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I would like to start a series of discussions about roles within the sound team for new comers to the industry.

I am hoping that users who have professional experience within this role can explain what the job involves, as well as relay their personal experiences.

Thank you

Iain

Wikipedia, Jobs4u

Boom operator Wikipedia

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7 Answers 7

up vote 12 down vote accepted

Sorry, I don't have much time right now to write a detailed answer (I'll be around later to) but I want to stress this:

Consistency in tonality.

Today we have no clue what shot will be edited against what other shot and I know from personal experience mixing that consistency in production sound saves hours of time for the dialogue editors/mixers.

By this I mean 2 people having a conversation with each other that you know will be edited together back and forth but may be shot hours apart to have a similar relative distance from the boom/lav. You don't want someone with proximity effect and someone far away from the mic.

Do your homework. Look to see what may be needed for the shoot and bring it - like the answer Edward gave. You never know what will come up or what you may be asked for.

I personally never back down or compromise quality by one inch. If you consider that what your microphones are picking up is 90% of what you will be putting out the theater speakers, this is a correct estimation of importance to production sound. Do not let yourself be "bullied" around on set. Fight for your quality of sound. If you don't, it's like the Director of Photography saying "Well, the lights really couldn't get too close tot the subject today so we're going to have to re-shoot the scenes we filmed today". Carefully analyzing Avatar and The Hurt Locker led me to believe that the sound oscars went to The Hurt Locker because the production sound was so phenomenal (they only ADRed 4 lines or something on the principal characters).

In my experience in doing ADR, unless you are working with a brilliant actor, the original production sound will ALWAYS be the better delivery on the actor's part. It will also be better sync, match the projection, match the emotion the actor has on his face, BECAUSE IT'S THE ORIGINAL. Pardon me but I think the fact you have to do ADR on 98% of a movie is a criticism to the production sound team (unless there are weather or ambient sounds you have no control over like planes, ocean, rain, etc.) But, doing ADR for an indoor talky scene on a sound stage is absolutely doable to keep the production sound.

Get wild lines from the actors when they're standing around - coordinate with the director ahead of time. Get some wild lines that are not even part of the script that you think you might need, and effort grunts and such, so you have them in a library for that actor. I know that The Hurt Locker used many lines and pieces of words from other takes that weren't used in the movie. This is for example, the actor cussing because he's frustrated, or efforts doing something physical, etc.

Grow eyes in the back of your head: The best boom operator I have ever met (said to be the best in the business) walked backwards while keeping his eyes on his mic and actor while stepping over cables and generators and equipment while walking backwards - if he tripped he would have ruined the scene.

Stay alert. Especially when you're shooting on film. Film is extremely expensive when you have to re-take things. It's a lot more expensive than hard-drive space or DVDs when you're shooting on HD.

Work out your arms - especially doing incline benching. Buy a light mic. The Schoeps CMIT 5U weighs possibly less than a 4th of the weight of a standard SM57. It actually weighs about as heavy as an expensive ball-point pen. That can help your arm fatigue enormously. If you don't believe me on the importance of working out and getting your arms in shape, try painting your ceiling with a roller, or simply just hold your hands and arms up above your head - IT'S TIRING!!

Become inventive. Mics are small and can be hidden other places than on a boom pole. Put it inside a plant. Put it inside someone's baseball cap. Cleverly work out how to mic someone in a bikini. Always check out a scene before-hand if you have to time and work out the best position of the mic.

Now more than ever with multi-camera shooting it's most important to coordinate with the cameramen and director on exactly where you can be and still be out of frame because of the cross-framing that happens. Sometimes there can be 4 cameras going at once and you need to know exactly where they will be to be able to stay out of frame.

EDIT: I forgot to mention an important point, and that is you must have breath mints at all times. If you're micing up someone you're going to be very close to them. Always have breath mints or gum handy in your pocket when you go to strap a lapel on someone you're going to get really close to.

