Field Recording 101: How to Make Sure Your Documentary Sounds As Good As It Looks (Part 2)
These seven case studies will help you decided what audio set-up your doc needs.
One of the biggest challenges in documentary filmmaking is capturing clean, usable sound on-the-go in live environments. In part one of this series, we outlined how to choose the right mics and equipment for the job.
Here, we share case studies from various documentary filmmakers on how they managed to capture great sound on some very challenging productions. From profiling a famous TV personality to capturing an insanely noisy racetrack, these IRL setups range from super-simple to fairly complex. Each of them employed creative indie filmmaking attitudes and dedication that reign supreme in good documentary filmmaking, and their experiences should help point to which audio setup your film will require.
When You Have A Larger-Than-Life Subject, But Not a Larger-Than-Life Crew
Bill Nye: Science Guy, directed by Jason Sussberg and David Alvarado
Everyone’s favorite TV science personality Bill Nye is not someone who goes anywhere incognito. And considering that the other subjects in the film were not strangers to being on-camera/in the media, there was no room for amateur hour when it came to filming Bill Nye: Science Guy. Co-directors Jason Sussberg and David Alvarado wanted to make sure they had the best damn audio coverage while still staying to their small-team ethic, which meant that Alvarado would be on camera while Sussberg was operating a boom. Here's how David Alvarado explains what worked for them:
Jason and I try to use a shotgun/boom setup on every shoot possible. The best audio recordists I've met seem to agree that a shotgun is a primary microphone on a shoot, and you'll want to have really good lavs as backups. We have four sets of lavs so that most documentary situations can be covered in a way where everyone is laved and Jason is booming. It gives our post team options, and also allows for mistakes or sound issues on the mics.
As for problems using a boom with documentary, Jason and I are getting good at watching each other so that the boom doesn't get in the shot. I'm intermittently scanning the room with my other eye looking to see Jason's position. We jam the timecode so we aren't physically tethered to each other with a cable, and post-production syncing is pretty easy with the jam. Honestly, the biggest problem is that, as a directing/producing/shooting/recording duo, we sometimes neglect the simplest tasks since we are trying to think as directors about the bigger picture. So Jason is constantly forgetting to jam the timecode, and I'm always neglecting simple DP tasks like establishing shots and coverage of non-essential "nice to have" shots... which would be nice to have!
When You Need to Be Invisible (and Occasionally at a Distance) for the Safety of Your Subjects
Crime + Punishment, directed by Stephen Maing
To capture the efforts of twelve whistle-blowing NYPD officers, director Stephen Maing had to fly under the radar so he wouldn't compromise the job and personal security of his subjects as their journey was unfolding. In the film, Maing occasionally has to hide with his camera while his audio is still recording, or film from far away while people talked in confidence without a camera in their faces. Here is how Maing described the audio setup that made this possible:
My set up is very simplistic and guerilla by most standards. For Crime + Punishment, I most often worked as one-man band but typically needed multiple perspectives of audio so I got camera perspective audio with a nice Sanken shotgun always mounted on my camera and a Lectrosonics or Sennheiser wireless lav on the "hero" for each scene going into my second channel.
I'd often throw a Zoom or Tascam recorder on the table for group conversations to be sure to get local ambient audio so I could get far back if I wanted. And, for a second "bonus" lav I had a Tram mic going into a Zaxcom transmitter that records straight to mini-SD cards. I wouldn't bother monitoring the signal on this and would just settle for a blind recording, so there was often a chance of shirt rustling, but my thought was that the benefit of potentially having another subject lav-ed far outweighed the clean up that would have to be done for a scratchy track. This bonus lav often did the trick about 90 percent of the time—it was also incredibly useful for more surreptitious recording situations where a subject might need to walk far into a building without fear of going out of range.
If I had my druthers I would bring a sound recordist on every shoot knowing there might not always have been room for a sound recordist because at end of the day it was important to be nimble enough for just a single person to follow an action.
When Your Main Subject Needs to Be Totally Unencumbered By Your Filmmaking
The Peacemaker, directed by James Demo
In his documentary The Peacemaker, James Demo set out to document the work of an international negotiator, Padraig O’Malley, who was busy trying to get enemies from war-torn factions to consider reconciliation over violence. O'Malley didn't have time to fiddle with audio or be poked by a boom or have anything that might compromise his work. Here is an explanation from Demo on how they managed to work within the constraints:
I was following a peacemaker in conflict zones moving quickly and the only way to really get good audio was to have the film’s subject Padraig O’Malley wear a wireless mic. We would put a lav on Padraig in his room in the morning—which went directly into camera—and he would wear it until we stopped filming at night. Lithium batteries were our friends.
The key was to find the clean wireless channels while competing in a security zone with 600 Iraqi police communicating or interpreters talking into wireless headsets during a forum in Kosovo. The lav was a great way to keep track of what was happening. For instance, in the beginning of the film, a delegation from Baghdad was upset and walked out of talks. We heard that over the mic while we were shooting b-roll and were able to move quickly to capture Padraig trying to convince them to stay.
Beyond the lav, we also had a camera-mounted shotgun for when we were following close and two Zoom H4N recorders we would drop on tables or shelves to catch conversations. For intimate interviews with Padraig in his apartment, I found that big setups would change the energy in the room, so I abandoned my tripod, lights, and lavs and would film conversations between us with the camera in my lap. His apartment was really small and we would often sit so close that I was able to get great audio with the camera-mounted shotgun about three feet away. My goal was to always make the audio set up as unobtrusive as possibly yet reliable. We had our moments but for the most part it worked incredibly well.
