Saturday, October 13, 2012

Choosing a Recorder

There are many differences in recorders, both in features and quality. In this post I will be discussing some of the key differences in field recorders, and what the benefits of each are.

First and foremost, you need to decide what kind of recordings you will be primarily using it for. That will often dictate a lot of the key features of what recorder you should consider, assuming that you only want to pay for what you need. However if money is no object, then pick out the top few and draw one out of a hat.

If the bulk of your work is Reality TV, and you are one of the last kids out there still mixing to camera or just a two track, then there are some great options out there for you. If you primarily do Feature Films and Narrative work, your options are going to be more expensive because your line of work is very demanding as far as various services that you are expected to provide on set. If you are a Sound Effects recordist, then you may have a variety of needs depending on what kind of things you record, and how intricate you get. For documentaries, there are also a number of options. Is there a recorder good for all occasions? Yes of course, but it may be out of your price range if you do not really need many of its features. Lets discuss the options.

Feature Films and Narrative work is very demanding on the Sound Dept because it requires a great many things, and naturally we have to provide a ton of very expensive equipment. This is one of the reasons why Sound is among the highest paid people on set; because of the advanced knowledge and experience they need to have on a great many levels, and because they provide a lot of expensive equipment. Some of the things that a Production Mixer for a Narrative will do aside from recording the various audio tracks (Boom, Wireless, Plant mics, etc..) is make a Mix Track. This is an on-the-fly mix that is being recorded as the action is actually happening. This is why we are called Production Mixers, and not just Recordists. Why do we do this? Well it is simple really, because we always have. Before the era of multi-track field recorders, the most you could record were two tracks, and most of Production Audio has been a single mono track from a historical standpoint. So if we have two booms, and three plant mics, we would have to make a usable mix track of all of those elements because there was no option of recording them all individually. We still do this today because it can save the production tons of time and money in Post Production. Another thing that we do is provide Time Code, so the sound and picture are in sync. Later, in Post Production, the Assistant Editor will go through all of the audio and film takes and re sync them so that they both play at the same time. Time Code makes it so that they just snap together, instead of having to look for the Slate marker and line it up manually, which can be very time consuming if you have a lot of takes. We also provide a feed known as IFB so that the Director, Script Supervisor, and possibly others can hear what is happening on set, because some times they cannot all be in the same room, and if they can, they cannot always hear whats going on. We also sometimes send a scratch track to camera to be used for Dailies (so that people can look at the take and have some audio on it to know which is the best take to be used in the edit). We also generate Sound Reports, so that the Assistant Editor and Post Sound Depts can see information of each take, which is very helpful when you have to do a lot of dialogue editing, or the production decided to use a take that was good for camera, but not for sound. Aside from all of these things, you need to have a way to communicate with your Boom Operator and Audio Tech without sending your communications out to all the feeds or onto the recording. So you need a versatile mixer/recorder with a lot of options. Most recorders designed for Narrative work do little in regards to mixing, so you will often see guys with a mixer in front of their recorders.

Reality TV is its own animal, and I can safely say that it was entirely designed to be cheap, but time and technology has made it expensive for us, and productions are having a hard time keeping up with what they need to be paying. Once upon a time, Reality TV was invented mainly because it was an inexpensive way to make a television program. If it takes (hypothetically... these are not real numbers) $800,000 to make one episode of Dexter, you can make an episode of Jersey Shore for $280,000. Smaller crews, no actor's unions (no actors really...), quick turnaround. Originally, a Reality Sound Mixer had a boom and maybe a couple of other mics, and a portable mixer, and he was tethered to the camera via a "break-away cable", which was a cable with various sends and returns, that had a connector in the middle that the camera operator could detach and run off to follow the action while the Sound Mixer could catch up, re attach, and keep going. Then two channel recorders were made available, and they began recording audio as a backup, still recording mainly to camera (this is so they didnt have to re sync audio in post production. Early reality TV was shows like COPS where the sound didnt need to be perfect, so camera audio was fine). These days we can record all the tracks separately, record mix tracks, and have time code so re syncing the audio takes no time at all, as long as the camera has time code as well. The problem today is that we need more expensive and feature rich recorders, we still have to send to camera, but wirelessly now, we need time code accessories, and we need lots of wireless mics. So our costs have gone up, and productions are trying to pay us less than when we basically just provided a mixer, boom, and some cables. You still need to make that on the fly mix to camera though because production is still trying to be cheap and not have to re sync audio or mix it in post, but you dont necessarily have to make detailed sound reports or anything like that. You may still need to send IFB feeds to the producer/director.

Documentary Sound is interesting because technically, you do not need cinema quality sound, as long as you can hear and understand what people are saying. Obviously getting the best sound as possible is the goal, but if you really pay attention to the audio on a lot of documentaries, it is usually pretty bad. This is often because they have the camera person also running the audio instead of raising enough money to pay someone who knows what they are doing and has the proper equipment. Realistically, you can choose any sort of recorder for this type of work, but the more features you get, the more options you have. I suggest getting something designed for Reality TV, because it is meant to be portable, and still feature rich without necessarily making you pay for a bunch of features you wont need. The flip side to that are the big budget documentaries like those that National Geographic and the BBC are famous for making. If you want to make that kind of a product, you need some serious funds, so dont try to do everything yourself.

Sound Effects recordists can often make due with a two channel recorder, but some guys get crazy with how detailed they want to get, and will use up to eight mics just to get a simple sound effect. On the other hand, a lot of these guys also record Surround Sound effects and ambiances, and need a good amount of channels to record to. So you really need to know what exactly it is you are trying to do. When I record sound effects, I try to get a mono version of it, and a stereo version of it. If the project has a real budget, and they plan on releasing a surround sound mix of the film, then recording ambiances and effects in surround is important, and sounds really cool!


Next I will discuss a few popular recorders, and talk about their different features, and pluses and minuses.

Sound Devices 788T

This is the flag-ship recorder from Sound Devices. It is feature rich and a beast of a recorder. I own one, and am proud of it! This machine has eight mic/line/digital inputs, four recordable mix tracks, six different outputs that you can send different mixes out of at variable levels, including digital out. You can input meta data for sound reports, which it generates automatically (so you do not have to bring a clip board with you!), has rock solid tri-level time code by Ambient, word clock, and you can buy accessories for it like a bag control surface, cart control surface, wireless control surface for you iPhone or iPad (yes, you can control this thing from your phone!), and on top of that it has a built in hard drive, CF card slot, USB and Firewire ports so you can record onto three different things at once (internal drive, CF card, and external hard drive). There really is very little this thing cant do. It is popular on Feature and Narrative work because it is so feature rich and versatile, but also popular for Reality because it is also portable. With up to eight inputs, you can run a ton of things into it, so you really can use this for just about any project and be happy with it. The main drawback to this guy is that when you have the mixer panel on it, and you are using it in a bag along with a bunch of wireless receivers, it gets bulky and heavy. Not a fun day at the office for anyone who has to wear all of that around their neck all day. Some guys have weekly chiropractor visits written into their contracts because of that! Along with a big list of features comes a big price tag. On its own this puppy goes for about $7,000, but the custom cables and accessories you will need can run you up to $10,000 pretty easily.

Sound Devices 664

The Sound Devices 664 was the answer to Zaxcom's Nomad. Six inputs with four mix tracks, time code, lots of nifty features, and an add-on accessory that you can buy that will give you six more audio inputs and record tracks, as well as more fader knobs, and a few other features. This thing is really big and heavy, but also has some features stripped down so that it could be more affordable. No internal media, only card slots, among other differences. The basic unit is not a bad item, and I think it a great solution for a lot of people, but the extra accessory just makes it really big, and I would really draw the limit as to how many tracks you want to be able to record. Realistically, when producers get wind that you can record 10-12 tracks using a bag recorder, they are going to want you to carry around that many wireless receivers, and before you know it your back will be in constant pain from carrying around all of that weight. It does seem like a very fine machine though, and I am sure that the ENG/Documentary/Reality worlds will enjoy it very much. The basic unit goes for about $4,500.

Sound Devices 744T

This is a small four-track recorder that has two mic/line inputs, and two line inputs. All four can also be digital inputs. It has an internal hard drive, and can also record to an external drive via firewire, and has a CF card slot. It also has time code, and lots of other features that make this a very handy little machine. The down side to it is that you need a mixer to use with it to make use of those two line inputs, and there is no mix track or faders, so it is basically only good for recording purposes. However this was the first really high end four channel digital field recorder, and is still very popular. It retails for about $4,000.

Sound Devices 722/702/702T
I group these together because they have minor differences. Primarily, they are all two channel recorders (mic, line, digital) that boast the same features as the 744T. The 722 records onto a CF card with no time code generator (but can read/output TC from a TC source), and no hard drive. The 702 has a hard drive and CF slot, but no time code, and the 702T has a hard drive, CF slot, and time code. These range from $2,000-$2,500.

