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INTERVIEW: Eric Pierce, C.A.S. – Location Recordist

Eric gave up a much valued lunch break to talk with us a bit about location audio.  He has a vast amount of experience which includes recording live TV morning shows to feature films to game shows and to episodic television.  Some notable recent highlights include “Scrubs”, “Big Love”, “Hannah Montana” and “Tenacious D – In the Pick of Destiny”.  A partial list of credits can be found here and information on the Cinema Audio Society here. (C.A.S.)

WOODY:  As a production recordist, what is the scope of your duties on set?

ERIC: The way I look at it is I am responsible for everything audio that happens on the set in order to collect the tracks that need to be put in to the soundtrack of the film.  Whether it’s playback equipment, speakers for audience if need be, whatever it might be audio wise in order to collect those tracks that you know are going to work best in the editing.

WOODY:  So if you’re doing a multi-camera show, and they’ve got audience in there on risers you have to mix for the audience as well?

ERIC: Exactly.  That would be a circumstance where you’d be responsible for the PA (Public Address Playback) or if you had a pseudo-live performance you’d be responsible for that.  Whether you’re doing that or if you have a separate PA mixer it’s still in the scope of your duties to put that team and gear together and make sure it’s right.

WOODY:  So you hire additional crew?

ERIC:  Yeah.  Anytime there’s additional crew I would clear it through the PM (Production Manager) and say “this is what I’ll need, I’ll need a playback person” or “I’ll need a PA system or operator or a PA company”, if it’s that big.  Whatever it takes.

WOODY:  Let’s talk about your location sound recording cart.  What are your pieces of gear and what are your preferences?

ERIC:  The O1V (Yamaha Digital Mixing Desk) would be the heart of it.  I have the 16 in-out AES digital card that feeds both my recorders.  And I can digitally feed external video decks whenever I need to.  I can route anything to what I want.  So it’s the recorder, the desk (O1V), the 2 Comtek DSC 25’s , one for production and one for sound so you can have a private conversation.  And then I also have a full onboard computer.  Not a laptop, but a full computer.  When I was putting the sound cart together for a full sound cart, I had a checklist.  I need video monitors, at least two, I need playback, and also I’ll need to check my email.  And with everything I went, “computer will do that,” “computer will do that,” so I built an IBM based computer that has a four input video card and two tuners.  I can take the wireless feed right off of the camera if they’ve got one, and it also has playback capabilities and I’ve got full editing.  I use Sony Sound Forge and Vegas.  I can also do multi-track record and playback, which I’ve used before for off-camera response and things like that.  And then I’ve got an Lectrasonic 6-pack.  I’ve got six wireless and I normally go wireless boom so I also have two transmitters that plug right into the booms.  So my boom operators can be totally wireless and not have to worry about cable, reposition if they need to, walk along steady-cam and not have to worry about cables at all.

WOODY:  So your crew communications are wireless as well?

ERIC:  Yes.  Absolutely wireless.  I’ve done things where all of a sudden the boom operator at the last second has had to reposition around lights  He just runs over and he’s ready.  No delays, no tripping or other uncomfortable things.  I think that’s everything pretty much.  I my O1V have modified for DC, so I have a 105amp battery that sits in the bottom of my cart and when it’s plugged in it’s constantly charging and it can keep everything going for about eight hours.

WOODY:  What device are you actually recording to?

ERIC:  I go back and forth between my primary and my secondary recorder.  I have a Deva 5 10 track and a Sound Devices 744 4-track.  Eight tracks are digitally sent to my Yamaha 01V digital console, I can put eight tracks digital direct into the Deva and keep that there.  My preference of actual delivery in a recorder is 744.  One really interesting reason I found out just talking with editorial is that when they’re taking dailies the file name Deva gives is basically like a PNO (start ID #) number.  It starts out “one” and increments “two, three, four, five”, so you’ll always have to reference back to the sound report.  It’s just extra steps.  When you input the scene and take information on the Deva 5 it only goes to the Meta data, not as a file name.  In the 744 it goes into the Meta data and it goes into the file name.  So when they drop my disk in is if they need scene 20B take 1, it’s right there in the file name.  The way mine is set up it says “T” between the scene and take number.

WOODY:  And then it does “T1, T2, T2”?

ERIC:  Yes, it’ll continually increment until you change.  If you go from Bravo to Charlie it will go back to “one” again.  I was told on a show that I took over and started using the Deva on that it was putting about two hours extra time into syncing their dailies because of the lag time of having to constantly reference the sound report.

