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Advice for transitioning from a PA into the Sound Department.


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First a very brief background - I went to school for Audio Engineering in 2014 and have been freelancing as a recording engineer and doing audio post for music.  I have a lot of experience with Pro Tools and a strong understanding of the post production process.  I had a short job back in 2015 for a feature film where I was the assistant engineer assisting in Pro Tools editing and recording guide tracks for them to use on set during the production process.  But the thing is, back then I was young and more focused on music, I wasn't ready to commit to the full 12-18 hour days of working on set. As time has gone on I've realized I don't have as much fun with music as I originally thought that I would but I'm still in love with the fundamentals of sound and the technical side of it.  The more I look into location sound and realize the life style aspect of the job, along with the types of personalities that succeed at it, the more I realize it's what I should have been focusing on this whole time.

With all that being said, I know none of it really matters for the road I'm about to go down haha. I'll be moving back to Vancouver on April 1st and trying to get into the industry as a Set PA with the intention of transitioning into the Sound department.  What are some pieces of advice that you would give to someone working as a Green PA with no connections that is trying to get picked up by a sound mixer as a 2nd or a 3rd? (UST or Boom op obviously)

I've been reading a lot about set etiquette and fundamental books like The Location Sound Bible and Patrushka's new book "Behind The Sound Cart" designed for UST training and I'm confident in the foundation I've been building.  The next step is actually getting on set and starting to get some hands on experience, so again my question is simply this: Once I get on set as a PA, what should my focus be in regards to getting picked up by the sound department?  And how can I make it clear to my ALM or Key PA that I want to be near the sound department without it coming across the wrong way? I obviously want to learn about the entire film making process as that's also important to being a good Sound mixer, but I want to make it clear that my focus is on getting into the sound department.

Thanks!

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We in the Sound Department probably interact with a greater range of other departments on set than anybody else (other than the AD department of course). 
Thus if you get offered opportunities to work in other departments (such as Costume Assistant, or Standby Props, or whatever), don't turn them down! Don't think of any of that time as "wasted" or a distraction from your main long term focus of the sound department. (I don't regret my first few years being focused on the camera dept instead) Your initial early years should be about building a broad base of understanding of how everything works together, not just your small niche corner. 

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Don’t dump a bunch of money into gear. Get to know your local location sound people, and work your way up with them. Learn the business, don’t undercut your colleagues, and be grateful. Google is your friend. 
 

that said, this is a really small business with a lot of competition, it may be a very uphill battle, as there are already more sound folks than jobs these days. Stay open for other types of work, especially things you can do in your home studio in post. 

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On 3/8/2021 at 8:56 AM, IronFilm said:

We in the Sound Department probably interact with a greater range of other departments on set than anybody else (other than the AD department of course). 
Thus if you get offered opportunities to work in other departments (such as Costume Assistant, or Standby Props, or whatever), don't turn them down! Don't think of any of that time as "wasted" or a distraction from your main long term focus of the sound department. (I don't regret my first few years being focused on the camera dept instead) Your initial early years should be about building a broad base of understanding of how everything works together, not just your small niche corner. 

I was given similar advice that when applying to IATSE for the sound department I should also put in a secondary application as a Grip, which makes sense since I have worked a lot of construction/carpentry type jobs throughout the years and like the whole physical labour aspect of it.  I wouldn't mind being a grip but ideally in the long run sound is where I want to end up.  But you're right, I definitely see the value in getting familiar with each and every department; I was hoping to get a taste of that as a PA.

Do you think that other departments (such as grip, etc..) would...I'm not sure how to word it...but look down on me or 'scoff' me if I were working in their department but was clear about my intent on getting into sound?

On 3/8/2021 at 10:25 AM, JonG said:

Don’t dump a bunch of money into gear. Get to know your local location sound people, and work your way up with them. Learn the business, don’t undercut your colleagues, and be grateful. Google is your friend. 
 

that said, this is a really small business with a lot of competition, it may be a very uphill battle, as there are already more sound folks than jobs these days. Stay open for other types of work, especially things you can do in your home studio in post. 