Zaxcom Deva
The first digital field recorders, and a long time favorite for Production Sound Mixers in Narrative work, these puppies are also feature rich, built well, and very expensive. They come in a variety of models, mostly eight channel inputs with multiple outputs, hard disc recording, sometimes DVD-Ram recording (this was a standard delivery format for many years) built in, time code, meta data entry, essentially most of the same features as the 788T. In fact the 788T was designed to directly compete with the Deva, but also to add better portability. Devas are mostly used on Sound Carts, where the Production Mixer can concentrate on making their mix track without having to worry about anything else. Their mix is really important because every useable mix track they create is days in the studio that production doesnt have to spend, which can get very expensive. The Devas range from about $10,000-$15,000 depending on which model you get.

Zaxcom Fusion
This device was designed to offer all of the options that the Deva offers, but instead of recording onto an internal hard drive, it has two CF card slots. A primary, and a secondary. They can be used in a number of ways, but most people have the secondary slot automatically back up the primary drive, essentially mirroring it. These are still super feature rich, but considerably lighter in weight because of the lack of internal storage, and some of its features have been omitted or improved in order to bring the cost down. The Fusions range from about $8,500-$10,000 depending upon which model you get.

Zaxcom Nomad

The Nomad was designed to compete with the 788T in the Reality market. It seems that Zaxcom wanted a chunk of that pie as well. It is considerably smaller than any of the other Zaxcom products, but still boasts lots of features and quality. This was really designed for Reality and ENG work because it is small and portable. It allows for meta data entry, and even has a built in IFB transmitter, time code, and lots of other cool options. It too has two CF card slots, record tracks, and a number of recordable ISO tracks, depending on the model you get. You can choose from a four track unit to an eight track unit. The chassis are all the same, it is literally the firmware version that you are paying for, but they are all upgradable. So you can start with the most basic version, and later on upgrade to a bigger version without having to buy a totally new machine. Very cool! These range from $4,000-$8,000.

Edirol/Roland R-4 Pro

This is a four track recorder, with time code, internal hard drive, and direct outs/mix outputs. It isnt super versatile, but offers professional features, while keeping the track count down. I see a lot of guys doing indie features and shorts using these, and is good for a young guy running a "one man show", as it allows for a channel for the boom, and three wireless mics, which is generally enough for a small indie project, yet has some professional features that makes this machine more versatile than most other four channel recorders. These run for about $2,500.

Edirol/Roland R-88

This is Roland's attempt at getting into a more competitive market with big projects. It is basically the big daddy to the R-4 Pro, though it came out years afterwards. This is an eight channel machine with a tactile screen, lots of outputs, time code, and an affordable price. It records onto an SDHC card, and has a USB port and will double as an audio interface for the computer. It is about twice the size of the R-4 Pro, but offers twice the options. However it is best used for cart work. This machine retails at about $2,500.

Edirol/Roland R-44
This is basically a stripped down version of the R-4 Pro. It does not have time code, and records onto an SDHC card. But like the R-4 Pro, does have four recording tracks with knobs for each of them. It is light and easy to use. It retails for about $1,000.

Tascam DR-680
I owned one of these for a long time, and it is a great multi-track field recorder for someone just starting out that doesnt need a lot of advanced options. It has six analog mic/line inputs, two digital inputs, and a stereo mix track. It also works as a mixer, and offers six outputs that can be configured as direct outputs to the six analog inputs, or three stereo pairs. It does not have any time code, and records onto an SDHC card. It is small and light, but only has one toggle knob, so you have to select the track you want to adjust and then you can use the knob to make your adjustments. This is not a big deal if you are simply recording, but if you use this as a mixer, it is a little more difficult. All in all, it is not a bad machine for the price, which is about $800.

Tascam HS-PS2
Roland's R-88 was their answer to this machine. Eight tracks, tactile screen, Metadata, Time Code, dual CF card slots, and you can buy an external control surface with faders on it. This is definitely a cart recorder as it is a big machine, but I think that the overall features/price point ratio are very significant. It retails at about $3,500.

Tascam HD-P2

This is a modern version of Tascam's old DAT field recorder, the DA-P1, which looked and performed pretty much exactly like this machine. The HD-P2 is a two channel digital recorder that records onto an SDHC card, and has a firewire port so you can unload audio onto a computer directly from it. It also has time code, and is a fairly decent little recorder for the price. Obvious limitations however are track count, and the RCA outputs (like most Tascam products have) instead of standard XLR or 1/4" outputs. This retails for about $800.

Hand Held Recorders

There are a large variety of these ranging from $100-$2,000. Most of them offer two mic/line inputs, have a stereo pair of mics on them, and record onto an SDHC or CF card. The Zoom H4n is a popular one among DSLR people, primarily due to its low cost and word of mouth, however Tascam makes a model that is essentially the same thing, but for less, and considerably better quality. Sony makes the flag-ship model as the highest priced one, and Nagra makes one at the mid-point price mark which I am sure is fantastic, as they have been making field recorders longer than anyone, and their current field recorders are very high priced (so much so that I didnt include them in this article). If I had to choose a hand-held recorder, I would probably go with the Nagra. But realistically, I do not believe that any of these are very well suited for production work, as they are essentially dictaphones designed for hand held on the go interviews. Something misleading about the microphones that these machines come with is that they are in what is called an X-Y configuration, and not in a good way either. I wont get into the technicalities of it, but that is basically a miking technique that you use for stereo recording of instruments in the studio, and ambiances, not for dialogue or interviews.


So in the end, your needs may not justify getting an eight channel recorder/mixer with all the bells and whistles, but I would like to remind you that with audio, you really get what you pay for. The reason why a two-channel Sound Devices recorder costs over $2,000 and has no built in mics is because of quality and performance. That said, a $400 Zoom recorder has that price point for a reason. To put it so that someone who doesnt know much about sound can understand it, it is like the difference between using a professional cinema camera, and a flip camera... literally! Lower quality parts and manufacturing go into making machines more affordable, and most of the time, the weekend warrior who makes films on no budget may not understand that many of the things out there that they are using to make their films were never intended to be used in that way. A hand held recorder, like I said, was made for taking voice notes and conducting interviews (to later be transcribed and typed), so it is not the same quality as a professional recorder. Things like signal-to-noise ratio, dynamic range, bit depth and sample rates, flexibility with files, metadata, I/O, and more are all things that make one machine better than the other. One can always argue that it is the archer and not the arrow that hits the bulls eye, and many people are able to get good results using cheap equipment. But realistically, if you want to get funding for your film, get into festivals, distribution, or even be taken seriously as a film maker, then you cant be running around with toys.

A lot of people think that an audio dream package for the DSLR crowd is a Zoom H4n, Rode NT-2 shotgun mic with Rode Boom Pole, and a set of cheap headphones. Someone who really knows what they are doing can get adequate results with that setup, but I should remind you that booming and sound in general require years of experience and tons of knowledge to be any good at it, and your product will only be so good if you are using inexpensive "pro-sumer" equipment. An NT-2 microphone is cheap for a reason, and can only capture audio up to a certain amount of quality. A Zoom is also cheap for a reason, and can also only record a certain amount of quality. The combination of the two will never get you award winning sound, even in the hands of a pro. If your recorder has limited dynamic range, what that means is that the difference between the loudest sound it can handle before it distorts and the quietest sound it can handle before it fades into the noise-floor and becomes inaudible is very small. Kind of like if you had a volume knob for your stereo, but it only had three clicks you could choose from instead of variable loudness at any point, so those clicks go from off, to half way, to super loud. Without more "resolution" between those points, your listening experience on your stereo can be very limited, and most of the time wont work because you dont want to disturb your neighbors or damage your speakers. Limited resolution in your recorders dynamic range means that finding a middle ground will be very difficult for recording something like dialogue, which usually doesnt stay the same level, but gets quiet and loud depending upon what is happening in the scene. This means that you can either set your recorder to record loud audio so that it does not clip, but then you lose all the low level stuff because it is too low to be of any use, or you can set your levels to get all that low stuff, but then the recording clips whenever they get a little loud. A professional recorder will have better dynamic range and be able to give you usable audio from each end of the spectrum.

Regarding Sound Effects recording, if you are making recordings for resale, most people want them recorded at a super high sample rate (192 kHz). The reason for this is that sound designers need high quality samples so that they can manipulate them without degrading the audio. In photoshop, you start with a high rez photo, manipulate it, then save it at the desired size. Same thing here. Record a "high rez" recording, manipulate it, and save it at the resolution of the film. Not all recorders can record at this high of a sample rate. Some recorders that normally record eight channels can only record four at this rate, which is pretty common among Analog to Digital converters. But most of the cheap recorders can only record at 44.1 kHz (CD quality) or 48 kHz (film quality). So making a surround (7.1 for example) recording at 192 kHz means that you need a serious machine to pull that off. Classical music is often recorded at a higher resolution too, because people who are interested in what music professionals refer to as "serious music" (classical, opera, jazz, etc) are also often interested in the quality of the audio, and will own expensive home systems with advanced playback feature so that they can absorb the audio as if they are actually there! "HD CDs" and other high definition formats for all types of music and films are also available, but to make one you have to start with a higher sample rate, not just convert your lower sample rate audio to a higher one (you may actually loose quality by doing that!). Usually you can get an album that was originally recorded on tape in a high definition digital format, but a lot of modern music is recorded at a lower resolution (to save space and resources for the computer), so those records will not be able to be made available in high definition, and if they are, they are not truly high definition. A famous singer wanted to release a high-def greatest hits album, but somewhere along the line when he stopped recording to tape, all of his music was recorded in low definition digital, and he couldnt actually do anything about it, so only about half of the guy's music was able to be re released! What a bummer for that guy!

