by Richard Bullock CAS
1923 is an episodic story to Yellowstone, also on Paramount+. I knew most of the production team already as we had worked together on 1883 in Texas, the year before. We were all prepared for what we were in for, an on-location Western episodic series with lots of long days on remote ranches. There would be numerous cowboys and cattle, and a five-camera protocol that allowed for a large amount of freedom for the actors and background. The cast, led by Harrison Ford as Jacob Dutton, and Helen Mirren as Cara Dutton, would be expected to really carry out the ranch duties their characters were portraying in the scenes. There had been a week-long cowboy camp during pre-production where all the actors practiced their horsemanship skills, learned about hitching wagons, and driving cattle.
The approach to recording sound on 1923 is to make sure we have well-placed lav mics on all the actors at all times, and then get in there and boom the coverage whenever possible. More than 50% of the show is filmed day exterior on ranches so sometimes it’s just impossible to get a boom in there no matter how hard we try, therefore, the wires are crucial. We are relying nearly exclusively on DPA 6060 series mics and Lectrosonics SSM transmitters. The size and weight of the SSM allows my utility, Kelly Lewis, to mount the transmitter and mic inside a cowboy hat more often than not.
When the hat is not practical, we generally hide the mic in the neckerchief, called a wild rag. These two staples of the cowboy wardrobe really come in handy for excellent sounding mic placement with minimal clothing noise. Now the wind, that’s another thing all together. We have gotten good at building the mics with Bubblebee Windbubbles, which allows us to avoid burying the mics too far into the clothing.
The day that we film on ranches, we have a forty-five-minute pre-call to load all of the equipment we’ll need for the day onto 4WD Gators at base camp and get out to the set. We often arrive on set ready to wire actors right at sunrise. We have just enough time to take some beautiful Montana sunrise photos to text home before we’re rehearsing and setting cameras. Often the first setups are wide shots, and they can get pretty wide considering the terrain. The actors can be on their number ones on horseback one thousand feet away and delivering dialog on the ride in. Having the transmitters in the cowboy hats for reception comes in pretty handy for these scenes.
We always wire several key background cowboys who are tending to the cattle or horses. Although they may not have scripted lines, they are truly doing their work as cowboys during each take. It’s fun to capture the real dialog between them, and quite often, they talk to the cattle as they maneuver them around. It’s pretty charming and offers editorial an interesting way to get into or out of a scene. I’m always pleased when I hear it used. There are always lots of great opportunities to record horses and wagons, vintage cars, or swinging porch doors. The show has a very natural sound and shooting on location on remote ranches really allows us to get some great effects recordings alongside the dialog.
I record onto a Sound Devices Scorpio, using a CL16 control surface. We keep the Wisycom LFA antennas on one hundred-foot cables and run them out as close to set as possible while getting them up as high as we can on some eighteen-foot light stands. Even though we are in pretty remote areas without a lot of radio or television frequencies to contend with, there is a surprising amount of set-inflicted interference from the five cameras and all the Teradek wireless that goes along with it, including a twenty-beltpack Bolero comms system each with its own Bluetooth headset. Set lighting is also largely wireless, contributing to the crowded RF environment. I definitely see a greater need than ever to coordinate all of the on-set wireless.
The storyline of two characters, Spencer Dutton, played by Brandon Sklenar, and Alexandra, played by Julia Schlaepfer, start their journey in Sub-Saharan Africa and eventually seek passage back to the US. This required a separate shooting unit to cover South Africa, Kenya, and Malta. Robert Sharman took this on and did an amazing job. He hired local crew who were truly excellent; Bertrand Roets, Boom Operator, Greg Albert, Utility Sound, and Kwanda Mkosi, Wiring Technician. There were days on safari in northeastern South Africa Reserves, as well as filming in Cape Town and Chale Point Kenya. Then they were off to Malta to film scenes set in Sicily. Some water tank work was also accomplished there. Unlike Montana, the cold was not so much an issue for Robert and his team, just wind, dust, ticks, and angry elephants.
By mid-October, Montana was getting pretty cold and snowy. When we arrived in the old ghost town of Bannack for several days of filming, it was a very cold (-20ºF). We had several weeks of filming left on the schedule and we all knew we weren’t going to make it in those conditions. Pretty quickly, production was eyeing the California mountains just southeast of the Grapevine. We had already scheduled a week of filming on the Queen Mary in the port of Long Beach, so this made sense.
The week on the Queen Mary had its own challenges. The wireless environment at the Port of Long Beach is some of the worst I’ve experienced anywhere, and changing all the time as different ships maneuver around the port. We had a huge ballroom scene to film on the ship with a live band, several conversations on the dance floor ending in a fight scene. We had speakers for music playback, a thumper, and twenty-two earwigs for the band, singer, and several actors. Squeezing all the frequencies into what little spectrum was available was tricky as well. Turning down the gain on the antennas into negative territory, and keeping them close to the action made it all possible. Charles and Kelly did an amazing job booming that day as well.
Finally, we were in the mountains north of Santa Clarita, CA, to complete the work we got snowed out from in Montana, only now it just wouldn’t stop raining. You can’t win for trying. But that’s 1923, always diffcult but always rewarding. It could be done with green screens and stage builds, but keeping things as real as possible creates an authentic environment for the actors to work in and you can pretty much point the camera anywhere and find a great shot. Recording sound in those conditions may not be ideal but it has its rewards. I wouldn’t have it any other way.