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Chris Polczinski

How can boom ops be more diplomatic?

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I recently worked on a tier 1 feature in Kentucky where I had to replace the boom op half way through because of his general attitude and personality differences between the director, the DP and him. I'm hoping I can start a discussion on how you would act in this situation and how I can improve my method of handling it. 

Sorry for the long-windedness of this. You don't have to read my story. If you have any 2 cents of how a boom op can be more diplomatic when working with ego-centric department heads please share! I'm hoping to gain tips from this and spread the stories so others can learn as well.

My questions:
1. How can a boom op go about being more social and talkative on set, without getting in the way, but in a way that makes his job easier?
2. How can a mixer influence and help this also?
3. What situations have you been in regarding difficult people?

The union here in KY (209) has no boom ops listed, only sound mixers. It would be impossible making a living out here just booming. Production urged me to hire locally for budget purposes so I hired someone who I've spoken to on the phone a few times, but never actually worked with. My wife was the coordinator. While in prep she mentioned that the director (not naming) had a big ego and the DP/cam op, Morgan, was a real... jerk, to keep it light (see below 2 examples) and he had an even bigger ego. My problem came on day 2 when the boom dipped into the frame on a handheld tracking shot in a very tight area with no rehearsal. The first time it dipped Morgan and director both yelled "BOOM!". The director yelled cut. My boom op tried asking where the frame was going to land on a certain position and got a pretty murky response from Morgan. I told him "give it a little more head room. Without rehearsals we can't aim for perfection". Two takes later the same thing happened (same shot, different camera movements) only this time it dipped while the boom op ran into the director holding his wireless monitor right behind him in his way. The director didn't even know he was going to change the movement. They made a huge fuss about it and ultimately I told my boom op to walk away and I'll only fly the lavs. My cart was positioned outside pretty far away with remoted antennas. I had monitor but not enough time to tell him he was in frame before Morgan jumped down his throat. We were moving so fast that I couldn't easily get up and go talk to the director and Morgan about rehearsal needs etc., it was easier to have the op do it. But with his inexperience dealing with impatient directors and asshole DP's, nobody was working with him. Afterward the director came to me saying "your boom op just needs to do better". Great direction.

Side note: I'm all about getting the right mixture of happiness with every department (factoring in job level of course). I want to get great sound for the director, but I'll have the boom op stand down on situations like these because the director doesn't understand what a boom op is doing and why it's important, he just sees him as being in the way. I also want to keep getting jobs and not push my limits with this already trigger happy production.

The next time the boom dipped was day 9. That was apparently enough to fire him. Granted, it was a big mistake on our part. The camera was on a condor, but he should have checked the frame. The camera PA moved village right before rolling (he would never to do that again after this), but I still could have held up production and made sure I had village. Once we rolled and slated Morgan instantly yelled at the boom op that he was very in frame. He walked out wider and wider until the director lightly punched him in the arm, grabbed him and yanked him out of frame. The actor yelled at him to check this beforehand too. It was embarrassing. The boom op was clearly in the wrong here, but it wasn't an easy situation to be put in. Once I saw the frame I realized they had changed lenses last minute which prompted the village move. The director came to me with the same "he just needs to do better" direction, assuring me he hasn't the slightest knowledge of our department. I said, "It was a technical miscommunication but from now on we'll hold up production and make sure I always have monitor and that the frame is always set with at least some sort of guide with what's going to happen with camera movement." An hour later I was told to replace him by a producer. There was no wiggle room for improvement or working with the current guy. The producer had orders and would follow them blindly.

So the problem I saw was his attitude. He was a mixer who knew booming as well, but he didn't have passion for booming. He didn't give his 100% and didn't stroke the egos of those who thought they were our sets gifts from god (DP and director). He wasn't the most apologetic when the boom dipped. He didn't play the bullshit game that we often have to play around people like them, and they saw that. I knew exactly which boom op to bring in. This guy was amazing. People loved him instantly. He was upbeat, talkative, and most importantly great at his ENTIRE job, which I'm realizing includes stroking egos. After he was replaced, the boomed dipped only twice and nobody even cared. Once he even asked to change the camera movement so that he could boom the scene affectively and they agreed to. That would have never happened with the first op. The new guy was Tom Pieczkolon.

