Recently, I had the honor of interviewing Production Sound Mixer, Scott Clements, from the USA’s “Burn Notice”. He gave me some great information and a great insight to the life on set of a fast paced TV show.
CH: How old were you when you discovered your passion for sound?
SC: When I was very young, I had the task of video taping my mom’s ballet company performances. That led to my high school years where I always had a video camera in my hands. My main exposure to sound was through the high school band. When I was in college studying electrical engineering, one of my good friends (who was studying directing) suggested that I would probably enjoy a career in sound for the movies. Turns out, he was right!
CH: When you were first starting out, what was your process of getting involved in a project?
SC: When I was in film school, my classmates were always busy shooting some project, and I made sure I was their sound man. It didn’t matter what it was, I would be there doing sound. I quickly got a reputation as the class sound man, and next thing you knew, my classmates’ were landing on outside projects (no, or very low pay). Those productions needed a low to no pay sound mixer, so I would weasel my way into those projects. It turns out, there are a lot of people willing to give you a job if you will do it for free! The more projects you land on, the more your reputation grows.
CH: Tell me about your transition from doing “freebies” to getting paid for gigs.
SC: After I graduated, I found it very difficult to find anyone that was willing to pay me to work. The class that came after mine in film school was busy learning all about sound, and they had a guest lecturer coming in by the name of Peter. They asked me to come in and help Peter set up the equipment, just to make his life a bit easier. I was happy to do it.
After his lecture, we went to have lunch and I discovered that Peter had a job coming up, and the production didn’t have a boom operator budgeted for him. I told Peter that I would love the opportunity to come work for him… no pay of course. That shoot went well, and then Peter asked me to come on another short job where he didn’t have a boom operator, but on this one he was willing to pay me $50 out of his equipment rental. And there it was… I was being paid.
That job led to a longer job as Peter’s cable man, where again, he was paying me out of his equipment budget. After that, Peter landed on a TV pilot. That was a union job, and I joined the union and got paid union rates!
Next thing you knew, the boom operator from one of the earlier Peter jobs recommended me for a big feature, then that boom operator recommended me for another big feature, then that production manager recommended me, and then that sound mixer recommended me… you get the picture…
CH: You are the production sound mixer for “Burn Notice” on USA. What experience did you have to get you to that point and how did you end up getting the gig?
SC: When I made the step from boom operator to sound mixer, it was like starting over again. No one was willing to give me a shot as a mixer. I was looking for another miracle like the chance meeting with Peter. And it came from a production coordinator named Elaine. She was in a position on a new TV series where she didn’t have a “big” sound mixer to hire. She had used me on a smaller gig, and was willing to stick her neck on the line to give me a chance on this bigger series. The series tanked, but Elaine and her producer both liked me. They used me on a few more projects and things continued to go well. Lucky for me, I was riding along on their coat tails when they landed on the Burn Notice pilot. They sold me to their producers, and I have been on the show for three seasons, and we are about to start the fourth season.
CH: Who is on your team and how do you end up with them?
SC: I have been pretty lucky to have the same two guys working with me for most of my jobs; Fred Kupfer and Jacob Kemp.
When I first worked with Fred, he was the boom operator on a film, and I was doing playback and cable man. It was right around the time when I was ready to make the shift to mixing. Fred annoyed me so much, that I swore I would never use him when I became a mixer. When I started mixing, I landed an ultra low budget film. I broke my word and hired Fred because I knew he could get the job done. During that film, I realized how truly talented he is, and we have been working together ever since.
Jacob was in one of the classes in film school a year or two after me, and he was that years class sound man. We got to know each other pretty well and we managed to stay in touch over the years. Somehow, it just made sense when it was time for me to hire someone, that it would be Jacob. He is way over qualified for the job, but that allows me to use him in ways that I couldn’t use other boom/utility people.
The three of us have totally different personalities, and it somehow really makes the team work. I am so lucky, because I can now pretty much sit back and know that Fred and Jacob are taking care of everything.
CH: Miami is not a quiet place, and you’re just about always on location. What do you typically have to do in order to get it quiet enough on set to get good audio?
SC: Burn Notice doesn’t really have enough money to “lock up” the surrounding areas when we are on location, so we do what we can. Our locations department and production assistants are on top of it and really work hard for the sound department. Also, Jacob is constantly running around trying to quite things down. We had one location in the middle of a neighborhood where every house had a menacing dog outside. And the dogs were not happy we were there. They were barking like crazy. The locations department went out and bought some Jerky Treats, and when the director yelled “action”; production assistants, locations assistants, Jacob, and any other available person would throw a jerky treat to a dog. It bought us just enough time to get each take before the dogs would start up again.
Every location has its unique challenges, and you just do whatever it takes to quite it down. A big part of the sound mixer’s job is to not let other people “give up” on a sound problem. You must convince them that it can be fixed.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that we have amazing “sound friendly” actors on our show. Many times the scene is saved by the actors simply stopping in the middle of the take because a plane, or truck, or a drunk is yelling something. When the sound problem stops, the actors continue the scene without missing a beat. I owe them a TON of credit for many scenes that I couldn’t have gotten without their professionalism.