This makes sense and seems to be the logical answer that I'm seeing the most.  My only concern with this is the chance that I may be offered a low budget opportunity and then I will end up going onto set my first time without ever actually being familiar with the gear, and maybe using it for the first time.  I was maybe thinking of only buying a recorder and becoming familiar with that and then renting the rest as needed.  But would you agree if I were to own one item and know it well, that it would be a recorder?  Wireless systems also come to mind when I think of things that I should be familiar with before my first gig.

Of course, in a perfect world I find someone to work and learn under, but I also want to be prepared for solo gigs just incase I'm in the right spot at the right time.  Pros and cons on both sides I guess.

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Why don't you simply try and work your way into some entry level position in the sound department?  Some shows even have PA positions in the sound department.  If you intention is to be a sound person, just put your efforts into doing that, maybe?

 

I realize that you will make some payment as a set PA, and maybe you would need to work "pro bono" with a sound crew, and I get that we all need to make a living.  But with your experience in audio, you may have a leg up in just getting some work in the department you actually want to be in.  In my experience, set PAs are either on a path to AD'ing/Directing or just wanting to be in the movie business.  You seem to have a different direction.  

 

I'd say, and Vancouver is full of them, try and get some meetings (virtual?) with mixers and boom ops and let them know you are looking to break in.  With your Pro Tools skill, maybe get a day or two of sound playback, or even just tagging along.  You need to learn sound from a sound crew.  Devoting your precious time to doing other tasks won't help you achieve your aim.  It is tough breaking in, especially during a pandemic, but you gotta start somewhere.  I think that film production will come flooding back, once it's safe.  There are a lot of services looking for product and Vancouver will be at the center of that.  Network, lend a hand, be a nice and motivated human being, listen carefully.  I suspect it won't take you long.

 

Good luck.

 

D.

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39 minutes ago, tourtelot said:

Why don't you simply try and work your way into some entry level position in the sound department?  Some shows even have PA positions in the sound department.  If you intention is to be a sound person, just put your efforts into doing that, maybe?

 

I realize that you will make some payment as a set PA, and maybe you would need to work "pro bono" with a sound crew, and I get that we all need to make a living.  But with your experience in audio, you may have a leg up in just getting some work in the department you actually want to be in.  In my experience, set PAs are either on a path to AD'ing/Directing or just wanting to be in the movie business.  You seem to have a different direction.  

 

I'd say, and Vancouver is full of them, try and get some meetings (virtual?) with mixers and boom ops and let them know you are looking to break in.  With your Pro Tools skill, maybe get a day or two of sound playback, or even just tagging along.  You need to learn sound from a sound crew.  Devoting your precious time to doing other tasks won't help you achieve your aim.  It is tough breaking in, especially during a pandemic, but you gotta start somewhere.  I think that film production will come flooding back, once it's safe.  There are a lot of services looking for product and Vancouver will be at the center of that.  Network, lend a hand, be a nice and motivated human being, listen carefully.  I suspect it won't take you long.

 

Good luck.

 

D.

This was actually my plan but I didn't see a clear route directly into the sound department with my research.  I had the same thought about PAing usually leading more into the production department of film work but it still made the most sense in regards to just getting some foundational experience on set and making general connections.  I would love to just jump right into being a sound trainee but considering sound teams are generally pretty small I didn't really know the path to that besides for simply getting on set and showing that I can keep up with the pace; and for that PAing seemed to be the answer but I would love to hear alternative choices.  Pro bono is definitely one of them, and I was actually curious how I may be able to use my Pro Tools experience as leverage but I wasn't sure if it really mattered on set.  Plus, as Ironfilm mentioned the sound guys work closely with every department so I figured that PAing would help in that regard as well just to give me a basic understanding of how everything works on set instead of focusing on just sound right from the beginning.

Thanks for the advice.