Why the DP was a jerk:
There's too much to vent about so I'll just leave these two.
The DP brought his dog without telling anyone. He then made production babysit said dog every day for 8 weeks during shooting while the thing just barked for attention.

One day the key grip was walking behind someone in the woods and the person in front of him unknowingly pulled back a branch which flung back at the key grip and hit him in the eye. He was in a lot of pain. In front of everybody the DP just laughed hysterically for about 5 actual minutes. He held up set because of his laughing. The AD literally had to tell him twice to stop laughing and focus.

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No offense but I think you needed to step in and deal with it on day two. They over reacted and you didn't cover your team mate. Going back further, if you knew Tom was a better boom op you should of made a stand for him before it got to this point. No way to change a persons personality. If the dude had a Tude he was not going to get a new one for you or them. I make thes comments based on your confusing story. 

CrewC

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I basically had to hire locally. His attitude wasn't bad to everyone. He just wasn't overly respectful and nice to the people he didnt have respect for. All I could do on day 2 is try working with him to better deal with the director and dp which is what I'm asking about. I kept trying to work with him and be easier on the frame line. I didnt think it would only take 3 boom dips to get him kicked off. 

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For my clarification, where did Tom come from? If you knew who to ask after #1 went down, why didn't you go with him first off? Seems like there is more to this story or I'm just not smart enough to understand you.

CrewC

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The Fabulous Jan McL has an expression that I can't recall exactly, something like "blood on the floor" or "blood on the tracks" etc to describe this kind of situation.  That first boom op had the misfortune to make a mistake at a tense moment, was not particularly contrite and was from then on in the penalty box, was "it".  It's happened to me--it's a tough place to get out of, esp if the environment is hostile and there are some people high up the food chain who dig the schadenfreude thing, and who like to exert power directly.   I think your first boom op didn't want to be there, but thought he could hide that fact and tough it out.  Sometimes this is possible, but people can tell when someone on the crew is not down, ultimately.  I guess my version of the take-away is to not get pushed by production into hiring someone you don't know for financial reasons.  It's a tough sell, but if it happens to you again you have some personal history to back up your request.   For the weird DP and director: yeah, there are some very talented people in the movie biz who are also very strange.  You have to be careful what you say and do around them, and a few you can't "win" with because that's how they like it.  The boom ops I consider to be True Immortals had serious diplomatic skills, could "read" the set from moment to moment and somehow knew what to say at the appropriate moment and also when to zip it.  Experience really helps about all this.

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Tom lives in LA. Production wanted me to hire local to Kentucky. 

21 minutes ago, Philip Perkins said:

The Fabulous Jan McL has an expression that I can't recall exactly, something like "blood on the floor" or "blood on the tracks" etc to describe this kind of situation.  That first boom op had the misfortune to make a mistake at a tense moment, was not particularly contrite and was from then on in the penalty box, was "it".  It's happened to me--it's a tough place to get out of, esp if the environment is hostile and there are some people high up the food chain who dig the schadenfreude thing, and who like to exert power directly.   I think your first boom op didn't want to be there, but thought he could hide that fact and tough it out.  Sometimes this is possible, but people can tell when someone on the crew is not down, ultimately.  I guess my version of the take-away is to not get pushed by production into hiring someone you don't know for financial reasons.  It's a tough sell, but if it happens to you again you have some personal history to back up your request.   For the weird DP and director: yeah, there are some very talented people in the movie biz who are also very strange.  You have to be careful what you say and do around them, and a few you can't "win" with because that's how they like it.  The boom ops I consider to be True Immortals had serious diplomatic skills, could "read" the set from moment to moment and somehow knew what to say at the appropriate moment and also when to zip it.  Experience really helps about all this.

