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Follow that Sound

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Part 1 of 2: Capture That Sound; Or, Wireless Harmonica Holders?
By Sam Molineaux
When the popular CBS television show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation launched its successful spin-off CSI: Miami, the original show’s boom operator Donavan Dear saw it as an opportunity to move up the career ladder to become the new show’s sound mixer. He took with him more than 15 years’ experience on TV and film sets and a radically forward-thinking approach to television pre-production sound.
“I’m sure I was the very first one to have everything completely digital on a TV show,” says Dear, whose experience on big-budget films such as Titanic and Pearl Harbor brought him into contact with higher-end digital and wireless systems. “I just bit the bullet and bought everything all at once: wireless transmitters, a digital mixer, digital recorder, digital DVD and a digital backup on DAT.”
Dear invested more than $100K on his super-compact system (including an array of Sennheiser microphones), and for the way it streamlines his job, he’s convinced it was worth every penny.
At the heart of his rig is a three-piece Zaxcom digital wireless system comprising the Digital Wireless microphone transmitter, the Deva II four-channel hard disk recorder and the Cameo II digital recording console. Each piece, he notes, “talks” to the next, and there’s only one analog-to-digital converter, which greatly benefits the sound quality. As a complete system it allows him a great deal of flexibility in overcoming set challenges and compensating for acoustical difficulties both on location and on-set, not to mention easing the passage through post.
“I am able to give the sound editors lots of choices to make a decision on what sounds best,” says Dear. “I have a good relationship with the post people on this show and if I can give them all the options they need, they in turn don’t have to loop as much, which makes it easier for us to work with the actors.”
On a tour of the El Segundo-based CSI: Miami sound stage recently, Dear pointed out the huge challenges he faces as sound mixer for the top-rated show. Everything from black lacquered panels and glass divides on the set to hard walls and the sound stage’s proximity to a major international airport cause constant headaches for him and his three-strong sound crew.
“There are reflections all over, which make it hard to get the boom in. We can’t make extra movements on the microphone because the motion will attract your eye. So they have to be really still all the time,” he explains. “It’s a very tough job. The boom operator probably has more to think about than anybody else on the set, when they’re doing certain shots.”
A lot of the action on CSI:Miami takes place in the autopsy room – an echoey glass-paneled and ceramic tiled room that is the set’s most challenging from a sound perspective. The room also features two wire-mounted cameras that shoot down on the dead bodies, as well as a large plasma screen, all of which add to the difficulties of booming and avoiding reflections.
Boom operators John Bauman and James Mase wear customized harmonica holders around their necks, each with a tiny television monitor mounted on, in order to keep track of what the camera sees and thus avoid getting in the shot with the mic.
Filming a show set in Florida in Southern California presents additional problems for the sound team. As much as 50% of shooting takes place on location – a greater proportion than many TV shows – and finding locations that look like Miami always takes precedence over sound considerations.
“If there’s one construction site in the whole town, that’s where we’ll be,” laughs Dear. “That’s just how it works. I have to go in and do the best I can. Also we’re based one mile from LAX, so inevitably when we go out on location, we want to stay close by, which means we’re under the planes. We have to be careful about listening to planes as they come in and then roll just as soon as we hear them go out. We can usually get about a minute and a half window without sound. You always have to think more in terms of how the editors will look at the sound. Because if there’s a noise that builds up like a plane, at the end of the take it won’t cut to the closing take.”
Dear notes that one of the advantages of using digital is he can easily eliminate external sounds using the Cameo mixer’s built-in digital EQ. He has programmed various frequency curves to compensate for specific sound challenges, such as plane noise, buzz from HMI lights and outside noise from nearby Sepulveda Boulevard, audible through the doors of the sound stage (the show is filmed in a former Seiko watches factory rather than a purpose-built studio).
An additional feature of the Cameo II that proves useful both in pre- and post-production, is its capacity for storing metadata. Dear will add notes and insert scene numbers as he’s working, as additional guides for the sound editors.
With the schedule as tight as it is, it’s of paramount importance to get as much as possible on the first run. Dear prides himself on how little ADR is needed, despite the set’s acoustical challenges. Using wireless in conjunction with the Zaxcom Deva II’s four internal tracks, enables him to present post with alternatives, should it become necessary.
“If there’s dialog I’ll use multiple tracks, so that everybody can have their own separate track. That way if something goes wrong, the dialog editor could later fix one track with the other,” he explains. “I try at all times to keep the original performance intact. Sometimes it’s impossible, but usually there’s a way. Using more than one track is a big deal. For instance, if two actors have wireless microphones on and one somehow touches the other’s mic, or their own and it’s open a little bit, it doesn’t mean both of them have to loop.”
CSI: Miami being such a clue-driven show means that every single word is vitally important. If just a couple of words are missed, says Dear, it can throw everything off. Since the show is shot on two cameras, he is also dealing with potential sound problems stemming from simultaneous wide and tight shots, which can make it hard to match up the perspectives with the boom. Mic-ing the actors in advance, again, gets around the problem, though there are certain unavoidable difficulties when it comes to the show’s lead character, played by David Caruso.
“David’s clothes are mainly silk-lined, so whenever he moves it makes tons of noise,” says Dear. “We have to try to find ways around that. Sometimes we put mics outside of his jacket, so there’s not as much rub. Often we have two wireless mics on him because he’ll pull his jacket back and speak the other way, and he’ll be talking off the mic. So we have to go from one mic to the other. Fortunately he’s a great guy, it’s never a problem at all. He does whatever we need.
“The only rule I have for the directors,” he continues, “is that they can’t shoot on David wide and tight at the same time. Because he usually speaks with his head straight toward the ground, and it’s very hard to boom. And he has such noisy clothing that we really don’t want to put wireless mics on him for his close-up shots because that’s what’s going to play on the show. So that’s pretty easy, and they usually go by that.”
Dear’s Zaxcom system lets him work remarkably unobtrusively, tucked away in a corner out of everyone’s way and able to progress through takes with little or no interruption to the rest of the crew. On location he just lifts the whole rig onto a small cart, and it’s ready to go. He has enough juice in the batteries to power the truck for 20 hours.
A major advantage is the systems ability to back up instantly to rewritable [Panasonic LF-D201] DVD after every take. As soon as Dear hits stop on the Deva II, a signal is sent to the DVD, which records everything on the hard drive. The DVD becomes the eventual master which is sent to post along with a two-track DAT back-up.
“The DVD has four tracks. I record everything on channel 1, and that’s the dailies mix. And then on the other three channels I put microphones which may be problems, so the dialog editor can take those and fix them if need be. Everybody’s mic has its own track, and it’s pre-faded, so even if I make a mistake on the faders, it still comes in and gets recorded. In any eventuality I can tell the director, no worries we got that line, and we can move on. It’s really a wonderful system. It allows me to be a little riskier and still know that the sound people in post will have what they need to match the final mix.”
Dear rotates hard drives in the Deva so he always has three weeks backup. If something goes wrong in post, he burns a new DVD off the hard drive. In an analog system, it would be gone.
“As a production sound person, you really have to have a lot of trust in the post sound people, especially the sound editors, and vice versa. We have a good relationship and it benefits the process infinitely.”
Next month we’ll pick up CSI: Miami’s sound on its journey through post, to its final destination mixed down with music and sound effects.

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