by Amanda Beggs CAS
You never know what could lead to your next job. I was midway through the second season of the Facebook Watch series, Sorry For Your Loss, when the script supervisor asked me if I had anything lined up after we wrapped. I didn’t have anything set in stone, so she exclaimed, “I’m doing this movie in Hawai’i and Thailand! You want me to throw your name in?” I got a call about a day after I sent in my résumé, asking about my availability, willingness to work out of the country, and if they could set up a video interview with the film’s director, Jude Weng. Things continued to move quickly as I read the script, met with Jude over video chat, and got the formal offer within weeks. I would be going to Hawai’i, Thailand, and New York City as the Production Sound Mixer on a new Netflix movie called Finding ’Ohana.
Like many of us, I’ve read a lot of scripts, but without hesitation, I can say that I loved this one. It was honestly funny, heartfelt, and authentic. Many scenes with key dialog took place near waterfalls and in caves, there were scenes in cars and on ATV’s, there was live singing and music playback, swimming, and stunt work. All in various locations with anywhere from medium to difficult accessibility. This was going to be both a challenge and an adventure.
I made the decision early on to go with a more mobile configuration of my equipment to allow myself to fit into tighter spots and so I could self-carry what I needed into the more challenging locations. However, I needed a lot to fit in a small package; my rig needed to run on battery power all day and be something I could hike up the side of the mountain. Sound Devices had only recently released the Scorpio portable mixer-recorder, but I immediately ordered one. With sixteen mic/line preamps and twelve analog outputs, I knew this would be the right machine to use for this movie. Its size meant it could live in a bag, along with my wireless receivers, antenna distribution, IFB transmitters, private line comms, and battery distribution system. However, I didn’t just want to work out of a bag the entire time; I knew we would be able to set up shop on a cart for many locations, and we had stage work planned in Bangkok.
I decided to use Devendra Cleary’s DC-TRM cart as my starting point and then customize it as needed. In the end, I was very happy with the build I created and the cart worked in so many different locations and scenarios. The bag rig could easily be pulled off the cart, which in turn, also took most of the weight, making the cart easily carried up, say, a long flight of uneven stairs that led to the opening of a cave, with equally uneven floors. I think we made that particular climb in and out every day for a week. Then there was the hike into a park to shoot at various waterfalls, the boat ride to yet another cave, and the various beaches and jungles. Having the ability to hike in with my bag made so many locations easier to access. I had my regular follow cart with me, loaded into a cube truck in Hawai’i and a passenger van with the seats removed in Thailand. We also needed a mobile, rough-terrain-friendly solution for the gear in that cart. Orca makes an amazing bag called the OR-26, which we christened the “mobile follow cart.” Loaded up, it could fit all the basic items found in my cart—from wires to slates. For everything else, especially bulkier items like cable and our mobile VOG speaker, we had a foldable wagon.
Because hand-carrying everything you own isn’t enough fun on its own, let’s not forget we were doing this in insanely hot and humid weather. And did I mention the not-infrequent downpours of rain in both Hawai’i and Thailand? The mud we had to wade through was epic in proportion. Production actually had to schedule staggered pre-calls in Hawai’i during our last week so that each department could use a rented power washer to clean carts, cables, etc. My crew put up with many uncomfortable locations, but always performed with the utmost professionalism. For Hawai’i, I brought Boom Operator and fellow Local 695 member Mitchell Gebhard with me from LA, and we worked with local Sound Utility Nohealani NihipaliDay.
There were so many challenges involving scenes or shots where we would be beyond the range of wireless reception: recording dialog for two kids racing through Kualoa Valley on ATV’s, filming boat-to-boat out on the ocean, and my personal favorite, four kids biking full speed for about a mile along the East River in one of the most notoriously terrible RF environments in NYC. Those scenes jumped out at me when I was prepping and reading the script, so I brought with me several Lectrosonics PDR’s. Those have become a staple of my kit in recent years, as it gets harder and harder to find clear wireless frequencies, and for shots that simply defy the range of wireless even in perfectly clear environments. Easily jammed with timecode, and with the ability to record and stop with the LectroRM app, the peace of mind that comes from knowing I have good, clean, usable audio on each actor’s wire is just fantastic.