Thanks! Nice to know another mixer understands. Also great point! I can use this on the next feature! 

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If you are going to go local then you have to institute a "training program" of your own, right?  I live in "small market" area re: feature films, and when I was actively doing them that's what I ended up doing.

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So Tom would of been your call if the Kentucky thing wasn't a thing? I think the main lesson is to stand your ground going into a gig. I know absolutely that I am  nothing without a good and trusted boom op who works the way I do. 

CrewC

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You're the big fish in the small pond. Tell them you cannot insure quality if you're required to use a boom operator that you don't know. You are working locally, and they get the benefit of that, so they ought to consider bringing in someone you know. You can always ask if the focus puller is local.

 

I have gently taken someone aside who yells "boom" during a shot and told them that nobody yells "focus" in the middle of the shot. They either say that we need to reset, cut, or go again when the take is over. Just like a focus puller can't always predict an actor's and camera's movement, neither can we. They should afford us the same respect.

 

In terms of boom ops on set... it's a hard thing to teach. Diplomacy is a learned skill, but some people just aren't good at it and never will be. Some people are just unlikeable. I would rather have someone that everyone likes and train them to boom the way I like, than try to train a good boom op to be liked on set.

 

In terms of egos. As department head you have every right to take DP aside and say that neither you nor your crew work for him/her. In a fluid situation you are just trying to get the best sound possible, just like they are trying to get the best picture. If there's a communication problem on set, you can discuss how to solve it together with your team and his/her team. If your director is a dick, then you just have to do the best you can and trust that it is probably equal to or better than other movies they have done if that's the kind of environment they are creating.

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Sorry to hear this Chris, for sure the boom op could have been better, but it also sounds like the production was actively sabotaging sound. (which seems weird... but happens way too often)

Free flowing handheld shots in tight environments are always going to be trick, and without rehearsals the production needs to accept either an occasional few brief moments of dips into frame or they need to accept lower standards of sound as you just stand back and are way overly cautious with the boom and don't try to get it in as close as the mic should be. 

 

It is especially bad when the camera operator mixes up their movements without any warning or rehershals, such as when you do three takes in a row exactly the same camera movement, and you think you have your boom movements and timing nailed in just perfectly, then on the four take the camera operator decides to suddenly swing the frame upwards with an actor as they quickly stand up from the table. I mean.... WTF??? Such actions by the camera department are *begging* for the take to be ruined unless they communicate in advance their change of plans.

Ah well, we're not psychic, but sometimes it feels like it would be a useful skill indeed to be able to read people's minds! But we can't, so you try to keep an eye on the camera as well as the actors, just in case the camera does any sudden surprise movements, however in the end we only have one pair of eyes. 

</rant>



 

4 hours ago, RPSharman said:

I have gently taken someone aside who yells "boom" during a shot and told them that nobody yells "focus" in the middle of the shot. They either say that we need to reset, cut, or go again when the take is over. Just like a focus puller can't always predict an actor's and camera's movement, neither can we. They should afford us the same respect.


Bingo!! Exactly, I notice this too often. They'll quietly redo another take if focus was an issue, yet yell out "boom" if the boom dips in. 

Even though:
a) yelling "boom" can ruin sound, yet yelling "focus"  wouldn't ever ruin the image!
b) you can often fix a small boom dip in post (such as a teeny crop of the image, or painting out the boom if the shot is locked off, both so easy to do even a drunk sound mixer can do it, as Matt Price once demonstrated in a video! :-P ), but you can't "fix in post" blown focus. 
 



Thus this is why you need a boom op to have solid social skills as well, because the default attitude on set towards the boom op is unfortunately worse than it is towards the 1st AC. 

I bet if you take two people with same the degree of likability/friendliness/social skills, and the same error rate (boom dips or missed focus), the 1st AC would get less hassling than the boom op. 

So it becomes even more important the boom op is a likable person, as someone you enjoy to have around you'll tolerate an error here or there more than someone who you hate to simply be around and you're looking for any excuse to fire. 

