The Gift of Vision and Voice

The scene is set: A candlelight dinner for two. Watching, you can almost make out the napkins artfully arranged on the two plates sitting across from each other, resting on a tablecloth of an indeterminate color. The silverware glints brightly, obscuring any detail as to pattern. In the background, an original piece of music plays, distorting badly as it tries to fill the space of the scene. The lovers enter and take their seats. Their faces are cut in half by the top of the screen so only their lips and noses show. They whisper to one another in hushed tones. You think he is telling her how in love he is. Or he could be breaking it off, you're not sure. The couple in front of you isn't sure, either, and the old man leans to his wife and asks, rather loudly, the question you have been dying to ask: "What did he say?"

What's wrong with this picture?

Everything. If you ever see this type of scene, the camera and sound crews haven't done their jobs well. But unless you're watching one of those commercials where the camera is constantly moving and you're never quite sure of the product being advertised, you'll rarely see or hear such bad problems in a professional production.

Film is a unique medium in that it can force you to look at something, even if you don't want to, and it can clarify or distort what you hear to provide dramatic tension or comedic relief. This manipulation falls to the camera and sound departments, which have the responsibility of making sure you can see and hear everything the director wants you to see and hear. Let's start with members of the camera crew.

Director of Photography

The director of any film has enough to handle just dealing with the actors and the story being told. The one thing the director does not want to have to worry about is the technical crew. That's where the director of photography (DP), also called cameraman (even if the DP is a woman), comes in to play. The DP's job is to help the director tell the story using every tool available. Since film is primarily a visual medium, the main tool used is the camera.

Robert E. Collins has been a director of photography for thirty years. In that time, he's helped a lot of directors and sat behind a lot of cameras. Robert designed the look of the eighties by shooting shows like "Miami Vice" and "Hart to Hart."

Robert starts on a film a minimum of two to three weeks before principal photography starts, but he prefers more time. He says preparation is very important. In the time he has before shooting begins, Robert hires his assistant cameramen and his gaffer, who then hire their own crews. (The gaffer's job is discussed in Chapter 4.)

After the crews are taken care of, Robert talks with the director about the film. Since the director and the DP are the two who really design the color and feel and mood of a film, it is important that they always have a line of communication open. Even if they disagree with each other's ideas, they cannot function independently. Robert talks to his director about the story they are trying to tell. He makes his lighting determination based on that story and instructs his gaffer on what types of lighting instruments to rent for the shoot. The instruments go a long way in creating a distinct lighting pattern or "look" for each film.

Finally, Robert goes out to the locations himself and takes test shots, trying to eliminate as many variables as he can. For a direc tor of photography, variables include film stock, natural light versus artificial, what kind of lens to use, and whether there is room to put the camera on a dolly or if it's got to be handheld. As many of these that can be determined before the entire crew arrives, the faster the shot can be set up and filmed.

Once filming starts, the director of photography adjusts the earlier determinations and makes final decisions on how the camera is going to move and what is going to be included in the shot. Robert says the best thing to learn is, "Show just what you want to see. There is no substitute for actually looking for what to shoot. You want all your pictures to tell the story you are trying to tell." After you can "see" the shot, then you learn how to use the camera to make sure you get it. The more you do it, the more you learn. Robert has three Emmy awards to his credit, and he hasn't stopped learning yet.

Head Camera Operator

While the director of photography is in charge of what the camera does, the head camera operator is the person who actually sits behind the camera and looks through the lens. It's the operator's job to keep the actors in frame by panning and tilting the camera to follow them. Panning is a side-to-side movement, and tilting is up and down. Both are controlled from the camera mount by either rods or wheels, depending on the type of mount that's being used.

The camera operator makes sure everything looks all right from the camera's point of view. The operator can tell when the shot works and when it doesn't from a strictly visual point of view. On a low-budget film, the DP often doubles as a camera operator to keep the production's costs down. Currently, there is a crop of directors who like to operate their own cameras, Steven Soder-bergh being the primary example. He was behind the camera for his Academy Award-winning film Traffic as well as the gang heist film Ocean's 11.

First Assistant Camera Operator

The head camera operator handles a lot of the camera movement stuff, but what about focus? If he or she is looking through the viewfinder doesn't the head operator have to keep the actors in focus?

No. That's not the head camera operator's job.

On a film, focus is a critical element. Directors of photography have lost their jobs because the film was out of focus. Because of this, focus on a movie camera has become a precise science, all figured out by distance. The first assistant camera operator, who always carries a measuring tape, will measure the distance from the camera to the actor during the first camera blocking. If the actor moves during the scene, the first assistant camera operator, or first AC, will get measurements at all the key points, then approximate the fill-in numbers to ensure proper focus. It's not easy. A first AC has to have an incredible sense of spatial relations.

