by Benjamin A. Patrick CAS
Who would ever have thought a half-hour comedy series would shoot like a feature movie? Tons of locations, nights, stakeouts, airplanes landing on desert fields with military gunplay during vehicle stunts, plus one-take martial arts sequences, carefully choreographed around special effects, and visual effects elements?
When I heard the basic premise of Barry, a hitman who wanted to change careers to become an actor, I wondered how the hell Alec Berg and Bill Hader were going to build this world. I thought this type of genre had already had its day, but it was nothing what I presumed it to be. The writing was some of the best I had ever come across for a series and the world Barry lived in just got more and more interesting with each episode.
The cast was a pleasure to work with, always professional and willing to help. Bill Hader as Barry, Henry Winkler as his acting instructor, Mr. Cousineau, Stephen Root as Barry’s manager, Fuches, Sarah Goldberg as fellow actor/love interest Sally, and Anthony Carrigan playing the murderously lovable Chechen mobster NoHo Hank, were given the freedom to flesh out their characters, and they took their tasks seriously.
The crew had to be as serious as the cast, and worked together to facilitate whatever aspect of production could assist them in achieving their character more fully. As an example; how someone was wired to preserve their look, boom mic selection, or requesting quieter prop handling, were ways both the actors and the Sound Department could make and record a great performance.
One consideration was for Bill Hader to always be wired so we could catch the little under-the-breath-isms he would give. Sometimes it wasn’t the words but the breathing that brought something more to the scene. Anthony Carrigan’s wardrobe always had a trim fit so we worked a well-hidden radio mic pack placement for him. These may seem like simple things but they are important.
All of Barry’s acting class were wired, even when they had no scripted dialog as they were frequently given license to ad-lib lines during a scene. Although this may sound like a potential for a free-for-all, it usually wasn’t due to their respect for fellow castmates. Even if an improv didn’t make it to the final cut, it had value in the evolution of a scene, as it kept everyone thinking on their feet, including the Sound Department. Barry was not written as an ad-lib improv comedy and should not seem to require wiring 24/7, but I did. I always want to make sure I get it the first time, as comedy seems to be what I work on most, so I approach most shows this way.
DP’s Brandon Trost (pilot) and Paula Huidobro (series) both used one camera, with a second on standby. There were rarely gratuitous camera moves or blocking with every angle seeming to have a purpose. Generally, we would start with a wide shot and let that serve to allow the scene to find its way, then go in for coverage. Of course, the initial blocking also considered the ensuing closer shots.
On any show, once we begin coverage is always the moment where I wonder if they are going to cover everything tight enough with both cameras, so we can get a good boom mic in on the performances. Even when I have a shot list in hand, I carefully watch the pairings of camera angles. I have had discussions before the shoot with the showrunner, producers, and DP about how we’re going to cover the scenes. My main agenda is to make sure every performance is recorded with an excellent well-manipulated boom microphone in the hands of an expert boom operator. I often hear the same answer, “Of course we’re going to cover everything,” but they are rarely thinking that two cameras will be shooting separate coverage with different lens sizes. It’s only on the day when I point it out, that they seem to understand my concern.
As long as I know all coverage will be managed with boom-ability in mind, I can more reliably mix the tracks I want to deliver. Of course, this is such a big part of any production for the Sound Department when multiple cameras are at play. Once we know the order of coverage, we can make sure that all close-ups are boomed well. This negotiation needs to be handled discreetly and clearly. As long as I make my needs clear and point out the value in my concerns, I eventually get the microphones where I need them. After all, we are recording the performances that the producers have paid so much for.
We didn’t have to waste too much time discussing wide and tights because there was purpose in shot planning and blocking. Wide and tight did happen from time to time, but it was because those shots had no dialog, but action sequences. Having Bill and Alec on set all the time allowed them to make the call whether a shot was about the dialog or not.
I’ve been fortunate to work with incredible people on Barry. My crew for the pilot was Serge Popovic on Boom and Cristina Meyer as Second Boom. Season 1 was Chris Diamond and Corey Woods, and Season 2 was Jacques Pienaar and Corey Woods. Having folks with so much experience, quick wits, and enormously kind personalities makes my job truly enjoyable. I feel nothing is impossible and emboldens me to try things that go beyond simply recording great dialog. Basically, “trying stuff” different mic’ings than the traditional boom or wire. I love a good plant mic, it can be great for another flavor for post to use. Options are so important when you’re working in comedy because a different perspective or the unexpected in a scene might make it funnier. In comedy, there are sounds on the set that are critical to enhancing a joke or comedic moment. A lot of building block elements for setting up comedy are created in post, but the origins may reveal itself on the set. I like to see if we can get it in production. Serge, Chris, and Jacques are my eyes and ears on set, and they are great in recognizing opportunities and devising ways to get a good plant mic situated. I am always amazed at how good they are at planting.