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Can an operator buy a harness or similar device for the microphone boom? It seems like a necessary and logical invention. –  Mark C May 19 '10 at 14:38
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@Marck C I've heard about contraptions like that, but I've never seen them used. The ones I've seen have a pole attached to body harness, and you adjust the height of the boom with one hand, while the secondary pole attached to the harness, uses the harness to put the weight of the boom across, I'm assuming your back and shoulders. So far as I can tell, this will limit your ability to telescope the boom pole in and out with your arms, which I imagine is why you don't see them used a lot. Plus walking would make the mic bob, which is easily compensated for when just holding it over your head. –  Edward Mowinckel May 22 '10 at 14:19
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Not sure about harnesses. This should be looked into. I also found this cool webpage on what NOT to do as a Boom Operator: thompsound.com/old-site/Articles/ten_sins –  Utopia May 24 '10 at 2:10
    
@Ryan, do you reckon a three or four actors shoot requires more than one boom op? The mic moving too much is my main concern, but the anticipation of the moves over more than 2 heads is also one of size! –  Justin Huss Aug 11 '10 at 14:11
    
@Justin Gosh. I don't know. My instinct is to get 2 booms but I have seen a lot of people just lav all the actors but IMHO I hate the sound of lav mics. I suppose if you have a very directional shotgun on your boom I'd look to get another operator - but possibly an omni or wide cardioid schoeps capsule would do the job well? –  Utopia Aug 11 '10 at 17:06
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First, they record dialogue, ideally, they'll be recording usable dialogue, to do this you have to keep your mic relatively close to the actor, so if I were going to be a boom op, I'd definitely show up for any blocking sessions. You might be selecting what mic's you're using, or it might be up to the production sound mixer, and you might be placing lav mics. Which can be tricky when you're working with an attractive newslady or actress.

I would definitely be recording room tone before the set gets populated. If your production sound mixer forgets to do it, and you tell them you got it before they showed up, they will love you for it.

You might be expected to bring your own gear, don't always count on the people hiring you to have gear. If you don't have gear, you can always rent it. Never go to a set without gear unless you have been told to do so, if you don't have gear, and you're calling people, let them know. I'm pretty sure a good way to sully your reputation in a hurry is to show up on a set without mics when they want to shoot in a few hours. Also, if a wardrobe person shows up to mess with someones, well, wardrobe, double check any lav mics. They don't care about your mics, they just care how the actors look, so any lavs you had probably got displaced.

Levels might be adjusted by you (if you have your own recorder strapped to your chest, or otherwise on you), or the production sound mixer.

Stay out of the shot, be aware of cables around the set (those are a good way to trip and smack a mic on someones head) and watch your boom shadows. Those are easy to forget, but if you're working on set, scope out the lighting.

I'm not a boom op, I've just boom opped for some college film students, so if I said something inane, you're all free to correct me.

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Having a good boom op is as important as (if not more important than) having a good production mixer. Being a good boom op requires talent and experience. Having performed the job myself (or attempted to) and having worked with great boom ops as a production mixer, I have massive amounts of respect for a good boom op. Whenever a filmmaker asks for my advice regarding production sound, I always tell them to find and hire a good boom operator.

The job requires strength, agility, patience, and keen observation skills. A good op will know the strengths and weaknesses of the mic they're swinging (distances, angles, pick up patterns). Boom ops also benefit from an understanding of lighting (watch out for shadows), lenses, and framing. Communication skills are key as the boom op may need to act as the face and voice of the sound department when dealing with other cast and crew on set (the mixer might be squirreled away in another room).

