled as the mic was below his buttocks. However, like I said, that is something that is extremely easy to add in post as "efforts." Another reason why I wanted the mic on the bike rather than the actors was because with them riding the bike, they might be moving a lot, and I might get some rustling on the mics or it might fall off from their sweat and could then get caught in the moving pedals and gears or be dragged on the street. I was also trying to avoid the sound of the generator on the truck, so I only used the boom for slate rather than to add that NYC street ambience I felt we were missing.

We had other shots like this however, we did not use the follow/lead truck. We had the camera on a dolly on the sidewalk, catching the cyclists as they pass by. For this, I already had a lav mic on both actors, so I decided to leave those, and also use the boom. I brought in the lav levels as they got closer and closed them as they passed, catching their pants effectively at the right time and getting the perspective sound from the boom. I still would have liked another mic on the bike or a better way to avoid the moving shirt from occasionally bouncing and hitting the lavs, but it was for such a short moment, that we got what we needed from the lavs, or worse case scenario, adding "efforts" for this would be very easy to match.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Sew Super Totally Like Hiddenlicious

I've talked about it in the past: 1) My post titles are so cheesy, they're not even the good kind of cheesy, and 2) Hiding a lav mic in a pen, possibly in plain sight. Well it wasn't until earlier this month that I finally had the opportunity where it would benefit me. One of the characters I had to mike had a lot of upper body movement in the scene; grabbing things from the top shelf and running experiments during her dialogue. When I initially miked her, the rustling wasn't terrible, but it was tough to get the boom in front of her as she was standing right in front of a shelf with a light overheard; quite difficult to get the boom right where I want it. So, I knew I needed to rely on the lav for a good chunk of her dialogue and the amount of rustling was unacceptable. Fortunately she was wearing a lab coat with a pen pocket.

So, with wardrobe's approval, I quickly made a tiny incision in the inside inner corner of the pocket, ran a countryman B6 lav mic through the hole and through a plain white and black pen with the ink removed. I cut a hole off the top of the pen cap, placed a foam windscreen on the B6 so it would sit tight in the pen cap, taped a strain relief for the wire to the bottom of the pen with transpore, and placed the pen clipping out of the pen pocket.

Initially, I had issues with this since the foam windscreen was not rigid enough and therefore not tight. The B6 was falling and rattling around the pen sounding extremely unnatural. So I removed the foam windscreen and wrapped black moleskin around the B6 until it would fit nice and tight. Once I did this, the mic sounded beautiful and was very reliable all day. No worries of rustling, although the downsides were that it was not perfectly centered on her chest and was lower than ideal on this particular lab coat. However, with a good sounding environment, this did not negatively effect the sound much at all.

I had a few pens pre made for this reason since I knew there was a good chance we'd have lab coats on this shoot. The Countryman B6 is so small that it does not fit well in pens without wrapping moleskin around it like a hush lav for the sanken cos11-d. The Countryman B3 and other larger lav mics fit very nicely with no accessories needed, but the sound of the B6 is very nice and worth taking the extra 30 seconds to cut and wrap moleskin around it.

Photographs of the process are to the right. Another option would have been to poke the B6 out of the top and having it sitting in plain sight. Using the +4 or +8db at 15kHz capsule on the B6, it looks very much like the button on the top of some pens. With this, the moleskin may not have been necessary. Below is a short sample of the sound of the B6 in the pen. Of course, I had to put my mad sewing skills to use after the shoot to sew that tiny hole back up. Nothing a simple hand whip stitch can't fix! :)

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Countryman B6 vs Countryman B3 Lav Mic Battle


I've upgraded my lav mics once again and decided to record another comparison test between my new Countryman B6s, the Countryman B3s and those old Sennheiser ME2s.


A few notes I would like to add is that I was using Sennheiser G3s. The field audio had 120kHz roll off filter on each mic, but my voiceover only had 40kHz roll off.

Another note about the wires is that the Sennheiser wire gets twisted very easily as you can see in the image near the beginning of the video. The B3 wire is very sturdy, maleable and doesn't seem to get twisted or tangled easily at all, I like it very much. However, the B6 wire is thinner as I heard it does not have a ground cable in it. The B6 wire is nice for its size but gets tangled easily.

I've been wanting to try out the VT500 made by Voice Technologies. The last time I went into Pro Sound, I tested it out. I'd really need to rent it on a shoot to test it for real but what I noticed is this:
Physically, it's wire was very thin, about the same size as the B6 wire, possibly a tad thicker. The head was a similar shape to the ME2 but about the same size as the B3 if not smaller. It is not at all the one you might see in photos if you google it or in the link, which looks like the Tr-50.
Vocally, it sounded pretty good, but too bassy for my liking; it is probably comparable more to the Tram 50s rather than Countrymans.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Going Undercover


Often, the scripts I work with will have, on average, 1 scene per 1 page. However, recently, I’ve worked on a few films written a bit more like stageplays with much longer scenes, about 5 pages per scene on average. It’s quite interesting to see what type of story and character development happens in those longer scenes as opposed to a scene being so action based, it’s simply, man enters, man takes cookie from jar, man leaves, end scene. New scene, man enters his home, eats cookie and passes out, end scene. Ohhh, I could go for a Mrs. Fields’ right now, but these longer scenes are so much more dialogue based but when they are also high action, moving from mini-location to another within the same shot, it is quite something, but rare in independent filmmaking.