In a nutshell, the first AC takes care of the camera. She or he will clean it, load the film magazines onto it, and take notes on each shot and foot of film that passes through it. The camera is the first AC's baby.

Second Assistant Camera Operator

The second assistant camera operator, otherwise known as the second AC, gets the grunt work of keeping track of how much film stock is left, what kind it is, and in what configurations. Film comes in different speeds for shooting under different conditions, such as day or night. It also comes in two roll sizes. A four-hundred-foot roll will shoot for a little more than four minutes, and a thousand-foot roll gives you just about ten. The second AC needs to know what's left in stock on the camera truck at any given moment and when to order more.

The second AC also gets to do all the official paperwork. This means that all the camera reports, detailing which shots the direc tor liked and wanted printed, and even the camera department's time cards, are all filled out by the second AC. It may not be great, but if you want to be a camera operator, it's where you have to start.

Clapper and Film Loader

If there's a clapper and film loader on the film, then the second AC is not the entry-level job. Often, though, the duties of the clapper and loader are filled by the second AC. Being a clapper and loader can be fun. After all, you're the only member of the camera crew to, unintentionally, end up on film.

The clapper part of the job means using a clapboard to identify the scene and take numbers for the editor and provide a sound sync noise for the sound editor. The clapboard, which is also referred to as a slate or sticks, is the small slate with the black-and-white sticks on the top. When a scene is slated, the clapper holds the clapboard with the top stick raised, then says the scene number, followed by the take number. If there is more than one camera, the clapper says which camera is being slated (the main camera is always A camera, and the others follow alphabetically). The slate ends with the clapper saying "Mark," and slamming the sticks shut so they make a loud crack.

When editing, the sound of the sticks coming together will match up with the audio tape of the same scene and take. This way, the sound and visuals will be coordinated. If for some reason the scene couldn't be slated at the beginning of the shot, tail sticks are used. Tail sticks are done the same way, with the exception of the clapboard being held upside down and the clapper starting off the verbal slate with the words "tail sticks."

The loader part is just what it sounds like. When all the film comes in from the film company, it's in a can. The loader has to take it into the darkroom and load it into the camera's magazine cartridges. At the same time, he or she has to unload the exposed film and load it into lightproof canisters, ready to be sent to the lab for processing.

Checking the Gate

Often, while watching a behind-the-scenes featurette about the making of a film, you'll hear someone on set say, "Check the gate." What does that mean?

It means to look into the "gate" that the film passes through on the camera to ensure it's clean. Sometimes a hair or a piece of dust can get in there, which could ruin a series of takes and require the whole thing to be reshot. Checking the gate is the last thing done before the camera is moved to a new location.

Still Photographer

When you read a review of a film in the newspaper and you see a photograph of a scene from that film, you probably are looking at the still photographer's work—but only a single frame of it. The still photographer is on the film from the first day of shooting and works right alongside the camera crew, capturing select moments of action while the camera crew captures everything.

The still photographer is first and foremost a photographer, with all the background and training that goes along with that. Marie Pfieffer has been taking pictures since she stumbled into a photography elective in high school. Since then, Marie has amassed an impressive portfolio of images, both of her own design and from the various productions she's worked on.

Part of Marie's job requires her to take pictures mimicking what the director of photography sees. She takes pictures of all the scenes as they're being shot, and these are used as part of the publicity packet. Because Marie's camera is always present, her candid snapshots are also used as a double check for continuity. Additionally, she sets up posed publicity stills that enable her to strut her artistic stuff. These are the specialized photos showing characters together who may never appear that way in the film—enemies arm in arm and smiling.

For each of these, Marie needs special equipment, which the production rents from her in the form of a kit or camera rental fee. Some of the equipment Marie uses for her posed shots includes a series of flashes, umbrella reflectors, diffusion screens, and stands—and that doesn't include her cameras. Marie usually has at least two of her eight different camera bodies with her at any time, as well as an assortment of lenses ranging from a 16 mm wide angle to a 1000 mm telephoto, which she uses when she can't get close to her subject. Marie also has an autowinder motor that she can attach to the bottom of her camera for fast action sequences and a device called a blimp that completely covers the camera, deadening any noise that may come from it, which she uses when she's snapping a dialogue scene and her camera noise would be picked up by the sound crew.