CH: Does Miami in particular pose any unique problems to shooting a TV show or movie?
SC: Miami is a great place to shoot. We get to shoot in some pretty amazing houses/ mansions. We get to shoot at gorgeous beaches. Permitting is easy, and the people in the places where we shoot seem happy to have us there. It does seem there is a high rise construction project on every corner which presents its own sound challenges, but over all it’s a very film friendly city.
CH: Can you think of an example of a time when it was extremely difficult to get clean sound on set? What measures did you have to take to fix it? At what point do you give up and roll on it?
SC: We’ve had a few really bad sound days on set. One that stands out in particular was a day when we were shooting exterior at the American Airlines Arena in downtown Miami. We had over eleven pages of dialogue to shoot there. We were pretty close to, and right in the main flight path of the Miami International Airport. The main access bridge for the Miami Ports of Call (shipping) was only a few hundred feet away which had eighteen wheelers coming up and down every minute riding their “jake brakes” (take a look at the youtube clip for an idea of what jake brakes sound like.) There were bad sound problems constantly. And to make things even more fun, about five hundred yards across the water, one of the largest music festivals in the country was about to start their sound check and rehearsals. Tour and party boats kept cruising by to watch what we were doing and blasting their music to show how awesome they were.
The producers, director, and actors all told me I was just going to have to live with it, but luckily I convinced them that they couldn’t give up on me. We could get this. With a lot of patients from the actors and the director, we were able to work around most of the noises and they didn’t have to ADR any of those eleven pages. Locations did their best to buy us a bit more time on the music festival sound check. They managed to hold them off just long enough for us to finish our EXT work and move to INT car. The sound check was LOUD, but inside the car was just quite enough to save the scene.
We have plenty of days like this, but I don’t ever give up on getting useable sound. It’s rare that I am able to roll on a scene where I am one hundred percent happy with the sound I am recording. With each sound issue I try to determine: 1 – how much better I can make the sound (some times it’s a little bit, sometimes it’s a lot), 2 – what it will take to fix the problem and how difficult it will be (pretty easy, or very difficult), 3 – what it will cost me to fix it (production spends some money, the crew hates me, time off our day, etc). If it’s only going to make a small difference, but make the crew hate me and be unhelpful to me when I really need help, I’ll let it go. If I can save a scene from ADR, and it puts us behind schedule, then so be it… we will be behind schedule.
There are times when you are confident that it is impossible to get useable sound. For instance; if you have large, gas ritter fans creating a hurricane scene, you know there will be no useable sound. But that doesn’t mean you don’t keep your eyes open for opportunities to save the sound in certain shots by perhaps cutting the fans when they are no longer needed.
CH: How do you communicate with the director about the quality of the sound during a specific take? Do you communicate with him during the take? Do you ever call cut?
SC: I have a private slate mic line to the Comtek feed the director listens to. If I can communicate an issue during the take, I will. I may say “we should hold for this plane”, or “we should cut”. Then it’s up to the director to decide if they want to listen to me. If they keep rolling, I keep rolling.
CH: How do you deal with things when the director chooses something visual, or a performance, over the importance of the sound recording?
SC: Let’s be honest here. Other than the sound department, no other person on set would ever put sound before visuals or performance. I’ve always felt that the two most important things in a project are the story, and the performances. All other elements are there to serve those two things. One job of the sound department is to remind the director sound is a HUGE part of the performance, and that sound is integral to telling the story.
Many times people think they can fix a sound problem with ADR. They say things like “Ah, it’s easy. They’ll just ADR that line”. I am quick to remind them that it is not easy, and they will not be replacing that “line”, but instead, they will be replacing that “performance”. It’s really tough for an actor to reproduce a great performance while sitting in an ADR booth.
In regards to visuals and how they weigh against sound. That is totally a judgment call. For instance: if there are huge, noisy visual fx that are important to telling the story (i.e. a smoke blast, or helicopter taking off in the background), then I feel you should do your best to deal with the situation. However, if a piece of background set dressing (i.e. an electric fan) is creating a sound problem; I will fight to have it turned off. I may ask the director, “Is that fan running more important than the actor’s performance?” Sometimes, it’s a fine line between getting the sound, and getting yourself fired.
CH: Can you think of any specific times where your work has been compromised even though you spoke up to the director about it? How did the end product turn out?
SC: There are always battles that you will loose. It happens all the time, multiple times a day. You could fill a library with stories of sound mixers fighting stupidity and loosing. You just hope you win more than you loose… and by the way, no one would want to go to your library full of sound mixer’s lost battles.
As far as the end product in those cases… on most professional jobs, the end product is going to turn out great. You can’t get distribution for a film that sounds bad. End of story. Yes, they can fix it in post. It just costs a lot of time and money, and compromises the actors performances.
CH: How heavily do you feel that you can rely on post vs. having to fix things on set?
SC: The best solution is to always fix it on set. The cleaner the dialogue, the more time and detail post production can put into building the other elements. On Burn Notice, I know that every effort will be made to clean up my tracks. Our dialogue editor and re-recording mixer both have amazing skills with dialogue. I am amazed every time I watch an episode at what they were able to do.
Definitely some great information in there! Stay tuned for the second half of the interview coming later this week!