by Willie Burton CAS
In late February 2016, after returning from my morning walk, I turned my cellphone on to check my messages. There was a voice mail from Molly Allen wanting to know if I was available to work on a project starting mid- April to be filmed in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I was excited and immediately returned the call. The voice on the other end said hello and it was Denzel Washington. I announced myself and his first words were, “I want you to work on my film.” I said okay and Denzel joked that he was the Secretary, Director, Producer and did many other office tasks.
Usually, it takes a lot more than “I want you to work on my film” before you have the job. Most of the time, you have to go in and meet the Producers, the Production Manager and the Director. After the meeting, it’s “thank you for coming in and we will be in touch.” However, it helps when you have done five films with the Director. Denzel was so excited about the project and that the script was adapted from the hit Broadway play Fences. I had not seen the play, but had heard a lot about it. I was just as excited as he was and could not wait to read it.
Denzel was the star, Director and one of the Producers of Fences, along with Molly Allen and Todd Black. This was my first time doing a film that was developed from a play. My first step is to read the script and have a good understanding of the story. I was thrilled to be involved with such a great project and to be working with a great team. I knew this would be challenging, a period film, practical locations and a lot of lengthy dialog scenes. My task was to assemble the best sound team possible. Douglas Shamburger had agreed to be my Boom Operator and the next step was to find a qualified local Utility Sound person. I reached out to my friend, Jim Emswiller, a fellow Sound Mixer who resides in Pittsburgh. He agreed to make some calls on my behalf, and a few days later, as he had promised, Jim recommended Kelly Roofner for my choice for Utility Sound.
In early April, the production office called to inform me that I should prepare my equipment for shipping and make plans to travel to Pittsburgh for location scouting. Location scouting is so important for the Sound Mixer, it allows you to identify potential sound problems early on and come up with solutions.
The majority of filming was in and around the house. It was most helpful to work with Ed Maloney, the Gaffer, and Steve Cohagan, his Best Boy, for placement of the generator. Oftentimes, the generator is too close to the set and there is never enough time to move it because all the cables are already in place.
I use a Zaxcom Mix12, two Deva 5s, set up for ten tracks each, one as the master recorder and one for backup. Two Lectrosonics Venue receivers and an assortment of lav mics; Sanken COS 11, Countryman B-6 and DPA. For the boom poles, I use Lectrosonics UM400 plug on transmitters with Sennheiser MKH-50 and Schoeps for interiors and a MKH-60 for exteriors, plus twenty Comtek receivers for IFB.
During scouting, one of the problems I encountered was that a period garbage truck was to be used; needless to say, it was loud and noisy. It was suggested that we could turn the engine off and let it coast down the hill while recording the dialog. Sounds good so far and I went to the sanitation yard where the trucks were parked and recorded wild tracks of crushing garbage.
The day we filmed the scene, it was not possible to shut the engine off, due to starting and stopping at a fast rate of speed. You always have to be prepared for the worse. Lucky for me, the actors projected their lines over the engine noise. It is amazing to watch Denzel work and how he prepares for each scene. He arrives well before crew call, before me and sometimes blocked the scene with the stand-ins.
At Call, the cast is brought in for a private rehearsal and then the crew for a marking rehearsal. Denzel wanted the actors to overlap their lines in many of the scenes to build intensity and emotions. Each cast member was miced with a Sanken COS 11 lav, while the boom was used overall for the master shots and close-ups. After a couple of scenes with Viola Davis, I wasn’t happy with her sound using the Sanken COS 11, so we switched to a DPA lav which was better suited for her voice.
Our main location was at the house in a suburban neighborhood, where we were able to block off the streets and control traffic. The neighbors were loud, from time to time, but when asked to be quiet, they were very considerate and accommodating. Some of the neighbors even baked pies, cakes and cookies for the crew. Unfortunately, the birds were not so considerate. They were very noisy forcing us to cut takes several times and try to scare them away. After some research, we ordered a couple of electronic bird-repellent devices to try and get rid of them. I still have my doubts if the units really worked. We also bought several fake owls and placed them on the rooftop.
All the rooms inside the house were very small, which made it difficult for the camera crew and Douglas to work. In order to film some of the master sequences in the living room, the front window glass was removed and the camera and dolly were placed outside on the porch. This was no help to us, as we now heard all the exterior noise.
My technique for mixing is always to use the boom with a blend of wireless mikes even on the wide-angle shots to capture the room and have the actors on the isolation tracks for the tighter camera. The actors moved from room to room in many scenes in the house and we accomplished this with both a second boom and a blend of the wireless mikes.
In the bar sequence, there were a lot of mirrors, which meant the boom mike was very high over the actors’ heads. In this set, the boom was my primary mike and the wireless mikes were used to give the sound some presence. In one shot on Denzel, in the mirror behind him, we see Bono walking toward the door. Here, we planted a MKH-50 and I also blended Bono’s wireless mic to make it sound more natural. For the many backyard scenes, two booms were always used with a blend of wireless to give it a rich full sound. Some of the scenes were eight to ten pages in length. I assumed we would break the more lengthy scenes up. However, there were times we would film the entire master of eight or nine pages in one setup. I ran out of space on my sound cart trying to place all the script pages. Lucky for us, only one or two cameras were used throughout, and we shot on 35mm film, therefore, we could only roll ten-minutelong takes. Shooting on film offers another benefit; Fences has a great look.
We had great cooperation from Charlotte Christensen, our DP, Camera Operators, Set Lighting, Grips, Art Department, Props and our location team. Thanks to Denzel for caring about the sound quality and allowing us to do the best job possible. The cast was very cooperative, allowing us to put radio mikes on and make adjustments as necessary.
A film is always a collaborative effort. A special thank you to my sound team, Douglas Shamburger on Boom, and Kelly Roofner, Sound Utility. Our film editor, Hughes Winborne, and his staff, along with a great talented Post Sound crew for their work. The Post team was superb in enhancing the production soundtrack, along with creating a brilliant sound design and final mix.
Producer Molly Allen, along with the production staff, threw a block party for the neighbors to thank them for their thoughtfulness and cooperation while making this film. One caveat; I gained a couple of pounds from the treats the neighbors provided. Well, that’s it and that’s a wrap.