Listen to This: Independent Sound Mixers Talk On-Set Production Tips, Career Strategy and Work-Life Balance
Modern cinema, deconstructed to its most basic elements, is the art of combining light and sound to tell stories. If you’re reading this, chances are you can name five cinematographers. But how many production sound mixers can you name? To find out what it’s like to be in this essential line of work — and to hear their hard-earned advice on getting great sound — I spoke with three sound mixers working in independent film about a job that is, by its very nature, the sort of thing audiences only tend to notice if there’s a problem.
Gillian Arthur, 30, has been working as a sound mixer and boom operator for almost 10 years. Her recent sound mixing jobs include Olivia Newman’s First Match, Aaron Schimberg’s Chained for Life and Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits. She was also recently the boom operator on Lynne Ramsay’s prize-winning Cannes competition film, You Were Never Really Here. She lives with her husband in a Flatbush, Brooklyn apartment. She, like the other sound mixers I spoke with, owns and rents out her equipment (which she says producers expect), including sound devices recorders, Sennheiser and Schoeps microphones and Lectrosonics and Zaxcom wireless.
As with most below-the-line positions on independent films, her rates are based on production budget, location, and other factors, but a loose ballpark for non-union indie films is $150-400/12hr day plus $200-300/day for kit rental. Indie TV shows are usually $700-900/12hrs including gear, and commercials, and corporate work may be $600 – $800/10h-12 hours plus $300-800 for kit rental depending on the amount of gear needed.
Arthur says she loves working in a creative field which is also technical, and she notes that clear lines of communication between departments is critical to her ability to achieve great sound. For instance, she says that making sure a DP understands why a boom operator is asking to flag a light or having the props department help to soften some dishes on a table during a dinner scene is essential.
And she says it’s her job to ask the right questions. “I think early on I was under the impression that after a shot was finished I could walk off set and take a break as the next shot was determined,” she says. “As I’ve continued working, I realize no, I can’t. I need to wait for and know what’s next. I need to see the blocking, ideally, speak with the DP and hear conversations about lighting and coverage. If I don’t stick around for these conversations — or maybe I can’t because I’m off collecting a mic — I need to ask questions when I get back or hope I get a rehearsal. Otherwise the first take of the next shot will be the rehearsal… and maybe a line is not covered as best as it should have been.”
Dan Bricker, 31, agrees: “I am a big fan of always being a few steps ahead so my team never hears the dreaded ‘waiting on sound’ phrase come from the AD department.” Bricker’s credits include Ira Sachs’s Love is Strange and Little Men, Matthew Ross’s Frank and Lola, and Dustin Guy Defa’s Person to Person.
Bricker got his start at film school, where he was the only person in his class who grasped the technical side of recording sound, so his classmates asked him to mix their thesis films. He saw this as a great opportunity to make all of the mistakes a new mixer tends to make before entering the professional world. For instance, he learned that sometimes you have to choose your battles. While he says he always strives for the best audio on each shot, “if you are shooting a wide shot and know you will be going in for coverage, the audio doesn’t have to be perfect on the wide.” Or you may need to expose the wireless mic in a wide more than you would for a closer shot. He says this tends to aggravate wardrobe because they think it will be visible. He adds, “However, I always explain that as soon as camera comes closer, I will hide the mic or straight out remove it. But this can be an area for much contention.”
He also had to learn how to make talent, including A-List talent, feel comfortable about having a wireless mic placed on them. A few times, actors have flat-out refused a mic. He overcomes this with a personable and respectful attitude, “because you will inevitably be touching them and in their personal space.” He also mentions that having them wired will help to keep them out of the ADR (dialogue looping) booth later. “Every time, they have understood that I’m not trying to be a nuisance, but rather, aiming to help them and the film out.”
For someone starting in the sound world, Bricker suggests being a sound utility or a boom operator on a small low-budget shoot. “I am a big fan of throwing someone right into the thick of it and have them learn practically,” he says. “Set etiquette is very important and can only be learned on the job. Listen to the sound mixer and ask a lot of questions because you’ll learn a lot of the little tricks that sound mixers have perfected over the years.”
