Set Etiquette and the Chain of Command – Part 2

November 28, 2008 at 11:29 am

You have a responsibility to deliver good sound. It doesn’t matter whether you are the Production Mixer or the EPK guy. There will be times when you need something from the people around you, like quiet. It may be that the people around you will not give you what you need, even after you ask them nicely. EPK crews don’t usually get “quiet on the set.” They are expected to work around everyone else, including the guy with the power saw. You don’t have the authority to tell them to be quiet, but someone probably does. Talk to your director, your director can talk to the ADs and maybe figure out a better set-up or one of the ADs might help you get some quiet.

If the Production Sound Mixer has this problem, it’s basically the same game but the stakes are higher. When crewmembers refuse to stop working during a take the mixer might send the boom op to quietly ask the 1st AD to straighten them out. The 1st AD is in charge of the set and the crew. A stern word from the 1st AD might be enough to quiet things down. Some sets are more disciplined than others regarding quiet on set. This discipline is usually enforced by the 1st AD. ADs may present themselves as having ultimate control over the set but they do not sign your paycheck. Your ultimate responsibility is not to make ADs happy. It might happen that the 1st AD doesn’t care much about your problem and does nothing to help. At this point, your understanding of hierarchies and group power dynamics comes into play. It also helps if you have mentally prepared yourself for a conflict of this sort. You need to pick your battles. If this situation comes down to 2 pages of useable dialogue versus losing the scene to unnecessary set noise, you are justified in pushing harder to get the track. That is, after all, what they’re paying you for. Without the cooperation of the ADs you’ll likely need the support of someone further up the food chain, e.g., the director, a producer, or someone else with enough juice to effectively back you up. At some point, the image of standing in front of an oncoming train will come to mind. Remember, you are not on set to make friends and be loved, important as those may be. If you are unwilling to fight for your tracks, it’s unlikely anyone else will. No one respects a doormat.

If you have used your prep time wisely, you will already have some idea as to who will help you and who will not. Some directors like a quiet set while others don’t seem to care very much. Some directors do a lot of ADR and are not bothered by it. Others like to get as much useable production dialogue as possible. The latter will be open to a solution if you have one. It may be you will have an ally in an unexpected place, the editor, the post-production supervisor, the line producer, or maybe a lead actor who hates doing ADR. Your job is to present the problem and a solution to the people who can help make it happen. You have to present the problem as someone who is looking after their—and the film’s—best interest.

Let’s break this into 2 stages: Day 1 and Day 5. If the set is out of control on Day One, you might mention that to anyone who shows an interest. Make clear requests to the ADs or the Director to get a grip. Give them some time to sort things out, but stay with it. If the situation doesn’t improve by Day 5 and you are losing tracks for no good reason, call post-production and check if they are hearing problems with the tracks. If they agree, then you can work together and approach a producer. The end product is supposed to be good tracks and ADR only when it’s unavoidable. Producers, especially those with budget responsibilities, will understand that good location tracks are money in the bank. They can see that you are working in their best interest. The 1st AD might be a bit out-of-joint when he hears your message from his boss but it’s rare that a 1st AD will ignore that message. You might find that AD is a bit cold towards you for a while but that chill will be tinged with respect. In the end, if the sound is good it makes the AD look good. This is a part of set etiquette they don’t teach in film school.

What’s the proper etiquette for getting screwed? What do you do when you’re shooting a page of dialogue in the 11th hour, losing the light, and there’s a mile long freight train going by (out of frame)? You just suck it up and mark it as Guide Track. You can’t win that battle but you should be gracious when you lose. Don’t whine and don’t complain. Don’t feel compelled to blame anyone. Most movies contain many shots where the sound was replaced for one reason or another.

Taking the above example, what is the etiquette when the train is passing but you’re not losing the light and it’s the 7th hour, not the 11th? What do you do when the AD calls “Roll Sound” when the train is going to wreck the dialogue? There’s no time to phone a producer and have someone intercede on your behalf. The 1st AD wants to roll. The director is indifferent. He doesn’t want to wait for the train to pass. He doesn’t care about the sound. This is a moment of truth. You can be fairly certain that everyone at dailies will notice there is a train all over the dialogue. They will say to themselves, “why didn’t they wait for the train to pass? What kind of sound mixer do they have on that show?” This conversation will be repeated and at some point the sound mixer will get the blame. Neither the director nor the 1st AD will take responsibility for the bad tracks. The mixer will be hung out to dry and his reputation will suffer. If the same thing happens again, the mixer might well be fired. If you can see that this is the direction things are going you have nothing to lose by standing your ground. You stand your ground by refusing to roll on a shot that you know will be perfect if you wait a couple of minutes for the train to pass. This can be a bit of performance art. I prefer to leave the sound cart and walk over to the AD after he’s called “Roll Sound!” If I think it will take the train 2 minutes to pass, I will do whatever I have to, keeping talking, and not return to the sound cart until the train is gone. I never say, “No, I won’t roll” but I won’t go back to the cart. I have been threatened more than once with being fired for doing this but in 30 years no one ever actually fired me. If you get the track and post is happy, the resentments of the moment will pass. In another situation you could pretend to have an equipment problem and buy some time, or the boom op can dip the mic in the shot which will get you another take. These are tried and true strategies, but pick your battles. If you pull these stunts too often you will get fired.

Sound technicians can easily develop a reputation as whiners. The location is noisy, the camera is never quiet enough, the extras are scuffing their feet, that shirt is too noisy, blah, blah, blah. Whining is bad etiquette. Whining, after all, is complaining about something you won’t or can’t fix. It accomplishes very little. Better to come up with a solution and take some action to execute it. If it doesn’t work out, move on. Whining is not attractive and does not build respect for your department.

©Richard Patton 2008

Excerpt from “Sound Man” by Rick Patton C 2009, reprinted with permission.

With over 30 years experience, Richard Patton is one of Vancouver’s most experienced and respected feature film sound mixers. Since 2007 Rick has been Branch Manager at Trew Audio Vancouver.