Boom Times for TV Location RecordistsCapturing Production Sound on the Set or in the Street 4/01/2004 7:00 AM Eastern
When we talk about film and TV sound, we tend to gravitate toward the “sexier” disciplines of sound design and effects generation — recording those 18th-century muskets or supercharged hot rods, or combining whale noises with lions, wind and creaking wood to make the perfect dinosaur roar. But the production sound folks are among the hardest-working professionals in our business: They're on the set before shooting begins and after shooting ends each day, struggling to ply their craft in settings that are always more oriented toward the demands of the visual artisans than the audio specialists.
In television in particular, production of conventional dramatic series and situation comedies is down at the major networks, but with the rapid proliferation of cable channels, there are more shows of every genre being produced and broadcast than ever before, and hundreds more in development or at the pilot stage. And what's taken the place of those dramas and sitcoms at the big networks? Reality shows, which often require multiple teams of location recordists (though for shorter periods than a scripted full-season show).
Recently, we spoke to a pair of TV location sound pros — one on a network series, the other a veteran of numerous reality shows — to find out more about the demands and peculiarities of the job and (this being Mix and all) talk a bit about gear.
Let's see: There's a deadly virus in the hands of mysterious evil-doers. A top senator is threatening President Palmer. We've had a calamitous prison riot and jailbreak, graphic torture, a suicide, a man shooting his own brother in the back but then being blown up himself, and agent Jack Bauer making out with the terrorist woman who killed his wife. And that's not the half of it! A lot happens in a “day” on the Fox show 24, now nearing the end of its third action-packed season.
It's a clever concept: Each hour of the series depicts a single hour in one crisis-filled day in the life of the government's top-secret, L.A.-based Counter Terrorist Unit (CTU). There are usually half-a-dozen interweaving plots and subplots going at once, most of them, it seems, involving lots of running and driving around, gun battles and —always— talking on cell phones.
Bill Gocke has been the location mixer for the series since the pilot was shot in Canada nearly four years ago. Gocke has been involved in sound for more than 25 years. After apprenticing as a utility sound technician, he got into production work as a boom operator in the '70s working on the hit sci-fi series Star Trek: The Next Generation, among others. He worked as a mixer for the first time on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and a number of feature films (including A Soldier's Story and Best Friends), but has mainly done television and now does 24 exclusively.
When I spoke with Gocke, it was the morning after a long afternoon/evening shoot for the series. Because of the unusual “real-time” temporal framework of the series, production personnel go through long stretches when all of the exterior action (and there's plenty of it) is shot at night — say, if the episode takes place between one and two in the morning.
“There's definitely more night work than any other show I've been involved with,” Gocke says. “But they try to do splits, so we'll do some of the indoor work, like at CTU [headquarters], in the daytime and then go out at night. But it depends on the situation. A night might have a 4:30 p.m. call and then go all night in downtown L.A. Yesterday was an 11:30 [a.m.] call and we got off around midnight, 12:30. But it was inside a lot of the time. It's kind of rough, but you adjust.
“This year's show started differently than we have before — it started later in the ‘day.’ But at the other end, when we get ready to finish this year, it will be daylight on the show so we'll be shooting in the daytime more.”
Like most location recordists/mixers, Gocke keeps his sonic world on a portable cart that goes with him wherever the show is shooting. “I use a Cooper 208 [8-input] mixer and I also have a [Cooper] 106 backup,” he says. “They want DAT, so I use a Fostex PD-4 and I back it up with a Nagra IV, which is a great machine — it's the backbone. It's so dependable, so solid. We use Lectrosonics radio mics — I use the Lectrosonics 210s — as well as Sennheiser MKH 416s, MKH 50s and 60s, and also some Schoeps and Sanken lavs.” Gocke says he appreciates that radio mics have come a long way, because they're using them on the show more than ever. Radio mics are particularly important on 24 because they are shooting with two cameras all of the time, one handheld and one on a dolly, usually for tighter shots. “This can create problems for us, because, obviously, you have two different perspectives to deal with, both in terms of the audio and, more practically, where I'll be during the scene,” says Gocke. “If it's just one camera shooting, I can usually be right off to the side in the shadows, but with two, you have to pick your spot more carefully. Plus, there's a lot of movement — the actors are constantly moving and roaming around — so it makes it difficult for us to get booms overhead some of the time. That's why the radio mics are a great tool. They have great range and the mics have gotten better and better.” Typically, Gocke will have radio mics on all of the key players in a scene and, if possible, have some plant mics as well. “If there are five people, I try to separate [the mics] and keep them clean as much as possible, or at least aware of what overlaps there might be.”