He adds that every filmmaker has at some point dealt with a salty or inexperienced sound department, and it’s “scarred them for life.” But he’s not fond of camera departments telling his team where to boom or place mics, saying “it can be a bit disrespectful. It would be like us telling the cinematographer what lens to use. Myself and my boom op pride ourselves on knowing how to do our jobs. That being said, most of those days are behind me, and I now work with the most respectful crew members.”
Renee Stairs, 29, has been an Austin, TX sound mixer and boom operator for eight years. Her first sound mixing credit was on a graduate thesis film while she was at the University of Texas at Austin Radio-TV-Film program. She was supposed to be the boom operator, but a few days into the shoot the mixer had an epileptic episode and had to drop the project. So Stairs ended up stepping in, with absolutely no experience, and that credit jumpstarted her career.
She started small by purchasing a used Sound Devices 422 mixer. Then she bought her first mic, an Audio Technica 4073, and boom pole. Later, she added two wireless lav kits (Lectrosonics 411 receivers, SMQV transmitters) and a recorder (Sound Devices 633). She made the move to all rechargeable batteries last year, and she purchased her Comtek system in 2014. Most recently she bought a Denecke SB-3 Timecode Synchbox. And now uses a Sennheiser 416 as a boom and has three lavs in her package. It’s a relatively small kit yet is still worth over $15,000.
The bulk of Stairs’ work now is in corporate video. Her last feature was actually over a year ago, Clay Liford’s Slash, simply because there aren’t that many films shot in Austin. She reports: “This was the first year since starting my career in audio that I didn’t work on one feature.”
On the flip side, Stairs is not overly fond of working on short films. She says she’ll do one if it’s with a producer she really trusts, but adds: “I’ve just worked on so many shorts where the crew is really amateur and they don’t fully understand what the sound department can and cannot do.”
She says people in other departments don’t necessarily understand how it all works. She says, “People always joke, ‘We’ll fix it in post,’ but unfortunately I hear that in earnest a lot more than I hear it as a joke. When people see me running around a room unplugging refrigerators, taking batteries out of clocks, locking windows and waving mics around light fixtures, sometimes I feel like they think I’m just doing to it to make it look like I’m busy or something. Another thing people are always bitching at me about is turning off air conditioners. I understand it sucks to turn off the air conditioner in an old house filled with hot lights and smelly camera guys in the middle of August in Texas when its 110 degrees out. I have to suffer through that too. But if the actors have to shout over the air conditioner in order the make out their lines, that AC is going off. I don’t want some editor calling me in a month asking me why the audio is unusable in that scene.”
Bricker says that what keeps him going as a sound mixer is how important the job is: “Sound is literally half of a movie and it’s achieved, at least on set, by a department of only two or three people. My team and I always strive to get the best quality recordings on set, giving the postproduction team more freedom to work their magic. We fight for our department and have achieved, on a lot of films, no need for any ADR.” He adds that they rarely get any feedback on the quality of their work, “…so it’s nice when a producer or a post production facility goes out of their way to thank us.”
If Arthur could change anything about the job, it would be to make the industry’s 12-16 hour workdays closer to 8-10 hours. Although these are standard hours for film production, it’s hard to maintain the routine parts of life when you’re working those hours, five and six days a week.
Bricker, who loves living alone in a railroad apartment “in the industrial slums on the cusp of Williamsburg and Bushwick, in Brooklyn,” also had to find a work-life balance. He confides that “romantic relationships have been a struggle in the past, but now I seem to have a better grasp of it. It’s important to be with someone who understands your schedule and is okay with it. But, that’s also a two-way street. You need to make sure you are also making time for the other person. My girlfriend is a wonderful woman, and we both make sure to plan spending time together and making the most of it.”