Back to the subject at hand. A recorder is a big investment, and a professional will always own professional equipment. If you are an indie film maker looking for advice for recorders, and have your eye on a Zoom or something like that, my personal advice to you is this: Dont waste your money on a recorder at all unless you plan to make a career out of recording audio. A recorder worth having is going to cost more than your camera, and it is not nearly as easy to get good results with sound as it is to take a pretty picture, especially since you are using a sense that most people dont really explore or train. A Good sound person should have advanced knowledge in electronics, acoustics, computers, how lots of things work (like speakers, tape and tape machines, record players, not to mention EQ, compression, radio and sound waves, frequency spectrums, etc...) the list goes on. Thats why people spend years studying it, then years trying to get good at it. The smartest thing you can do regarding your indie film is to hire a professional sound team to make it happen for you. They have the equipment, knowledge and experience to get you professional results.

When you make a film, you show to the world a lot of things: How professional you are, and how serious your work is to you, and all kinds of things that say a lot to people. When I see an indie short with bad audio, I see someone who didnt take the project (or how the world sees him as a film maker) serious enough to really come up with the money and put the time into it to show the world that they want to be a professional film maker. Even if you make one short film per year, they need to be the best. One amazing film is better than a dozen amateur ones. Quality over quantity is important in this business. If I see that you didnt care about a project, and let obstacles like no funding for your student/passion project, why would I ever want to hire you to make my film? But if I see that you scraped up enough money over x amount of time,saving and saving, and went ahead and made one amazing film, I will see compassion, dedication, taking the job really seriously, and understanding how important every part of the piece is in order to get the best results. You cannot settle for second best when you are trying to show the world what you are capable of. So if you are in fact serious about what you do, I invite you to read my other blog entries, I write a lot about things that indie film makers need to know, and their film schools never told them about!

Friday, August 24, 2012

Tips for Indie Film Makers

In this post I would really like to hit home many of the Do's and Don'ts for indie film makers. I am sure that this is a tired subject, but that doesn't make it any less relevant. I will also be citing many of my own experiences on different sets, and bringing up points that I have been giving a lot of thought about since my last post.

Part One: Seeking Your Sound Dept.

To start off with, those of you who do not know, I am a Production Sound Mixer, and yes that is the actual title. Boom Operator only implies that they operate the boom pole, not the mic, or sound its self. Audio Tech refers to the Third member of a typical Sound Team, whose duties include running cables, laving up talent, and also Booming when a second boom is required. If you are going to put an ad out looking to hire someone or a team to run sound for your film, you should know the difference because one day you might hire the wrong person for the job. I see so many ads out there from people looking for an Audio Tech or a Boom Mike Operator (operating a boom named Mike?), or Sound Operator (a wizard that can manipulate sound its self!), that I sometimes consider applying for the job, showing up with no gear (because these positions do not ever own their own equipment), and asking the client where the Sound Mixer/Sound Department Head is, just to see if they even know what I am talking about. My point is that people seem to be so wound up in how great the Red Camera is, or the story, or whatever else they are thinking about, that they can't seem to get titles right. So imagine if you posted an ad looking for a Boom Op, thinking that this is a "One Man Team" (designed for ENG and Docu-Style shoots where quality isn't important, unlike a narrative...) with equipment, and they show up on set with nothing in hand, expecting to be working with a Sound Mixer. I wouldn't be surprised if this happens regularly, but I would love to know what would be going through the minds of the people who posted the ad and were perhaps too specific with the job title, and maybe didn't know enough to follow up with appropriate content for their job posting or to ask the right questions to the applicant. This would be like putting an ad out for a Focus Puller, thinking that they were going to be a DP with camera and equipment!

Another thing I find amusing is when people ask to see my demo reel. If I were a DP, Actor, or Sound Designer, I would certainly have a demo reel. But as it stands, once the audio that I have recorded has been edited, mixed, had sound design, foley, fx, background design, and music added, how much of that audio can you be sure you are hearing? This is why the Production Sound Dept does not have demo reels. I do however share a few links to some of my work, but again, that is still subjective to the quality of work that Post Production has done with it. Generally, if you are looking to hire a Sound Mixer, you check their credits, maybe do a small interview over the phone (most will not come to an interview in person unless they are getting paid to do so... remember, they have to take time off to do that sort of thing), and ask about the equipment that they are providing (for a kit rental of course) only IF you know what they are talking about. If you think that a boom and a Zoom h4n is "pro" or even "good enough", you are sorely mistaken, and your final product will be the proof. Not only because of the inferior equipment, but because you hired a "sound guy" who also thought that it was!

These are the correct steps for hiring your Sound Dept: When your script looks like it is near completion, and you are putting together a budget, you contact your Dept Heads (Production Sound Mixer for the Sound Dept), tell them what the project is from a technical standpoint (Never tell them how to do their job, it is up to them to decide the best way to do it), give them a timeframe (when you are looking to shoot, how many days), and ask them what their rate and kit fee, and what the rate for a Boom Op and possible Audio Tech would be for such a task. The Sound Mixer will then hire their own Sound Crew based on an agreed upon budget. Do Not Ever say that it is a passion project and you are on a limited budget, or paying out of pocket. At this point, all the Mixer hears is the worlds tiniest violin, because you and everyone else out there is trying to get favors from him/her as well. In this respect, if they don't work for you, they WILL be working for someone else, and they have nothing to gain from the experience except a pay check. Sure friends and credits, great. But honestly, that comes with the job, and they are not in the business of doing favors, after all it is their job, and they are trying to do business, not favors.

Other departments need credits and material for their reel because they have creative and highly competitive positions, and they are constantly scrambling to be the one chosen for the job. But most other departments provide little to no equipment, rather the Production rents those things, unlike Sound, where we provide everything, and only occasionally need to rent specific things that would not be part of a standard audio kit. Because a Sound Mixer must own a great amount of expensive equipment, it is more difficult to become a Sound Mixer, hence why there are fewer Mixers than most other positions. Again, these are all things that I have discussed before, but consider that one a refresher course.

Part Two: How To Work On Set.

Indie film makers are infamous for making all the worst decisions because they go into production with not enough funds, and they try a number of things to cut corners. Going long days is one of them. If you ask your crew to go a full 12 hours plus lunch, keep in mind that they also have to factor in travel time, getting ready for work, etc, plus sleep. Most of the time a 12 hour work day constitutes less than 8 hours of sleep. On that schedule people will be tired, grumpy, and not very motivated very quickly. Often by day two! Try to keep your work day between 8 and 10 hours because people need their sleep. They also often need to make backups, tear down/set up equipment, charge batteries, and perform a multitude of other tasks that cut into their off time. A TV show I worked on ran us a full 12 hours plus a one hour lunch break, and most locations were at least an hour drive to and from. But when we got back to the hotel we would have to go through all of the equipment, organizing, cleaning, transferring footage and making backups, and charging batteries. The process took about five hours each night. To make matters worse, it was a very labour intensive show, and the weather was often very hot and humid during the day, and extremely cold at night, and we were constantly being bitten by all kinds of insects. You can imagine how doing that kind of a work day can be if you only have a couple of hours to sleep. A lot of times when days run late, I don't have time enough to charge my batteries for the next day! So keep the day short if possible, and expect that you might go over the amount of time you planned, because it happens more often than not.

Food. You absolutely have to feed people well. When a crew shows up on set, they expect to see Crafty. This includes snacks of both healthy (fruit, hummus, veggies, etc) and American (candy, chips, candy bars and granola bars, etc) varieties, water (always have water, and lots of it, never only soda as many people do not drink it), soda, maybe juice, definitely coffey. If your production begins in the morning, expect to provide some sort of breakfast. Remember, not everyone had time to eat something that morning. Lunch. You are expected to provide a hot meal. This is standard, and when hiring professionals, they expect some standards. If you feed your crew well, they will be happy and work harder. This does not mean Pizza, a frozen lasagna, Subway Sandwiches, or anything insulting like that. We are working hard and putting in a lot of hours, the least you can do is give us a good meal. Productions that I have been on that made the crew happy would take orders from a local restaurant, hire a caterer, or even make a delicious home made meal. But be aware of food allergies and special diets. Generally any sort of sandwich place is not a good idea. Vegetarians have a hard time finding something to eat at these type of places, and expecting them to eat a salad as the only veggie option is insulting them to their face. It is generally a good idea to inquire to everyone hired on the production what their food allergies/dietary restrictions are. IF anyone does have these sort of limitations, continue to inquire, never assume. More often than not I see people with these sorts of restrictions go hungry because they were not considered, or the chosen restaurant/caterer did not offer any options for them. Here are a couple of things to keep in mind:

Vegetarian means people who do not eat meat. Vegan means people who do not eat any sort of animal product. Most of both of these types of people prefer a Plant Based Diet, Healthy Options, and Non Processed Foods. This is to be Healthy, not just to save the chickens. So a cheese pizza will probably not be something that they will eat, because there is nothing veggie about it. A veggie pizza is just a cheese pizza with filler veggies like onions and peppers. I consider those to be more like spices than veggies, and many people agree with me. Eggplant and Zucchini are vegetables, but I still don't want a pizza if I am trying to have a healthy diet, and I don't want to get fat because you are cheap. One of the TV shows I work on always gets breakfast burritos in the morning. The vegetarian breakfast burrito is literally a tortilla with eggs and cheese. On this show there is a Hindu, and a vegetarian, and the talent are always thinking about their weight. So they never get breakfast. Kind of a bummer. People aren't happy on that show, and are always complaining.