WOODY:  So you find yourself going to the Deva just when you need more than the four tracks that the Sound Devices 744 will give to you?

ERIC:  Pretty much.  Sometimes I might use that as just the extra track machine.  But if I see something that’s always going to be two wireless or radio mics or I can see that this is going to be just a boom and every once in awhile I’ll have to pull out a couple of wireless mics for a shot here and that’s about it, I’m going to go with the 744.  I’ve just found it’s more intuitive and the updates are far fewer in-between, but they always work.

WOODY:  And it’s a fantastic sounding box.

ERIC:  Yes.

WOODY:  What file format are you recording?  Are you recording Wav 48K 16 bit or are you going 96K, 24 bit?

ERIC:  For what I do it’s never 96-24.  That’s only going to be used for effects or music.  If I were to record effects, although most of that’s done by sound designers when I need something specific, they’ll do a high resolution because they’ll need to manipulate it.  So for that reason they’ll do it and for music that’s just the way they do it.  But as far as what I do, I’m either 16 or 24 bit.  I prefer 24 bit, but there’s a lot of places that either can only handle 16 bit and they’ll just truncate it down if I give them 24 bit, which doesn’t do anybody any bit of service, or sometimes you get the people who want it 24 bit and that’s the people, the editors or the editorial supervisor or whoever it is that really is keen on it and then it’s like, yeah, these guys are going to care.  It’s kind of a good feeling.  When you get the 16 [for delivery specs] it’s like, well, that’s the way our equipment’s set up for it so we’re going to do it that way.  That’s just kind of the attitude I get with that.

WOODY:  Boom or a lav?  How do you make a decision between the two?

ERIC:  It’s dictated by the shot, primarily.  Or the genre.  If you’re chasing a bunch of people then you’re going to be wireless, but as far as a dramatic, it’s totally dictated by the shot.  Your preference is [boom] microphone, and there’s different kinds of microphones and patterns of microphones and ways you can hide microphones if you need.  One of my favorite things in the world to do is to hide a microphone in plain sight of the shot.  Whether it’s a press conference and one of those microphones in front of them is your microphone or if you can actually see the microphone but can’t tell what it is, that’s my favorite.  It doesn’t happen all that often, but we look for it.  The preference I think of everybody, for dramatic especially, is a boom microphone.

WOODY:  So when you have a situation like that where you have five or six radio mics out there, are you doing five or six discrete tracks or are you mixing them down to two tracks?  How are you dealing with that?

ERIC:  Primarily, since we have the tracks, I send them the tracks pre-fade (each mic recorded to it’s own discrete track) and I’ll also provide a mixed track.  It all depends on what the editors want, too.  I can do anything.  So whatever they want I can do.  Obviously I do a mix for the context for the people listening on the headsets around video village.  With that many wireless tracks pre-fade, it would take forever for an editor to really weed through it without being on set and knowing what’s going on.  So for expediency on the editorial side, I always give one [of the delivered] channel a mix.  That way they can cut their picture to that and then it can go into sound editorial or if they’re doing their editorial on Avid or Final Cut they can go through [the isolated tracks] if they need to fix stuff if they need.  But I think most of what I gave them today is just as good if not better than if they want to do sound editorial.

WOODY:  Who’s your boss?

ERIC:   On the set the director is the ultimate authority.  But at the same time the producer is the one that signs the check.  And so you’re keeping both of them happy.  And what happens is if the director asks you something that you need something extra for, whether it be extra people or whatever it is that you don’t have with you, I will need to go to the producer and say “this is what we want to do, this is what he wants, so here’s how we can get it done, what do you want to do?”  The financer makes that decision and then the producer talks to the director.  So, in a way they’re both, both the ultimate, the one that you’re trying to help with the vision, is the director.  That’s the one.  They’re going to tell you want they want to do and you can suggest a few things, but they are the ones that are really in charge.  Because they need to be that way.  And then if it gets financial or sticky then you go to the producer and say, “what do you want me to do?”

WOODY:  How closely do you find yourself working with the DP?

ERIC:  As much as possible, for two reasons.  First off, whether I can’t stand them or not, I always get along with them because they can make or break you without even trying.  It’s not worth getting into a pissing match.  It’s gonna be over, and they can make you look a lot worse than you ever could do to them.  You know how it works on the set.  They’re what they are.  I find that some of them have a great rapport, some of them will want to work with you and you always need to give and take.  You give a lot more than you can so that when he really needs something he knows you’re not being a pain in the ass.  [Make them understand] that you’re actually asking because you’ve tried everything else and you just can’t do it any other way.  They’ll help you because they know that you’re not just being a whiner.  That’s really important.  So, it is a give and take situation and I always give first because I take where I need it.  We have a lot more leeway than they do.  You can’t re-light a scene in post.