Hands-down the greatest challenge we would face on this film was the water. A main component of the story involved our lead cast entering caves that are surrounded by waterfalls, swimming through flooded tunnels, and a daring escape where they jump off a waterfall and land in a lake. While some of the waterfalls would be real and in practical locations, our main cave set, the one surrounded by waterfalls, would be built in a warehouse just outside of Bangkok. This was one of those moments where you can talk about a set in theory, and plan as much as you want, but until you are standing in front of the actual set, and can hear the roar of the six working artificial waterfalls, you really don’t know exactly what you are in for.
In prep, the thinking at first was to try and keep the cast as dry as possible, for continuity as well as for ease of shooting. But this set was not going to allow for that. The kids were going to get soaked, and I would have to figure out how to get wires on them, as booming was not going to be a great option. We had three cameras rolling, two of which were on cranes, going from a wide to a tight shot in an instant. Plus, there was the noise. Imagine how loud a waterfall is when you’re outside standing next to it. Now imagine placing that waterfall, and five of its friends, inside a reverberant warehouse. When the falls were turned on, you had to shout to talk to the crew member next to you. Not only did we need wires on the cast to record the dialog, but they also needed to act as a comms system so the Director, Jude, could hear the cast in-between setups. I pretty much lived at my cart when we were shooting those scenes, always keeping the faders up so Jude could talk to the cast. For the reverse, so the cast could hear Jude, we used a pretty typical voice of god setup, a wireless handheld mic, and several speakers lining the set. But how do we handle wiring up cast that would inevitably get soaked? If the budget had been limitless and prep had been more informative, waterproof transmitters like Lectrosonics WM’s and waterproof lavaliers like VT500’s would have been a great choice. But I had Lectrosonics SMVs and Sanken COS-11’s. Waterproofing an SMV is easy enough —non-lubricated condoms and rescue tape. Plus I tossed the whole rig in a ziplock bag for extra measure. When the lavs got waterlogged, luckily, usually toward the tail end of the scenes, my Thai Sound Utilities Katika “Art” Tubtim and Thanravipa “Noon” Pararoch would expose the mic on the actor and hit the mic head with about five to ten seconds of air from a hairdryer. Then fresh tape would be applied and the actor would be good to go. To help protect the mic from getting waterlogged as quickly, we made sure to mount the mics upside-down. I am happy to report that during the filming of all the waterfall scenes, not a single transmitter or lavalier sustained water damage. Even after being waterlogged multiple times, the ability of the COS-11 to bounce right back into action astonished me. The plan of using a hairdryer on the actors saved us so much time. We initially considered continually swapping mics as they got wet, but the producers made it clear we had to move fast. Re-wiring would take too long. Two of our leads were kids under eighteen, and we only had them for limited hours. Time was precious and we had to respect that.
The mud we had to wade through in Hawaii was epic. Production had to schedule staggered pre-calls during our last week so that each department could use a rented power washer to clean carts, cables, etc.” –Amanda Beggs
We had several scenes that involved the cast getting fully submerged and swimming in sets that were built into large water tanks. Obviously, sound waves travel differently in water, and while hydrophones exist, it didn’t make sense for our show to rent one for the opportunity to simply record the sound of the underwater camera operator moving around. While the cast was in the tank, we would work on recording wild lines and voiceover for other scenes. At least, that was the original plan. A few days before the tank work was scheduled to begin, Jude expressed a desire to capture sound underwater, specifically a scream that was added. There was no way we could get a hydrophone to Bangkok in that time frame, so I had to come up with another solution. Luckily, I had played around with a homemade hydrophone a few years earlier on another project, so I already knew where to start. A Sennheiser MKH416, with foam, was my mic of choice, for a few reasons. It has less of a rich sound than some other shotguns, which is advantageous in the potentially noisy environment that exists in a tank. Movement and bubbles from the camera op and other crew all creates noise. I put the foam on the mic because it adds just enough bulk so you can fit a non-lubricated condom over it. I actually used three condoms in this build, and then wrapped the end at the connection point between mic and XLR, with a combo of butyl, rescue tape, and gaff tape. A great thing about the 416 is that it can sustain water damage and after being dried out, will still work perfectly, with saltwater being the exception. The mic was now fully waterproof, but it floated. Hand-holding the mic underwater wouldn’t work, as any movement created terrible handling noise, and we wouldn’t be able to get the mic close enough to the cast due to the size of the shot. My Boom Operator Frank Barlow, who had flown in from London to join our team, managed to find a one-meter-long piece of metal, pencil-sized in diameter. He taped the now-ridiculous-looking mic to one end, wrapping the cable along the length of metal, and bending the final few inches into a curved handle. We now had a very crude boom pole, and a way to point and move the mic underwater with minimal handling noise.