Many films that I have worked on have hired caterers that really go out of their way to make good food that wont put you in a food coma, that is healthy, and delicious. On top of that, they include a salad (with a choice of dressings, never already on the salad, and any animal product add-ons are separate), always vegetable options, separate meat options (remember that some people do not eat red meat, others do not eat pork, others do not do sea food, etc). If you are going to provide a fish option (which I really like personally), do remember to provide a poultry option, since some people have a hard time with fish. Get my point? You are feeding a large group of people who are working very hard and long hours, make sure that they get the right kind of fuel that they need. Keep them happy, and they will work hard and do a good job...and be happy! Never Ever get Subway! I have personally walked off of set because of that! Sandwiches, pizza, these types of things often average about $5-$10 per person. So does catering. Do the right thing.

Multiple Cameras. Many indie film makers think that by using more than one camera to shoot a scene, they can go twice as fast. Wrong! What happens here is that you reduce the amount of overall takes that you do, and if something goes wrong and no one catches it on set, and you only do a couple of takes total, you may not get the coverage you need. I have seen people go back on a pickup day months later to re shoot a scene because of this very mistake more often than I'd like to admit. The other problem with that scenario is that when doing this sort of thing people often like to try to get different angles and sizes of angles at the same time. Sounds like a great idea really, get the wide shot and the tight shot at the same time! Well there are a number of reasons why this is a horrible idea. First, let's take it back to sound: Most Sound people will admit that if you cannot boom a shot, the shot is not worth getting. What this means is that you do not rely on wireless, for a number of different technical reasons, but mostly because they do not sound as realistic as a properly handled boom. If one camera has three feet of space above the heads of the actors and the top of the frame, and the other is tight on their face, then when you cut to that tight shot in post, they will sound very distant. Makes sense right? Perspective. Because the boom has to stay out of the shot of that really wide shot you decided to do at the same time! So you see, we have physics and simple logic at work here! Other reasons for not doing that sort of thing are that sometimes an actor's wardrobe does not permit a very good place to conceal a wireless mic pack, so depending upon the shot and the actors movement, the pack needs to be moved to a different spot on their person. I worked on a film where they decided to work this way, and the wardrobe did not allow a place to conceal the mic pack, or even let the wire come anywhere near the actors voice, so there was basically just no way to mic them. They may as well have been nude from my perspective. So wireless, a good backup system, was not possible, and I could only boom the scene. But the wide shot was too wide, and they sounded too distant, even for that angle. The whole film was like this. I pleaded with them to work WITH me and not AGAINST me, but my pleads fell upon deaf ears and were unheard. So was the dialogue for the film. They had to re-dub the whole film, and it cost them three times the initial budget, and took months to finish. All because they wanted to cut corners, and wouldn't listen to their department heads. A non-sound related reason why it is a bad idea to use multiple cameras at varying degrees is for lighting. You almost always have to relight when you go in for the tighter shots. So if you are not going to relight, your shots will not come out the way you want. Keep in mind that film making is not just about telling a story, there are a lot of technical tricks, otherwise known as "Hollywood Magic" that go into play to make it looks like nothing changed at all!

Legality. Believe it or not, just because you are working on your life's passion project, and even if everyone is in it for the fun (good luck making that happen!), does not mean that you can break the law. You need to get production insurance, provide at least minimum wage, compensate for expenses such as rented items, expendables, etc. and get permits. If you ask your crew to shoot without a permit, and are not providing insurance, many counties reserve the right to confiscate equipment, stop production, even bring you in to jail, on top of fining everyone involved. What this means is that, aside form the obvious, everyone that provided equipment and had it confiscated, is now out of luck. They more than likely make their living with that equipment, and you just got it all taken away from them. How do you think that makes them feel? Out of a job maybe? Also, if your project involves animals, stunts, many types of practical effects, and certain locations, you need to have an EMT on site. If we are working out in the desert and someone gets bit by a snake, a ride to the nearest hospital probably wont save them. I recently worked on a film where one of the camera operators decided to get creative while the producer wasn't around, and got on the roof of the building next door (keep in mind that this is around 1AM and we didn't have access to that building), and started filming while shimmying to the side to get camera movement. Well, he stepped on a skylight, and fell 30 feet onto a concrete floor. He broke his camera, and a couple of bones, and had to spend a couple of weeks in the hospital because he also had a number of other injuries from the fall. This drained all the funds for the film, and we didn't finish our day. So the producers had to find more funding and tried to get the crew to work at a reduced rate. Needless to say the film was never completed. So be safe, and be sure to provide the simple assurances to your workers that their health and equipment are safe.

Planning. Planning is everything, and a poorly planned shoot will inevitably end in disaster. This means having a realistic schedule for every day, and a detailed shot list that you have gone over with your Department Heads so that they can tell you what is realistic, and so that they can prepare for them. When I am Told what a shot is instead of me being a Part of that decision, I am often put in a position where other departments are knowingly or not, working against me (since their decisions are usually creative and mine are mainly technical). And if a scene requires special preparation or equipment, I need to know about it in advance. I have a lot of equipment that I do not bring with me every day because it is not practical for me to do so. But I have that equipment because I would like to offer more than the bare minimum. I would just like to know about it first. A lot of times I will be Told the day of that we are doing a certain kind of scene that may require special equipment or additional setup time, but no time was allotted for me, and maybe I didn't bring that particular piece of equipment. Well, not my fault, because I wasn't a part of the process, and the film misses out because of it. Car scenes with dialogue are good examples of this sort of thing. Getting usable dialogue in a moving car (or even a non moving car for that matter!) can be tricky, and requires someone with experience and the right equipment to pull it off well. It also takes time to set up. Most indie films have horrible sound during car scenes for this reason.

A Properly planned schedule will also help keep production on time. If you are not on time, you either have to keep shooting and go into over time (and pay the crew more), and then push the call time for the next day (12 hour turnaround minimum is always mandatory) so you keep starting later every day, or you have to cut some shots or even scenes from the schedule, or you can plan for extra shoot days. Those are your options, notice how non of them include magically getting an over packed schedule into a small amount of time? Again, keep things realistic. It is fine to be ambitious, but do not be over ambitious. Your crew and actors may not share your ambition, and most likely cannot bend the laws of physics to make your ambitions a reality.

One more thing to add to this section is Parking and Directions. If you do not make sure that everyone has detailed directions, preferably with a map that is marked, and parking instructions, do not be surprised if people do not show up or are late. I cant tell you how many times I am told to show up at a particular place at a particular time, and I cant find it, or there is no available parking. I was once even given detailed instruction from a Production Coordinator, who was Coordinating from out of town and had never been to the location personally, that I needed to park at the adjacent lot, and above all, not in the underground parking. Well, the adjacent lot was for service workers of the building only, and the attendant wouldn't let me enter. There was no street parking available for blocks (keep in mind I have lots of equipment that I need to haul to the location, so I need to park close!), and I ended up circling the block while trying to call the crew for help, and my only option was to park underground. Why did they not want me to park underground where there are elevators that bring me directly to where we were shooting and I could park close to? Well, because being Los Angeles, parking there cost $16 for the day. Was it worth me being late and missing the interview? Apparently being cheap was worth missing our reason for being there... Was it MY fault, even though for whatever reason I was the ONLY person who didn't find street parking? No. Bad planning means you get to accept the outcome of every possible scenario, even if it means not getting what you set out to get. Oh, and yes, I still got paid for the day. I expect a map with details illustrating and explaining to me where I need to park, or where I need to load in equipment before moving my vehicle to a permanent parking space. Expect to pay for parking, and if you need people to front those fees, let them know the day before, and do not let them find out upon arrival. That day I had no change for meters, and only a credit card on me, so the paid parking was my only option. You should also give directions to the location coming from common routes, like for example if the location is Paramount Studios, you should include directions from downtown, the valley, and probably Santa Monica as well. This will allow people to verify that the directions that Google Maps gave them are in fact accurate. Many times they are not, and people show up late, so please cover all of your bases here!