Gocke says he still prefers the sound captured by a boom as opposed to RF mics: “It has a more natural sound to me. It brings in some air, some ambience, which sounds prettier to me. There's more warmth. The radio mics are more trouble — putting them on people with different clothes, worrying about [clothes] rustle, all that stuff. But at this point, they're indispensable,” he asserts. “We're not going to get in the cab of a truck with a boom mic. You need the radio mic. They have good range, so we have a presence [in the scene] even if we can't physically be in the truck. And if they can use some of that sound, they will; if not, they re-do it later on.”
When he can, Gocke likes to blend the radio mics with the boom. He's used the same boom operator, Todd Overton, since their Deep Space Nine days, and he also works with a “third”: Cory Wood, who's also a boom operator and assists in all manner of location sound needs. “It's a team effort,” Gocke stresses. “They're extremely important. They both have to be paying total attention to what's going on, what the camera's doing.”
In fact, Gocke says this camera consciousness is one of the most important aspects of his work: “A lot of this job is learning how to get a mic where it needs to be with all the other things that are involved, from cameras to lighting…how to get to your spot. You have learning about lenses and what you can get away with soundwise with each lens. You need to know what the dolly is doing, what the handheld is doing. Are they zooming in? Are they staying tight or are they going wide? You have to always determine the perspective of each shot because the sound has to make sense for that perspective.”
Alas, the sound department rarely gets much input into scouting locations, so Gocke and his team often have to make the best of some rather difficult settings. “They don't help us out that much,” he says with a laugh. “The location people mostly care about the picture. They might say, ‘Sorry about the freeway,’ but then you just do the best you can with what they give you. They know it's a trade-off. They know a location won't always work for sound and that sometimes they'll have to replace stuff later.”
Fortunately, a decent percentage of the show's action takes place on various warehouse soundstages — the CTU set is out in Woodland Hills, Calif., for example — or locations far removed from big city noises: Some canyons in Santa Clarita doubled for rural Mexico in the main story line.
Gocke says that 24 shoots two episodes at once during a 15-day cycle. “We'll jump back and forth between the two scripts because the story is always related,” he says. “We'll shoot what's convenient in a given place and time. Doing two [shows] at once gives us some flexibility that way.
“It used to be that there was a big difference between the way feature films and TV were shot, but that's changed. TV used to be really fast —boom, boom, boom— but now a lot of features have gotten that way, too. And now some shows are shot more like features. It's still fast-paced, but not to the degree they once were.”
Gocke's gig on 24 takes up nine months of his year, from July through April. “Then I try to relax when the show's not going,” he says. “You usually don't have much of a life when you're working. It's a lot of 12-hour days and then on weekends, you're just recovering.
“But it's a great show to work on,” he continues. “The crew is fantastic, the actors are all excellent. There's just a little too much whispering,” he confides with a laugh.
When Dave McJunkin returned my call for this story, he was sitting in the back of a van in L.A. during a shoot for the pilot of a prospective Bravo network reality series called Underexposed, which follows the fortunes of a number of young directors attempting to make a short (3.5-minute) film on a shoestring budget — sort of a low-rent Project Greenlight without the hostile producer. The directors are provided with equipment and $2,000 to shoot about a three-page script in two 12-hour days. McJunkin and a cameraman were following one of the young directors as he went through his paces.
In a perfect world, McJunkin might have instead been in some exotic port-of-call following travelers on The Amazing Race 5, CBS' Emmy-winning reality series that documents a million-dollar race around the world by 12 pairs of contestants. McJunkin worked on the previous two editions of the show, but turned down season five to spend time in L.A. with his wife and new baby. (He also passed on a call for Survivor: All-Stars for the same reason; what a spouse!)
McJunkin has a long and varied background in film, having worked on features, television, commercials, corporate and documentaries since completing film school at L.A. Valley College in the early '80s. His documentary background was particularly valuable when he first got into the reality TV game, with MTV's Real World 2 (in Venice Beach, south of L.A.). McJunkin has worked on several reality shows since his Real World days, including the short-lived Real Roseanne Show, with Roseanne Barr; Animal Planet's ongoing Cell Dogs, where pooches are trained by prisoners to be guide dogs and pets; and The Residents on the Discovery Health channel. When we spoke, he was about to head into L.A. for a stint working on Fear Factor.
Reality shows in general are incredibly demanding for location sound mixers (and camera crew). Because they are completely unscripted, they have to constantly be at the ready to capture anything interesting that's going down. The camera crew has to be as unobtrusive as possible; ideally, they are completely invisible to the viewers. There's a lot of lying around on floors, or worse, being squashed into a car, perhaps holding a small boom mic if space allows, or at the very least listening to RF mics on headphones and mixing on the fly. One of the cardinal rules of reality television is that the crew does not get involved with the “characters,” so the sound tech and camera person are really an isolated team of their own once they're out on location. “We become producers, in a way, since we're the only people out there most of the time,” McJunkin says. There are often situations where multiple two-person sound/camera crews converge on some communal spot or event in a reality show, and that produces its own problems: Who, if anyone, lays out? Who's covering this or that aspect of this encounter? Given the sheer number of people required to handle the sound and visual aspects of most reality series, it's amazing that the people being shot seem as unself-conscious as they do.
