Booming is hard work. Yes, it has its perks. It allows me to have experiences that many people dream of, i.e., working face to face with famous people, witnessing incredible performances from mere inches away, listening to renowned voices in full fidelity, being laser focused in the capturing of historic moments, and the privilege to participate in the creation of world class film illusions. Boy has it given me some great stories to tell!
But be it known, being a boom operator is a tough position that puts me in situations of chaos, minimal structure, rapid fire decision making, extreme pressure, and at the mercy of being targeted for simple mistakes. Exacerbating these circumstances is the reality that my job within the hierarchy of film workers’ positions me slightly above the bottom of the barrel. That one is probably the hardest to muster.
On the craft side, booming requires agility, technique, depth perception, memory, listening, and a strong dose of technology. The art side of my job employs aural interpretation, editing continuity, visual perspective, psychoacoustic awareness, and an unteachable mojo. Lastly, there is a political component, an ever challenging attitude adjustment, and the sheer humility that goes with being a lesser considered part of the whole production process.
Yep, you and I both know that the dialog, foley effects, sound editing, music, and overall telling of the story through the sound design process, is what really drives the drama, emotion, and ultimate impact that the audience receives during a motion picture viewing. A great performance blossoms to its fullest potential with a world class soundtrack.
You see, I believe that at the end of the day the most vital part of the entire moving picture process is the story. And, I’m going out on a slim branch here when I say the story is told most effectively through the sound, particularly the dialog. Yes, there must be a picture first, and those images must have the consistent and necessary elements to create the appropriate illusion for the given story. The visuals provide a style which hopefully is unique to the story. The movements, composition, angles, and the pace of the editing all contribute to serve a look and feel of the story. But would you agree, the story needs sound to fully come alive?!
Well, that’s what I think, but in the world of motion picture production, the reality is that the dialog can be, if necessary, re-corded later in a studio. They call it looping, and in certain instances, ADR (Additional Dialog Replacement). This aspect of making a movie changes the hierarchy of shooting in a manor that favors the cinematographic side. Point being, roughly 97% of the people involved in the creation of a motion picture have their focus and commitment to the image side of the equation. On a typical set there are three sound guys and anywhere from 60 to 200 people working to create the visual components.
So, as good as is our equipment on set, as well trained as we may be, and as important as we believe our work is to the final product, sound crews are many times at the mercy of the camera shooting process. Even though the capture of dialog is an art in its purest form, it is a small part of the production process, and the respect it is given on the day is dictated by time and money. When it comes to saving time, and thus money, the recording of the actor’s voices is one of the first things that is compromised. There are those with less trained ears that believe if they can hear the dialog then it must be fine. As sound professionals we get that, but as highly skilled workers with the knowledge to achieve world class recording tracks, we are regularly disheartened with our results. With all of hearts and minds we want to give them the best and most appropriate sounds possible. After all, we know from years of experience that rich full dialog will bring out the delicate nuances of a world class performance.
No, we don’t seem to have those high-five experiences at the end of the day. Celebrating the feeling of accomplishment after a grueling day is not usually normal around we production sound folk. Instead we tend to gripe about what transpired and what could have been. “It doesn’t have to be this way”, we groan, and then go about our way. “Yes, we can hear what they’re saying (the actors), but there’s clothing noise on the track, the levels are too low, a train went by, a dog was barking, the AC was on, a door slammed on a line, the scream overloaded, a generator was running, a loud truck roared by, I missed a cue, and a litany of other things were not good. Can we just go again?!” These are common things we bitch about, suffer over, and down right impact the dialog track in a negative manner. And we believe the performance in that moment of life, on location, within that set, between those actors, and shot in front of that extremely expensive camera is compromised. I don’t know, maybe others would disagree. In fact, they probably do. As I said earlier, sound can be re-recorded later.
Ok, I cannot argue that it can all be recorded later. But do they, the producers and directors want this? Typically no, they don’t, but they are at the mercy of time and money too. So, they make the choice as to whether to do another take or not. Many times they will, but more often than we would like, they don’t. Sometimes we would like to play the tracks back to them so that they can hear, that indeed, the dialog is not as good as it should or could be. But then we usually run the risk of them saying, “Oh, it sounds fine to me”. Or more typically they’ll say, “We can just fix that in post”. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that!!
Silly us, even when the sound is completely usable, we sound guys tend to think it could have been even better. It’s all about perspective. There are so many aspects of the sound track that could be improved on the day. I teach them in my course The Art and Craft of Recording Sound. But the reality is, some of the arts and crafts I teach fall victim to the cry of the 1st AD announcing, “We’re moving on”, or “Cut, print, new deal….we’re down the street at the ‘such-and-such’ house next”. All of the circumstances above, and many other situations, make being a boom operator a rather frustrating position.
Does any of this remind you of your own job? A relationship you have? Your life? Probably so, huh? In fact, my guess is that many of you go through your day with similar frustrations. You want something or someone to behave or respond in a certain manner that you believe is beneficial to all concerned, but they don’t. They too are pressured by time, money, or perhaps a mis-perception of what you’re trying to achieve. You believe it is in their best interest. You think that what you’re doing, or providing, is only going to support and improve everyone’s position…their product, or their service. Why the heck don’t they listen and follow your personal and professional advice?! Well, like it or not, each and every one of us has our priorities. We have our own set of choices, a perspective unique to us, and a heaping dose of time and money constraints that are breathing down our necks. And when I say time I also mean ‘timely’. As in, “Is this the best time, or right time?”. And the money thing is a deep conversation unto itself!
Yes, we can gripe, bitch, moan, and explain our supporting reasons all day long, day in and day out, but we’re probably never going to gain the headway that we believe is so imperative to achieve for the master project. We will have our successful moments, we will have our good days, and we will have a select few people who support us in our cause. But, once the day is done and the story has been told, we are still left standing with a sense of ‘not-quite-good-enough’.
So, what do we do about this? There’s got to be a better way, right? Well, the best thing I can say, at this juncture is; talk about it, write about it, create a song about, and for me, tell the story that supports that which we provide. Meaning, I would love to have people see the other side of the possibilities. I think telling the story from the opposite perspective would be most beneficial. How would I do that? I would write a great story with compelling characters and a great sound track. I would put great detail into the making of the sound elements instead of how it looked. The reader, and eventually the viewer can put in their own illusory visuals. The picture might be too dark, too light, or composed improperly, but the music, film score, sound effects, and dialog would be extraordinary! A grand performance would jump off the screen and into your laps. You would leave the theater wanting to know more. What happened, how did he do it, where did he go, why did she do that? These and many more questions would be asked, and you would feel full of life. No, you wouldn’t be talking about the images, you would be discussing how you felt about the story….the characters, the plot, and the ending to the movie. Isn’t that pretty much what you do anyway?
I would reverse many of the roles, lots of the priorities, and change department budgets accordingly. Heck, I could probably even achieve my goal with less money. I would put lots of time and attention into the story; that would be paramount to the process. Casting of world class talent would be critical. The sound design would be first and foremost to the production process. This would incorporate the music score that best emotes the feeling we want in the story, the quantity and quality of the effects, the best sound editors, and a production dialog track that is given preeminent priority in terms of locations, sets, acoustical circumstances, richness of the actor’s voices, and the continuity necessary for the editor to cut the tracks together like soft butter.
Maybe I could write such a story. And perhaps it would re-educate the motion picture world as to what is most important. Then again, it probably won’t. But boy would I love to make a difference in the world, and especially in the moving images world, by changing the allocation of time and money toward a more sound centric process. What do you think?