The weirdest thing Marie says she's ever had to do was learn how to scuba dive and get underwater housings for her cameras so she could take stills for a short shooting off the California coast. As for getting started, she suggests that you take as many pictures as you can. Build a portfolio showing you can take commercial shots just as easily as artistic ones. Portraiture is also a nice addition, but just take pictures and let people see them. Every film needs a still photographer, so why shouldn't it be you?

Boom Operator

This person's job is to make sure you can hear the actors. The tool used to do this job is the boom microphone. The boom, invented by Carroll Pratt in the early 1900s, is a rather unique piece of equipment. Basically, it's a microphone on the end of a long pole. The operator holds it above the heads of the actors, out of frame, so the sound mixer can record it. Sound easy? Not really.

First, if the scene is long, the operator must hold the boom for the duration. And holding it is only part of the job. The boom operator needs to know the script fairly well to be able to move the boom from actor to actor as the dialogue happens. If you still think this doesn't sound so bad, take your broom, tie a small weight to the end with the bristles, and hold it by the other end above your head for seven to ten minutes. Now add in the factor of twisting it toward the actors and following them around the scene. That's roughly the idea, if you're lucky. Sometimes, because of the way the scene is set up, the operator may have to use a boom over ten feet long.

The boom operator works closely with the location sound mixer on duties such as microphone selection and placement and gathering ambient sound for background noise. It is partly the boom operator's responsibility to listen as the scene is happening for disturbances such as airplanes or other noises not wanted over the dialogue as well as to make sure there are no shadows getting in the way of the lights. A boom operator can move up the ranks to become a mixer after time and a lot of work.

Location Sound Mixer

The sound for a film is recorded live on location. Often, parts of it are replaced in postproduction and mixed together to form the final, "sweetened" sound track you hear in the theater. But there's something special about that raw sound, capturing the feeling of the location. The credit for that belongs to location sound mixers.

Location sound is responsible for making sure all dialogue is recorded properly. The mixer needs to know how microphones work and how they need to be placed on an actor to make the best recording. Before the scene starts, the sound mixer and the boom operator (on a big-budget, union film, the mixer supervises the boom operator) wire the actors, if possible, with lavalier microphones. These are small microphones that can be concealed beneath the actor's clothing but still pick up all of the dialogue. The skill comes in knowing how these should be placed so they don't pick up the additional sounds of breathing or the rustle of clothing. While these may seem natural to us, to a sound mixer, they are to be avoided like the plague. The dialogue needs to be recorded crisply so it can be used. Any additional noise (like rustling clothes) can be added later if desired. This way, all the levels can be controlled, and the best sound quality can be achieved.

Sometimes, because of extenuating circumstances beyond anyone's control, a line cannot be recorded cleanly during actual filming. What then? Then you record it separately. This is called a wild line, and the sound mixer asks the actor to say just the line that is needed. Generally, the wild lines are recorded at the same time and in the same place as the regular dialogue. This way, the background, or ambient, noise will be the same.

The sound mixer will even record thirty seconds or more of just ambient noise, which is known as a room tone, for the same reason. In both cases, it provides a constant background for editing. Any room you enter has its own tone. A tile-floored bathroom, for example, will echo louder than a room with wood paneling and wall-to-wall carpeting. Outdoor locations also have a tone, be it the chirping of birds or the almost silent reverberations off a rock wall. The reason for all this ambient noise makes itself known in postproduction. If the dialogue editor clips a section of dialogue, the tape replacing it needs background so there isn't a big empty space, which can be quite distracting.

The location mixer records all of these sounds using either a portable quarter-inch tape recorder, called a Nagra, or, more common these days, a DAT digital recorder. Depending on the type used, it can record up to four separate tracks. So if there are four actors, each one will have her or his own audio track. For a standard location, the recorder is on a sound cart with a place to hold the boom, extra tape, and cables, but the portability ofthe recorder lets the sound mixer take it over the shoulder to record anywhere.

Foley Artist

Sound effects are any sounds that are not produced live on location. Sounds that never existed in the real world get created, and things recorded live that don't work get redone in the studio. On bigbudget films, most of the sound effects, with the exceptions of guns being fired and large explosions, are recorded on a Foley stage.

A Foley stage is a large, soundproof room designed to recreate real-world sounds, and the Foley artist is the person who uses it. John Roesch is one of the best in Hollywood. He describes his job like this: "Foley is the re-creation of sound effects in sync with the picture used to replace or enhance the production sound."

