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Wednesday, 03 March 2010 00:00

Production Sound in Extreme Environments

Written by  Scott Jason Farr, CAS
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Capturing production sound is tough enough in controlled settings without adding outdoor elements into the mix. The challenges faced when working indoors, on a set or controlled locations around sunny Southern California are multiplied a thousand times when you go to remote locations like the Sahara, Arctic or North Sea.

Scott Jason Farr, CAS on the set of a US Navy recruitment video photo credit : Scott Farr,CASCapturing production sound is tough enough in controlled settings without adding outdoor elements into the mix. The challenges faced when working indoors, on a set or controlled locations around sunny Southern California are multiplied a thousand times when you go to remote locations like the Sahara, Arctic or North Sea. You just can’t hop into your vehicle to go across town, get what you need and be back in an hour (although that by itself can be a difficult accomplishment in most cities). As a production sound mixer who has traveled around the world, I have experienced extreme conditions and, along with fellow BBC Production Sound Mixer Simon Forrester’s Arctic experiences, I will expand upon some of the challenges, the planning required and the equipment we used to get the job done. Working on location can be divided into four parts: cold, heat, wind and moisture. Each of these have their own special needs, and when combined they can create challenges that will test you and your equipment to the breaking point.

Cold: When working in extreme cold, care must be taken to not only protect yourself but also your equipment. Cables are brittle and can snap easily, so spares are needed, and equipment must be kept dry as any condensation in the system can freeze. As with any lengthy project, battery power is a problem, so maintaining supplies is essential –– there is a direct equation between the number of batteries required and the amount that can be physically carried. Solar power can help during summer but it takes a long time to charge anything. Tents with adequate space are also required to store equipment in bad weather. Extra-long sleeping bags can be useful so that body heat can keep equipment warm overnight. During the day, it’s essential that equipment be kept warm and protected from the elements –– ice and snow blown by a strong wind can get in through even the smallest of openings.
Production Sound Mixer Simon Forrester specializes in extreme cold and remote locations. “One of several expeditions that I did in the Arctic this year was a self-supporting expedition of two months camping on the sea ice above 82 degrees north, far above Greenland,” he reports. “The nearest settlement with food and electricity was a five-day dogsled ride away, so once out on the ice there could be no nipping back to the settlement to get something you’d forgotten. In terms of challenges, health and safety was probably the greatest. Being on the sea ice is very dangerous –– not only are you exposed to all the elements that nature can throw at you, but there is the inherent danger of the ice itself. During the summer it begins to melt and you can easily fall through or, as happened to us, you can find yourself on a free-floating block drifting in the ocean. It is also a polar bear highway with nowhere to hide. Food is a major problem as it is impossible to carry enough for the whole trip, so there needs to be a competent hunter to catch food for you. As fuel for cooking is also highly limited, this often means eating whatever is caught raw, [such as] seal. Boredom can also be an issue, [and] in bad weather you can end up being in a tent by yourself for days on end.”
Scott Jason Farr, CAS on the set of a US Navy recruitment video photo credit : Scott Farr,CASWhen working in remote locations, planning is the most important element for a successful shoot. You should have enough spares, but keep the basic equipment to a minimum. If you take too much, it’s hard to carry and takes up too much room; pulling gear behind you on a sled or carrying it in a backpack means you’ll only make that mistake once or twice. On a previous expedition to K2 during a particularly bad storm, ice got into Forrester’s equipment bag and froze all the faders solid on the mixer, making life very hard indeed. Operating the mixer can also be a problem, as you have so many layers of gloves on that, unless you devise a system, it is impossible to feel buttons and operate faders. 
During the winter, physical tiredness from the cold can be a major problem, and it’s easy to make mistakes or have impaired judgment, especially in the dark or during bad weather. Again, personal health and safety are essential. It’s important that when somebody says they’re too cold to work, the crew stops working immediately. It’s also important to get enough food to eat that isn’t frozen solid, and make sure there is plenty of hot drinks. If you’re working outside, you need to eat up to 10,000 calories per day during the coldest months –– that’s probably the average daily intake of a Native (or at least the ones I’ve met), but for everybody else that’s a serious amount of food to shovel down.

The equipment Forrester uses mainly consists of the Holophone, Hydrophone, Sound Devices’ 788T with CL8, Schoeps’ CCM stereo pair, Lectrosonics’ wireless, rechargeable lithium cells and Sennheiser’s HP25s.

