For people who sit out the credits at the end of a movie, there is a lot to discover. There aren't many industries that have jobs with names as mysterious as 'gaffer', 'best boy' or 'boom operator'. Boom Operator? For years me and my friends would watch movies and wonder what on earth a boom is, and why it needs it's own special operator. Well, in case you were also wondering, today is the day when those questions will be answered. I had an e-mail 'chat' with Kris Johnson, a man who has been a boom operator on independent movies for many years, and who has a lot of experience with the ins and outs of his job. He had a lot to say, about having to be in good shape to be able to do his job, about working with directors who think they know everything better (but don't), about his ambitions as a writer or director and, of course, about what it is a boom operator actually does. Read on!
Q: Let's start with a question you have probably heard a few times too many already: can you tell my readers what a boom operator does?
A: The Boom Operator holds the microphone, at the end of an extendable pole, over the actors' heads while shooting. He or she is cabled to the Sound Mixer, who is recording the dialogue to sync to the picture in post-production.
Depending on the budget of the project and the working methods of the Sound Mixer, the Boom may also choose the type of mic for the shot, lay the sound cable(s) out of the picture and around other equipment, "wire" an actor with a lavalier microphone (like a news anchor) or get the Mixer a snack from craft service occasionally!
I am not in the sound union, so I've just done indie films and personal projects, from no budget up to $5 million.
Q: Whenever the credits to a movie roll, the boom operator is right up there with the gaffer and the best boy for the job title that raises the most eyebrows. Do you ever get tired of having to explain to people what your job is about?
A: Actually, that doesn't happen much. "I hold the microphone over the actors' heads." Most people get that.
Q: What would you say are the requirements for somebody who wants to become a boom operator?
A: You have to know something about sound, obviously. You can learn the mechanical aspects of the job by asking the Mixer or another Boom, but it helps to know why you can't lay your duplex cable parallel to the light cable. (It will hum and make the audio unusable.)
And you have to have some upper-body strength, particularly your shoulders. Try to hold an unopened can of soda pop at arm's length for a couple minutes. C'mon, I dare ya - your arm will be shaking from the fatigue! Now, how about that long-throw mic inside a windscreen that weighs twice as much, at full extension on a 16-foot pole (distance from the fulcrum increases potential energy) on the three-minute scene, on Take 7? A foot over the head of a famous actor who's making $50,000 for the day?? Ha ha, better go to the gym!
What you do is learn to boom ambidextrously (equally well from either side so you can switch it up) and also how to twist your body subtly to alternately put the tension into your lats or back. It does help to be tall. And if there's no movement in the shot, you can sit on a ladder.
Q: What inspired you to become a boom operator?
A: I was originally going to be a recording engineer, recording bands. I went to Full Sail Recording Workshop in Orlando, FL. As an egghead musician, I already knew a little about sound waves and microphones, but FS taught me how different mics have different tones and response patterns (warm vs. crisp, sweet spots, etc.)
Well, I didn't exactly come out of Full Sail and jump right into a recoding engineering position. So, at some point, I answered an ad to be a PA (Production Assistant) on a 16mm personal project. I was interviewed by the writer/producer/director and when he saw Full Sail on my little resume, he asked if I could boom.
I did that job and another couple before I moved to Los Angeles to be a sitcom writer. Booming was always just to pay rent, quite frankly. But after years of near-misses on the writing, and therefore many boom gigs, I figured out something critical:
Booming is the absolute best position from which to learn filmmaking.
Producers can't always be on the set. Writers are barely allowed on the set. PA's are sent all over the city to do errands. But the Boom Operator is inches out of the frame of virtually every shot. I see actors' performance, I can hear the director's notes to them, I have to know camera lenses to know where my frameline is (you should rarely have to ask), lighting schemes and their geometry so I don't cast a shadow into the shot, I have to know a little electric as mentioned before, and post production (can we separate the argument dialogue?). And even a little about the director's storytelling intent (Do I have to swing the mic back to get the woman's dialogue, or will we cover that later?)
If it all sounds a bit overwhelming, don't despair, the Sound Mixer should help on a lot of it. But you really can learn a lot from a position that most people ask "what the heck is that?"
Q: When you work on a movie, do you get the script beforehand, or are you just expected to be on set and handle the microphones?
A: I virtually never get a script beforehand. In over a hundred jobs, I think I've gotten the script twice, maybe three times. But they usually give the keys (department heads) a script. So my Mixer has one, and he might describe the shoot to me when he hires me ("There's a hockey rink, and a gym, and we're outdoors near the highway for a couple days.")
Also, on the better-run shows, someone will hand you "sides" when you show up each morning. Sides are the schedule of scenes for the day and the appropriate script pages, shrunk down to 1/4 page. So while you're eating your doughnut, you can check out what kind of day it might be. "Whoa, we've got that five-pager in the bar with seven speaking parts..."
Q: Is it difficult to keep that microphone completely still? I've done some research on the topic on the internet, and this seems to be one of the key things in the work of a boom operator.
