SEATED IN HIS CHAIR at Booth Avenue Studios, Toronto, hovering over his cart, sound mixer Robert Scherer depresses the intercom button on his console, linking him directly to his first and second booms, ‘Gordon, Dorian, they need a microphone in the car.’ It’s the final day of on set shooting for Robin Williams in Barry Levinson’s Man of the Year, and Scherer is on the sound.
The son of a mixer, Scherer got his start in sound production as a teenager booming for his dad. ‘As a kid, film sets were not the most exciting places to be because the pace is so slow’, relates Scherer, who envisioned himself working in the more exciting and faster-paced music side of sound. Today, with work on films such as Shall We Dance, The Boondock Saints, Canadian Bacon, Billy Madison and Zoom under his belt, he continues to shadow his father. ‘I did a lot of grunt work in the beginning’, recalls Scherer—a noted prerequisite for his line of work. Rob credits much of his early learning to working with mixers such as Peter Shewchuk and Bruce Carwardine, and boom operators Reynald Trudel and Peter Melnychuk. ‘It took me about ten years to get into sound and booming full-time’, says Scherer. ‘It took me another six or seven years to get into mixing major features like Man of the Year. You definitely have to pay your dues before getting into the department you want.’
Young by mixer standards, the thirty-eight-year-old Toronto native takes pride in keeping his work area neat, using the same mics throughout a shoot, and praising his crew. ‘Gordon Chara (first boom), who’s been in the business for thirty-five years, and my second, Dorian Williamson, who’s been with me for two years, don’t have it easy. They’re the guys carrying the eighteen-foot poles around obstacles for two and three minutes at a time.’ With the recent surge of multi-shot camera work in films, the boom’s task—to get as close as you can without interfering with the shot—has become more challenging. ‘Zoom was a tough shoot’, relates Williamson, ‘because there were so many reflective surfaces on set. But working with Rob has been great. Even when things get stressful and out of control, he’s a very calm guy, and that helps in dealing with the pressure of the job.’
In the competitive world of freelance sound, Scherer, along with every other mixer, is only as good as his last job. Confessing to a good year in 2005, Rob considers himself lucky, but concedes that good work brings with it good reputation. ‘You start to realize that this job is about seventy percent personality and thirty percent [technical] knowledge.’ While stressing the importance of getting along with other departments on set, Rob notes that throughout an extended production, personalities can certainly clash. ‘If the electric department decides to put a ballast on set, there’s really nothing I can do about it, …but it’s the little things, like making sure the prop guy doesn’t give the actor something noisy to play with while he’s doing dialogue that make the difference.’ 9 February—Mixer Robert Scherer enjoying Robin Williams’ antics on set.
And a good rapport with the director doesn’t hurt either. ‘Sound’, according to Scherer, ‘is often times seen as secondary and a bit of a drag …If the producer or director would listen to us more, they could get a much better soundtrack without having to add lines later, which is more artificial.’
Part of Rob’s technical knowledge includes what goes on in the post production end of sound. ‘I think that it’s important for mixers to know about what goes on in post …You learn a lot about what tracks they’re using and what you can get away with, and then you can take that to set.’ For Scherer, improving communication between ‘location and post production’—namely knowing what post can and can’t fix (i.e. the amount of unwanted sound they can eliminate from a track)—makes good sense for saving the production both time and money.
A mixer’s business is largely about capturing good sound—a balanced equation made up of knowledge and experience, a steady crew, good equipment and a reliable supplier. When his equipment goes on the fritz, Scherer’s prime expectations of his suppliers are: ‘FASTER and SPEEDIER: we need them to get the stuff in as soon as possible.’ It’s also great when retailers can bring their new gizmos on set to be test driven. ‘You can bring a new piece of equipment home and play with it for days’, relates Scherer, ‘and have everything work perfect …all of a sudden you get on set—with all the wireless, walkie-talkies and cell phones—and say, “Why isn’t this working?” ’
- Mixer: Cooper, an American mixer, probably the best ever built for film
- Recorder: The Zaxcom Deva is the best since the Nagra
- Shotgun: Schoeps & Neumann KM81
- Wireless: I still like my Micron, which is an English company. I am also trying out these new units made in Canada called Quantum, which are the smalles units available
And in this line of work, it’s the new—new devices, people and places—that plays a big part in keeping Scherer’s interest peaked. ‘Every day on set is different, and you never know what to expect. We might be in some multimillionaire’s house one day, or in an old historical building the next. It’s not like a normal nine-to-fiver, where you’re in the same place every day. You don’t get bored in this job.’ Rob’s enjoyed working with Robin Williams and guys like Tim Allen, who can be hilarious on set, explaining that ‘they seem to be a lot more down to earth because they’ve paid their dues as stand-up comics first.’
When asked about his dream career, Scherer mentioned that he used to race cars, but that he’s too old for that now. ‘Besides’ he notes with a smile, ‘when the race car movie did come to town, I didn’t get it.’ All kidding aside, in his final analysis, after having worked on a challenging set, it’s nice to see a quality final product. ‘It’s always fun …and rewarding to work on a movie that does well. I think that Man of the Year has a very good script and will do well.’ Time and the critics will determine the show’s outcome, but when you see the film, remember that Scherer is on the sound.