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Hello to all (new to the group),


I'm going to be working on a doc in Beirut and America. Usually I capture field recordings of ambient sound.

On this doc i'll be recording dialogue and music as well as ambient sound. This is my first time doing this and I was wondering if you could offer tips on capturing three to four people in conversation with regards to off-mic issues.


Always remember that the dialogue is the most important thing to capture and on a documentary you really only get one shot. If you haven't done it before then consider capturing atmospheres, room tones and sound effects a bonus - when and if you remember to capture them.


My guess is that you're going to be fully occupied setting up lav mics, not be in the way of the camera, not cast mic shadows or dip the mic in the picture and making sure that the sound is properly recorded - that you will forget or not have the time to capture sound effects and ambiences in stereo. But do bring a small hand held recorder for such occasions. If you remember to use it once a day, I'll buy you a beer.


For me, the most important thing filming documentaries is to capture the dialogue as clean as possible, and try not to interfere with the natural flow of a recording situation. That means swinging boom when two people meet, get their natural reactions greeting each other, and when they have done that and the camera man wants to position them for a better picture, I quickly hide a lav mic on the new person. So always think about what you're filming first, and technical stuff second. On some occasions you will not get the perfect sound but instead you will get raw and natural human reactions and they have a tendency to survive in the editing because they are interesting to see. But you will bash yourself for chickening out and not positioning the boom at the proper position and the next time you do it better. So when are you suppose to mic people? Depends entirely on the situation.


It takes years of experience to grow a form of sixth sense of what might happen in a situation, what the usual pitfalls are etcetera.


In documentaries the really interesting stuff have a tendency to happen off camera, when people forget that they are being filmed and you have to be prepared for it. That means always carrying the sound bag on your stomach and consider the boom you're third arm. 


Regarding equipment, travel light by building a good sound bag with a comfy back strap, a couple of wireless systems, at least one wireless in-ear for the director/reporter, rechargeable batteries, a curled snake cable to hook up with the camera, a good boom with built-in cable, a good shotgun mic and a pair of headphones that you are comfortable to work with. If you have the equipment then iso record every channel but make sure that you're running on the same time code as the camera. ALWAYS send a good stereo mix to the camera and ONLY monitor the return signal from the camera, even if you're iso recording. That way you know that good audio is being recorded on the camera as well as your iso tracks.

When going abroad, remember to buy power plugs compatible with the country you're visiting and bring enough battery power to last for two-three days. Check if you need a carnet for you gear to get into the country.


In an interview situation do your best to remedy background noise and poor acoustics, by being creative. Sometimes changing room or moving a rug and put it in front of the interviewee helps a bit, more obvious stuff like closing windows, turning off radios and unplugging refrigerators are easily forgotten when you are stressed out. So always take a deep breath, and listen to the background sound in your headphones before starting an interview. Chinese LED light panels sometimes emit a high-pitched noise when set to full power, backing them off 20% usually removes the noise. There might be situations when you suddenly get hum into the mixer and you don't understand why, usually it's the director's TV-monitor that's hooked up to the camera and the crappy main power of a building. If noting else works, then the director and camera man have to set up the picture and then unhook the TV-monitor.


There's loads of technical and creative pitfalls when filming a documentary and the only way for you to learn is to do the mistakes, learn from them and do a better job next time.


Also, you need to learn how the camera man is cutting the pictures, if possible look at the screen on the camera whenever you can, otherwise just ask how close you can position the shotgun mic. Learn the different picture compositions used, the more people in the picture the most space is shown above their heads etc.

You really need to team up with the camera man as fast as possible, because it's you and him/her that capture the content of a recording situation. Do that by being helpful whenever you can and the courtesy will be mutual. 


The good thing is that you will be working in post with you're own recordings, that will teach you a lot! And next time you will do a better ENG job.


I'd say there's three simple rules for docs:


1. Capture as clean dialogue as possible and make sure it's recorded on the camera

2. Team up with the camera man - make his job easier and he will make your job easier

3. Try not to interfere with the natural flow of a situation


I wish you the best of luck



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Nice Fred!


I'm relatively new to field recording (5 years) and came from a post background as well.  I work mostly in Asia where there aren't as many sound pros so I've def been on plenty of gigs that are over my head.  My best advice, if you're working with an experienced crew, is don't try to act like you know what you're doing if you don't and LEARN FAST.  


Good luck!

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One general advice from someone newbie (me).

Your sound mixer is your boss and not your friend during the work.

Inside the work there only professional relationships. Outside relationships doesn't count.


Best luck!


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