Well, these types of scripts/scenes change things quite a bit for the crew to set. Since I had to mix and boom 2 13 page scenes in 2 days, I certainly noticed some things I had to do differently than usual.

Often in a shorter scene, even in a wide shot, we may only see a character’s front side. For simplicity, when I mic the actor, I usually place the transmitter on the back of the pants tucked in, but still visible if the character turns around. Fortunately, for me, we don’t usually see the character’s back side in shorter scenes. However, when the scene is 13 pages, there is a real good chance the character will turn enough where we see that. Luckily, I have a bag of transmitter straps I made years ago, similar to NeoPax; neoprene straps that hold transmitters. These straps can wrap around the ankle to run the wire down the pant leg and hide in a boot, or wrap around the thigh to hide the transmitter in a skirt, or wrap around the waist to hide the transmitter beneath the shirt and not rely on the waist belt outside of a tucked in shirt. I’ve had my bag of transmitter straps for almost a year but have very seldomly used them until recently. Of course it takes more time to effectively place any kind of transmitter strap on the actor as opposed to simply clipping it on a belt, but once you do it, it’s a great feeling for Sound, Camera, Wardrobe, etc. because we don’t have to keep checking on it and the frame to make sure it’s still camera safe from shot to shot. Set it and forget it. I used a transmitter strap on almost every mic job on my last film, sometimes I forget if an actor is still miked, and I’m sure that gives Wardrobe and camera much relief as well.

Unfortunately, transmitter straps still don’t help with certain costumes, whether the shirt is too tight, the skirt is too short, no pant legs, wearing a small thin white belly shirt with nothing underneath. So you need to improvise. I hope to find a more comforting location for the actress next time I encounter this challenge, but on one mic job, I decided to clip the transmitter on the actresses’ back collar, hidden by her hair and using topstick to hold her shirt in place so it didn’t look like there was a monkey pulling on her back. She was completely on board with the idea but sometimes you just need to boom someone or find a spot on the set to hide a mic. These challenges are why I like to keep “stashing a mic” on my mind because if blocking is consistent with the scene, I’m done with a very quick and easy mic job before talent is even ready to be miked.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

A Must Stash Situation

Often times when we cant get a boom where we want it for a shot, sound mixers will throw a wireless lav on the actor/talent. Of course that has its own downsides, and mixers tend to forget about other options.

Throwing a wireless lav on someone is a nuisance because you have to wait for talent to be available, put your fragile expensive gear on someone not necessarily trained on how to handle (or not handle) the mic and wire, they don't usually prefer to wear it, it can be a pain to change frequencies, batteries or make mic adjustments once placed on the talent, you worry about avoiding rustling from clothes or someone touching the mic during the take, along with the lower quality sound a tiny lavaliere mic gives you compared to a shotgun microphone; it's not as natural sounding and does not always cut together with the shotgun as well as we'd like. It can be a real life saver, but often times mixers forget about other options. You got to first determine what cant you boom in the shot; let's say there are several lines from one character you cant boom because of where they are physically in the frame. Most of us, usually including myself, automatically throw a wireless lav on that actor, but what we need to consider before that is, is there another way I can get a 2nd boom there? Unfortunately most shoots I work on, I only have 1 boom op or I am the only sound guy, so I cant swing another boom back there, plus, in some situations, the pole may get in the way of actors walking or be in the frame. Usually, you cant get a 2nd boom in there, so then it's option #3, can we put a wireless lav on the talent.

So, recently I had a few shoots where we took a cardioid mic such as the Schoeps Mk41 on a small adjustable mic stand with a gooseneck, hiding it out of frame right where those lines we are missing are being spoken. I did this in a sound stage with the 41, and it sounded great. I did it again, last week on location indoors where we were fighting main street traffic through the thin walls. The frame was so wide, we could see the beams on the ceiling, yet the mouths (while sitting which was all dialogue in this frame) where on the bottom 1/3rd of frame. I knew it was pointless to throw a boom above frame even if possible and if i tried sneaking it under the coffee table, hidden from camera, an actor would trip over it. So, I put wireless lavs on 2 of the actors but the 3rd was wearing no shirt in this scene. I then saw that almost all his lines were spoken over the arm of his chair, in between his chair and a couch. So, I placed a Sennheiser ME64 cardioid mic in between the chair and couch on a small mic stand out of frame, about 2 feet away from the actor's mouth during his lines. The closest I could have swung a boom would have been 5-10 feet away if possible.

I got what I needed with it; the cardioid mic sounded so much better and more natural than the lavs, I was able to place it quickly, and nothing to worry about except for the fact that it doesn't move. I was also able to make this a wireless mic, not needing to worry about running cables out of frame. The downside to this which I learned that day was that since it was certainly no soundstage and we were fighting traffic from outside, adding a 2nd shotgun mic in the mix adds more background ambience. After the master shot on some of the singles, I cut the cardioid from the mix and realized it sounded much cleaner with just 1 shotgun. You cant always make things perfect, you often need to sacrifice something, but I will keep it in mind next time I have an actor with no shirt in such a wide frame talking on the bottom third of frame.