by Anna Wilborn
The scent of the top drawer on my dad’s sound cart has never left me. An odd combination of black foam rubber padding, electronics, and Juicy Fruit gum. It was the gum I was hunting for every time I visited my dad on set. I can still feel the satisfying way the two side locks unlatched allowing the drawer to slide out on its own to reveal my prize. His crew christened the giant road case cart “The S.S. Wilborn” and printed it across the lid in big cutout stickers. He thought it was hilarious and left it. I loved watching their easy camaraderie.
My dad, Charles M. Wilborn, begged me not to go into production. The hours, locations, and grind were no way to live, he insisted. Oddly enough, on this very rare occasion, I listened. When visiting my dad on location, he’d always arrange a day for me with the Editors who, back then, went with the shooting crew to prep and screen dailies, as well as begin cutting the film. Everything was still on film and 35mm magnetic tape. I’d watch Billy Anderson ACE work the flatbed and puzzle together a scene for Peter Weir’s Dead Poets Society. It blew my mind.
I started my film career right out of USC in post production. I was thrilled to get an unpaid internship on Cruel Intentions, with John Morris, Sound Supervisor at Sony Studios. Pro Tools was in its infancy and besides the manual, there weren’t any books about it yet, nor an internet to learn from. On-the-job training was the only way. I was using version 3.4 to load sound effects and dialog off of DAT tapes in real time onto clunky SCSI hard drives that only held a few gigs. I’d then deliver the drives to the Editors who cut the clips into the soundtrack. Even with this advancement, we still had to lay back their Pro Tools sessions to 35mm mag for the dub stage. I’ll never forget the day Sony threw all their Moviolas in a dumpster out by Cannery Row. The Sound Editors were incensed. Even at 22 years old, I knew this was a tragedy. I got a drive-on and heaved one into the trunk of my big old 300SD. I still have it in my garage, the giant letters “MGM” in white vinyl across its side. How can you throw away that kind of history?
Every day, I’d bring my highlighters and the only books I could find about editing and the new Avid system. John clocked them one day. “Are these your books?” he pointed. “Yes…” I said, not knowing if I was in trouble for reading at work. He nodded and walked away. Next thing I knew, they were helping me get my days to join the Editors Guild. I was over the moon. From there, I got work in assistant sound and film editing, and eventually became a Music Editor. But years of sitting in a room by myself in front of a computer were starting to take a toll. It was lonely work and it just didn’t fit my personality. I needed a big family to work with every day. I needed the set.
In 1998, Local 695 ceded the jurisdiction of Re-recording Mixers to Local 700 and I was able to switch my card over to Local 695. With one fateful morning phone call from Joe Foglia needing a Utility for his show Scrubs, my career was finally on track. I absolutely loved being a Sound Utility. I now had fifty people to say hi to every morning. I loved getting to know the actors, forging life-long friendships with costumers and camera assistants, ensuring our department was running smoothly, and learning all the new technology that had come out since my dad’s days. We were still on DAT, but the CD-RAM was in the wings. Wiring, cabling, running around, snacks, whatever we needed. It was so much fun.
Here’s a fun fact: I never wanted to be a Sound Mixer. Anytime someone would ask me, my eyes would glaze over. The thought of buying all that gear (twice over), and worse, keeping track of it all is like herding a million little kittens made my stomach hurt. From tiny BNC barrel connectors to expensive, delicate mixing panels.
No thank you.
Watching mixers wrangle that headache was a cure-all for me. Plus, as a Utility, I basically had no homework, no off-the-clock stress. If the gear broke, I’d offer my sincerest condolences, send it out on a rush order, and run right back with the spare from the truck so we could keep rolling. By the time I hit thirty-eight thousand hours, I’d definitely reached my cruising altitude with a quick fix for any sudden fiasco. Nothing but a sports bra? I can wire that. Director threw their Comtek? Hello Keith, it’s me again.
In early 2020, Joe Foglia picked up a pilot and he, Kevin Santy and I were all set to have our usual great time for ten days. But on March 13, 2020, something truly terrifying happened. Transpo didn’t show up to pick up the gear. If that doesn’t send a chill down your spine, you’ve never worked in this business. If I ever write a horror movie, that’s how it’s going to start. Life had just been flipped upside down and inside out. COVID had arrived.
I think it’s safe to say we all re-prioritized our lives during the lockdown. Suddenly, we as hyperactive, workaholic film people, HAD to stay home, sleep in, and (hopefully) enjoy time with wherever and whomever we were stuck. We called people we hadn’t spoken to in far too long, spent time in group Zooms with old and new friends, drank too much, or didn’t drink enough.
We rediscovered what was really important. LIVING. I frickin’ loved it.
