Every blue moon or so I come to a realization: I am in a very unique position…not just as a film worker in an exciting world of intrigue and illusion, but as the only person in the entire cast and crew who gets to observe and listen to each performance in full-on face-to-face audio/visual fidelity. And that’s being general: what I experience is bigger and broader, yet smaller and narrower than that, it’s really quite…magical.
I’m going to try and explain it, but it’s an experience you have to have for yourself to get the full effect of what I live-out each and every take of all 24 film frames per second, per hour, per day. For the most part, whether its film or video, all cameras shoot at this frame rate. Sound mixers typically record at 30 fps, but that’s another discussion all together. The fidelity I see and hear is world class, because it combines the best equipment in the world with the finest talent in the land. And this aural magnificence envelopes my soul through the use of stereo headphones placed snuggly about my ears. It can be a truly remarkable experience.
First, let’s look at what fidelity means. Per the Merriam Dictionary, Fidelity is the sound reproduction over the full range of audible frequencies with very little distortion of the original signal. At its best, high-fidelity equipment has minimal amounts of noise and distortion and an accurate frequency response. And boy do I get an ear full.
Ok, these are technical descriptions and they definitely describe what we sound people hear and provide to the movie, but it’s important that you know that what I’m going to share with you is more of the emotional and sensory experience. That’s the part that gives me an “every blue moon or so” magical realization. And when it’s combined with a really well written script, and an award winning cast of performers, the results I experience first hand are…priceless.
Like any sensory experience, the really great ones get under our skin. Or, I think a better way to think of it is, we get under its skin! Whether the rendition comes from a loved one, an admired star, or any extremely talented performer; when their expression is so magnificent that we connect with it on the deepest level of our soul, we get intoxicated. We get drunk with the amazingness of it all. We reenact their character, sing their song, laugh, dance, and even cry. We can’t get enough, so we re-live it time and time again. At times, we literally feel ourselves wanting to get under that person’s skin. These moments are…electrifying.
Honestly, is it not kinda like great sex; the other person is so amazing and we are so in lust with their magnificence that we want to get inside of them? We can’t get enough, and we want it again…now. Well, what I do has nothing to do with great sex, but booming an actor puts me so physically and aurally close to their compelling performance, that at times it becomes an intimate form of getting under their skin. I find myself wanting to get closer to them, or get to know them better. Unfortunately, there is a professional courtesy that quietly dictates we remain focused on the work, not the relationship. So, most of the time I am in work mode, and it is my utmost responsibility to get the sound not laud them with praise and fandom acts of inspiration. That is what they pay me for; to get the job done well. Being responsible, paying attention, knowing what the cameras are seeing, and knowing the actor’s dialog, is of the utmost importance. I am well trained in this art and craft of getting the best and most appropriate sounding dialog in the world. At my best I am laser focused on putting the microphone in precisely the right place in front of the actor, so as to maximize the dynamic range, and ultimately to make the actor’s voice cut well editorially, and aurally sound…natural.
Whether I like it or not, my ears are filled with every nuance of their voice and their character’s expression. Every once in a blue moon, I go “Wow, I’m right here listening and observing a performance that one day I’ll be watching on TV in my living room!” “Normal viewers will be watching this scene for the first time, and will hopefully get caught up in the moment of the situation and story.” But I’ll be sitting there thinking, “Damn, that sounds really good. Did I really boom this?” On occasion I might be thinking, “That doesn’t sound quite right…what did they do to the sound in post?” Mostly I am surprised at how good the sound is, and am even tickled that I was the one who captured that moment with my microphone. “Wow, I did that”, I think to myself.
On a vast universal level, the experience I sometimes have, is one of revelation. Merriam Dictionary says, revelation is the divine or supernatural disclosure to humans of something relating to human existence or the world. And, it’s a surprising and previously unknown fact, especially one that is made known in a dramatic way. Well, lord knows I’m in the drama business. And there’s no doubt that what we do is work diligently to effect people in a dramatic fashion…with our illusions. But that part of the definition, “…the supernatural disclosure to humans”, is what intrigues me the most. I never considered what we do in the film business as supernatural, but then I looked up the definition.
Per Wikipedia, supernatural is defined as being incapable to be explained by science or the laws of nature, characteristic or relating to ghosts, gods or other supernatural beings or to appear beyond nature. Well, as a film worker I experience an actor doing his job by reading a script, learning the lines, and delivering them in a manner which is honest with the portrayed character. But as a boom operator standing inches away, and as one witnessing the growth of their performance over numerous film takes, I occasionally witness something that’s greater than a natural read. It goes beyond natural and into a world of what we call today…Mojo. When the best actors put on their best performances, of one of the best written scenes…it is almost supernatural. The actor knows it, the director knows it, and we know it. Because we’re all professionals, we don’t complete the take and go running over to the actor to congratulate them, or to get ‘under-their-skin’. Instead, we relax, check each other for mistakes and corrections, and then get ready for the next take or scene. We don’t always get the luxury of being swept up by the supernatural presence. But rest assured, we get it…we feel the difference…and it’s magical.
How an actor blocks out all of we film workers that surround them is beyond me. What they go through to absorb the dialog and take on the truth of the character is sometimes incomprehensible. And the way they often have to give up their body to the harsh environment is such an unenviable event. The entire process of what they do in extreme situations tends to lead to a supernatural performance. The best ones do it time and time again, scene after scene, day after day, week after week. It’s incredible. I don’t always get to relish in the moment, but be assured, I am there to witness it…first hand…in full-on visual and aural fidelity.
In a way it’s unfortunate that more people can’t experience it the way I do…but then my job wouldn’t be as special if they did. And I wish I had more time, or less commitment, to witness and feel the moment the way an audience does, but for now I’m just going to keep working. I’m going to keep getting the job, reading the script, analyzing the rehearsals, working with the camera operators, paying attention, and doing my best to capture the best and most appropriate sound for the picture. For today, I’m going to do my job as the boom operator.
Robert ‘Max’ Maxfield