Sound for Film and Television

The Boom—Why, Isn’t That Old Fashioned? Although it may be old fashioned, mics on booms usually work best for dialog recording. The best position is on a boom or fishpole above the frameline and in the center of the frame. Among other things, this is because the perspective matches that of the camera. If an actor should happen to turn and face out of the frame we hear the change of going from “on mic” to “off mic” as natural. The on-mic position sounds clearer and less reverberant, whereas off mic sounds a little duller and more reverberant, and this matches our common experience.Boom03

Capturing the sound of the voice well, its timbre, is the second reason an overhead boom is desirable. Talkers sound clearer to the front and above compared to the side and below the axis of their mouth. Because mics in front of talkers are on a line with the camera, this position is only possible occasionally when the mic is allowed to show in the shot, such as on a podium from which a speech is being made by an actor, making the overhead position the best available for most situations.

A microphone centered underneath the frameline can be considered to be a fallback position, but it is not as desirable, because this position often sounds “chesty,” emphasizing midbass, and less clear than above. Also, if the microphone thus has to be near the floor, it will receive interfering reflections off the floor that can color the sound. If the microphone has to be placed to one side of the frame, in the case in which there is a very wide and low shot that does not permit either an overhead or an under- hand position, then perspective problems arise. Whether this is successful depends on the blocking of the scene. If an actor should turn toward and then away from the microphone while speaking, he or she will sound on mic when facing one direction and off mic facing the other, even though both angles may be the same to the camera. This then sounds artificial as we come to understand at least subconsciously where the microphone
is.

A large potential problem exists with microphones that must be close to surfaces but cannot be made nearly integral to those surfaces. The problem lies with the strong potential reflection off the surface, which arrives slightly later at the microphone than the direct sound. This gives rise to constructive and destructive interference, which results in a regular series of peaks and dips in the fre- quency response that can be quite audible. All in all, microphones prefer a lot of “air” around them, so that nearby reflections are minimized, or they should be made an integral part of the surface, as in the boundary-layer method to be discussed. If a boom microphone needs to be placed near a ceiling because of low ceiling height on a location set, the reflection off the ceiling may be ameliorated by taping an area of absorbing material to the region of the ceiling above where the microphone has to work. Thicker material covering more area will be more effective than thin material covering a small area.

For boom mics in their ordinary location above the frame, there is a large difference between film and video cameras to be aware of. Film camera viewfinders show a larger area than do most video cameras. It is common for film cameras to have etched lines showing the frameline for the format in use in the viewfinder and for the operator to be able to see a fair amount outside the frameline. This gives a film camera operator an advantage as they can tell when the boom mic is about to intrude into a shot. Video cameras do not have this feature: their video viewfinder shows just what is scanned. So a videographer is perhaps naturally more insistent that the boom mic be placed higher than we might consider necessary, because he or she has no “early warning” system to know when the micro- phone might intrude into the shot. A few high-end digital cinema cameras, which are upgraded high-definition video cameras, have optical viewfinders to overcome this limitation of most video cameras and work in the same way as film cameras with respect to the viewfinder.

Boom and Fishpole Operation

“Booming” is such an important job that a boom operator can make or break a recording, even though he or she is subordinate to the production sound mixer in the staffing hierarchy. For fiction filmmaking, the boom operator learns the scene and positions the microphone from moment to moment to best effect. The operator learns the script extremely well, as well as anyone on the set. Rehearsals are essential. Cinematographer Haskell Wexler says “I can’t light a set;
let me see the rehearsal,” because it is the actors he is lighting, not the set. Likewise the boom operator needs rehearsal to optimize the mic location through the course of a scene. Having stand-ins for the stars to do the lighting usually does not help the sound department, because stand-ins are not trained actors who speak lines. It is often said that actors must just “hit their marks and say their lines,” because it is essential for the camera focus puller to obtain sharp focus by having the actors “hit their marks,” often mapped out on the floor. Although it would be a good idea to be able to hear, in advance of a camera rehearsal with the actual actors, how they are going to sound with a particular microphone setup, this happens infrequently. The rehearsal with the stand-ins can reveal problems with boom shadows though, and can give a rough idea of booming, so it is nonetheless useful.