When things started to loosen up, Misty Conn, Yvette Marxer, and I started meeting for drinks at whatever watering hole would have us. We’d talk about everything, but conversations often revolved around the business. “Anna, when are you going to MIX?!?” Yvette suddenly hollered in her South African accent, slamming her hand down on the table for emphasis. There it was again. That question. Only this time my mind didn’t flood with the millions of tiny kittens I’d have to buy. Misty chimed in. “Dude. You have to do it.” This wasn’t just her third Diet Coke talking. Their sincerity, encouragement, and belief in me was completely overwhelming. From then on it was like I didn’t have a choice in the matter. The kittens were out of the bag and this time there was no herding them back in. Not only did I want the challenge, I needed the challenge. I’ll never forget that moment and will be forever grateful/totally blame those two.
I started workshopping the idea with others whose opinion I really valued. My husband Ted Mayer, Kevin Santy, Tom Williams, Glen Trew, Tom Caton, Chantilly Hensley, Hanna Collins, Forrest Brakeman, Scott Solan, Gunnar Walter, Carrie Sheldon, Michael Reilly, and Scott Farr— all were so supportive. I remember Kevin thoughtfully saying, “I really like this for you.”
Then I had to rip the band-aid off with Joe Foglia; sixteen years of insane locations and hilariously inappropriate jokes. “I’m going to buy a package.” I declared, feeling like I was asking for an unwanted divorce. “Good for you!” he replied. It was definitely the end of an era, but the future was way more exciting than I ever imagined it would be. I honestly didn’t even know how much I wanted it until it finally started to happen. So many hours, so much history, so many sets. I was totally ready.
I excitedly called my parents up in Santa Barbara. “FINALLY!!!!” My mom, also a former Local 695 member, screamed out. “I’m popping the champagne!” She handed the phone to my dad. I honestly didn’t know they cared one way or the other, but turns out they’d both been secretly hoping I’d do this for years. “I’m so happy for you!” my dad exclaimed as the Taittingers burst open in the background. Then he launched into his usual “I should have gotten you into mixing sooner, I could have helped you…” spiel. Nope. I like that I did it my way. My years in post and as a Utility/Boom Op are invaluable to my job and will only make me a better mixer and department head. I know what to fight for and almost more importantly, what not to fight for. I’ve earned my position through decades of training. As we all know, to truly do this job right, there is no shortcut.
Choosing my gear was an absolute no-brainer and my timing could not have been better. A few months later, the shelves at our local sound houses would have been bare. When I’m saying the stars aligned, I mean it was borderline eerie. I’d been curating the perfect package in my mind for years by osmosis, so the money quickly flew out of the bank account. I gave myself six months, but in less than three, I was already off to mix my first feature in Northern Idaho, a horror film called The Outpost, written and directed by Joe LoTruglio from Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Thanks, Kevin Compayre!).
I chose the Sound Devices 888 for my recorder with a CL-16 control surface fed via Dante from two Lectrosonics DSQD’s which I absolutely adore, thus leaving me all the free XLR and T3 inputs I need for playback and extra receivers. A Sound Devices MixPre-6II provides a true standalone backup, as I feed it directly from the DSQD’s XLR outputs. I have a mix of brand-new DBSM transmitters, along with SMWB’s and workhorse SMv’s when I need a little 250mw. Bulletproof HMas send me the Schoeps CMIT’s and CMC4U’s with MK-41’s, the latter being my dad’s. They still sound fantastic and once sucked up the voices of DeNiro and Redford, so it’s fun to have a little history in the kit.
I selected DPA 6060’s for my lavs since I was starting from scratch. “Buy once, cry once,” as they say. They’re just heavenly and have no equal in my opinion. I also have some Sanken COS-11’s and Countryman B-6’s, because they make for a well-rounded lav kit for any scenario. I have Denecke JB-1 timecode boxes that are so smal and awesome, and I just love the smile on the camera crew’s face when they see I have them. They go along with my dad’s Denecke slates that after eighteen years in a dark case, still shockingly powered up with the same batteries that had been left in them. A quick trip to Santa Clarita and they were upgraded to our new 23.97 standard. I went with tried-and-true Comtek PR-216’s and Lectro IFB’s for clients and crew. Power is distributed by a PCS Power Star Life that has definitely saved my life on a couple occasions.
All is packed into an awesome 80/20 Blackbird cart by Matthew Freed that will roll over anything with ease. Drew Martin custom-built all the cables for a super-clean final touch. I then loaded it up with remote-controlled color LED lights that complement the Sound Devices color scheme for a little flair (and so I can see). It’s a small, powerful cart that fits me perfectly. I affectionately nicknamed her Tina after Ms. Turner who is also small and powerful, and whose real name just happens to be… Anna. I won’t be writing “The S.S. Tina” across her however. OK, maybe in a small corner. As I conclude my first year, I’ve stayed pleasantly busy with a substantial amount of series and commercial work, even a couple Super Bowl spots!
My dad and I went through his gear a couple years back and that drawer still smells just like it did twenty years ago when he dumped it in the back of his garage, turned out the lights, and walked away for good. Now, I can’t wait for COVID restrictions to end so my girls can come see their mom at work as a Sound Mixer and they can make some of their own quirky little life long memories of what inevitably became the family business.