July 28, 2014

Principles of Boom Operation

I wrote this article a few years ago for my old blog. I got a TON of great responses from it, so I thought I would resurrect it again, especially since I just shot a new microphone placement video (seen at the bottom of this page). I’ve made some updates and edits to the article as well.

Quick disclaimer on this article: There are many different boom operation techniques. While some are better than others, there is no one way that trumps the others. There are many different ways to boom op, but what matters is the end result, not so much how you got there. So I offer the following advice as a collection of the knowledge that I have gained through experience. I do not claim this to be the be-all and end-all manifesto of boom operation! Nor do I claim to be a good boom op! I’ve just worked with a lot of good ones :-)

Enjoy!


The Boom Operator: one of the most crucial parts of a sound team, if not the most crucial. Also, one of the most misunderstood positions. He is a ninja. No, seriously, he is.

Let’s talk cinema style audio for a bit. On a film set, the boom operator is the “voice” of the sound team. He’s the one that communicates most set-related concerns to the proper crew. If he’s having trouble with placement, he’ll talk to the cam op or DP. If body pack or Comtek batteries are low, he’s the one that changes them. If talent is having trouble with their wire, the boom op is generally the one to fix it. The mixer usually stays off to the side. Because of this, the boom op needs to be a very personable character. He needs to know how to get what he needs without pissing people off. He needs to be able to get along with whomever is thrown his way.

Once we start talking ENG, the mixer not only mixes, but does everything the boom op does. He’s a one man band. He needs to be able to move very quickly, anticipating every need before it happens, staying one step ahead of the crew, lest he hear the dreaded phrase “Waiting on sound!”

Now, you could be the most personable person in the world, not stepping on anyone’s toes and getting all the work you need to get done finished without negatively altering anyone’s mood, and still be a terrible boom op. Let’s talk technical.

A boom op needs to realize how incredibly sensitive his gear is. It’s a game of inches. You need to be able to think one step ahead of the talent. You need to be quick, light on your toes, and stealthy. You need to be everywhere and nowhere, all at the same time. You need to be moving faster than the talent, staying dangerously close to the frame line, so much so that cam ops are breaking into a nervous sweat. You need to perform near stunt moves, moving over and around obstacles on set during moving shots, being aware of your surroundings while sticking your mic on a spot the size of a quarter. You need to do all of this without making a single noise. This is why the boom op is a ninja.

As a boom operator, you have to be willing to do crazy things to get that perfect sound. You will, at times, find yourself in strange positions, in harms way, or in otherwise less-than-comfortable situations. You have to be on point at all times, knowing that if you mess up, you’ve compromised the entire shot.

Ok, if I haven’t scared you away yet, lets go over some basics of boom operation.


1. Understand the reason you are using a boom mic. This will help you understand what sound you are listening for and why.

Wireless technology has come a long ways. If you have money for the high end systems, and have your wiring technique down, you can pretty much wire everyone and have fairly decent confidence that you’ll get well isolated, low noise audio from each of the talent. So, why wouldn’t you do this? When you wire talent, you lose the room. It doesn’t sound natural, rather it sounds sterile, and post production has to fix it. Post is perfectly capable of doing so, but wouldn’t you rather the natural feel of a room versus the artificial recreation of a room that might sound kind of similar to your room but isn’t quite the same?

The boom operator has control over what you are hearing in the mic. You can get closer to the talent, further from the talent, you can rotate the mic, so on and so forth, to shape the sound that you are getting. If you have talent that’s supposed to be in a very echoic room, or if you are trying to show distance, you can pull the mic a bit further away from the talent to bring less of the talent and more of the room into the mic. If you want very little room and a very direct voice, such as you might hear in a close-up, bring the mic as close to the talent as the frame line will allow.

With a good boom mic, even rotating it an inch can change the sound. Listen to the sound you’re getting to make sure you’re getting mostly dialogue, and little room noise. If you’re getting reflection from a wall, articulate the mic so that the wall is at the side of the mic instead of in front of it.

Now, of course there will be epic wide shots, very noisy environments, and multi-cam shoots that won’t allow you to boom and will force the use of wires, but your goal should be to use the boom as much as possible.


2. Aim the microphone at the solarplexis.

Not in the general direction of the talent, not at the talent’s head, mouth, face, etc…

(The solarplexis is basically the sternum area.)

The human voice has many components and emanates from different parts of the body. The deep part of the voice comes from the chest and throat. The mids and some highs come from the mouth and nose, and the high highs come from the skull. Aiming at the solarplexis grabs all of these.