When You Need Intimacy & Quality In a Changing, Embedded Position
Alt-Right: Age of Rage, directed by Adam Bhala Lough
In his documentary work, filmmaker Adam Bhala Lough is known for capturing controversial and sometimes secretive characters in portraits that give the viewer inside access. To accomplish this, Bhala Lough restricts himself to a two-man crew, with himself as sound recorder. The goal, of course, is to do this without compromising quality. Here is his description of his audio setup:
I personally record all the sound for my films while my DP, Christopher Messina, shoots on a Sony FS7. We are the crew. It is a setup that I learned from my mentor Albert Maysles. I mic up the subjects using Sennheiser lavaliers, wirelessly recording to a Zoom H6. If the situation is too crazy to mic people up, I will use a Sennheiser shotgun on a boom pole and boom it all. (This is what I did when embedded with ANTIFA outside a white nationalist conference in Tennessee last year). Recording my own audio does make my job a little more difficult because I'm constantly adjusting levels and whatnot but it allows for intimacy with the subjects and for my crew to have a small footprint and blend in as much as possible without sacrificing quality of picture and audio.
When Technology Shouldn't Get in the Way of Creativity
306 Hollywood, directed by Elan Bogarín and Jonathan Bogarín
Sister and brother directing duo Elan and Jonathan Bogarín created a very unique magical realist documentary; it was the first to be programmed in the boundary-pushing Sundance NEXT category. They needed audio they could run themselves to keep the creative process flowing. Here's how Elan Bogarín describes their setup:
My brother Jonathan and I recorded all the sound for 306 Hollywood ourselves. Our setup was a Tram lavalier, a Sennheiser mke 600 shotgun mic, and the Sennheiser ew 112 wireless system. We would shoot and do sound simultaneously, so that meant we recorded directly into our cameras (first the Canon 5D, then the Canon C300) and monitored the levels on the screen as we shot. This made us super efficient and light as a crew of two, and we didn’t have the money to hire anyone anyway! But in the future, I’d definitely recommend hiring a sound person.
When You're a One-Man-Band Who Needs to Be Ready at a Moment's Notice
Working in Protest, directed by Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley
Co-directors Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley found themselves capturing protests and demonstrations across America for nearly thirty years. In the course of the film, you can see (and hear!) the changing technologies over the years. For Galinsky, who would film by himself, the most important thing was showing up. He needed a simple setup that would let him capture it and edit quickly. Once technology shifted to DSLR, that meant a shotgun attached to the camera. Here's his description:
Almost all the audio was just a small mic on top of the camera going directly in. It’s not the best sound but it made it possible for me to do it by myself and get it up very quickly. When we switched to DSLR, it’s almost all an Audio Technica mic on top of the camera recording directly into the camera. I have to leave it as auto gain because there’s really no way for me to monitor it. I probably need to get a better camera to tell you the truth, because the sound is not great!
When You Have a Fascinating (But Extremely Tricky) Shooting Location
The Last Race, directed by Michael Dweck
A racetrack with big crowds, booming announcers, and of course, deafeningly loud stock cars. Can you think of a sound recordist's worst nightmare? In the case of The Last Race, director Michael Dweck, along with his two sound effect recordists Jonathan Fuhrer and Peter Negroponte, turned the loud, sweltering racetrack into an expressive soundscape that wholeheartedly supported the story Dweck was telling. Here is how he describes the process:
From the beginning of the filming process, we knew we wanted to capture the intensity of the car racing in a way that an audience had not seen, heard, or experienced before. The process of recording audio was expansive and experimental. During the production process, we built an extensive audio library of the different sounds on and around the track. Certain sounds, such as the voice of the track announcer, were captured from numerous different recording positions to reflect the many perspectives that the audio could be perceived from locations in and around the track. Racing sounds and a variety of different car sounds were also recorded from various perspectives with an array of microphones to provide the sound designer with a broad palette of sounds to pull from for the racing sequences. The intention was for every car and every race sequence in the film to have a unique personality expressed through the audio.
The audio we collected during production was used in the sound edit to achieve an impressionistic rendering of the subjective feeling of the race track, rather than a literal one. This allowed us to take the chains off of structure and format to create a blur of music and crowds, and transition the sound design from scene to scene in a dreamlike way, with sonic elements slipping and sliding in layers. We used perspective shifts, audio pre-laps, extended transitions, abstract sound design, and both diegetic and non-diegetic sound, and non-diegetic music, often all in the same sequences, throughout the film.
Here is a list of the recorders and mics that we used.
- Sound Devices 633 - Used with Neumman RSM191 in M/S in field during race and for other shots in the pits
- **Zoom F8 - Used in primary racecars hooked up to 2-3 RE50s, 2 Lavs and 1 Sanken CMS10 - Will dual channel record 2-3 tracks at -12db reduction to ensure against clipping
- **Zoom F4 - In secondary racecars hooked up to 2-3 RE-50s and 2 lavs.
• These 3 recorders recorded to two SD cards simultaneously for data integrity
- Zoom H6 - Handheld recorder with multple mic patterns for field wild sound and shots to be operated by me
- Zoom H4N - Additional as backup
- Neumann RSM191 - M/S of field with Zeppelin wind screen
- **Sanken CMS10 - M/S of car interior and field
- **ElectroVoice RE50N D/B (X5) - Omni Dynamic mics on racecars
- **Sonotrim Lav Mics (X6)- Omni Condensor on racecars (also pinned to our bodies when recording field to record notes)
Documentary productions are often guerilla, piece-meal, or duct-taped together. And almost always unique! This makes it difficult to figure out what will work on your next production and to decide if what you're doing is legit.
If you have a recent audio setup that worked on a documentary that's either similar to or different from what you read above, please add to the communal wisdom and share it in the comments below!