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Just to add a little of what I heard and experienced is that yes, boom ops are usually just there to record the dialogue of the talent as clean and clear as possible onset as everyone knows ADR just sometimes feels so unnatural. The rest of the sounds are created by Foley artists, SFX artists and so forth. Boom operators have many things to take into consideration-temperature (hot air rises,cold air drops- this effects dialogue), the reverberation of the location, placement of the microphones so that you get the best dialogue recordings, Checking that boom shadow is not in shot, making sure that you get in as close as possible with enough space to let the sound breath and to not get boom in shot as what I have seen in a lot of nollywood films, making sure that the ambience on and around the location is dead quiet to have clear recordings.

People that are onset when the shot is taken does have an effect on the roomtone. If one takes the roomtone when there is one or two people onset and you then take the recording of the shot when there is a lot more people present there is a major change in the roomtone what I have usually done is to take the roomtone just before they are ready to take the shot with more or less the same amount of people present during the shots taken. Reverb can be placed in post but taking it out when you don't want it is so much more difficult when it comes from the recording onset. So even though some people wont agree but boom operators do have a very hard job to do onset.

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Getting into this discussion late. Good boom ops are like dancers. To be able to stay ahead of the actor is also key. It can get very tricky if a boom operator is forced to tail the actor, so to understand how an actors holds themselves and moves is important. Understand foot work, watch the shoulders, and try to predict head turns.

Most productions dont have the luxury of a second operator, so one must learn to swing and not miss. Many techniques like easing in after getting the actor on-axis from farther away ensure a smoother sounding production track. So yes, a good boom operator should not only be like a dancer, he or she should have the instincts of a good actor; to go closer, to pull back, to time responses, to move gracefully and hit marks, and to learn their lines and cues.

Good boom ops also make friends with the camera operator and the gaffer. Just so they can help one out when things get a little tough. Boom ops are the ones wiring up actors. So take the actors and costume people into confidence.

The best way to train to be a boom op (and I value all those months of cleaning cables) is to be the cable guy. Shadowing and watching an experienced operator while ensuring they dont trip on their cables is the best way to learn the job. It is learning to walk all over again.

All this is basic stuff. Working around pillars, walking backwards in corridors with overhanging fixtures, working with wide angles lenses all come with experience. Understanding how lighting works is useful, so is understanding lensing and volumes. More often than not shots appear trickier than they turn out to be. There is always an optimum spot for the operator to stand in. And please please, learn to hold the pole properly, understand where your centre of gravity is and dont regularly get into fancy poses where you have to lunge or stretch awkwardly.

Dress appropriately. Dark colours wherever possible and clothes than permit rapid movements. My best investments were in cagoules and a pair of nice golfing gloves. Obviously, squeaky sneakers on vinyl floors are a no-no.

Careful while working with little children and animals. They can alternatively get distracted by or terrified of furry bobbing windscreens.

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In analogy, the boom operator, does what the focus puller does. He'll position the mic in front of the actor in order to capture correctly (focus) the dialogue avoiding also any noise. He must know perfectly the dialogue, in order to switch from one actor to the other. It gets difficult when the actors improvise and That's where the experience gets into the play. He can tell from seconds before when the actor will speak or turn. That requires also great concentration. He must also know the lenses. What kind of frame creates each and one of the lenses. The diference between a 50 and an 85, for example. He has to avoid any light source so the boom pole or the mic doesn't create any shadow in the frame. He moves as the actors move taking care of not creating any noises. He's the ninja in the set that "dances" with the actors!

The following link is an excellent example of a first class boom op.

link text

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@Mark, @ Justin, A harness would just get in the way. On set you need to be very agile, balancing the "Dance" as mentioned by Anand. Often you're creating an ever changing choreography with your camera op and his focus puller, as well as the dolly grip, dolly, and/or other grips who may be screening wind for a stedicam operator, possibly holding a large bounce card along side a moving camera, and even electric crew who might have to dance around with you holding a special light rig extended on a pole (most often needing to place the light near to where you want your shotgun mic), and you also have set decoration, etc, etc...