Proper Boom Operating Position

Boom operators have a much more interesting job than one might think at first glance. Although sometimes it is thought of as a job just anybody can do—“just a big kid out of high school with strong arms,” as producer Gene Corman explained it to me (while I was doing the boom operator’s job on a show!)—boom operators have perhaps the most input to

Good boom operators, after a long day on the set, read the script for the next day’s shooting, and memorize it. During complicated master shots, for instance, the micro- phone is likely to be constantly in motion, getting the actor who is speaking on mic, and missing a cue would cause an obvious change in perspective, so must be avoided. This is why the boom operator must know the script.

On many sets today, the director is huddled over a video monitor during takes, shielded from the sun. It reminds one of early photographers under their black cloth so they could see the ground glass of the camera. The camera operator is looking through the viewfinder. The script supervisor is sitting underneath the camera, and the eyeline of the actor would look wrong pointed in his or her direction. There is lots of lighting from multiple directions, effectively blinding the actor from looking in those directions. All these being considered, that leaves the boom operator as a point of human contact. There are stories of actors coming at the end of the day to the boom operator, who has shared an emotional moment by shedding a tear with the actor, and thanking the boom operator for the connection.

A major issue in the operation of either a boom or a fishpole is the potential for boom shadows. Stanley Kubrick was a still photographer before becoming a director. He decided to light a loft interior in New York himself for his second film, Killer’s Kiss. He threw everybody out of the room, and proceeded to light this large, white space evenly over the course of several hours. He then called in the crew and actors. The moment the boom was put up, multiple shadows were
obvious. And when the actors moved and the boom followed, those pesky shadows moved too, making them all the more obvious. Kubrick asked the sound mixer if the boom was necessary. Told that it was, Kubrick fired the sound crew and recorded the dialog on a bad, nonsync recorder just to know what was said (important because actors don’t always follow the script exactly). He then spent the next 4 months himself recording and postsyncing the dialog, adding footsteps, ambience, etc. On his next show, he hired a professional gaffer!

The best position for a boom or fishpole operator is usually to the left side of the camera facing the scene and a little in front of the camera. This is because the camera operator is virtually always on the left side of the camera, and communicating with the camera person is far easier when one is on the same side of the camera as its operator. With the boom operator’s body to the left side of the boom or pole, he or she can follow the scene by turning his or her head left or see the operating side of the camera to the right. The camera person can give an index finger up in the air to tell the boom operator that the boom is too low, saying “move it up” nonverbally, or an index finger down to say it can come in lower (now that’s a good camera person who is thinking holistically of picture and sound
quality). A “slash” in the air with the fingers thrown horizontally means that the boom is at the right height.

A second reason for the orientation of the operator to the left side of the camera is that the boom operator can see the marks on the lens, particularly on those of a zoom lens, and know how wide the camera shot is. If the marks are not prominent enough, white camera tape on the zoom ring of the lens marked with arrows can give the boom operator information about how wide the lens is set, moment by moment. A good boom operator will also be cognizant of the
discussion about what focal length is in use on a shot when fixed focal length (prime) lenses are in use, such as 21mm for a wide shot or 150mm for a very tight one. In some instances, a videotape output of the camera may be fed to a lightweight monitor that can be mounted on the boom or fishpole, but note that these rarely show the full viewfinder image for film cameras, only showing what it is in the video-recorded area.

The overhead fishpole generally requires for good performance that the operator be strong and able to hold the fishpole overhead for extended scenes. The handgrip at the end of the fishpole may be grasped firmly in the right hand, whereas a more open, “Y-shaped” left hand can permit the right hand to rotate the fishpole and thus effectively pan the microphone left and right. For this to work, the microphone will typically be tilted to an angle of about 45o from the
end of the fishpole. It is less desirable to hold the pole at an angle so that it is tilted up, although physically easier to do, because then the pole may intrude into the corner of the frame, particularly when anamorphic photography with its wider aspect ratio is in use. For extended scenes, in this position it is possible to gently lower the fishpole onto the top of your head to relieve some of the load on your arms.

All movement of the fishpole, however, must be done in such a manner as to prevent even the smallest noise, because direct conduction of the motion to the microphone may cause a strong acoustic output. For this reason, shock mounts are necessary, and special limp mic cable is used between the connector at the end of the boom and the microphone.

All in all, good boom operators have an incredibly athletic and intellectual job: they know the scene as well as anyone in it by learning the script pages the night before the shoot so they can anticipate the action, and they collaborate as much as anyone on the set for a good result.

Sometimes scene coverage calls for the use of two or, rarely, even more boom mics. In this case, the third person on the crew will be pressed into a boom operator role, or a set production assistant might be asked to do the same job. This would be the case, for instance, when there are two separate areas of action that are impractical to cover with a single boom.