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4 hours ago, Dwayne Kittelson said:

My only concern with this is the chance that I may be offered a low budget opportunity and then I will end up going onto set my first time without ever actually being familiar with the gear

Honestly, you should know when to turn down a job. If you don’t think you’re up for it, pass it along to someone who is. Buying gear is not going to get you prepared, it’s just going to get you familiar with that gear. But you still need to do tons of research, and you still need considerable experience in the sound dept before taking on a feature as a department head, even if it’s painfully low budget. This is a technical job, a lot more goes into it than knowing how to operate a device. 
 

There is this dangerous mentality these days where people think that buying gear makes them a sound engineer. Realistically, the more you study and the more experience you gain, the more of an engineer you are. Equipment can be easily learned if you know the principals behind the technology and it’s functions. But memorizing individual pieces of equipment will only help you with those items, and not necessarily teach you why it works the way it does, and why you use it to operate in different ways. 
 

My point is: don’t be in a rush to be a sound mixer. The truth is that there are more mixers than jobs anyways, and if you dump a bunch of money on gear, you may decide that you don’t like the work, or aren’t cut out for it, or there just isn’t enough work to justify the cost, and you may not be able to sell it off and get your money back. 

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11 hours ago, Dwayne Kittelson said:

Do you think that other departments (such as grip, etc..) would...I'm not sure how to word it...but look down on me or 'scoff' me if I were working in their department but was clear about my intent on getting into sound?

Why do you need to tell them about your long term goals? Keep that to yourself. 
Just be the best possible grip you can be right in the moment. 

 

11 hours ago, Dwayne Kittelson said:

This makes sense and seems to be the logical answer that I'm seeing the most.  My only concern with this is the chance that I may be offered a low budget opportunity and then I will end up going onto set my first time without ever actually being familiar with the gear, and maybe using it for the first time.  I was maybe thinking of only buying a recorder and becoming familiar with that and then renting the rest as needed.  But would you agree if I were to own one item and know it well, that it would be a recorder?  Wireless systems also come to mind when I think of things that I should be familiar with before my first gig.

Yes, do this:
1) work under others in a larger Sound Department
2) just get a good boom mic and recorder, and get some initial experience on low pressure student / indie / no budget short films

 

10 hours ago, Dwayne Kittelson said:

This was actually my plan but I didn't see a clear route directly into the sound department with my research.  I had the same thought about PAing usually leading more into the production department of film work but it still made the most sense in regards to just getting some foundational experience on set and making general connections.  I would love to just jump right into being a sound trainee but considering sound teams are generally pretty small I didn't really know the path to that besides for simply getting on set and showing that I can keep up with the pace; and for that PAing seemed to be the answer but I would love to hear alternative choices.  Pro bono is definitely one of them, and I was actually curious how I may be able to use my Pro Tools experience as leverage but I wasn't sure if it really mattered on set.  Plus, as Ironfilm mentioned the sound guys work closely with every department so I figured that PAing would help in that regard as well just to give me a basic understanding of how everything works on set instead of focusing on just sound right from the beginning.

The problem is most sound departments don't have available the total zilch "no experience" position available for you to do. 
But a PA position is that, it at least gets you that very general "being on set experience". (so would any other position in any other department)

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If you are willing and able to do the work of a real PA then by all means see if you can get on with producers in your area.  I went this way myself, but must warn you that as a PA you will not be spending any time with the sound crew of any production you are on, unless you are lucky enough to be assigned to that dept..  You'll be expected to concentrate on whatever they have you doing, maybe on the set but more likely (for a newbie) NOT on the set during shooting.  That said, if you hang as a PA long enough you can see first hand what the various depts do and how they work.  Covid makes it tough to casually chat-up senior crew members, maybe when the protocols ease up a bit...  Please do NOT present yourself as a Grip if you aren't one, don't have that experience and training.  Grip work is a whole separate and fairly complex field anymore with a lot of esoteric knowledge and terminology--it is not a form of simple manual labor!  

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