The Topic At Hand: This Is A Test

One thing you learn almost immediately when you start working on film sets is that something will go wrong.

Now I know somebody named Murphy got some law about this named after him — in fact according to Wikipedia, it was over events documented in a 4-part article in a magazine called The Annals of Improbable Research, which sounds, incidentally, like it would be an awesome read. But whether it is or it isn’t doesn’t really matter because this maxim is actually true.  No matter how much testing you do or how ready you are, it’s not a question of “may,” or “if I screw up,” no. The thing to know is that if it can, it will.

There are so many things in my line of work that can go wrong, in fact, that I have to divide them into categories. Such as:

A) The fairly mundane things that have happened to or been caused by me, and probably most sound people: boom in shot, boom shadow/reflection in shot, you are in shot, stand falls on your head, elbow gets singed on light, boom hits actor, dolly grip trips over you, you trip over First AC, you hit ceiling/ceiling fan/light fixture/floor/electrician/lead actor with the boom (sometimes more than once), actor drops wireless mic pack, actor drops wireless mic pack in toilet, wireless mic makes too much noise to be usable, wireless mic gets unscheduled cameo in close up, Nagra/Mixer/DAT recorder batteries die during shot, digital machine dies during shot giving you only “ERROR” as explanation, tape (when we used to have tape) rolls out during shot, sound person (who may be you) forgets to roll, sound person falls asleep during shot, sound person is outside smoking when they call roll, sound person gets fired, sound editor holds dailies ransom and has to be convinced to give them back, etc etc;

B) Things that have happened on films that I was on but which had nothing to do with me, I swear: lead actor/actress freaks out over fight with lead actress/actor/lover and refuses to do scene, director fights w/DP/lover or producer/lover or actor/lover and somebody runs off crying, various people walk for various reasons other than sex, actor refuses to come out of trailer because he’s annoyed about something utterly inconsequential, actor disappears, actor gets sick from lunch, actor does too many drugs & goes into K-hole, actor does not get drugs and cannot function, actor’s drug dealer gets murdered during production (by actor, we eventually learn), production gets shut down by cops searching for drugs at location, drunk art director drives production vehicle which is also the producer’s car into tree, dolly crashes over with camera on it, feeder cable gets stolen, cars get stolen, cars get towed, director/AD/DP gets replaced/quits for something that was or was not their fault, director has never directed episodic but doesn’t get replaced, director has never directed anything but doesn’t get replaced, line producer steals bankroll from producer because producer refuses to pay crew, DP comes to set drunk, first AC returns from lunch drunk, gaffer comes to set on non-union job drunk and is convinced he has seen union rep skulking outside causing all other crew members to freak out, actor has very heavy prop made out of speed rail and a two-by-four fall on head shutting down production for several hours, and so on and so forth.


C) Things that I have only heard about, but know to be true because they come from reliable sources: PA drives production vehicle into sound utility person, DP jumps off dolly still wearing battery belt attached to camera causing camera to go smash, dailies get stolen, dailies get left behind on curb, tripod gets left behind on curb, tripod gets left in cab, director has nervous break-down and has brother take over, actor outs himself by hitting on his own stand-in, method actor breaks rib of other actor while performing as psychopath…Well, I think you get the idea.

A sound cart.  Can you guess how many machines could go down simultaneously?

A sound cart. Can you guess how many machines could go down simultaneously?

Most of these things that go south are caused by human error, based upon a small set of root causes which include, but are not limited to: greed, inexperience, lack of sleep, arrogance/hyper-inflated ego, drug use, gluttony, lust, poor judgment, boredom, frustration, and laziness. And of course, none of these traits are unique to people in the film business. In fact, one can conclude, since a number of them are on the list of things one shalt not do in the Ten Commandments (or is it the Seven Deadly Sins? Forgive me, having been to Hebrew School and Catholic School for one year each, I’m kind of religiously confused), that they have been, in one form or another, making us all useless and destructive for some time. I’m talking throughout human history. I mean, before Mussolini, there was Attila. Before K there was cocaine, before that there was LSD, before that there was opium, before that there was hashish, and before that…well, I’m sure they had something to huff.

