I first got my start in documentary back in 2003.
It was in the country of Cambodia – a country I knew very little about.
I had been hired on as the sound person – a craft that I also knew little about.
But over the course of the next six months of this trial by fire – and then later on, through my years as an editor – I learned a helluva lot about the importance of getting good sound for your doc and some of the best ways in which to do so.
In the beginning..
So I got my start in documentary as a sound person.
However, any reader of this blog or listener of The Documentary Life podcast knows that I wasn’t always a documentary filmmaker at all.
In fact, it wasn’t really all that long ago (15 years) when I was slinging people’s luggage into backs of cars, giving directions to PDX airport, and dreaming of being a filmmaker. I’d written, directed, and edited a digital narrative feature called Cascades, which had been seen by approximately five people.
I was living the starving artist to a tee!
One day, my roommate and landlord, Skye – who was about to set off to some country called Cambodia and spend six months filming on a Fulbright-sponsored documentary project – approached me with a proposition.
At the last minute his sound person had fallen through and he asked if I’d be interested in leaving the country (and my job) to assist him with the film. Of course, I immediately said, ‘yes please!’ and the rest is, as they say, history. Or the beginning, for me.
I would spend the next six months stepping lightly over landmine and UXO-laden fields, carrying a boom pole and small Tascam mixer, constantly connected in umbilical fashion to the back of Skye’s camera, 12 hour days six days a week, on the documentary film called Bombhunters.
It’s where and how I fell in love with Cambodia and the genre of documentary.
And its where and how I developed a massive appreciation for sound. Sound had the ability to shape whole stories and the power to transport the viewer to an entirely foreign world.
Through that experience as a sound engineer on a feature doc, coupled with my 15 years in film/tv, Ive developed and accumulated some hard fast sound tips that have served me well over the years. And I’d like to share five of them with you!
1. Test Your Gear
This may seem like an obvious thing, but believe me, it’s easy – especially if you’re operating as a one-person crew – to neglect testing all of your gear, including your sound kit.
Your shotgun, your lavaliers, your external sound recorder, if you’re using one… all of it.
Yes, it probably seems like a bit of a hassle, but I can tell you, if there is one piece of gear that can give you trouble – and when you least can afford for it to happen – it’s your sound gear, especially if you’re going wireless, where interference issues can be a commonplace issue!
Look, as a one-person crew, you already have enough on your plate that needs your focus. So you want to be able to rely on your sound gear functioning properly.
The best way that you can do this is to test all of your sound gear out before a shoot – and I’m talking about each and every time that you have a shoot.
2. Bring Your Headphones
You’re thinking that this an obvious one as well, right? But don’t tell me that you haven’t ever forgotten to bring a pair of headphones. Actually, please don’t tell me that you haven’t…. because then I’ll be even more shamed and embarrassed that I have!
It sucks, I can promise.
Because not only do you have no way to monitor the actual sound of your, ahem, sound… but then you’re relying on your camera op or you if you yourself are the one shooting… you have to now monitor the sound by simply monitoring the levels on your camera.
And believe me, there are a zillion different spurious sounds that you wouldn’t pick up if you were monitoring by what you saw instead of what you heard.
So do what I do.
I have a pair of headphones that never leaves my sound kit. It’s a part of the kit. I don’t use these headphones to listen to my records. I don’t use them to edit with. Their only purpose is for recording sound. And therefore they are a part of my sound kit and they only leave my sound kit, when I’m using them to record sound.
3. Think About Location
Just as you would scout locations for shoots, you should be doing this for sound as well.
You need to be considering things like echo in a room, background noise if you’ll be near a highway, AC and refrigerator noise in cafes. And you don’t want to have to shout to conduct an interview and you don’t want your audience to have to strain to hear the interview.
Can you temporarily turn off a loud refrigerator or air conditioning?
Carpeted areas help dampen sound. As do curtains.
But sometimes you may have a sound that is impossible to exclude from an environment. If this is this case, simply make sure to have the object of that sound slightly in frame. It doesn’t have to be obvious, but it gives the viewer something that helps them understand what they’re hearing.
And it allows them to forgive, even embrace this sound.
4. Clothing Rustle
Now I mentioned earlier how if you weren’t wearing a pair of headphones you might miss not hearing something. Like, clothing rustle! Clothing rustle is something we #doclifers are seemingly always battling, especially if we’re trying to hide the lav mic from sight of the camera.
One handy tip is that you can use some double-sided stick tape, placing the tape on both sides of the lav. That way the lav will be mounted between a subject’s skin and their clothing. When done right, this can definitely minimize movement of mic and rustling against clothing.
If you want to check out some other different ways that you can hide a mic without getting clothes rustle, check out this video on 7 Ways to Hide a Lavalier Microphone
I do want to mention that if you don’t have to hide the lav, don’t. The best possible sound quality that you’re going to get is if the lav isn’t impeded by any piece of clothing at all.
And nowadays – especially with sit down interviews – an audience has become quite accustomed to seeing a lav in documentaries.
5. Consider Using a Wired Lav
I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been on set and I’m wiring up a lav to someone and they seem surprised that I’m using a lengthy XLR cable.
Well, let me just tell you that I am a huge proponent of going old school, when it comes to the lavalier.
If I can, I will always use a wired lav – that is, it is attached to an XLR cable – instead of my wireless.
It seems archaic to some people, but I would much rather do this, knowing that I will have zero potential for any kind of radio interference. I’ve just been burnt too many times using a wireless lav setup.
There are, of course, times where it makes the most sense to go wireless – certainly if you’re following a subject around – but if I’m conducting a sit-down interview, I will always try and use the cable version of a lav setup.
Listen to our conversation with one of the most respected, award-winning sound engineers in documentary, Jean Umansky. He has worked on over 50 films – both features and documentary, and was an Oscar nominee for his sound work on the film, Amelie .