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Wednesday, 24 November 2010 20:19

Expecting the Unexpected

Written by  Gordon Meyer
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Audio Specialist Scott Harber does a lot of work in scripted entertainment for both big and small screens alike, including the TV shows “Rescue 911” and “Desperate Housewives” and the upcoming feature 30 Minutes or Less for Columbia Pictures. But his real passion is for the documentary films that have taken him all over the world, such as Bill Maher’s Religulous and the Sacha Baron Cohen mockumentaries Borat and Brüno.


Harber and his colleagues shot Cohen’s comedic films as documentaries, as Cohen and his director, Larry Charles, had specific story points in mind and felt that the films were in many ways 21st-century versions of the classic TV show “Candid Camera,” in which unsuspecting real people were sucked into absurd situations for laughs. “[Borat and Brüno] were docs,” says Harber. “It was me and two cameramen standing in a room with Sacha and whoever he was with.”

Cohen is famous for his on-camera spontaneity, especially when he’s in character as Borat or Brüno, so Harber had to be prepared for just about anything –– and most of the time he was. However, there was one incident while filming a Brüno segment in Washington, D.C. where Brüno was going to interact with political insiders like Ron Paul and Tom Ridge. Harber put a microphone in Cohen’s wig because the actor’s wardrobe tended to be full of frills or had plastic tops that wouldn’t accommodate a microphone. For part of this sequence Cohen decided to take off his jacket, which created a problem: There was a wire going from the mic embedded in his wig to a transmitter that was discreetly hidden inside the jacket, and there was no place to hide the transmitter in the wig.

“We couldn’t take the wig off because it took so long to put it back on,” Harber explains. “I had to go to the production people and tell them we needed to clip the microphone wire –– ruining a $400 mic –– and asking them if they felt it was worth it to get this shot. We got the OK to cut the wire, and then I had to boom everything for part of the sequence and then quickly plant hidden microphones in the room Sacha was bringing these people into.” Harber says that this was a big game changer: “The trick is to keep enough gear on hand to pull off the unexpected. Things like that are going to happen so you have to have a backup, but you can’t carry the world with you.”

Harber’s core equipment includes Sanken COS-11 wireless lavalier microphones that link up with Electrosonic transmitters. “The Sankens are the best-sounding lavalier mics in my opinion,” says Harber. “They mount well, they sound great, they mix well [and] they’re omni-directional, so you can mount them upside-down or right-side up and you can pick up whatever you need.” Sanken also makes the CUB-01 boundary microphone, which Harber uses for hidden camera-mic situations. For shotgun mics, Harber leans towards a Sennheiser MKH 50, which has a super-cardioid pickup pattern. And for outdoor locations, such as many of the scenes in the doc Religulous, Harber will use a Sanken CS-3 because of its noise-rejection capacity.

While Harber makes extensive use of lavaliers, he augments those recordings with boom mics whenever possible because, otherwise, the audio quality from the lavs alone can be dry. “Even if you can’t reach people with the boom, it’s a good thing to track and record because it gives editorial a more airy sound and helps them to cover edits from scene to scene by feathering in some of that ambient sound,” explains Harber. Another key component Harber uses is an Aaton Cantar-X portable multi-track recorder and hard drive that he can throw over his shoulder. “I can record eight or ten tracks with every mic on its own track,” he reports. “This way, I have the best of both worlds –– I can do a mix in the field, but if somebody hits a wire, the editor can go back and remix from the isolated mics.”

With 20 years of experience on dozens of documentaries and reality TV shows like “Hell’s Kitchen,” Harber knows that it pays to be ready, as anything can happen. And by keeping his wits about him and maintaining a core collection of quality equipment, Harber has learned that there’s very little that he can’t handle.

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