Why You Shouldn't Fix It In Post:

If you couldn't get it done right the first time, or didn't make the effort to, then trying to fix it in post is like, well, polishing a you know what. Most of the time, if you start with a bad product, you will end up with a bad product, and no amount of fixing it in post will change that. Sometimes you get lucky, but with the amount of time and money that you are already spending, wouldn't you like the assurance that you are in fact getting something that will be usable? Sound is more than often the thing that suffers most from this sort of mentality, and ironically is the thing that will make or break your film above all else! But realistically, if you do not do things right the first time, it might cost you a lot more than you would like later on.

We all remember the infamous Blair Witch, and how a small group of indie film makers managed to make a feature film that made them millions of dollars, all on the meager budget of $20,000. This old fable is quickly regaining popularity because as of late, film makers have also figured out that a "Found Footage" style film can help save them money, and give their film a trendy edge that certainly will not date their film by any means.... What people don't know, but you can look up if you had the mind to, is that fixing the sound alone cost them more than five times their initial budget, and the film spent about eight months in post AFTER the indie film makers had made THEIR final cut. You see, what happened was that the film got picked up for distribution from an actual distributor, and they have standards. So they made them re cut the whole film and re record all the audio based off of some test screenings they did. Initially people hated the film and couldn't understand what anyone said, not to mention the plot holes and technical problems because these people were not seasoned film makers. Once everything was said and done, Blair Witch cost about 1.2 million dollars. If they had done things right the first time, they probably could have made the film for $50,000. I see a lot of people trying to make their film the same way, thinking it will be cheaper, but realistically it will always hurt them in the end. Any film or TV show that has people running around with handy cams, even if they are supposed to be on their own with no crew, always has a pro sound team. You have to get good sound on these types of productions, because you can always dumb the sound down to make it SEEM like it is all camera audio, but you can never just go off of the camera's audio because it WILL let you down and cost you a lot to fix. Aside from acting and plot holes, bad audio (even if it is intended) will always be the number one criticism of a production, even if the audience doesn't know that they don't like it because of the quality of the sound, and any seasoned film maker of any department will tell you this. Anyone who says different, well, you probably shouldn't be taking their advice. I've worked on ghost hunter shows where I wasn't actually supposed to be there, but there was no other way. They dumbed down the audio in post, and everything came out convincing and great. We had over a million viewers when the show premiered! Far cry from people actually hating the Blair Witch because of the overall poor quality and lack of professionalism in the methods of the film makers.

Camera choices, and how they affect many things: The resolution you shoot your film at will determine the life of your film. If you shoot on a DSLR at what we currently describe as "HD", your film will only be relevant as long as those technical specs are. So in let's say two years when the new HD is 2k and no longer 1080p and we all have to buy new TVs again, your film will not display correctly on those TVs. It will also not display correctly on projectors in theatres, and will likely have to live out its life on the internet, buried amongst a multitude of low rez weekend warrior passion projects that didn't have the foresight to shoot in a higher definition. Now, if this is your student film, or one of your first films and you are still learning from your mistakes, don't wast your money renting a high end camera. But if you honestly believe that the film you are making is going to get back end funding and distribution and all the works, then maybe you should take the tools you work with more seriously. The camera you choose will determine a lot of things for your film, such as the film's budget and lifespan, as well as the amount of time it will take to finish the project. In my experience, a RED camera will usually add about an hour per shoot day for boot ups, hickups, REDisms, and building and disassembling the damn thing. In my opinion it is more trouble than it is worth, and that goes for all the camera models that they make. A DSLR, aside from only being standard HD, has no usable on board camera audio (not a big deal, you shouldn't record to camera anyway), often needs to swap out memory cards and batteries, and it also doesn't have Time Code. What is that you say? Well it is this magical thing that will save you hours in post and lots of money in the long run. A lot of cameras do have time code, and I strongly suggest going with a camera that does. But be sure that if the camera of your choosing requires proprietary cables and adapters, that they be included in your camera rental. Some cameras today have camera specific audio and time code cables and adapters that I would never own since they are proprietary, not standard. Many productions assume that I will simply be able to interface with any camera of their choosing and then neglect to tell me about it or seek my wisdom. They usually end up having no audio reference track and no time code, and have to manually sync everything in post. If they do not slate their takes correctly, then this can be an even more difficult task that can not only be time consuming, but costly. Running Time Code with sound and picture properly will basically eliminate the sync process in post because they will snap together on the timeline. Whats more is that in those hasty moments where there is no time to slate the take, and you decide to do a tail slate, but then forget to do so, the takes will still sync up thanks to the time code! The Sound Department usually provides the time code, but if you need things like Lock-it Boxes, those are usually a camera rental. Some Sound Mixers will have these, but you will have to rent it from them. Do not expect them to have them, and do not expect to get them for free.

Qualified Personel: Every department has specific jobs and duties that cannot always be cut or substituted by someone inexperienced or unqualified. A fine example is wardrobe. I worked on a film where the writer/lead actress of the film (yup, one of those...) also chose the wardrobe for the whole cast. She put every male character in a satin neck tie. A professional wardrobe person would know not to use certain fabrics such as satin if they can avoid it because it is a rather noisy scratchy type of fabric. Usually when someone is wearing a neck tie, that is the only place to hide a lav mic, but if the material is a no-no for sound, then that person will simply have bad audio for as long as they wear that tie. In this case, practically the whole cast was wearing those cursed ties, and needless to say that made my life difficult. Let's just say that a lot of that film had to be re recorded. A TV show I work on, the makeup artist is also the wardrobe person, but she is not exactly qualified for the job. She knows how to make people look good for camera, but thats it. She always puts the host of the show in a stiff starchy button-up shirt. Those are no-no's for sound as well. So every time the host speaks, and he does a lot of that, you can constantly hear clothing rustle. Theres nothing I can do about that except ask them to change their shirt out. It's not the mic rubbing against the fabric, it's the sound of the fabric rubbing against its self. Attention to details like this go a long way. But when they are neglected, the problems roll up hill. So trying to save money on wardrobe suddenly becomes my problem. If there's nothing I can do about it, then it becomes the actor's problem (because if you sound bad, you look bad, but if you sound good, you look better!), and then it becomes production's problem because they now have the choice of having a poor product, or spending the money to re record the dialogue.

Part Three: Funding.

The gist of it all is that making a film is an expensive venture, even if it's a simple story with minimal characters and locations. You still need to cover your bases and do things right. So doing your homework ahead of time and talking to your Department Heads before you put a budget together will help you get a good idea of what your film will actually cost to make, instead of trying to make it with some random number you came up with or can put on a credit card. Getting proper funding is key for so many reasons; reasons beyond what I have described to you here. There is always the unforeseen, inevitable, and any number of things that can come up that will make or break your project before you can get it off the ground, or stop it dead in its tracks. A great example of this is when people tell me what my rate is, rather than just paying me my rate. If you set aside x amount of dollars per day without doing your research, and expect people to work for that pay, keep in mind that they may take the gig, but move on to a better one when it comes along. For indie films, my minimum rate is kind of high. Not because I'm in some sort of union, or because I have a high opinion of myself, but because I have a lot of obligations with big productions that have a tendency to call me at the last minute. A lot of people are in the same boat as me. When they do, I have to drop what I am doing and find a replacement for myself. I have a lot of great Mixer friends that I trust and know that I can call upon them, but I can't if the rate is too low. They just won't take the gig, and I'll be forced to leave the project and offer no one in my place. Simple as that. Also, my equipment is insanely expensive, and honestly I need a project to be worth my time. Remember, if I'm not working for you, I AM working for someone else, so I need a good reason for working on any particular project. Lots of indie films are always hiring me at a higher rate than they were initially paying their Sound Dept because the previous person was either doing a lousy job, or just up and left the production. This is because they weren't paying enough to get anyone good, or they weren't paying enough to make anyone want to stay and see the project through. It's a tough reality, but it is the truth, and you can't make someone sign a contract saying that they will stick with the project until the end if you aren't meeting their financial needs. So like I said, you need funding. There's a lot of ways to get funding for your film, so any time someone says that they don't have enough funding for this or that, what I hear is that they didn't TRY to get funding correctly, or their project is too ambition for their budget. I have several links to resources on my web-site that talk about finding funding for your indie film, but really what it comes down to is that you need to hire a producer to take care of that. If they don't find funding, they don't get paid, so they have a vested interest.

Much of this is stuff that I have talked about before, but I encourage you to read my other posts because they go into more detail. If you have questions about things, please feel free to contact me, or do more research. If I just blew your mind with all kinds of info that you didn't know or your film school didn't tell you, you need to learn more about the biz before you attempt a project. An under funded, half cocked project will almost always go off in your face in more ways than one, and many of these attempts never see the light of day because they didn't get enough usable material. If you feel like you need more hands on experience in order to get to know how these things work, PA or volunteer on some film sets for a while until you get to see how things work. Once you do that, keep reading, because you probably were working on a set that wasn't doing things right. I know I talk a lot about Sound in relation to indie film making, but like I said before, it is often the most overlooked, and so many things can affect its outcome, and of course it is so important that it cannot afford to be overlooked. So I am trying to get indie film makers in the correct mind set. Believe me, there is a reason why most indie films suck, and never do well. Sound is mostly that reason, aside from other drawbacks due to lack of funding and professionalism. So do yourself a favor and keep doing research, and make this a part of your life if you are truly passionate about it, and please pass this link around. I would like to see a golden age of indie film making, but alas I believe that in this current day we are far from it. This sort of "inside information" could really help so many people, if they only cared enough to get past their egos and personal limitations.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Learn Your Craft

This particular article is directed at film makers, film students, and people who would consider themselves to be in the business of film making, television, etc. It does have some relations to audio and audio for film, so if that's all you care about, you may read on. But I strongly recommend that everyone listed above read this, so please pass it around.