As you can see it can get very crowded around camera during a take so your first two objectives should always be to know your surroundings and to make friends with your on set crew. I like to take the approach that Camera is Key, Sound is Support. Both positions are just as important to the production as the other, but since camera's objective is to capture the visual stimuli (which sells the movie), our objective should be to give them the right of way and take the back seat while we capture the "essence" of that visual with a strong supportive approach using well thought out boom handling, plant micing, and creative lav mic technique. It may sound crazy, but you get much more leeway on set from your crew when you make space for your other supporting crew instead of fighting for your perfect boom spot; remember, your boom pole does extend. Of course, you have to make sure you don't get taken advantage of, and that's where making friends through on set etiquette and helpfulness becomes your leverage.

For example, You should be on set as much as possible to watch rehearsals (unless they tell you to leave for a private rehearsal between the director and cast; never let them tell you to leave if it's not a private rehearsal_on some low budgets they try to tell sound they're not needed for crew rehearsals because they think all we do is stick a mic in the room and we're good:NOT GOOD), and most importantly to watch the DP and Gaffer creating the scene with lights as well as what the Key Grip is having his crew set up for flags, bounces, silks, etc (don't forget your set decoration). If you have a general idea of how the actors are going to play the scene (They don't always act the scene exactly as rehearsed) and know where all your lights, flags, bounces, and screens are going to play, as well as where your set dec is placed, you'll have the opportunity to create your own work flow in advance by determining possible shadow areas, places where you may get stuck behind crew, areas where you may get in the way of necessary camera moves, etc. If you keep this as your approach you'll get to the point where you can stay on the scene with your mic placement, yet be completely out of your crews way, and out of the light. Your DP will notice that you're thinking about (and respecting) his creative decisions, your grip and electric crew will appreciate your concern for their hard work, your set dec will be glad you don't break things on set, and in the end they will be willing make space for you to work when things get ugly. I made friends with John Toll booming the pilot of Breaking Bad just because I was on set every time he was directing his gaffer and light crew. He wasn't always easy on me, but he made sure I had the time and space I needed to get my best position when things got ugly. I had the best time learning while watching him work; a great DP.

In regards to the question of multiple boom operators during a scene, yes it happens if the production allows your mixer to have a third (Sound Utility/Cable Guy) on your sound team. The amount of people in a scene is not the main reason for having a second boom on set as much as is the total movement and placement of actors and their lines during the scene. What I mean is that you can have a scene with four or five people sitting around a table with loads of dialogue and get it all with one boom, no wires or plant mics. This is where being on set for all rehearsals and reading your script (as well as brushing up with your sides) pays off. Knowing the dialogue and how the actors play out the scene gives you enough understanding of what your mic placement and cues will be, even if the actors change it up and ad lib. You'll become as much a part of the scene as they are, yet taking the back seat as the supporting foundation that solidifies the full stimuli, essence, and experience of the whole; very fun and very cool stuff man! You may have another scene with two people saying just a few words, yet they will be 20 or more feet from each other speaking just above whisper levels. Your sound utility will hold second boom over whoever the sound mixer determines he should, and you both supply the substance of a very impacting and emotional scene; it's just amazing. There may be another situation where you're almost running with the boom pole extended 3/4 out and you have to lead three actors through two door ways then down a hallway to a corridor where they split off and finish the scene with a full 360 degree pan; who know what you can do then? I've boomed those shots often and they're loads of fun. Your time invested in helping your camera crew with space and movement and effort in learning tour boundaries with the lighting DP creates with your electric crew will pay off tremendously. The you all have a burger at lunch and talk about how crazy the last shot was.

The point is to allow yourself to be teachable and flexible on set every day. Help rather than hinder. I have a lot of great grip friends because I helped a handful them carry a dolly down a steep 15 foot drop off when they were short handed. The same grips help me when I'm in need today, and I helped them with that dolly 5 years ago. You're making movies, but in the end you're making life long friends who you will one day watch receive great awards. I love making movies and I love what I do, but I love the people I do this with much more.

E. Santiago

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