The first thing you notice walking onto a Foley stage is the floor. The floor is covered by all sorts of different flooring materials, from cobblestone to wooden planking to concrete and even occasionally grass. The floors all simulate other environments. If the scene is a man walking down wooden steps, then John will watch the action on a big-screen monitor and mimic the action he sees. His footsteps will replace the footsteps of the man walking down the steps.

But the floors aren't the only thing around. John renovated the stage at the studio where he works to make it exactly to his liking. So on John's stage not only will you find all the floorings to cover almost any surface you can think of, but also a small pool, which can be filled with water, and rows and rows of hand props.

"The problem with most stages," John says, "is there aren't enough props." And John should know. He's been walking on Foley stages for twenty-five years, and several of his films have won Academy Awards for sound, including E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark, and The Matrix. John spent weeks just moving props into his studio. With these hand props, which are used on almost every show he does, and the bigger props in the back storage rooms, used for a number of shows as well, he can recreate anything. There are different kinds of chain in the "chain" bin. The refrigerator (which works but makes too much noise while taping is going on) is used to make refrigerator noises. Any type of metal you can name is represented somewhere, and the difference between two rifles being cocked is apparent right away when you listen to both at the same time. The sound of the jet pack winding down in The Rocketeer was created by John on a machine he had built to do nothing but run different motors.

John's ultimate goal is to make the viewer unaware of anything being done to the sound. He wants you to completely believe in the scene you're watching, and he'll go to great lengths to do it. For the Steven Seagal film Under Siege, a film where the action takes place on a navy ship, John went out to the Long Beach Naval Yard, where an aircraft carrier was being dismantled, and picked up props so his sounds would be authentic.

Ideally, the way John works is to get a copy of the film to watch all the way through once the picture is locked. This means all the editing is done, and all he has to worry about is getting the sound right.

Then he and his crew—Mary Jo Lang, who is the Foley mixer and records all of what's going on, and Rick Canelli, who is the recordist and is in charge of setting up the tapes and logging which sounds are done and which need to be—start recording. The first thing to be recorded are the footsteps. They go through the entire film recording only the sound of people's feet: running, walking, skipping, shuffling, dancing. Any time feet move, John is there to capture it.

Once feet are finished, the team goes back in and adds all the other things John's studio is set up to do: gates closing, water running, bullets being ejected from a gun—anything that will add reality and believability to the final product. A full-length feature film will take about three weeks to complete, working five days a week, eight hours a day. The good news is that Foley artists can make $500 a day or more.

In certain situations, the actual Foley walker is being replaced by digital Foley effects. For low-budget filmmakers, their fingers walking over a control board and a bank of recorded noises is less expensive than hiring someone like John. But it still doesn't beat the real thing. Just shut your eyes and listen for the difference.


At this point, soundwise, the film is almost ready to go. The only element missing is the score. A sound track can consist of a variety of elements, and most people think automatically of the hit song played over the end credits. Yes, that song is part of the film's overall sound track, but then so are the sound effects and the Foley additions we've already talked about.

The most important part of the sound track, however, is the score. This is the background music, which you may not really notice, at least on a conscious level, but which you will definitely miss if it's taken out. The score helps set the mood of the scene as much as the set design or the lighting does. Mostly, it underscores the scene, hence its name, like an underline or italics in a book. The music can punch up the comedy or heighten the dramatic tension. Remember the low, ominous strings from the opening of Jaws? How many people can sing the "ee ee ee" from the shower sequence in Psycho? That's the score at work.

It can even be used to offset the scene, to give it surreal qualities that the visuals alone can't provide, such as circus music during a grotesque murder sequence. Imagine watching the famous ear-cutting scene from Reservoir Dogs without "Stuck in the Middle with You" playing in the background, and you'll see what I mean.

Somebody has to hear all of this in his or her head. The images need to provide the inspiration for a certain series of notes or chords. Patrick Moraz, former keyboard player for rock groups The Moody Blues and Yes, can do it. He has done it for such films as Predator and The Stepfather.

To start, Patrick talks with the director and reviews the script. "Every element can give seed to ideas," he says. At this point, he starts creating, in very rough forms, the various cues needed for the film. A cue is a section of music used to cover a particular scene or sequence of events, and a film can have anywhere from ten to more than a hundred cues.

With his rough cues in place, Patrick begins to see the dailies of each previous day's work. Using these as his guidelines, he revises his initial cues and creates a complete sonic environment and vocabulary. After watching an actor's performance, Patrick will give him or her a musical signature, a set of notes to correspond to that character. This way, whenever the character appears, the music will incorporate the signature within the cue. The most well-known example of this is the music of Peter and the Wolf by Prokofiev. Even certain settings can have their own signatures. In The Stepfather, the apartment house has its own notes to identify it.