My happiest moment arrived a few takes after implementing the “hydrophone.” The cast was screaming underwater, even talking at times, and from across the stage, I heard Jude exclaim, “This is amazing! I can hear everything under the water!” Mission accomplished.
I pride myself on being prepared and having what supplies I need to get a job done. But unfortunately, while I brought a good number of non-lubricated condoms with me, I had underestimated how many I would go through. I realized I was going to need more with two weeks left in the shoot. No problem, as I figured that was something we could source in Bangkok. I approached our Thai Production Coordinator and explained to him that I was going to need him to find me some non-lubricated condoms. He gave me a look like I had just asked him to buy me, well, condoms. I explained that I use them to waterproof the mic transmitters and this was a completely legitimate work purchase! And they needed to be non-lubricated as I didn’t want to get lube on my expensive gear. He didn’t seem entirely convinced, and then went on to tell me that there are no non-lubricated condoms in Bangkok. I couldn’t believe him, said that can’t be true, and if he could please try looking, I would really appreciate it. The next day, our Thai UPM found me and confirmed what I had been told by our Coordinator.
They looked, and it was true: non-lubricated condoms are not sold in Bangkok. But not to worry, they had purchased some lubricated ones, and several members of the Thai production staff were busy hand-washing them to remove the lube. I laughed and said, “Good one, very funny.” Our Thai UPM wasn’t one for jokes, she stared me dead in the eyes and said, “No, this is really happening, they are doing this for you.” I think she knew I wasn’t going to believe her, so she had filmed and photographed the Thai crew hand-washing lubricated condoms, and then hanging them to dry.
I have seen many things over my years in this industry, but I have never seen anything like that. It was amazing. You don’t know dedication until you’ve seen someone gently hand-clean condoms. The following day, I was presented with a bag full of relatively lube-free condoms. I certainly wasn’t going to waste them, after all that hard work, so we absolutely ended up using several of those lovingly washed condoms. I don’t know if I can properly express my gratitude to the Thai crew: both my sound team and the entire Thailand local crew.
The final few days of the shoot took place in New York City, and the toughest part of that final company move wasn’t the jet lag—but the extreme temperature changes. We went from humid summer-like weather in Thailand to winter in NYC. From shorts and T-shirts to heavy coats and gloves in the span of a day. While in New York, I had the good fortune to work with local Boom Operator Frank Graziadei and Sound Utility Jerry Yuen. One of the best parts about distant location work isn’t necessarily the locations, but the opportunity to work with crew who know those places intimately. I not only got to film in iconic NYC spots, and experience the challenges that exist there, but I also got to work with one of the most legendary Boom Operators on the East Coast, and I’m so grateful for that.
The entire experience of making Finding ’Ohana was such a unique, fun, stressful, incredible time. I was very fortunate the timing worked out the way it did, as I got to travel to all those places right before the whole world shut down due to the pandemic. This movie was a great example of how prep and planning can sometimes only get you so far. Oftentimes, things change and new requests are made in an instant. I try to avoid thinking “that can’t be done,” but instead rely on creative problem-solving and the insight of my crew to achieve as close to the director’s vision as possible. Sometimes you spend a night in Bangkok hunting for non-lubricated condoms in every convenience store within walking distance and you come home empty-handed. But don’t give up! Take it from me, soap can remove most of the lube.