February 7, 2018

What Every Sound Utility Should Know Before Walking On Set

Keep in mind these helpful tips while working on set in the sound department. 

There are dozens of roles and responsibilities on a film set. Whether you're a camera assistant, a prosthetic makeup artist, a set costumer, or a video assistant, everyone makes up the dynamic team that supports a director's vision. Each person simultaneously plays their individual part and work together as a uni. If you ever find yourself on a big budget movie or television show, take a momentary step back and watch.

A sound utility is one of the puzzle's most important pieces. Part of the production sound team that generally includes a production sound mixer, a boom operator, and a sound utility, they're often referred to as 2nd boom, third, or cable person. Ross Levy, who has worked as a boom operator (or utility) on films like Suicide Squad, Iron Man,and the hilarious comedy Step Brothers, says the utility person is the "Swiss Army Knife” of the sound department.

Jon Favreau's 'Iron Man.' Courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

As a sound utility, you may be asked to perform any of the sound department's jobs at the drop of a hat. If the production mixer unexpectedly gets hurt or becomes ill on set, you may need to take over mixing duties. If a scene requires more than one overhead microphone to record dialogue with, you'll need to run the second boom. You're a technician, and you need to how the equipment works and how it's used. You need to know the plan of attack for when something breaks down.

You're also a liaison between sound and set. As production sound mixer Ben Patrick (of Silicon Valley and The Office) puts it, "You are the ears, eyes, and face of the sound department. You rule the realm between the set and the mixing cart. You are key in managing all the things that occur there."

Adam McKay's 'Step Brothers.' Courtesy of Columbia Pictures.

As a sound utility, you're one of the first people on set. You power up the sound equipment, check batteries and wireless frequencies, and you make sure there are enough printed sides of the shooting script. You understand the shooting schedule and when it's time to move. You double-check the bag rig in case the production sound cart can't be used. You understand audio playback and the importance of soundproofing sets.

You will need to work with the location department at practical locations to make sure all extraneous noises can be shut off. Conjointly, you will be talking with the electrical department to see if they can avoid running cables through doors that lead to noisy environments. You'll watch all the blocking rehearsals with the mixer and boom operator to see if a second boom, plant mics or radio mics are needed. In that same moment, you'll be looking out for any shadow issues that may arise from the lighting. You're a problem solver.

'Silicon Valley.' Courtesy of HBO.

One of your most methodical and critical jobs on set will be to wire talent. You're working with actors, wardrobe and makeup/hair to make sure everyone is on the same page and understands what you're looking to accomplish. Having to stop production to fix an incorrectly placed lav is something every sound department wants to avoid.

You need to have people skills, understand set politics, and know when to speak up.

While it may serve as a stepping toward becoming a boom operator or production sound mixer, many remain in the position because they love its diversity and the allowance it gives them to be near the action on set. Entourage and Parks and Recreation production mixer Steve Morantz paints a similar sentiment. "I've been working with my sound utility for 12 years, so as boom operators have come and gone, he's been the steady presence. He sets up my cart, wires talent and booms whenever needed. He even covers me mixing."

If you're still uncertain of where you fit in the production process, try sound—it makes for 50% of a movie! Below some are tips to consider as you venture off as a sound utility. 

Assist the boom operator, wire the talent, and make sure all equipment is in range

  • Watch rehearsals and assist the boom operator as needed. Listen for noisy props and quiet them before shooting. Note if any plant or wireless mics will be needed to cover the scene. 
  • Wire talent based on the preference of the sound mixer while coordinating with the necessary departments and talent. Wiring is a delicate and intimate job where trust needs to be earned and protected. Warm hands go a long way too. Be sure to retrieve the wireless during wardrobe changes and at the end of the day. Keep batteries fresh by changing them midday. 
  • Connect the bell & light system and have it ready at all times. Be sure all wireless and IFB antenna arrays are within range and pointed in the proper direction.
  • Dampen footsteps by keeping carpets nearby and lay them down as needed. Remove the tape marks before storing them. Place foot foam on actors and extras as needed.
  • Be sure to hook up power and video to the production cart. 

Be able to set up and break down insert car towing rigs quickly.

Set up loop systems, dampen noise, and make sure everything is charged

  • Understand music playback and be able to set-up loop systems to actors.
  • Make sure any noise around set is turned off or dampened – e.g. refrigerators, AC units, fans, etc. 
  • Communicate with the camera assistants so you can jam the slates and lock-it boxes on the cameras with time code. 
  • Be able to set up and break down insert car towing rigs quickly. 
  • Be ready to pass out Comteks/IFBs to the director, script supervisor, and producers. Make sure all batteries are charged beforehand (and that walkies are charged as well, if that's part of your responsibility). 

Note shooting changes on paper (or your smartphone) as details arise.

Organize paperwork, know where your gear is, and make sure the equipment works

  • Handle clerical duties of organizing script pages, call sheets, and other related paperwork and time cards. If the mixer prefers, fill out a sound report with the date, location, and first scene number, and then set up the media for recording. Fill out any media paperwork and hand it in to proper person at break and wrap.
  • Be familiar with the gear and where it is. Keep adequate stock of batteries, memory cards, storage devices, tape and the many other expendables.
  • Note shooting changes on paper (or your smartphone) as details arise.
  • Keep equipment working properly. Handle getting repairs done. Clearly mark anything not working. 
  • Administer all travel, including preparing equipment on the truck for a load-outs and move-ins by coordinating with teamsters, locations, camera, and ADs. If the location is far, you may need to prepare carnet.

Be clear and concise when speaking on set. Be patient too. 

Remember to wear your IFB, be a cart master, and make sure everything is returned

  • Be a cart master. Set up and breakdown the cart each day. Place the sound and follow cart in the best available spot on set. Set up a tent when applicable. Keep both carts well organized.
  • Return any items borrowed. 
  • Wear an IFB so the mixer or boom operator can talk to you at all times. Listen for audio problems and understand what the mixer and boom op are referring to in their conversations.
  • Be clear and concise when speaking on set. Be patient too. 

If you have experience working as a sound utility, let us know any suggestions we may have missed in the comments below.      

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