Aiming at the solarplexis also gives you a bigger target. If you aim at the mouth, you have to move the boom with every head movement in order to keep the same frequency response. If you aim at the solarplexis, you have a much larger target, allowing the talent a much larger range of motion without having to move the boom as much, all while maintaining a consistent frequency response and overall sound.


3. Booming from below opens you up to a world of problems. Literally.

Think about it. If you point the mic down, you deal with a few things on the ground such as footsteps, props, and whatever faint reflections that might be there. All things you can control. You can use foot foam to quiet steps, you can use blankets and carpet on the floor to quiet reflections. You can use fake keys and jewelry to quiet prop noises.

Now, think about aiming your mic up. If you’re outside, you have airplanes, wind, birds, traffic bouncing around, etc… None of which you can control. If you’re inside, you have reverb bouncing around in the ceiling, A/C if you were denied having it turned off, light noises (especially if you’re using HMIs), and whatever else might be up there. Much of this you can’t control.

Let’s revisit aiming at the solarplexis. When we mic from above, we’re intersecting all of those nice frequencies. When we mic from below, you get a low end bias. You’re closer to the diaphragm and chest, where the low end comes from. Remember the mic is very directional, especially at higher frequencies. Therefore, if you’re aiming at the solarplexis from right near the solarplexis, you’re going to only get the solarplexis, and not the frequencies that come from higher in the body. As a result, the voice sounds “tubbier” – the low end frequencies really stand out. Something you want to try to avoid if possible.


4. The frame line is your friend. Give it a nice big hug.

In most circumstances, you are going to want to ride the frame line as close as possible. I know, I just talked about pulling back for more reverb, etc… All that is good to know, but you also have to realize that microphones pick up more reverb than your ears do. So, in most cases, you’re going to want to be as close to the frame line allows, often riding it dangerously close. An experienced boom operator can ride that line so close he’ll make people sweat, but he’ll rarely break the frame.


5. I’m being followed by a boom shadow, booooom shadow, boom shadow.

Lame Cat Stevens references aside, boom shadows aren’t fun to deal with. A boom op should be present for blocking and rehearsals. He will be able to find where the lighting will fall during blocking, and can request flags from the DP if needed (politely please! You want to remain friends with the DP! He won’t always put up a flag, but he might if the lighting scheme allows.) Also, the boom op will work with the cam op during blocking and rehearsal to find out where the frame lines and shadows fall. The cam op is the boom op’s best friend on set. Just be sure not to interrupt any important conversations between Cam Op / Director / DP / etc… You’re still trying to be a ninja!

Please, don’t be that guy who doesn’t show up for rehearsal, and then proceeds to ask what’s going on. Do your homework. Know what’s happening before it’s happening.

On the other side of things though – especially if you’re working with hard wires – don’t lay your cables first thing – they’ll get trampled and covered with stingers (power cables) and will make your life difficult. If you have a hard wired boom, lay the wire down as late into the process as possible.


6. Fancy Footwork.

One of the biggest mistakes that novice boom ops is not moving enough. I’ve seen some boom ops who I though had their feet cemented to the floor. Not good. A boom op needs to be agile – quick and fluid (which is why I’m not a boom op). In order to stay on axis, you need to move a lot. You need to move your arms, your body, your feet – anything it takes to get that perfect audio. When you watch a pro boom op do his thing, he is often moving so fast that it looks nearly violent!

The trick to all of this is to be able to do it all silently. When you walk, walk heel to toe. Wear shoes that don’t squeak. Wear a shirt and pants that don’t rustle. If you have trouble with foot noise, try some foot foam on yourself!

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Take a look at this video:

When the camera pulled back, you could see the boom op. Notice how he was holding the boom pole – he has his fingers on it, but not his palms. This allows him to move the boom around faster, as well as minimizes handling noise. Also notice how fast he is on the transitions. He knows the dialogue already so he knows what to expect. This allows him to capture every line flawlessly.

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So as you can see, being a boom operator is no joking matter. It’s serious stuff. I guarantee if you follow these steps, you will be well on your way to some quality boomage. Of course, no article can make you an expert. That comes with experience. So get out there and make some movies!

Comments

  1. Carsten Rojahn says:

    great read Colin! I enjoyed it.

  2. Thanks for all the great tips! I can’t wait to practice.

  3. You officially have one more fan.

  4. Great tips. Thanks Colin!

  5. Juan David Chahin says:

    Great Article, thnks!!!!!

  6. What is the frame line? Please describe it. Thanks!
    Matt

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