by Richard Lightstone CAS AMPS
With more than forty-three years in the film industry, Craig Woods has an enviable amount of experience to draw from and great stories about his career.
“LA was really a hustle-and-bustle city in the late ’60s. When I was just a kid, I was lucky enough to be playing bass for a songwriter who went by the name of Kenny Nolan. His mother, bless her heart, asked me, ‘Well, what do you want to become when you grow up?’ I answered, ‘I want to work in a recording studio.’
“She gets on the phone and calls a guy named Rich Jacobs, a prominent music producer. Talk about contacts! So, there I was at seventeen, working at MGM Recording Studios on Fairfax Boulevard, then I went to a place called TTG, which was on North McCadden Place near Sunset and Highland. I have great memories of setting up microphones for one hundred musicians, violins, cellos, and the rhythm section, which pretty much gave me my career foundation.”
Craig went back to school to finish college, but after graduation he found most of the recording studios had shut down, and a lot of musicians were out of work. People he used to work with were session players from The Wrecking Crew to The LA Express. Back in the day, they were triple booked but now, they were barely able to make a living.
With his bread and butter drying up, Craig luckily got a call from 20th Century Fox for a Y-6 position. He worked there for a while, then went to CFI and installed their Sony BVH systems, as they were getting rid of their giant Ampex machines.
In 1978, Craig worked as a Utility Sound Technician on The Blues Brothers for Bill Kaplan and again on Continental Divide in 1980. Craig moved up to Boom Operator on television series such as Vietnam War Story and Studio 5-B. In 1990, he worked with Mixer Richard Bryce Goodman on The Hunt for Red October.
“Submarines are tight places and there was just no thought about putting a Boom Operator anywhere in the process. I asked Richard Goodman to get me two snakes with sixteen inputs, and both snakes went on each of the submarine sets that were on gimbals, and I exploded the wires out to every possible place in these sets and then just placed mics everywhere I could. You can even see some of them in the movie but nobody would ever notice.
“You learn more of what not to do in many cases, what fights not to pick. I’m not here to roll around in the dirt because a director wants to do something that’s counterproductive to the sound, which we all go through. I express what the consequences of their decision will result in, and then I walk away.”
Craig had a long working relationship with Sound Mixer Geoffrey Patterson on The Usual Suspects, and on second unit (again with Geoffrey) on Apollo 13, both in 1995. He began doing nonunion mixing gigs and alternating booming for Geoff. When Geoffrey got Twister, Craig had to decide to either make the leap to sound mixing or continue as a Boom Operator. Craig decided to turn down Geoff’s offer.
“That was a very painful decision because it was a great match and with lots of fun memories of the things we went through. Oh my God, what a dreamboat he was to work with. I loved working with Geoff, we could finish each other’s sentences, we had good laughs, he was one of the few Sound Mixers back in the ’80s who never let lighting challenges with DP’s aggravate him, he was just unfazed by it.”
Armed with lots of experiences, Craig began his new venture into sound mixing and teamed up with Boom Operator Mark Jennings on a two-person non union show. It was a run-and-gun cop show, where Mark was chasing the actors with one hundred and fifty feet of duplex microphone cable. Craig requested a third person and the producers offered a young Laura Rush; her first job. Laura was determined to learn, especially how to wrap cable over and under.
“Laura sat there for hours practicing. Then she took a boom and started targeting certain things on a set just to get a feel of how to move a boom and a microphone around. I realized I can’t fire this person, she’s putting too much into this. It was the best decision I ever made. It was a match made in heaven between Mark, and Laura, and myself, and we stayed together for twenty years right up until Mark Jennings retired at the end of Season 5 of Cougar Town.”
Craig now has Shawn Morse as his Boom Operator. “He’s a good ambassador, and you really need someone who can take care of all the situations. I don’t question my boom operators at all.” Craig really believes in a versatile crew schooled in their craft but on a quick notice able to switch roles. “Laura can mix and boom, Shawn can mix. You’ve gotta have that interchangeability. Heck, if you need to take a moment, you don’t want to hold the crew up until the Sound Mixer gets back to his seat, or God forbid, an accident. You need to have that cohesion, and I’ve found that with Shawn and Laura.”
He owned two Cooper 106 panels but wanted more inputs, so he asked Forrest Forbes at the then Coffey Sound if he could combine the two. Forrest accomplished this into the only Cooper 106 board with fourteen inputs. Craig calls it his ‘Cooper 106 + 8,’ “I can’t really find a board better than the Cooper. There’s just something about the dynamic range and how it handles it.” The rest of his cart consists of two Sound Devices 788t and a 702t, Sennheiser 60’s and 50’s combined with Lectrosonics SM transmitters.
“I have the same cart that Geoff Patterson designed. Geoff built a cart for me, David McMillan, and another for Steve Bowerman. All of us got used to working with Geoff and this cart. It’s done me well over the years with all the modifications that I’ve put on it.”
Craig has kept all his mounts and extra custom rigs he used when he was booming, including his own Fisher boom offset that he designed for himself. Location Sound liked his design and had twenty of them manufactured for sale. Fisher booms were prevalent in the early part of his career. “The whole staging of television shows has evolved. They’ve gone from an open proscenium style to copying practical locations, or worse, with some sets built three feet off the ground.”
Craig has been mixing the popular Netflix series Grace & Frankie since it began and will be starting the eighth and final season in June. Earlier this year, Craig mixed the series Solos for Amazon which starred Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren, and Anne Hathaway, under strict COVID-19 safety protocols.
“I had to send so many feeds out as we had actors that were off set, actors who were on set, all of them were in pods, needing their own feeds, headsets, and microphones. We had a lot of situations that were basically on the fly. I had to double up iso’s a lot, that doesn’t happen on Grace & Frankie. It’s basically one or two mics and that’s the end of it.”
The majority of Grace & Frankie is on stage at Paramount Studios. Occasionally, they shoot on the beach and Craig will wire the cast. “The biggest concern is not the waves but the wind, you don’t want to dampen it too much to kill your top end, but you find a way of getting through it.” The driving scenes are all shot on stage against green screen or LED panels.
“We try to pare down a lot of stuff and keep it as simple and fast as possible to get our days done. Shawn will just put a rig in the sun visor, two mics each side, very simple. It’s pretty straightforward in terms of getting sound.”
Craig offered advice for those coming up or starting out. “Understanding your equipment, microphones are not perceptive entities, they are mechanical devices. I once explained to a young director why the actor needed to bring his voice up. You just have to work within the technical parameters of the microphone. One of the best things to do is to understand the psychology of leading a crew, especially for up-and-coming Sound Mixers because that was the one thing that I found as a Boom Operator, each mixer had their own way of interacting with their crew. It helps to understand so they can work to their best ability, having a door open where they can come to you. You don’t want to humiliate a Boom Operator or anyone else. The last thing I want to do is go on set and take a decision out of the Boom Operator’s hands. Psychologically, it’s a disaster, it creates a very bad situation if the person gets intimidated, second-guessing themselves. You’ve got two people that have to get everything done, and the best way to do it is to leave them on their own, or at least guide them in a way that’s not intimidating or bullying.”
Craig considers his career as a blessing and he has plans of going back to university to study music when he does retire. As Craig explains it, the last year of lockdowns has given him some practice. “A flight test of landing a 747 that I’ve never been able to fly on a runway called retirement without crashing and burning. It’s been an interesting forty-three years.”