 

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I am going to respond to this as a boom op who has been in a similar situation to Boom #1. 

 

Please note this is based off my personal experience and your original post. I don't know you Chris or your work and I may be off the mark on some things. This is purely meant as an alternate viewpoint.

 

In my case sound was a two person team. It wasn't a sound friendly set by no means and the I felt the mixer didn't have my back when it counted. I had the DP, Director and the Producer chew me out on set for things that were out of my control. There is only so much a boom op can request. My confidence eroded to the point that a questioned everything I did, those making rookie mistakes. The day I was fired I actually thanked the PM. Years later I worked with the boom op that replaced me, she had 15 odd years experience on me and I'll never forget when she told me you were in an impossible situation and someone needed to be blamed.

 

The biggest issue I see here is the lack of communication, complicated by ego. 

 

Inexperienced boom ops will ask for frame lines way to often which can waste time and cost help credit points. Though this sounds the camera dept weren't very cooperative, experienced or just run off their feet.

 

If a boom dips during a rehearsal thats not a rehearsal but a take it should be understood that shit is going to happen. How much of that camera work was up to scratch. When asked if you mind shooting the rehearsal my standard response is sure but no guarantees.

 

Don't get me started on wireless monitors that directors/AC1 hold or any non necessary monitors on set that are in my path. Over time I've developed a polite-Please fucking move the monitors look/action. I've found politely explaining to directors do you mind if we swap spots at this spot so as I can capture our actors performance usually works. 

 

If they have changed the lense on a jib shot that much as so the boom op is no where as close to being safe then their is a communication issue. In these cases the boom op is not usually in a position to check the lense or a moitor. If the frame is drastically changed tell us. 

 

If anyone punched me and dragged me, I would be insulted, it would be near impossible to show any respect.

 

I rarely boom these days but for the ones that I do, I'll scratch nail and tooth to get the best sound possible on the boom and TX knowing the mixer has my back when I make calls that may irk some.

 

 

 

 

 

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4 hours ago, RPSharman said:

As department head you have every right to take DP aside and say that neither you nor your crew work for him/her. In a fluid situation you are just trying to get the best sound possible, just like they are trying to get the best picture. I


True, unfortunately often on sets the DoP is seen as second only to the director himself. Rather than "just another department head". 

Heck, on my last feature the DoP was doing more of the "directing" than the director himself! (btw, camera/sound department relations went great on this film! I had a really good working relationship with the DoP) Although that might have been influenced by the fact the director was also the main lead actor, so I think perhaps the director was struggling a little bit at juggling the two sides of acting/directing at once? Dunno, I haven't seen him direct before so only my speculation here. 

4 minutes ago, Nate C said:

Inexperienced boom ops will ask for frame lines way to often which can waste time and cost help credit points. Though this sounds the camera dept weren't very cooperative, experienced or just run off their feet.


How often is it ok to ask for frame lines from camera dept?
(especially if you're doing both booming and recording yourself, thus you don't have mixer to ask for guidance from what he sees on his monitors)
 

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11 hours ago, RPSharman said:

I have gently taken someone aside who yells "boom" during a shot and told them that nobody yells "focus" in the middle of the shot. They either say that we need to reset, cut, or go again when the take is over. Just like a focus puller can't always predict an actor's and camera's movement, neither can we. They should afford us the same respect.


I'll have to remember this one. I keep telling people that a boom op is effectively the same as the 1st AC anyway. To add to this, a soft moment can be cut around just as the boom can be cut around, but it's never going to work if the take is blown by the talent getting distracted by the audible "BOOM!".

I have limited experience as a boom op, but I've learned it's pretty useful to keep an eye and an ear on the 1st AC and the 2nd AC, especially if the DP is not being communicative. Keeping good relations with them will help you know which lens is on the camera at all times. One difficult player does not make it any less of a team sport. I've boomed a few days when the DP would hardly talk to me and it's turned out to be a decent survival strategy.