I was inspired to write this due to a recent incident on the set of a film I was supposed to do, but had to give the job to a friend. It reminded me of almost every experience I have had dealing with independent and student film makers. Yes, this is an explosive epidemic! Why? Film schools mostly. And simple ignorance. But I'll get into that later.

My experience with independent film makers tends to go something like this: Last minute booking or they ask me for a reel, resume, interview, etc, a very long time before shooting. Then I either don't get a call sheet, or it goes out two days before the day of shooting, or very late the evening before we begin to shoot. It never has technical information on it for me except some times they say for me to record to camera because they don't want to re-sync audio in post, and I never get to sign off on locations, talk to wardrobe, or anything like that. It's literally a "hey can you work these days? good" kind of situation. So off the bat I'm flying blind, and can really only do the bare minimum because I have had no prep days, I'm probably booming, mixing, and doing audio utility work (unless it is one of those rare occasions where I actually get a boom op), and if I was ever given a script, I probably didn't get a chance to read it. Sometimes I will get sides for the day which help me a great deal. Then there's the question of compensation. Film makers are all under the impression that everyone wants to work on their project for the opportunity, networking, credit, copy, and creative fun that we all will have. But they forget that this is a business like any other, and most of us are here for a pay check. So, because film makers think that everybody wants to work on their film for so many reasons, they think that they can offer less compensation, if any at all, make us work longer hours, usually have poor food services and catering (sometimes not even coffee on set!), make people do more than one or even two jobs, and they will somehow create a masterpiece from all that chaos. Speaking of, the call sheets are usually missing a lot of information and formatted in a way that is hard to read and different from a standard call sheet. There is often times no shot list, and little organization. So the first day or so is usually very chaotic and it tends to run behind schedule.

Film Makers that go about it this way may be great film makers and may get great results, but the truth is that your crew are a bunch of hired professionals that have been trained a certain way, then through experience learned the real way to do things (believe me, you didn't learn anything in film school!). So you can't re invent the wheel because you don't want to learn how the wheel works, or because you THINK you know how it works. Productions that are running on a low budget almost always do this, and it almost always winds up hurting them in the end because they are afraid to spend their money correctly during the production process, and wind up having to go over budget in post production, or not finish the film at all.

Here is a typical add I see every day looking for a "sound guy":
Independent film looking for a sound person to operate sound for a film. Pay is $xxx/day flat rate. Must be able to operate boom mike as well as record, and must provide own equipment. Please send reel and resume, and any links for consideration.
Off the bat you are insulting whomever you are potentially going to hire. And you have already told me that you are inexperienced and unprofessional by not using proper terminology, expecting a single person to be your entire sound department, and to work for a flat rate. You also asked a sound recordist to provide a reel. You ask DPs, actors, and creative types for a reel, but not a technician. I don't have a reel because a reel doesn't display my work, so please don't ever ask a technician for a reel. You may ask to see their IMDb page, or links to their work, or possibly if they have a web site. But in my case, my resume speaks for its self, theres no need to verify beyond that. I wouldn't be in this business and wouldn't have a good looking resume if I wasn't good at what I did. I also obviously work a lot, hence all those credits on the IMDb page, so I clearly know how to work with people. No need for an interview. You hire your department head, and you can interview them on the tech/location scouting days. I frankly don't have time for interviews, Im working 12 hours days on set every day.

Now, about that flat rate. I know your production has a limited budget, and I know that you think that you are going to get a better deal if you make your sound person do and provide everything himself. Well the truth is, you are spending a lot to rent your RED camera, and you are spending a lot to rent your lighting package, and probably spending something on permits, locations, makeup, wardrobe, food, etc. Why do you think that the sound equipment is just going to manifest its self for free? The camera didn't! Why should I make the same as everyone else on set and also have to provide anywhere from $10k-$100k worth of equipment that I am not being compensated for?

Generally speaking, non-union productions tend to work by union rules. This is because they abide by labor laws, are safer, more organized, and make for a better work environment. That means maximum 12 hour days, and only if you cant avoid it, meal penalties, and over time. It calls for appropriate wages and kit rental fees for all equipment being used. You may not be renting the sound equipment from a rental house, the sound mixer is most likely providing it. But you do need to compensate him for that equipment. You will generally get an amazing rate on it, so don't sweat it. I talk a lot about this is a previous article, so to know more, read on.

Now, I know this is pretty basic, but you would be surprised about how often I run into this one: I as a hired professional am expected to know how to do my job and do it well. Ok, sure. Even though despite all odds and booby-traps that production has set up for me (bad location, no prep time, poor lighting conditions, unworkable camera angles, sound unfriendly wardrobe choices, physics, technical issues, etc) are against me, I rarely am unable to provide unusable audio. But I'm pro like that. And yet some people make it onto these sets that clearly do not belong. An Example:

I did a film a couple of months ago where, since there again was no technical info on the call sheets, I had to waste production time by getting together with the camera department on the first day and asked them what their technical specs were so that I could do the same. Then I asked if we were running Time Code, and syncing the sound and the camera. They had no idea. So I asked the producer and director (since there was no AD), and they had no idea what that even was. Great. So out of the kindness of my hear, I said to the 1st AC, ok, let's jam the camera. Why not? It will save time and money in post, and as a hired professional, it is in my best interest to try to save this production money if I can. Well, he didn't know how to jam-sync that camera. So after that the camera department looked on their iPhones for about a quarter of an hour, they came to the conclusion that the information was not to be found. Now, I have synced that camera plenty of times with competent ACs, so I know it can be done, though it is not my job to know how to sync a camera, just provide the time code for it to sync to. This shoot had a DP/operator, 1st AC and 2nd AC, and they didn't know how to run time code on the camera. Meanwhile I am working all by myself, getting frustrated because this is turning into another amateur film set and Im once again the most qualified person on board.

A friend of mine just wrote me in a panic because the editor for the film he is working on specifically asked for time code. So my friend provided a Lockit Box (even though this is a Camera Department Rental), synced it with his recorder, and presented it to the camera department to keep the camera in sync. Well, they cant get the camera to sync. Once again, we are talking about an incompetent person hired onto a job, and no one is going to do anything about it. Instead this just makes my friend look bad, but no one will say anything to the AC who doesn't know how to operate the camera, who's job it is to know how to operate the camera btw. But Camera department is never looked on as the villain, blame usually falls with the odd man out.

Incompetence is something that I don't tolerate. If you do not know how to do your job, you have no business being there. In this case I might speak to the AD about it, or just write it in my report and the production will have to go without time code. Because production hired a budget AC, we didn't get time code up, so now they will have to pay an Assistant Editor to sit there for a whole week and re-sync audio to the video clips before they can start editing the film. Now they are paying more when they could have spent the money up front with someone who knew what they were doing, and probably saved a little instead of having to pay two people's wages, wasting time on set, and pushing the post process back.

The difficult thing about hiring people who are qualified to do their jobs correctly is that they cost more than people eager for experience. So you need more funding. Well, like I have stated before in other articles: There is no excuse for not having enough money. If your film does not have proper funding, it is entirely because your producer did not do their job correctly. It is their job to come up with the money, whether they just provide it, find investors, whatever.

If you do decide to go the budget route, just remember: No matter how you slice it, making a film does cost a lot of money. There is no way around that. If you hire people who aren't good at their jobs, you are going to end up with a poor product. No one wants to watch a poorly made film. Even though you didn't spend as much as you could have on your project, you still did spend a lot of money, and now you have a film that no one wants to see. You have wasted a lot of money. So if you are going to go through the process of making a film, why not do it the right way? Just like with film or sound equipment: Yeah theres budget equipment, but it wont give you the quality you need. And if you are going to spend the money on a quality piece of equipment, why not go that extra bit more and get the flagship model? You're already spending the big bucks, and that model is going to be worth it in the long run. In my business, I need to own the best gear out there. I wont get good jobs, and people wont take me seriously if I dont. So please don't tell me that using a zoom recorder is good enough, or recording to camera is what you want me to do just because you don't want to take the time to re-sync sound. Do things right! Thats just lazy.

The chances of making a product worth submitting to film festivals with an "eager to learn" crew is slim to non. I don't care how good your script is. You need pros to make your vision come to life with pro equipment. A 5D and a zoom recorder are not going to give you the same results as an Alexa and a Zaxcom Deva. So why kid yourself? Plus, the better the equipment you use, the better your crew needs to be because the learning curve is greater. With cheapo wanna-be gear like a zoom recorder, it may be easy to use and "good enough" for those who aren't interested in anyone taking them seriously as a sound person or film maker, but it actually requires more skill to make it sound better than it will in the hands of the kind of person that would own one in the first place. Just sayin'...

