Crew Roles Behind The Camera: Sound Design
Meet Nathalie: Boom operator, musician, music teacher, sound mixer, University lecturer and more. In the world of sound, she’s done it all.
We were lucky enough to sit down with her, hear about her fascinating experiences in the film and television industry and learn a little more about what goes on behind the scenes.
Thanks so much for speaking with me today, Nathalie. Can you tell me what attracted you to working in the world of sound?
I have always loved sounds and how they make me feel. Listening to the world has always been a big part of my life as I have played instruments since the age of four. I loved the idea of making sound effects after seeing Steven Spielberg make a dinosaur sound off-screen as a guide for his actors in Jurassic Park. I thought it was amazing that it was an actual thing!
How long have you been working in the industry now?
What is the most challenging part of operating the boom mic on set?
Strength and stamina, for sure! You might get the microphone placement right, but if you’re tired, then you can’t hold it there. You’ve got to ensure you don’t dip the mic in the shot or get the pole in the corner of the frame. You’ve also got to watch out for shadows on walls or actors’ faces. It’s a game of problem-solving to get what you need.
However, once you’ve got an actor in the microphone’s sweet spot, it’s like ballet as you move with them and the camera. It’s a very satisfying feeling!
You have done sound work on the kids’ cartoon ‘Jar Dwellers SOS’. Can you outline the process from receiving the video files to submitting the final deliverables?
We had a team of 3 working on the sound for the show. Firstly, one of us would record the dialogue for a block of episodes, do a rough cut and send it to the animators. They would animate to the dialogue and then send the finished cut back to us for further sound design. The completed effects, design and dialogue would then go to our re-recording mixer for a final mix with the music. Finally, they would add the opening and closing titles last and make it sound like you would hear it on TV.
That version is then sent back to the director for final approval. As the sound effects editor, I had a week to complete an episode. This involved laying down all the effects, foley and doing sound design. Once that was done, the mix would take about half a day per episode. We completed 52 x 10-minute episodes and 26 x 1-minute gag reels over 14 months.
What is your favourite part of the process?
I had the best time recording the voice actors for the animation. We’d sit around a table and do a read (I got to do the “big print”, which was all the stuff between the actual dialogue - I loved it so much!). I was the recordist in the control room with the director sitting beside me. An actor would do a few versions of a line, and the director would tell me which one he wanted. Sometimes he even gave ME the choice of the line I wanted! Having all the actors together - bouncing off each other - made for great energy in the studio. It was fun, creative and collaborative. My second favourite aspect was creating signature sounds for new characters.
Tell us a bit about what it is like working onset for live television production?
It’s fast! We hit the ground running in the morning - sometimes, we get our first shots in the first 20 minutes of the day. The sound people are made up of a team of 3:
First boom: Looks after the set and figures out how to cover the scene for sound.
Second boom: Looks after all of the equipment and puts radio mics on the actors.
Sound recordist: Records the sound by listening to all the mics on the floor and ensuring we get everything we need to deliver to post.
We constantly listen for noises we don’t want and try to keep them out of the dialogue. Days are busy juggling between our gear, getting the recordings we need, and negotiating with all of the other departments. We are all trying to make sure that the ambient noises in the world are as minimal as possible to get the cleanest recordings. That means putting down carpets for less “clacky” shoes, closing windows, and turning off fridges and other “noisemakers” while filming.
Do you have any fun facts about how a particular sound is created?
Creating a sound for a project can be super fun. Usually, it is done by blending two or more sounds. However, you can also take the start of one sound, use the tail of another and then change the pitch of a third - balancing them all to create something new. This makes one unified sound that works for the visual you have created.
For example, to create a sound for a toad that shot out its tongue to grab something, I would: use a slingshot to get the tongue started, a blend of a rubber glove and slime while it was stretching, “boing” sound to give it some lift and a “rubber snap” for when the tongue made contact with the object.
What has been your favourite project you have worked on?
Sherpa. It was a documentary about a group of Sherpa mountain guides during the fatal avalanche of 2014 on Mount Everest. I learnt a lot on that job and had lots of fun creating realistic sound effects of climbing ladders while in the snow and walking over icy/rocky terrain. Overall, It was just a beautiful film that I was so privileged to have worked on. However, it was also a huge challenge because I had to create realistic sounds that evoked an emotional response for the viewer without drawing attention to them. They needed to feel completely natural.
What advice would you give to anyone new to live-television production or new to being on set in general?
Watch, listen and learn. Being on set is a unique environment with specific language and rhythms that take time to learn and understand. For example, it took me ages to figure out that when someone says they’re going “10-1”, they’re going to the toilet! I had no idea! Also, don’t be afraid to ask questions. Most crews are massive film buffs, so they are happy to share their experience. Please get to know what all of the different departments are and the roles within them. Knowing what they all do helps make sense of the initial chaos that a film set appears to be. People are busy at different times, so knowing their role enables you to understand when a good time is to approach them or not.
Boom Mic: Microphone attached to the end of a long pole.
Foley: ‘Natural’ sound effects such as walking on sand, brushing against clothing etc.
Gag Reel: Blooper reel of comical mistakes.
Sound mix: Blending sound effects, dialogue and foley into a singular audio track.
Post: Post-production - manipulating footage and creating sounds after the initial picture and audio have been captured.
Pitch: How high or low the frequency of a sound is.