Heat, Sand and Wind: When the job takes you to one of the hottest places on earth –– the desert –– you have a new set of problems and the biggest is the combination of heat, sand and wind. The heat just adds to an electronic device’s operating temperatures, causing it to quickly race towards its limits. Sand gets into everything, even the best-sealed equipment. Combined with the friction of moving parts, faders, knobs and dials the sand can be very damaging to the gear. The wind-driven sand can feel like sandpaper ─ leaving you with the softest skin any day spa would envy.

I have a done a few projects in deserts where the equipment always takes a beating. One of the first projects that I worked on in a desert was during late summer in Death Valley, Calif., and I was using a Fostex PD-4 for the primary recorder, which uses DATs as the record medium. With the average daytime temps at 130-plus Fahrenheit (and the nights dropping to the mid-90s), there were times that the PD-4 would just not work, or the DATs would jam due to the tape stretching or getting tangled in the record heads. This meant downtime while I reset the recorder. Any time I had to reload a DAT, I would go inside a vehicle to minimize the amount of sand getting inside the equipment. Luckily we didn’t have total brownouts. I was using two Shure FP33s to mix 4–5 wireless and a boom. Battery consumption was the worst I have ever experienced; the heat just drains the batteries. I used lots of freezer packs and fans, and when I could I would operate from a running car with the A/C at its highest setting so I wouldn’t get sick when I had to get out of the vehicle to make changes to the equipment. Keeping out of direct sunlight is also very important, or you will cook from the inside out. Lightweight and loose-fitting clothing is a must, and consuming massive amounts of water at room temperature will keep you from going mad, as cold water will cause crippling cramps.

Production Sound Mixer Simon Forrester in the Arctic Photo credit: Simon Forrester/BBCMoisture: Working in wet conditions, whether it’s rain, humidity, snow or the sea, has always been hard on equipment. The ocean is especially harsh to all electronics –– lots of water and salt just eats everything. If your gear gets wet it usually stops working, but if salt water gets on anything it will corrode it almost instantly and turn your equipment into a paperweight.

Salt water really can be murderous on electronics, add to that military jet fuel, high wind, rolling seas and radar systems, and you have a working environment that is about as unfriendly to capturing usable production audio as you can get. These were the challenges I faced while working on a U.S. Navy mini-movie that will be used for recruiting at Naval air shows. Most of the production took place off the Baja Coast and in the San Diego area, including the Camp Pendleton Marine Base. It involved shooting on several aircraft carriers, battleships, hovercraft, helicopters, jet and cargo aircraft, and various land-based vehicles. The completed project will be shown in a trailer-mounted domed theater with full surround-sound and a wraparound screen for a truly lifelike experience. Right off the bat, my biggest challenge was figuring out how to capture all the sounds that would go along with this visual odyssey. Luckily the Navy was willing to bend over backwards for the crew and give us almost everything we could ever want.

I used wireless on the SEALs inline with their two-way radios, and I was able to use a military radio system that would allow me to record aircraft communications between the SEALs and other aircraft, including the operations center where all the commands originated. I set the 788T to that task and let it record several different radio feeds. The Navy project took a couple of weeks of planning and required custom cables and housings to protect the equipment from the working environment. While shooting on some of the smaller watercraft, chase boats, hovercraft and jet skis, we all were soaked to the bone, and the equipment needed to be operated in waterproof housings. Working with gear in these conditions is beyond frightening –– you can only take the bare minimum equipment, and the backups are never close enough.

I used the Aaton Cantar over the shoulder and followed the main 35mm camera to shoot the action as it unfolded. The story is about a SEAL team being deployed from a sub onto a mini-sub, which traveled underwater to the beach, then to a remote airstrip where they confirm the target ─ a plane unloading in a warehouse. The team calls in an air strike and orders a bomb to be delivered to an awaiting aircraft, which is when the camera follows the radio signal up into space to a satellite and back down to the aircraft carrier. The bomb’s onboard camera pans over the airstrip and finally, the target airplane. All of this happens in about five minutes on screen, and it is one heck of an experience. Hollywood would be very proud.

The equipment I use is the Aaton Cantar X2, Sound Devices’ 552, 788T/CL8 and 702T, Lectrosonics’ MM400Cs, UM400As, D4 system, UCR411As wireless, Rode NTG-3, Sennheiser’s MKH8050 and MKH70 microphones, and Denecke and Ambient timecode.

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