As for diplomacy, I think knowing what you're asking for is important, as is remaining humble. The rest is contextual, I think.

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5 hours ago, Ilari Sivil said:

As for diplomacy, I think knowing what you're asking for is important, as is remaining humble. The rest is contextual, I think.

 

Humble. My stand with a person acting like an asshole.

 

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It takes years to distill a proper boom op who can run the set efficiently, watch the rehearsal and know what is needed, know the mixer and what they tend to like, know the script, know the lenses and what they are looking at,  and be able know the names of the 1st AC's kids.  Years of working on your style to become a professional, you are not going to find that quality in Paducah.

Al

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I was my own boom op for 5 years because I never could find someone who I felt could operate as well as me... I was a boom op a few times for other people though, and like, my body really can no longer withstand the requirements of a lot of narrative shoots, especially with video these days.  I have lost my cool as a boom op though, on a 695 job, but generally it was because my body was breaking and I was being asked to boom a shot with absurd lighting and the main talent of the show requested I come back despite the mixer being able to do most the days by himself without a boom op. 

 

I'm pretty sure we, boom ops, need like Elon Musk to design us a new Fischer Boom for location shoots, something that like folds up and can be operated in a small nyc apartment if needed.  I'm pretty much a crazy person now due to scapular nerve pain, on my left side that has yet to go away in about 7 years.  Pretty sure I have met union boom ops who seem to be living with similar nerve pain, you only get one life, so it seems reasonable to me for boom ops to have a slightly negative attitude on set and if I were the mixer, I'd just treat my boom op like Comedy Central treats their marketing of South Park, If a producer complained about a boom ops attitude, I'd be so greatful for my boom op that'd I'd respond with something polite that suggest, "f you, they're a boom op, you try being a boom op for years and maintain a bubbly attitude..." boom ops sacrifice their bodies for art, directors and producers rarely do.  

 

I'd be too afraid to train local people, there are some people from high school who I'm not the happiest with, so maybe I'll train them to boom op for me some day.  They seem to think I my injuries are bs so I might be the guy one day who gets to prove them differently, however, boom op'ing well is pretty hard, defining what makes someone "difficult" is a pretty grey area.  I've worked with a lot of difficult to work with boom ops who I think are in the union now and they have great bed side manners with people, they are difficult to me because I think they just suck at being a boom op.  Also, your boom op should really know every job happening around him, boom ops need to understand lenses and lighting and be your director on set in a way... so, like, the grips and camera team should feel they are a part of the team.  I'd definitely explain to the producer they need to adjust their expectations about human behavior if I had a good boom op, but being a good boom op means something pretty specific to me, and I'm pretty sure if I had a good boom op, camera and electric would be able to help me defend my boom ops bad attitude.

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8 hours ago, VAS said:

Humble. My stand with a person acting like an asshole.

In my humble opinion, it's easier to work around an asshole when you don't become one yourself. Other people on set are more likely to be on your side, so it will be easier to sort of bypass the assholishness by not working directly with the asshole in question. Also, being humble doesn't mean you need to take crap from people. There are limits, and if you don't get "difficult" that often, it can be more effective when you do.

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On 5/10/2018 at 12:02 PM, Ilari Sivil said:

but it's never going to work if the take is blown by the talent getting distracted by the audible "BOOM!".

 

This is a great point!

 

 

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There is a technique for getting a frameline from camera without being obnoxious. This is well known by experienced boom operators so i hesitate a bit to offer it here but i’ll pass it on anyway. 

 

When the operator is looking through the lens, drop the microphone we’ll into the shot and jiggle it around a bit. The shaking clues the operator that you are not so dumb as to expect to live in that position. Try to make eye contact and look for hand signals, a finger pointing up. Move the mike until the operator gives you an OK. 

 

This procedure is best undertaken with someone other than the DP at the viewfinder. An operator or assistant is best; DP’s are often annoyed at any distraction even when they understand what you’re after. 