Then there is the subset of badness that can be attributed purely to equipment failure. Thanks to technology, this has become less and less common for certain types of equipment. For example, radio mics. There was a time when you rented (because you couldn’t afford to buy) a gigantic square box with two rabbit ears sticking out of it and another, slightly less gigantic box, with a long, dangly antenna that you had to somehow attach to the actor, and then you just prayed that the sounds of RF interference-created drop outs, Traffic on the Ones and taxi dispatchers fell between the lines you were trying to record instead of over them. Now, radio mics are a staple of location sound recording – which can actually cause its own anxiety, because everyone expects them to work all the time. Thus, whereas before you could often get a director and DP to adjust a shot to make it boomable when the radio mics failed, or to be realistic about the kind of coverage they could conceivably get in a wide shot, now everyone just looks at the sound mixer like he (or she)’s the problem. On the other hand, now that we are firmly in the digital age, one is no longer working with a reel-to-reel recorder that would still function if you ran it over with the car (that belongs in Category C, actually: PA runs over Nagra with car). Instead, one now works with a small, slick digital machine, that, while they impress the producer with fancy displays and pretty flashing lights, do just sometimes decide, because it’s too hot or cold or moist or somebody jostled it touched it or gave it the stink eye, that your sound no longer exists. Technically, the machine is right, because when it records your sound that digital machine converts it all into zeros and ones and so it ceases to be sound unless and until it or some other machine converts it back and spits it out. But that doesn’t make you want to cry any less. And again, this failure of technology and inanimate objects in general to meet expectations is nothing new. Remember how we all thought the world was flat, and that polyester was the wonder fabric until we realized that it didn’t breathe?

Then there are those general alterations in circumstances and situations that fall into the category of, “shit just happens.” These can include changes in weather (a badly timed gust of wind that blows on your microphone or a sudden rain/snow/hailstorm that drenches any or all of your equipment before you can put up the pop-up tent), actors deciding to improv new lines for which you are totally unprepared and/or deliver lines in new places that are just out of reach of the boom, children/animals who are theoretically “acting” but always seem to choose to unpredictably bark or shout really loudly or bite/smack/look at the boom during the shot, a loud siren or plane or obnoxious bystander looking for his big break, cruising by during important dialogue, etc etc etc etc.

Now, most good sound people do what they can, within reason, to prepare for these eventualities. They test their radio mics at every new location to make sure that their signals are clean, and if they’re not, change frequencies. They get equipment that functions properly 80 or 90 percent of the time, they service it, they replace it when necessary, and they actually plug everything in and turn it on to make sure it works before somebody calls “Roll sound.” They listen for potentially ruinous noises in advance, and even if everything seems quiet, they think ahead to what sound problems might occur, asking themselves questions like, “Is there a rogue refrigerator that will decide to suddenly refrig while we’re rolling because all of the 10,000 watt lights being used in this kitchen have raised the temperature 20 degrees?” Or, “Is the actress wearing clackity high heels that can be cushioned with the rubber mat that I have in my kit for just such occasions?” Or, “What is that horrible buzzing sound emanating from the basement, and can whatever is causing it be turned off without shutting down the entire neighborhood?”

Dogs = trouble.

Dogs = trouble.

This, friends, is what we call troubleshooting, and it is probably the biggest and most stressful part of any job on a film set. This is because every new scene and location brings with it its own fun, special, and suddenly terrifying challenges, and your job is to think about them and shoot them down before they become actual trouble while not allowing yourself to contemplate the dire possibilities of everything that really could result if the trouble happens. And, more importantly, you have to learn to distinguish the bad shit that you can control and test for from the bad shit that you can’t.

It’s kind of a fine line. There are some people who I have worked with who have drawn that line at, “Aah, we can’t turn off the cappuccino machine and those clients won’t quit talking on their cell phones, and you know what? There’s going to be music over this whole scene anyway.” These people have peace of mind, yes. But they don’t get their jobs based on the quality of the sound recordings they turn in at the end of the day. They get them based on the fact that they don’t worry so they’re happy-go-lucky people who are fun to be around – and they work it, because they know that that’s mainly what they’ve got going for them. They’re not good at their jobs, they just know that if they act like everything’s fine, people will generally believe them, and when the evidence comes in, most people won’t hear it and so their memory of the sound guy will be, “Hey, that guy was cool.” They’re like the people in school who you always envied because they were smooth and confident and so everyone assumed that they had it all together – even if their ultimate destination in life was to scoop ice cream at Baskin Robbins, or having people realize centuries after they died that their paintings were not nearly as good as that poor, neurotic loser dude who cut off his ear. But for the time being, if you’re working for them, you end up being the one holding the big ol’ bag of responsibility because you know it sounds like crap and you actually care, but your getting rehired depends in large part on making your boss look like he or she knows what they’re doing.