A: Well, that's probably #3.
First, you have to be on-axis. Mics have a response pattern, a roughly spheroid area in front of the tip where you get a full, warmer, "meaty" sound. To hit that sweet spot, you don't actually point the mic at someone's mouth. You point it at their chin, or voice box. And you have to maintain that sweet spot as they turn their head or walk.
Of course, you have to be out of the shot! Not just the pole itself, either, but the pole's shadow. Even when (especially when) the DP, Gaffer and lighitng crew spend an hour setting up equipment, you have to check every 10-15 minutes to see if they're "lighting you out", giving you no place to hold the boom without being in the shot or casting a shadow.
And then, yes, assuming the actor is not moving, you need to keep it still, or you might introduce handling noise, which is very difficult to remove in post.
Q: When you look at the goofs-lists on the Internet Movie Database, one of the goofs that happens the most is the microphone being in the picture. Has this ever happened to you? (I believe however, that this is mostly the case because the operator at a movie theater hasn't set up the movie correctly, meaning that the image isn't adjusted a bit too low, showing the microphone which you wouldn't see if it was set up correctly. So maybe this is just a case of unfair criticism?)
A: If you see the actual microphone, something is way wrong. I saw a screening of a movie where the projectionist actually set the wrong frame, so there was an entire scene on a bench outdoors with this huge windscreened mic hanging there over the characters.
Now, you can shoot a movie at 1.85 (1:1.85 aspect ratio, the standard rectangular movie frame) and your boom can be dutifully 6 inches out of the top, but if you just dump that into TV (1:1.33), there'll be the mic. I saw this on the Michael Keaton movie, "The Dream Team". So, hopefully your director and producer know if they are "shooting for TV", or have the jing to pan-and-scan in post (re-frame that rectangle for TV-size.)
It's happened to me once, on an silly T-and-A (uh, "Playboy-type") movie. We were behind schedule, I was upstairs in a small room with 8-10 crew, equipment and the three actresses. The mixer was downstairs, without a monitor for the moment, I believe, so he couldn't see the shot. And the way the room was built and how they had lit it, I was casting a shadow right over the girls' heads as they entered the room. I asked for a flag (black material) to cut the light, but we were just so late and frustrated and jammed into this little room that somebody said, "Just shoot it, shoot it now!"
And I saw the movie and there's my huge, blatantly obvious boom shadow right there as the girls walk in. I look like an idiot!
So, here's a tip: You always have the right to ask the DP for a flag or some help to eliminate your shadow. They don't make silent movies any more; sound is just as important as picture. Stand firm - they don't let the 1st AC get away with a fuzzy picture.
Q: Judging from your website, you are working very hard to get foot on the ground as a director/screenwriter. What is it in directing and/or screenwriting that attracts you the most? And which of the two would you like the most?
A: My website? You mean www.13idol.com? ; )
I moved to L.A. ostensibly to be a musician, throw myself in the deep end, that sort of thing. Or maybe stand-up comedy, since I had done a few months worth of open-mic nights. Or "something in film." After a half-year or so of playing with throw-together and start-up groups, I realized that I had been writing prose since I was 8 years old, I just never thought about making a living at it. I wrote a feature script, then some sitcom specs (samples). After several years of trying to get an agent, getting staffing inteviews (without an agent) and then just missing staff on three different sitcoms ("we were going to hire you but the network ordered six instead of thirteen"), I asked myself, What exactly do I WANT?
And the answer was, to direct films that I've written. So I wrote a 7 page script, which ultimately became a 12-page script, and I shot it on 35mm. I am editing it now on Final Cut Pro.
Comparing what I like about writing and directing is a whole 'nother interview, my friend. I feel lucky to have a commercial/populist sense, and people seem to like what I write (other than idiot agents!). I absolutely love turning the page of something I wrote a long time ago and then bursting out laughing at something I'd forgotten I made up. I love the perfect turn of phrase, even just a word or two that describes a scene or makes you laugh as you imagine an actor doing it. And then directing, where you can wring emotion with a creepy Steadicam shot, or float cooly up over a car hood at night as you bring up the light on the driver's face...
I want to be like Luc Besson or Robert Rodriguez or James Cameron. They write it, they shoot it. I don't have to be rich, I just want to create my stories without interference from uncreative people with a business degree.
Okay, maybe more like John Sayles ("Lone Star") then!
Q: You have worked on so many different movies, and when I look at the IMDB-scores of these movies, not all of them have been as good. With your aspirations in the field of directing and screenwriting, do you ever feel an urge to offer advice to the people making the movie on how to improve it? And is this appreciated?
A: Ha ha! Ha hahaha!! I did say "indie films", didn't I? A lot of them are personal, self-funded projects. A script doesn't have to be good or even make sense to get made. All you need is money, to rent equipment and hire your crew!
I remember a $150,000 feature I worked on, you can rent it on DVD even, that was funded by its writer-director, who had never directed before. He made his millions in real estate. In the middle of a particularly arduous day, a British actor came over to the camera truck where I was hanging with some guys, and in his classic accent, asked "How much does it cost to be a director these days?" There are producers out there who will make your film - any film - if you have the money. They're more Production Coordinators, really.