 

David

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3 hours ago, Jim Rillie said:

Good advice, David. This our method as well.

 

Yes, we've done that as well, but this is also a reason why I have monitors on my cart. If needed I'll advise the boom-op of the frame lines and mid-take I'll keep an eye out for the boom and alert the boom-op as soon as  I can see a hint of mic in the cache - if there is one. Same goes for reflections and shadows which can be even trickier to spot. 

 

Something a bit OT, but I was just wondering about this: For a whole host of reasons, I wire talent myself. One of them is that I want my boom-op to stay close to the set and watch and react to what is going on there. Wiring people is a distraction from that. Many reasons listed in this thread why a boom-op is such a difficult job. So why do so many of you - of us - make this job even more difficult by asking the boom-op to wire talent?

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I've noticed quite a few gaffers don't light for the boom anymore, don't know if it's something that isn't taught anymore or has just fallen out of practice as productions have started to rely more on radio mics. 

 

In any case, asking them to take us into consideration ahead of time can help keep everyone happy with boom ops regularly getting a better position without having to take as much time to deal with shadows.

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I've been a boom op for a couple years, and I have a couple diplomacy tricks that I'll share and hopefully someone can get something out of it.

 

First, I always introduce myself to the DP, and make a joke about how I'm the guy that you'll be yelling at everyday. This isn't a joke as much as it is a test. I can tell just by their reaction pretty much everything I need to know about them in terms of the job. 

 

Second, I'll become friends with the ACs, A1st, B1st, 2nd's, Village runner, the whole team. Some will gel easier than others, just have someone that's always got eyes on monitor on a first name basis with you. Obviously this is easier on long shoots, single days etc are trickier, which is where the next trick comes in.

 

Third, keep pieces of candy on you. Crafty, from home, whatever (I find the bite size Snickers and Twix bars are a big hit). Between adjustments where no one is doing much but waiting (makeup flyins etc) toss a piece to your friends. This is just a nice thing to do as a person, but it also helps add some brownie points for you. I have overhead (we hear everything) "That boom op is so dope he literally always has candy." And "Can he be the sound guy on every shoot?"

 

Hopefully those give someone a bit of help, or some ideas. I have countless more, but they're more situation specific. Be kind, calm, self deprecating, and funny when you can. When a 1st gets reprimanded/yelled at for a soft take, try to cheer em up with a joke, (about yourself and how you're gonna dust the talents eyebrows with your mic on the next take). And always keep a jar of peanut butter for the set dog. Thanks y'all!

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6 hours ago, SeanMAC said:

I've been a boom op for a couple years, and I have a couple diplomacy tricks that I'll share and hopefully someone can get something out of it.

 

First, I always introduce myself to the DP, and make a joke about how I'm the guy that you'll be yelling at everyday. This isn't a joke as much as it is a test. I can tell just by their reaction pretty much everything I need to know about them in terms of the job. 

 

Second, I'll become friends with the ACs, A1st, B1st, 2nd's, Village runner, the whole team. Some will gel easier than others, just have someone that's always got eyes on monitor on a first name basis with you. Obviously this is easier on long shoots, single days etc are trickier, which is where the next trick comes in.

 

Third, keep pieces of candy on you. Crafty, from home, whatever (I find the bite size Snickers and Twix bars are a big hit). Between adjustments where no one is doing much but waiting (makeup flyins etc) toss a piece to your friends. This is just a nice thing to do as a person, but it also helps add some brownie points for you. I have overhead (we hear everything) "That boom op is so dope he literally always has candy." And "Can he be the sound guy on every shoot?"

 

Hopefully those give someone a bit of help, or some ideas. I have countless more, but they're more situation specific. Be kind, calm, self deprecating, and funny when you can. When a 1st gets reprimanded/yelled at for a soft take, try to cheer em up with a joke, (about yourself and how you're gonna dust the talents eyebrows with your mic on the next take). And always keep a jar of peanut butter for the set dog. Thanks y'all!

Well done all around.  You understand how this works--it is a people business.

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