So lets get back to that whole organization thing. Some key positions that should never be combined into one person are the AD, UPM, and LP. All of those positions require a lot of man hours and nerves to develop a practical shooting schedule. Your schedule should be productive, but light. If you work people for a full 12 hours, they will be grumpy. Also consider setup and take down time, travel time, lunch break, rehearsals, multiple takes, etc. Things take time if you want to do them right, and you cannot justify overworking your crew in an effort to save a few dollars. They will always work harder and do a better job if they are happy.

A typical indie film shoot day looks something like this for me:
I get to the location on time, and am usually the first person there. Within a half an hour everyone else shows, and they begin setting up the crafty table. They may have brought a coffee traveler or they may brew it on the spot. The longer I am waiting for my coffee, the longer it will take me to set up. I don't care when the first shot of the day is scheduled for. My attitude is such because it is someones job to make sure that those in charge of everything running smoothly, along with crafty, need to be there before the general crew shows up so that things can be ready. If I am waiting outside of a location, and it is not open for me to walk into, then I am wasting my time. If I am waiting for coffee to be made instead of setting up my audio kit, then I am wasting my time. As a film maker you do not want your department heads wasting their time!

I then set up, try to get things like sides, make sure Im on the same page as camera, make sure lighting and wardrobe isn't going to totally screw me over, try to mic up the talent, and wait for rehearsal. I need to see/hear rehearsal too, fyi. Once that happens, adjustments may be made, then we go for a shot. We keep shooting until lunch, exactly 6 hours after call time, and may be at lunch for 1/2-1 hour. Afterwards, we resume shooting until we are done for the day. Then we offload media, pack up, and go home. This is assuming things go somewhat well. Most of the time there is a lot of waiting around because other departments aren't receiving proper instructions, or we are all trying to figure out what is next because theres no shot list or storyboard, or any other number of time consuming hinderences. Some geniuses also try to plan for company moves/location changes in the same day, and usually either neglect to tell people that is going to happen, or tell people what the parking is like where we are headed. We are also supposed to pack up, drive ourselves to the next location, and just be ready to shoot without having any setup time. With a few exceptions, most different locations should be scheduled for different days, and every location should be listed on the call sheet with a map and parking instructions. If those things are not there, do not expect people to be there on time because they are probably circling around looking for the location or somewhere to park. Crew with equipment need access to the location in order to load the gear as well. There should also be different call times for different people.

Usually it takes at least a couple of hours to have the set dressed and lit, and be ready to shoot. This means that I don't need to show up at the same time as everyone else. Otherwise I am just in the way, bored, and probably hanging around crafty or socializing with others on set, making for an unproductive morning. An organized set will have people come in when they need to, and make sure that there is space allocated for all people and departments. On a real set, I would need some place to keep my sound cart where I can work from, and keep my equipment staged and available for me to access it if I need to. I, as a mixer, generally work remotely. Close enough to the action where I can see whats happening generally. My Boom Op is the one that ventures in and interacts with the goings on. A Boom Op is a lighter, more maneuverable rig that doesn't take up as much space and can get in and out more easily. I on the other hand, have to have my recorder/mixer, all my wireless microphone receivers, mics, cables, accessories, IFB, wind protection, and countless other things that take up a lot of space and can be very heavy. Making me wear all that in a bag and try to boom at the same time in a confined space that we are shooting in is literally like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, not to mention that I technically cannot mix and boom at the same time. That would require at least three arms. So my point is, instead of having me show up and be in the way all morning, why not have me come in at a more appropriate time and just be able to set up in my designated spot, and be ready when I am needed?

Going back to that film that I was supposed to do, that my friend had to work for me: He had the same call time as everyone else, and they needed to build the set, dress it, light it, etc. He was there until after lunch before they got the first shot of the day off. Better planning would have had the set built the day before, heck, maybe even lit the day before, and everyone could have funneled in and be ready to shoot within maybe an hour. Instead, that day ran late, and the crew went on strike, the picture was postponed, and the executive producers were blacklisted because of the unreasonable conditions that they put the crew through, along with unwillingness to pay overtime (they went about 18 hours), and wanted to do a 9 hour turn around! This is all actually beyond illegal! If you only have 9 hours from the time you stop shooting, to pack up, go home, have dinner, sleep, get up, get ready for the next day, travel to the location and be on time, no matter how you look at it you will not get 8 hours of sleep. On a standard 12 hour turn around it is rare that I ever get 8 hours, and after a couple of days I become a zombie, which can be very dangerous driving around in that state, or operating heavy equipment on set. Production is also responsible if people get into an accident on their way home from set if they are under rested. So be careful when you try to cram too much in one day, and be aware of how reasonable what you are asking your crew to do is. This is why unions exist, and they can be called in to regulate non union shoots.

Another thing that happened on this shoot was that because of all those terrible conditions that happened on set, the crew decided to walk. The camera crew packed up the cameras and the hard drives and walked out, taking all the footage with them. To a producer, they think that they own the footage. Yes they do, when the people who got it for them get paid. My friend was going to walk as well, and when the producers asked for his audio files, he said that he would give it to them when their check cleared. They called the police, and even the police said that my friend was 100% in the right. So the law is on the side of the laborers.

All of this comes down to the fact that these people thought that they could offer a low wage, be disorganized and it wouldn't matter if they ran late. It comes down to the fact that they were unprofessional, and didn't care if their crew was overworked, under compensated, and under slept. And perhaps worst of all for the producers and director is how bad they look to the rest of the film community and to the name talent that they had on board when their crew went on strike and wouldn't give in until their demands were met. Some of the crew went back on board under a new agreement, but a lot of people quit and spread those peoples names about with a warning never to work with them. As producers, their careers are over, and it is going to be difficult for that director to be taken seriously, and that name talent will certainly be saying some not so flattering things about how that show was run and who was responsible for it.

My point is that if you do not Learn Your Craft before undertaking this sort of venture, you WILL make yourself look bad and be insulting to those around you, even if your production goes smoothly. It's not just in worst case scenarios, or if the crew goes on strike. It's when you use improper terminology on your adds, make people wait around all day before they're needed, make people look for parking at a location, provide bad food (IE: subway), do not negotiate rates (instead dictate a flat fee, or go with the lowest bidder), or say that there isn't funds for this or that. You should have known at the start what costs would be and you should have made sure that they were there. There really are no excuses. It is a lot of work, but thats why there are people to fill the rolls to get things done. Do it right and things will go smoothly. Then the only thing you have to worry about is the script you decide to make into a movie, and how talented your actors are!

Now how seriously do you think people take you?

Sunday, November 27, 2011

One Man Show vs Sound Team

A lot of independent film productions, and even television shows (primarily reality tv) try to cut out as much expense as possible everywhere they can. One thing they have been doing is hiring a One Man sound package. But why hasnt this been the norm since the beginning? Seems ideal: One guy running all the sound AND providing all the sound equipment! We can save a tone!

The "One Man Show" as some people call it was designed for documentary film making and news gathering. Both situations where the quality of the audio isnt as important as being able to understand who is speaking, or simply capturing ambiance. The main point is that the sound person cant be mixing and holding a boom over their head at the same time. You would think this is obvious; you would need at least three arms to do that. This is why this style of recording is not done on narrative projects such as feature films, shorts, television narratives, or a multitude of other production types. The other thing to think about is how demanding you as a production are and what you are requiring a sound person to do.

I get approached all the time by producers asking me to work on my own. When I ask them how many actors or people will have dialogue simultaneously, or in a given scene, what I am really asking is: "How heavy of a bag do I need to wear around my neck?". Each person with dialogue would usually get a wireless mic, and each wireless mic requires a receiver, and an audio channel. You also need to carry around batteries and all kinds of accessories, because you will most likely not have time to run back to your staging area and get things. If you have seven actors at a given point with lines, then I assume I will need seven radio mics and a boom. The boom is the most important mic and should never be omitted from the combination. And if anything, there should at least be the boom and not necessarily the radio mics. If your scene makes no room for a boom to get in and get good sound, it is not worth shooting, or you should have the budget for ADR and serious post audio work. Do not rely on wireless mics, there are too many reasons for them to fail.

So with this combination, seven wireless mics and a boom, I need an eight track recorder to accommodate all of these things. Wearing a bag around my neck or even with a harness with this much stuff is really asking a lot of a person. Their mobility is limited, and booming with this much weight is difficult and impractical. Many situations require the boom to be agile and move with the camera, but if I am being weighed down by this much equipment, not to mention how big and bulky it all is, my mobility is considerably less than if I only had a boom in my hand.

The Sound Team on the other hand was developed when sound became incorporated to picture. A typical sound team on a smaller production consists of three people: the Sound Mixer, who is responsible for recording the tracks and mixing for dailies, and is the department head. The Boom Operator, whose duties involve booming, and working with and around the camera and lighting departments so that they can successfully capture sound without creating shadows and falling into frame. The Audio Utility is responsible for running cables, laving actors, syncing time code, and trouble shooting any technical issues that may arouse. They also double as a second Boom Operator when needed.