For a fast-moving show like The Amazing Race, which might be in Vienna one day and in North Africa the next, the production teams have to travel as light as possible — McJunkin can't have an 8-channel mixer with Nagra backup. “Because we carry all our gear and our personal belongings with us, we have to keep the weight down. I was a runner and a tri-athelete for many years so I stay in pretty good shape. And you need to be in good shape for something like The Amazing Race because you're sometimes literally running around following these fiercely competitive people who are in really good shape and usually 10 years younger than me and carrying less weight. It's hard to keep up with them sometimes. Between the camera and sound gear — because the sound guy carries some of the camera batteries — it's about a 50-pound pack.”
One of the roughest experiences McJunkin remembers on the last Amazing Race was “running around in Mexico City, which is a mile high, carrying all this weight, and we were running through this one square where everyone was cooking different foods on these little barbecues, and they were using anything to cook the food, including plastic and paper, and the fumes were unbelievable. It was hard not to be overcome by the fumes. Another time we spent a January night outside at a train station in Cortina, Italy, in the Alps, and it was below freezing. Then there was this other 24-hour bus trip in Mexico where I got food poisoning. Fortunately, there was a bathroom on the bus. The producers had a replacement for me ready at the next destination.”
Though McJunkin prefers to use his own top-quality portable equipment, he says some network reality shows prefer to get their audio and video equipment from the same rental house so they can save money on a package deal. Having multiple crews with the same equipment makes sense, though: Uniformity of formats is certainly preferable in the posting stage.
For The Amazing Race 4, “They rigged us with a Wendt X2, which is a little 2-channel mixer, and a couple of Lectrosonics 210 wireless,” he says. “We have one wireless from a contestant member and one boom going to those two channels, and we also have a wireless send to the camera. The other contestant is on a wireless that goes straight to the camera. The booms you use are these collapsible carbon-fiber booms that can stretch anywhere from six to 11 feet, but might collapse down to only 20 inches. On The Amazing Race, they use Sennheiser MK60 shotguns. I'm not a big fan of the sound, but one of the nice things about all the Sennheiser RF condenser mics is they resist humidity and abuse really well. My own preference is a little Neumann KM100 preamp with the 50 hypercardioid capsule. I like to use that on interiors, and then I have either a Neumann KMR 82 or an Audio-Technica 4073, which is loosely based on a Neumann KMR 81 but is a little more directional. It's light and it has extremely high output, so it's good for exteriors. It also resists the humidity well.”
For mobility and weight-distribution reasons, “I mount the mixer on my chest in a harness — a modified climber's harness that I got from REI,” McJunkin says. “I try to make it so it evenly distributes the weight on my shoulders. I started having a problem with my back carrying a Nagra on my right shoulder for years and years. So far, the harness has worked really well.”
Given the opportunity to use his own equipment on location, McJunkin has a different choice of mixer: “I use the Sound Devices 442 mixer, which I really just love. The only problem I had with the original PSC M4 mixer — now called the Wendt X4 — which did sound great, is the controls were not laid out in an easy, logical way. The Sound Devices mixer is better designed — all the controls you need are on the front and the things you need less are on the side. Plus, the limiters in it are very good, which is a vital thing in a reality show because you don't know when someone's going to start screaming,” he says with a laugh. “The wireless I use are Lectrosonics 205s. A lot of reality shows like to use the Sennheiser wireless for the reason that the transmitter is so small and doesn't show through clothing a lot.” (Survivor gets around that problem by going all-boom. Where would you put an RF mic on a buck-naked Richard Hatch?)
McJunkin also says that he's looking forward to trying out a new piece of gear: “Lectrosonics has this new transmitter, the M400, which is waterproof and runs off a single double-A and has an O-ring seal on the battery. One of the nice things about it is it will emulate the Sennheiser noise reduction; the compander in the Sennheiser. So if you have a show that has a lot of Sennheiser receivers, you can use one of these transmitters, in spite of it being from a different manufacturer. That's an interesting thing to do, because a lot of manufacturers want to set you up to only be able to buy their stuff.”
Doing sound for reality shows requires special focus and self-discipline — it's clearly not for everybody. But the rewards can be great. Besides being a popular niche at the moment and thus a good source of work, the reality genre gives even the technical crew an ongoing glimpse of humanity, for better and worse. It can be instructive, cautionary, funny, sad, gross and pathetic. Just like real life. “I like to think that we're telling the story,” McJunkin says of reality sound recordists. “After all, there are no writers. We're writing the story with our sound. Without that, all you have is pretty pictures.”
Blair Jackson is Mix's senior editor.