Stairs, who lives with her boyfriend and their two dogs in a house she owns, also has to deal with the long hours of film life. “When I’m working on a feature or a multiple-day project there pretty much is no social life. You get up before the sun, slave for 12 hours in the blazing heat or a hot house (for some reason people love to shoot features in the summer in Austin), come home after the sun goes down, try to remember to eat dinner, force yourself to take a shower (possibly fall asleep in the shower), try to convince your significant other to massage your sore bones, and then fall asleep early because you have to be back at work in five hours.”
Despite this, Stairs keeps pressing on in the film industry because ultimately, she loves it. “I get to set my own hours. I’m my own boss most of the time. I can work for and with who I want. I’m usually my own department head. I also still get a little thrill out of seeing my own name in credits, and I get really excited when it actually turns out I like the movie I worked so hard on. I love film people as well. There’s a sense of ‘we’re all in this together’ amongst us. I also get to go to place I would never get to see if I were not in this industry: the sidelines at the Alamo Bowl, or up in a four-seater airplane, backstage at concerts, barbeque festivals, ice rinks, pig farms. I got to see a series of explosions at a quarry once — the list of crazy shooting locations goes on.”
Stairs also has a second gig, as a burlesque dancer. Both careers are freelance and she schedules the two around each other. She says that her burlesque troupe has two regular shows a month, but she’s not required to be in them. “In burlesque you also book your own gigs and over the years I get more and more busy as a burlesque performer. I’ve performed all across the country and last year was able to go on my first European tour to Paris, Zurich and Munich. There are some days when I have to make tough choices but for the most part the two careers weave around each other nicely.” She reports that it can be good to have another option in winter months, when film jobs are harder to come by.
In fact, Stairs wishes she could get more sound mixing work. “I get enough work to pay my bills but… it’s not really enough to save or start a family on. And if I ever wanted to have kids I would have to seriously change how I work since I’m a lady, and the sound bag tends to sit right on the baby maker. If I were pregnant I wouldn’t be able to work without a boom operator, ever. So that’s an interesting thought.”
Stairs hasn’t joined the union, but she says she’s been seriously considering it due to how unpredictable the film industry is, in Austin. In the state of Texas you don’t have to be in the union in order to work on a union gig (it’s a “right to work state”). But she says that if she were a member of the union, it would be easier to book better-paying commercial work, “and there would be the possibility of someday working on a ‘Hollywood movie’ although there aren’t tons of those shot in Austin anymore. It definitely seems like joining the union is the next step in my journey as a sound mixer.”
Bricker also has not taken the plunge of joining the union yet, and he says it has occasionally affected the jobs he can get. (The union that includes sound in New York, Local 52, hasn’t been taking new applicants for a while.) Bricker says that “if it happens organically, I think I’d love to join.”
As the years have gone by, he’s also learned the art of negotiating and, more importantly, of understanding his own worth. In addition to sound mixing, he’s gotten into writing, directing and producing. “I also do a lot of projects free of charge for my friends or reduce my rate for a good cause. Two years ago, I was teaching sound mixing in Haiti to some local filmmakers along with my colleagues to help try and build a self sustaining film community and create jobs for Haitians.”
Arthur says that if she wasn’t mixing sound, she might be running her own small business. She’s excited about an upcoming film that’s being produced by friends, and she looks forward to whatever new projects come her way.
For Stairs, there is no end in sight, although she’s not sure if she can see herself sound mixing when she’s 50. “Being a sound mixer is physically taxing and my back and knees are already feeling the abuse. Older sound mixers I know have pinched nerves and slipped discs. Having a family is a big thing in my mind too. But I try to look to people who are a little older than me that stuck it out. I know people who do this job and have the things I want. And if they can do it, there’s no reason why I can’t.”
Bricker sees himself doing this for another few years, before more fully focusing on pursuing his dreams of directing feature films. “But sound will always have a special place in my heart. So much that my boom operator, Dylan Goodwin (one of the best in the biz), and I plan on getting tattoos of the audio waveforms of each others voices on each other saying the iconic ‘sound speeds’. It’s a solid mixture of nerdy and sweet.”