But I would much rather work for those people than for the people who think they can control everything, and when they can’t, they blame you. If you were the one who miked the guy, you should have known that he was going to pound his chest in the exact spot where you put that mic, even if that wasn’t scripted and he never did it during rehearsal (if there was a rehearsal). If one of the grips opened a window letting in traffic noise, you were the one who didn’t see them do it because you foolishly decided to leave set for the first time in six hours to go to the bathroom. And if it rains, it’s definitely your fault.  Of course, the reason why they blame you is that if they didn’t, they would blame themselves. Like all bullies throughout history, they had to be mean to you, or to the tens of thousands of members of some ethnic or religious minority, in order to prove that they deserved to be top crusader or whatever by making somebody else lower or stupider or smaller than their parents made them feel.

And then there’s the person who just decides that everything will go wrong and that there’s nothing they can do – but they still have the incredible ability to make themselves sick with worry just thinking about it all. This person is the easiest to work for because, since they know it’s all going to hell in a handbasket anyway, they never blame you and they never make you work too hard. Sure, you have to listen to them talk about how much their job sucks and watch them chew their cuticles off as they fulfill their own prophecy by going down in flames, but at least they suck all of the anxiety out of the room. They remind you of every manic depressive roommate you’ve ever had and every apocalyptic religious sect you’ve ever read about: they’re absolutely no fun to be around, but all you can do is pity the poor bastards because there’s no use trying to convince them that they’re wrong. They just have to find out that the world isn’t going to end for themselves. And then, they’ll be even more miserable.

But I would rather work for one of these three types of people than be any of them. The first type of person doesn’t want to really know or accomplish anything, they just want to get by. They don’t really ever try very hard because trying means potential failure, and they don’t test because they don’t want to be tested. Meanwhile, the second type is so eaten up inside by trying to make everything go right all the time that when it doesn’t — and like I said, it never does — they hate you, they hate the crew and the production, they hate God or fate and most of all, they hate themselves. Because for all of the obsessive checking and testing they do, something WILL go wrong, and every mistake or exploded spark plug or avalanche is somehow a personal failure which they will struggle with to the end of their days. And then that third type of person doesn’t test or struggle or strive, but not because they know they can get by without it or because they know everything works. They are sure in their knowledge that life is just a series of inevitable defeats waiting to happen, and that trying to prevent any of them is an exercise in futility. What happy campers are they!

Not one of these people gets the point that a test is just a test. It’s what you do to prepare yourself for what might happen, but you should never forget that it isn’t what really does happen. That’s real life, and nobody is ever for that.  Sometimes it is just as truly awful as person type 3 thinks it will be, and often you are as completely unprepared as person type 1.  But — unless you’re a psycho like person type 2 — would you really want to know it all in advance?  If we did, and we tested and prepared for every event so that there was nothing new or surprising, what would then make history?  Human existence itself would be a broken record (although sometimes one does start to feel that this is the case…).

And most of all, if shit didn’t happen, if you couldn’t say, “Oh, man, my equipment got fried last week by a lightening strike,” or, “You’re not going to believe this but a Bengal Tiger ate all of my XLRs,” well, what would you talk about on the next job?


Photos by the author.
Preview image from a painting by Erró

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    3 responses to “Shit Happens”

    1. I suspect that many of the real-life stories implied here are often more compelling than the movies, TV shows, and commercials that are the reason all this is happening to begin with.

    2. Nathan says:

      We're a week out from the first day of shooting the show I'm on. A couple of days ago, we held sort of a status meeting with all the department heads. At the end of the meeting, the director gave a little pep talk, the gist of which was, “I know things will occasionally go into the shitter. Shit happens. But I want everyone to keep an optimistic attitude. Problems are just Opportunities To Come Up With Something Better“.

      About an hour later, I realized that the location he said we'd have “because it was his friend's restaurant” wasn't going to work out. I took perverse joy in emailing him that I had our first Opportunity To Come Up With Something Better.


    3. Hugo Fuchs says:

      Murphy's law is actually a misquote of him.

      There's also the Corollary of Infinite Flaws”
      No matter how many flaws you eliminate from a system, there will always be one more there, ready to make things go wrong.

      I prefer Stapp's Law A.K.A. Stapp's Ironicle Paradox:
      The universal aptitude for ineptitude makes any human accomplishment an incredible miracle

      Here's the Article from the Annals of Improbable Research.

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    The Author


    BTL is a New York-based filmmaker and writer who listens to stuff for money – aka, works as a sound mixer and boom operator on movies, TV shows and commercials. She blogs anonymously not to build her own mystique (which she's been told she already oozes) but to make sure she gets her next job. BTL is currently working on a screenplay, a novel, and a documentary, none of which she can tell you anything about — but she can tell you that she likes travel, platform shoes, and bacon-infused bourbon.

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