A Lesson in Being Prepared

A number of weeks ago I was contacted about a job that was to happen in a weeks time. It was to be a series of interviews and b-roll of people that utilized the services of a major utility company. But that’s not what this article is about. It is about why hiring a seasoned professional is important to even what may seem to be a simple and straightforward shoot. 

What could be easier than recording audio for an interview? Why not just have the camera guy do it?

Well, as always, every situation is different, and frankly, I don’t know that many camera guys that have the expertise and know how to tackle the amount of situations that can arise. Not to mention the fact that their attention will always be more focused on picture, which could provide as a distraction from their duties regarding sound. I’ve had camera operators admit to me that they have very little understanding of sound, and have at times forgotten to roll sound because the audio of an interview ironically wasn’t their main focus, even though we can all safely admit that if you only had the audio of an interview, it would still be useful for a project. However, if you just had the video of someone talking, that would be useless. Luckily my camera friends will turn down a job that requires them to also run audio. Sign of a true professional. 

Back to the story. 

On this job, we worked in a few different cities, in very different but equally challenging environments. 

The first was at a brewery that was operating while we were working. As you can imagine, they can be very noisy places. Although I couldn’t do anything about the noise other than ask employees to hold their work while we filmed the interviews, the main problem we had was that the director couldn’t hear what the interviewee was saying. So he asked for an IFB (headset) to hear my program audio. Good thing I packed them, since nobody asked for them ahead of time. I handed him a Comtek, which I have been using as my primary IFB for well over a decade with zero issues. The director complained of a high amount of static, which I later figured out was because of local interference present on site. I couldn’t hear it when I tested the IFB because I was closer to the transmitter. That was a first for me, but because those systems don’t scan frequencies, all you can really do is set them and hope for the best. That said, I’ve never actually changed the frequency on my transmitter since I originally set it up because I’ve never had a problem like that. My quick solution to this problem was to hand the director a Lectrosonics R1a, which was in a completely different part of the frequency spectrum. One that I knew would be clear. I have that system to be used for sending a scratch track to camera, but as we were doing interviews, and not walking around, I was hardwired to them. As you can imagine, that made the director happy. 

Our next location was at a restaurant, at an airport. Airport restaurants and cafés are places that locals and aviation enthusiasts will often go to for lunch in order to observe the planes coming and going. That means that we are right on the tarmac! Again, there was nothing that I could do about the noise of the location other than hold while planes took off and landed, but because we were at an airport, I didn’t feel comfortable using anything wireless without permission from the radio tower. Nobody knew who to go to for permission, so production decided that using just the boom would be ok. However, I always keep a hardwired lav and an adapter to be able to hardwire another, which is good because we did end up having two people on camera for one of the interviews that day. I also have an extra C-stand and Boom Mate, and plenty of XLR for the inevitable. Two crises averted! Two person interviews aren’t particularly common, and hardwiring lavs is also something that I don’t commonly do either. But being ready for both instances made me look good. 

Our third location was set to be in a very dull looking conference room that was cramped and not visually appealing. But man that would have been the first location we’d had where I wasn’t going to run into any issues on my end! So of course when the director arrived, he saw the place and immediately went on a scout to find another location. After we had pretty much already set up of course. Wouldn’t you believe it, he chose to do todays interviews on the roof! In downtown San Francisco no less. For those who don’t know, it can get pretty windy, and yes you can hear a single motorcycle for blocks, and it was trash pickup day. Well the wind did come, and although it wasn’t affecting the sound so much thanks to my wind protection, it was actually blowing the boom around, as well as our grip equipment. I generally use a supercardioid mic on my interviews, but due to being outside, I brought out a shotgun, which I had better wind protection for. Its directionality also allowed me to point away from some of the noisier elements of the city, and my tracks were almost too clean to match the picture, which had peoples clothing and hair whipping around like in a storm. Even my lav track was totally clean thanks to wind protection that I keep on hand for them. 

All in all the entire shoot was a success. But it was also a big lesson in preparedness. First of all, production should have made better choices on where we were shooting. I can’t help it if a location is noisy, my job is to record whats there. I do keep moving blankets on hand for reverberant rooms, but if we shoot next to a generator because it looks neat, just remember that the audio of an interview is more important than the picture, and in most cases, in the edit, the video portion of the interview will cut to b-roll and other shots, while the audio continues. Second, only a true professional would have solutions to every one of the issues we ran into on hand and know how to solve them. This production didn’t bother to mention where we would be shooting each day, I didn’t find out until I got to the location. These locations were also in cities many hours away from my home, and we were staying in hotels. So the fact that I had everything I needed on hand, and wasn’t able to just look at the call sheet and prep for each day, says something about where my mind is when I pack for a job that was just supposed to be some simple interviews. This production was lucky, since they didn’t communicate to me some very essential issues about locations ahead of time.