In Season 1, there was a scene where Fuches (Stephen Root) was in the hotel bathroom behind a closed door and the camera was in the bedroom looking over Barry. Boom Operator Chris Diamond put a plant on the bathroom mirror to mic Fuches because all he was wearing was a towel. This gave the mic perspective with more air, and the feel of the small bathroom, like we would hear Fuches from Barry’s perspective.
Cristina and Corey, both great boom operators in their own right, were good at wiring which allowed me to use lavs more often. My philosophy is that the wires are always my plan B, and to only use them when I absolutely had to. When they are placed so well, they became a viable option because great technicians make opportunities. Their experience over the years of placing microphones on and in wardrobe of all kinds is priceless. It is a skill that really germinates in “trying stuff.” There is no “one failproof way” to put radio mics on actors, and techniques grow from experience.
In the final episode of Season 2, acting class character Natalie (D’Arcy Carden) was stage managing the class’s “truth” in a theatrical showcase tech rehearsal. She was given a questionably functioning mini-PA from props, the satchel type mic system worn over the shoulder. It sounded terrible and barely amplified her voice enough to even be useful in reality. Throughout the entire scene, she was talking through this PA system traversing the theater in the background. Boom Operator Corey Woods ended up wiring her wardrobe, as well as wiring a Sanken COS-11 to the side of the PA speaker so as to not blow out the lavalier with too much level plus giving it air. It played perfectly in the scene and added a funny energy to cut against the heartfelt dialog scene Barry and Sally (Sarah Goldberg) were having in the seats. Corey took the time to try a few locations to plant before deciding on the area next to the speaker.
The people I work with are critically important to me, and I like to think I set a tone and expectations as a team to make it happen. My crew comes with their own experience and criteria for excellent sound and as a group, we all establish a standard. It is so easy to get complacent when you are up against lots of naysayers who find it easier to say no than to try and comprehend the Sound Department’s needs. Let’s face it, we ask odd questions sometimes. But, together, the sound team can stay vigilant and keep a calm perspective in order to professionally handle the challenges. It’s the people surrounding me in the team that comes with years of experience that make the impossible possible.
When one of us starts to weaken or relent to the pressures of the set, the rest of us remind each other to stick to our standards. The trick to negotiating the naysayers is great communication and careful listening, yes, listening. You must have an idea of what the other person is trying to achieve and how your request works with or against their goal. Most of the time when I am clear with the other person’s agenda, I can answer my own question. For example, it could be the director trying to get a particular performance, the DP trying to get a certain look, the dolly grip trying a move across a squeaky floor, or the costumer who is responsible for the blazer looking perfect. We all have a job to do, and part of our craft is to make our needs clear, and consider other’s needs in respect to our own.
My sound kit for Barry, Season 2, was comprised of a Zaxcom Deva 16 as the primary recorder, controlled by a Zaxcom Mix 12, with a Zaxcom Nomad 12 as the backup recorder. Boom mics are Schoeps CMIT-5U’s and Sennheiser MKH-50’s on K-Tek boom poles. My wireless are various generations of Lectrosonics, plus 411 receivers for mobile applications. I primarily use Sanken COS-11 and Countryman B6. Lectrosonic IFB’s for my crew and Comtek 216’s for everyone else. I keep my video monitors Standard Definition so I can use a passive Ethernet video baluns, which allows me to send (and receive if needed) audio and two video images on one Ethernet cable. This requires downconverters. We have Video Assist on Barry so I send audio to that cart and take two video images from it. One cable does it all.
I use a PSC PowerMax Ultra 12V distribution platform and a lithium iron phosphate battery (LiFePO4) by biennio power, which allows me to not have to rely on the Set Electricians. All of this is built in two SKB cases held together by a Hollaender speed rail wheeled frame cart. I built the speed rail/rackmount case cart to be able to repair/replace it anywhere on location. The speed rail I use is the same found on all grip trucks. I had many other custom carts during my career but have learned that it is more important to use easily obtainable or repairable equipment, than bespoke gear. Of course, I learned this the hard way.
Every minute that efficient gear allows my crew to be working on other tasks that directly benefits the sound is a minute I want saved.