by Jamie Gambell
“Left track, boom, right track, radios”; the first words I said into the slate mic on the first shot of the first scene of my first feature film I mixed. The camera shooting through the door as two characters go through it and run down a flight of metal stairs following them down. A simple setup of an HHB Portadat, SQN field mixer,
and just two Audio Ltd 2020 radio mics (with Sanken
Cos-11’s). It was the only time that my team; myself, Boom Operator Ben Greaves, and Utility Tim Surrey, would use those radio mics for the entire show. How times have changed.
In the decades since that day, the role and workload of the Sound Utility has grown exponentially; multitrack recoding on set and the quality of the tools has seen radio mics becoming more and more prevalent, and, indeed, on some shows, we live and die by those tools. Good Trouble, the freeform series that I have been mixing for three seasons, is one of those shows. A spin-off from the earlier show, The Fosters, Good Trouble, follows two characters from the preceding series as they move to L.A., and into their twenties. The two sisters join a cast of characters living in a communal space, and we are introduced to a regular cast of eight who each come with their own cast of supporting characters through the trials of work or love life. More often than not, scenes feature most if not all of them. It is not uncommon to film scenes with fourteen to seventeen wires.
The filming style and ensemble nature of the show meant that my team had to adapt in two ways, Boom Operator Daniel Quintana found himself dancing alongside our camera operators, who used rehearsals to discover parameters rather than shots. Our DP, Marco Fargnoli, remains in constant contact with both camera operators and changes shot and frame on the fly. It’s frantic and frenetic, but Daniel is able to keep up with cast and operators alike. It can lead to many wide and tight situations, and our ability to roll with it and keep a smile on our faces has probably done more good these last few years, especially once I got the assurance from post that they were more than happy with what we were giving them.
For everything that Daniel does, and he does a lot, we lean hard into the wires, and the Utility, in this case, Johnny Evans.
A good Sound Utility is not only a member of the Sound Department, but also a ‘member’ of the Wardrobe and Production departments. Managing timing and expediency while bringing cast through the process, working with wardrobe to ensure that mics are hidden and effective. This ensures that production is able to maximize the use of the cast, that they are kept comfortable, and able to perform, and we are able to record a usable sound track with options for post.
Two things have become very apparent to me, firstly, the role of the Utility is no longer the “entry level” position that it was once seen to be, and secondly, more often than not, the workload of the Sound Department has grown to the extent that we should be asking for a four-person department. Indeed, I have made it part of my initial conversation with producers.
First, the workload. Before Covid, I asked about the possibility of having that additional person be a permanent part of the team, but our producers hadn’t budgeted for that expense out the gate. However, I was able to get them to agree that when the cast count got above a certain number, we would bring in an additional Utility to help with wiring. It has proven to be very effective, and, when the producers started to talk to me about how to continue filming during the Covid era, while remaining safe and efficient, we continued to use this model. It may seem counter-intuitive to have more crew during a pandemic to some, but by having those extra hands, we are able to limit cross-contact and keep equipment sanitized and safe in a way that doesn’t add time to the day.
I also switched to the Shure Axient system to prepare for our return. I could write a whole article on the sound quality and confidence in wireless management, along with their battery life and hands-off control features that make them the ideal tool for this type of world we currently film in, but that’ll have to wait for another day!
Good Trouble is the second show that I have worked on with a four-person sound team. The other was It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, season fourteen. That show had a permanent four-person team (Boom Operator Daniel Quintana, Utility Alexis Schafer, and Sound Service Person, initially Kraig Kishi, later, Yohannes Skoda). It proved to be an excellent model, and definitely another option for productions to consider a permanent addition if the budget is tighter.
The role of Sound Utility has changed enough so that it is far from an entry-level job. One thing that became apparent to me, that we, as a local, need to work harder at mentoring and assisting those looking to join. Not only to ensure that they are doing well, but that we collectively are building a foundation of success and talent to make our craft better across the board. It was with this in mind, and conversations with other mixers, that I learned about the Local’s Y-16A position, the trainee position that encourages a safe, learning environment on set and avoids displacement.
I once again went back to our producers.
Good Trouble prides itself as being a diverse show, promoting minorities through casting and storytelling. I asked our incredibly supportive Producer, Chris Sacani, about the possibility of helping to promote that same diversity by bringing on a trainee. To her eternal credit, she went to bat and presented the idea to the network, who okayed us bringing on a trainee for season three, as well as continuing our current practice of bringing in extra hands as and when needed.
We were joined in season three by Terrell Woodard. Ironically the separation and controlled Covid protocols helped in training, with each person’s role within the department being more defined and isolated, allowing Terrell to watch and find the time to ask questions.
Safety and sanitation protocols on some shows have created space for a fourth person on the team, often in the form of an on-set Sound Utility and a base-camp Wiring Utility. More shows are learning about the trainee position and embracing the idea. I’ve spoken to many mixers who are working with one or both additions to their crew. In an ideal world, a fourth person would be the norm to account for the expansion of work that our department has seen over time. An additional Utility or Sound Service Person in either a full-time or partial capacity, and a trainee would be beneficial. An additional crew member allows for a much more efficient production, especially when the schedule is king. Having an eye to the future, and providing a safe environment for people to learn and develop, will encourage more success for members as the additional workdays will do a lot to ensure that our members are kept busy.
Jamie Gambell uses a Cantar X3 and Cantaress Control Surface. His Boom Operators use Schoeps MK41/CMC1 with a Cut 60 Low Cut capsule indoors, and the Mini CMIT outside. He switched to the Shure Axient system, and uses the smaller ADX1M packs, with DPA 6061 lavs as his go-to mics.