Electronic music is the direction in which things are going, and the software available to composers is becoming more and more complex. Some of it can effectively duplicate a recording studio. In fact, almost all professional recording studios use some kind of MIDI computer system. Patrick writes all of his music on a keyboard and a home Macintosh computer. This lets him keep track of everything. He may see something while driving around that puts a musical idea into his head. He will compose and store it, having it ready to use when the right project comes along.

Patrick does a tremendous amount of research for any project he's involved with. If the film is a period piece, he tries to be as authentic as possible. He also listens to a wide selection of other music because he never knows what the director will want or where those ideas will come from, and the best strategy is to be prepared.

Scoring Mixer

Once the composer has created his or her masterpiece, it's up to the scoring mixer to record it. Well, maybe not actually record it, but at least put it on tape and make it sound good. The scoring mixer is the person who organizes the musicians in the recording studio and works with the composer and music producer. Is it any wonder scoring mixer Avi Kipper says that one of the most important aspects of the job is diplomacy?

Even with heavy diplomacy, being a scoring mixer is not an easy gig to get. There are far more jobs for assistants than for mixers themselves, so, obviously, the more you know about everyone else's job, the better. That way you can always be working somewhere in the recording booth.

The nice thing about being a scoring mixer is that you don't need an extensive musical background to do it, just a love of music. An electronic background, however, is very desirable. If you have any experience with ham radios or computers, you're starting off right. Then, when you've decided on mixing as a career, start learning whatever you can about the technology being used in the recording industry. Read all the industry magazines you can get your hands on so you'll be able to at least identify the equipment when you see it. If you can learn how to fix the instruments you'll be using, that skill makes you that much more employable.

But all of that can be done on your own. For advanced learning, check out places like the University of Miami and other larger schools for their recording arts degree programs. With this job, you're flying by the seat of your pants, so it's best to be as well primed as possible.

For Further Information

Images are what people remember most from the films they see— images and sound bites. There are entire books written just with quotes or still pictures from films. There are also a number of books and magazine articles written for those who want to produce those images and sound bites and those who already do.


Alton, John. Painting with Light. New York: Macmillan. American Cinematographer Film Manual, 8th Edition. Los Angeles: The ASC Press.

Bloedow, Jerry. Filmmaking Foundations. Burlington, MA: Elsevier Science/Harcourt.

Borwick, John. Microphone Technology and Technique. Burlington, MA: Elsevier Science/Harcourt.

Brown, Blain. Motion Picture and Video Lighting. Burlington, MA: Elsevier Science/Harcourt.

Carlin, Dan Sr. Music in Film and Video Production. Burlington, MA: Elsevier Science/Harcourt.

Cheshire, David. The Book of Movie Photography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

Elements of Color in Professional Motion Pictures. White Plains, NY: Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers.

Elkins, David E. Camera Assistant's Manual. Burlington, MA: Elsevier Science/Harcourt.

Frayne, John G., and Halley Wolfe. Elements of Sound Recording. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Hagen, Earle. Scoring for Films. Hialeah, FL: Columbia Pictures Publications.

Honore, Paul M. A Handbook of Sound Recording. Cranbury, NJ: A. S. Barnes and Company.

Limbacher, James L. Film Music. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, Inc.

Lyver, Des. Basics of Video Sound. Burlington, MA: Elsevier Science/Harcourt.

Malkiewicz, Kris. Cinematography. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Mascelli, Joseph V. Five C's of Cinematography. Beverly Hills, CA: Silman-James Press.

Mercer, John. An Introduction to Cinematography. Champaign, IL: Stipes Publishing Company.

Millerson, Gerald. Techniques of Lighting for Television and Film. Burlington, MA: Elsevier Science/Harcourt.

Morgan, David. Knowing the Score. New York: Harper Collins.

Sonnenschein, Davis. Sound Design. Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions.

Thomas, Tony. Film Score. Burbank, CA: Riverwood Press.

Wheeler, Leslie J. Principles of Cinematography. New York: Macmillan.


American Cinematographer Magazine 1782 North Orange Drive Hollywood, CA 90028

Millimeter 9800 Metcalf Avenue Overland Park, KS 66212


Digital Cameras For Beginners

Digital Cameras For Beginners

Although we usually tend to think of the digital camera as the best thing since sliced bread, there are both pros and cons with its use. Nothing is available on the market that does not have both a good and a bad side, but the key is to weigh the good against the bad in order to come up with the best of both worlds.

Get My Free Ebook

Post a comment