A budget production should at least have a Sound Mixer and a Boom Operator. Both people can handle the responsibilities of the Utility for the most part. But if there are a lot of big scenes with lots of actors, I recommend hiring a Utility, if at least for those days when needed.

There are so many advantages to this system that are often so overlooked, it makes my head spin thinking that producers are out there calling the shots on how a department head should do their job, and for how much, when really it is the other way around! The producer needs to hire the department heads, ask them what they need, and how much it will all cost, then they go out and get the funding. That is the point of hiring an engineer and expert for that department. So that they can make your project work to the best of their abilities for you, because if you the producer knew about these things you could run the sound yourself. Have you ever tried paying what you wanted or could afford for your groceries? No, because they are set at a fixed price, and if you dont like it, you cant buy it. It's that simple.

When I have run a one man show in the past on a narrative, the most irritating thing that I hear (other than when people want to chime in and make suggestions on how to do my job) is when everyone is ready to shoot, and I'm busy doing something and they call out "waiting on sound!". If I am the entire sound department, there are a lot of things I need to do, and doing the job of three people doesnt make it any faster. IF I was allowed to see the blocking and assess the lighting and framing before we go for a take, I would then need to mic up the actors, and assess how I am going to engineer the recording of this scene. I may need to use plant mics, or hang mics from the ceiling, or put sound blankets on places to deaden the acoustics. But I am often not allowed time to prep for a take. Some how people get the idea that one man can take up less space and work faster than two. With two, as a mixer I dont need to be in the room that the shooting is taking place in. If it is a small apartment bedroom for example, I can be in the living room, and the boom op can be in the room, taking up less space because they dont have a bulky bag around their neck.

As a mixer, I can be sure the levels on all tracks are good, monitor them, record my mix track, take care of sound reports, and prepare for whatever is coming up next so that things are more efficient. A Boom Operator can get in and out without taking up much room, change the batteries or make an adjustment on an actors radio mic, and handle a lot of other things while the mixer is doing something else.

I was asked to work on this project that more than likely went nowhere due to poor organization and, lets face it, a bad script. I was working by myself, needed to mic up seven people, and boom and record at the same time. My bag was about 45 lbs, and a great majority of this project was outdoors walk-and-talk style shooting. This project was absolute torture, and to make matters worse, the catering was so bad I wound up going off on my own and buying my own meals. This was an out of town shoot, otherwise I may have just packed a lunch. The point of this though was that I was doing so many things at once, and had so many things going on (all those tracks of dialogue) that I could not be sure if I got anything usable. Listening to eight different audio sources at once is a difficult task if that is all you are doing, but I was also booming and walking at the same time, trying to keep the shadow of my boom out of the shot while trying to get good sound. Meanwhile I am also worrying about batteries, adjusting levels (many of these actors werent well trained or seasoned, and would go from whispering to screaming which of course is not the way things work in film), and all of this was on the fly.

If I had a team I would have had two people booming, maybe only used wireless mics on a couple of the key actors, but I would have generally tried to get the most coverage with the booms. I would have been a distance away so as to not get in anyone's way, and could have provided a great number of other tasks and could have been able to ensure great takes.

Another production I worked on was a pretty small independent project, and wanted to hire me as a one man show, but I negotiated the rate so that I could hire a boom op. At the end of the shoot, I met the editor. This person is the editor for a popular television show (which I was surprised about since this was very low budget, and Im pretty sure most people were either not getting paid, or making less than minimum wage!), and was expecting a lot of things from me, such as sound reports, mixdown tracks, and having my tracks in a particular order. Obviously I cannot provide things after the fact, this is something that should have been discussed before shooting. And if it were, I could have done everything with no problem. But if I were a one man show there is no way I could have provided any of those things. So you see, when producers start making calls on how things are run, and then other departments are expecting things that cannot be fulfilled otherwise, things turn into a mess pretty quickly. Fortunately my main recorder provides the ability to generate sound reports after the fact, and I had been taking notes and circling takes, so I was able to help post out a great deal.

This production also had more characters with dialogue than appeared in the script (last minute changes) and I was rarely provided with sides, so anticipating what scenes I needed to engineer was very difficult, and often opted to boom more and put less wireless on actors than I would have normally. But those problems all come from poor judgement on production's part, and poor organization.

A word of advice to independent or low budget productions: Just because you have less money to work with, doesnt mean you should go and re invent the wheel. Things are done a certain way for a reason, so dont go thinking that because you are independent or low budget that you can start calling shots without consulting your department heads first. This also applies to rates. When you hire your department head, ask him/her what their rate is, and what expenses they will need covered (such as expendables, a day rate for a Boom Op, or any special equipment that needs to be purchased or rented for this specific production). Do not set aside what you think is enough and just say what rate you are willing to offer. Many times you may luck out and get someone good who has the equipment and is willing to work for that rate, but most people will not.

I was recently offered a job on a feature where they wanted me to run a one man show for the entire production, provide all equipment, and work for a rate so low that it wouldnt even cover the cost of renting two radio mics! Needless to say I was rather insulted, and told the producer that she needed to discuss my rate and expenses and come up with the money for that before hand, not the other way around. Her reaction was "this is how we do it in the film biz!", to which I replied "well, not in the real world, but on rinky dink operations that do things their own way, sure! I guess it is how things are run..." Producers often forget that they do a few jobs a year, but I do at least a few jobs per month. My experience is always going to be greater than a producer's that has been working for the same amount of time that I have, and often is still greater than someone who has been working for twice as long as I have. Also a thing to consider is that I do jobs of all sizes. From independent shorts to feature length films of all budgets, television shows, commercials, you name it. I see how things are run from all levels, so when an independent film producer who has never done anything significant in terms of budget or success comes to me to explain how the biz works, the only thing that happens is that I know just how incompetent that person is, and I lose what little respect I may have had for them.

When thinking about a budget, also consider the following: Your sound department is providing equipment, and will expect a kit fee. This is basically a great price on renting the equipment. We are giving you a deal because you are also hiring us to work on your project. In the case of that gig that needed an eight channel recorder, seven wireless, and a boom, this is what the equipment rental costs are from a rental house per day:

Sound Devices 788T + CL-8 (8 channel recorder): $200/day
Sennheiser mkh 416 shotgun mic: $25/day
Lectrosonics SMQV wireless transmitter (x1): $50/day
Lectrosonics UCR 411a wireless receiver (x1): $40/day
Sanken cos-11 lavalier microphone (x1): $15/day

So these are the basics, not including wires, batteries, boom pole, bag/cart, or any of the accessories you need to make these things actually work together. According to these figures, it costs $105/day for one wireless lavalier microphone system. But we need seven. So thats $735/day just for lav systems. So the total cost for just these basic things is $960/day. So giving your independent sound guy a couple hundred dollars/day for his kit rental is sounding like a pretty good deal at this point. But dont make him/her work for free, we need a day rate, and a kit fee. It costs us a lot of money to be able to provide these services for you, and there is a reason why on big budget productions the sound mixer is one of the highest paid people on set. In my experience, people trying to do a low budget film will still pay a high rate to the sound department, while everyone else takes a pay cut. Even the DP and director. Why? Because they all have something to gain from this production, and have a hard time getting hired onto projects to do those things. For me, if you do not want to pay for my services, someone else does, so I have no problem turning down work because as a sound person, I am always busy and being approached for jobs. You also want to make it worth my time, because if someone offers me more I will probably jump ship onto their production, and replace myself with someone else. This can cause problems on your end, even though technically the sound department is covered. But you do need to make it worth me staying around. And it is not just me that will do this, everyone will except maybe someone young and inexperienced, in which case you maybe dont want to have that person running your sound anyways!

Back on point: One man show, good for some things, but not all. If you dont have the budget, dont shoot until you do. There is no point in shooting a film if you do not have a proper budget, because it will not turn out that well and your film will more than likely fail due to bad production or any number of other things that come with not being financially prepared. A Sound Team is what you need for your narratives if you want to do things right. This will save you a lot of money in post as well, heres why:

Your sound mixer is making that on the fly mix. This is intended for dailies, but a good amount of it does make it into the final mix of the film. Now since you are spending less money on someone doing your post audio work, you are saving money. Your production Sound Mixer is making mixes on the fly, not all will be completely usable, but those that are, are done in real time. In post, your mixer will go back and fourth many times on one line, taking considerably more time to do the same work. So let's say your production mixer makes usable mixes for 2/3 of what was shot in one day, which is let's say about 7 pages in your script out of 10. Seven pages of mixing in post may take all day, it may take a week depending on what needs to happen, but saving the majority of the days worth of work is worth it's weight in gold because you are cutting post time into a third, and you are usually paying a post engineer and renting a studio, which costs more than a budget production mixer. So you do the math: Spend more up front, get better quality results, save on money in post. Cut corners in all the wrong places, get an inferior product, spend more on the back end.

The choice is yours, will you make the wise decision?