I always feel like commenting, and have to bite my tongue. I've been writing since I was eight, dammit, and I've directed three times! It may sound arrogant, but in 115 projects, I think I've learned from four directors. "Ah, I see, pull back on the dolly to reveal the guy that's always been there..." "Wow, wide-angle really close to their face, and the other guy is in the background!" "Of course, shoot a few takes with no profanity and you can sell it to TV."
I was on a million-dollar shoot, funded by the writer-director's rich father ("How much does it cost...?"), with a big-name DP who had done theatrical films. And the producer, boy director, DP, director's friend/Associate Producer were trying to figure out how to pan slo-mo on a flicked cigarette. I said, "Set up the camera against the sky, light ten cigarettes and just flick them thorugh the shot. One'll work."
After a few seconds of disbelieving stares, somebody said, "You're the Boom Operator, just do your job."
Ah, they were fools anyway.
Later, I thought of another way: set the camera on its side, and just drop the cigarettes past it!
The last shoot I just did, I thought of a line of dialogue that was much better than the silly, mundane words that the heroine yelled at the bad guy. What I thought of made more sense, it would have more accurately, character-wise, enraged the bad guy like it was supposed to, and it would have shown the damsel-in-distress's power shift. And the set had been fairly collaborative without the arrogance or power struggles of the one I mentioned above...
I waited for the director to be alone, I went up to him and said quietly, "What if she said..."
He stared at me, and then just returned to the monitor. No notes were given to the actress, she did the scene again, and another slasher pic is in the can.
So never comment. Everybody thinks they're making art. I'm making art. Do you think Rodin wanted someone to tell him, "At least give the guy some pants, nobody sits naked on a rock to think!"?? Or, in the crush of time, the endless, relentless, never-ending fight against the sun, they just can't take your suggestion. You look like an idiot.
Q: What would you say has been the most demanding picture you have worked on so far, and why was that?
A: Well, that would've been the slo-mo cigarette one. Twenty-four year old writer-director, didn't actually want to direct but "couldn't find" someone else, $1.5 mil funded by his dad, script was a Tarantino rip-off, the AD was a famous director's son and I don't know where they got the Line Producer, but he was a dick.
The first day, he was talking to my Mixer and I made a litlle, little joke at his expense. (Hey, I'm a comic, my mouth gets me in trouble sometimes!) He pulled me aside and said, "Don't ever do that again, now I've completely forgotten what I wanted to say to (the Mixer), and I don't have time for disrespect." Okay, Mr. Self-Esteem Issues. I learned halfway into the shoot that he had wanted a friend to boom, but my Mixer said he wouldn't do four weeks out of town with a stranger. The guy never wanted me on his film!
But it wasn't personal either. Three weeks in, guys from Art are bitching and moaning. I said, "Do they hate you, too?" And the Prop guy goes, "Are you having trouble, too?" The day after wrap, I was standing on the hotel balcony with the Wardrobe Supervisor, and she said, unsolicited, "I don't think I've ever worked for such a disrepectful production company before." So, everybody was gettin' it, apparently.
We actually had a 21-hour day on that film. Twenty-one hours! Every day is at least twelve and a half, because they have to feed you after every six, so they'll go right up to the next time they have to pay for food ("second meal") and then stop. I hear people that work 8-hour days complain about their job and just shake my head.
Look, making films is a logistical nightmare. Even in the indie realm, it's hundreds of thousands of dollars, 20-40 crew members, 50-200 props, picture vehicles, scheduling and time concerns ("We're losing the light, let's go, let's go, LET'S GO!!"), personality and egos, sleep, food, animals, weather, it just goes on and on.
And the worst part about it is, when the relentless shit has so totally obliterated the fan that it's just a stinking, tangled pile of tin in the corner... you hate your life. There have been days on the set, or more accurately, on the way home, where I'm just wondering if I even want to be in the film business any more. Do I really want to do this, be a director, be even more responsible for millions of dollars? Deal with these stupid, insecure, slave-driving people for 13 hours a day for a month or three or six?
But then I get some food, kiss my dog, get some rest, finish that gig and move on. And the next one is an interesting project, with a nice crew or good food and it's okay.
You can always just imagine paying off your credit card with your next check!
Q: Do you still see yourself working as a boom operator ten years from now, or do you hope you have broken through to a career in directing/writing?
A: Good grief, I can't be booming in ten years! 'Course, I didn't think I'd be booming this long... (14 years.) I never wanted to move up and be a Sound Mixer. I guess I never remembered enough from engineering school to be comfortable troubleshooting sound issues, to be responsible for all the technical aspects of sound. No, I plan to be directing full time within a few years.
Using all the knowledge I gleened from being just outside the frame for the last fifteen, of course!
To read more about Kris Johnson, and to keep up to date with him reaching his goals in life, check out his interesting website www.13idol.com.