WOODY:  That’s good advice.   You know, when I’m doing a feature I don’t usually get to talk to the location recordist, but I can know within the first scene what the whole show will sound like.  I can tell by the way they’re handled the tracks, whether something’s on mic or off mic, the recorded levels and so on.  I can immediately see, all these tracks are problematic or instead that this guy’s a good mixer, he was just having a hard day, because all these tracks are good except for this one scene.

ERIC:  Sometimes in features, the entire editorial department may come on when it’s almost wrapped or wrapped, but you’re clearly after wrap cause that’s when pictures lock.  So you’ll never get a chance.  They’ve way moved on.  In doing TV it’s a constant process.  You’re about three episodes in when they start doing the first mix.  So you’re still on while the post [department] is working.

WOODY:  So in those instances, other than your camera log, do you actually get on the horn and talk to editors or post sound people or is it just sort of, I turned it in and it’s been noted in the log.

ERIC:  If I’m doing it serious, I try to go to a mix, the first mix especially, and sit in on that.  Those are the people that are going to be doing it every day and you want to let them know who you are.  And there’s things that they don’t even see, the stuff that’s cut out, they see the final product.  So they don’t see the actress that absolutely doesn’t want you to touch her to put on a radio mic or the great one, the actresses that you’ll put a radio mic on and as soon as you turn your back, they think you don’t know what you’re doing and they’ll take it and put it somewhere else and it just sounds terrible.  And you go, “I just put that in place, that shouldn’t have been that way” and you go back and it’s moved because they, [the actors] know better than you and they’ve ruined the take.

WOODY:  Or they take it into the bathroom and drop it into the toilet.

ERIC:  That’s happened. (Laughs)  A hair dryer on them for about an hour usually brings them back to life.  So they, [the post department] don’t get to see those things.  They don’t know the political things and stuff, and so you can kind of get a rapport with them, otherwise they say “I don’t get why they did this, I don’t see why you couldn’t have put a microphone over here cause this sounds terrible” and once they get the idea of, okay, the DP’s hard-lighting or whatever it is or whatever the political things are, they know.  And also I found places when they’re in the mix that I say, “you know what, I know that track is good if you look”, and I’ll usually remember where it is.  And I’ve done that a couple of times on shows.  And they go back and they drop it in and all of a sudden that thing that they were going to live with is now better.  With TV sometimes, you don’t have the time, you don’t have sound editorial.  They do everything on the Avid and most of the time they don’t even go to those tracks and they just send them to the mix.  The mix sometimes only has five or ten hours, depending on what it is, to do everything and they can’t go searching for everything.

WOODY:  Do you think they’re using your comp mixed track more than they’re reaching for those isolated recordings?

ERIC:  It’s interesting.  The show that I’m finishing up now, editorial actually wants everything split out as much as possible.  They only get two tracks that’s delivered to Final Cut, but if I have two mics they want them on two mics.  So in that case, they’re post-mixed, but they just want more separation.  They want to be able to have more manipulation for whatever they do.  I don’t really know what they use.  I just like to know that I’m not getting a phone call, because it’s all there.  If you had an issue with this, that track’s right there, go for it.  And I know it’s clean.

WOODY:  So what is the personnel of your crew?

ERIC:  Generally myself and a boom operator and a utility sound who is also going to do second boom.  That’s for single camera productions.  If I were to do a four-camera proscenium style, live style show, I would have upwards of six people on the crew, including myself.  It would be a mixer, and what’s called a booth A2 or also known as a recordist who operates the audio recorder but also does other things, then you have two boom operators because you’re covering all angles and they’re on Fischer booms, and generally you’ll have a utility sound technician that pushes the boom as well and also sets mics and will do an additional third or forth boom, which I’ve had happen.  The booms are on wheels and they’ll need to be moved from set to set and often be moved during a shot because of extreme upstage-downstage or even left and right stage action.  You might need to take an entrance that’s fully upstage and so you have to push the boom in because there’s just not that much of a reach for a stage type of show.  That adds up to a pretty good sound crew.

WOODY:  So you’re essentially the crew head?  So does it work that you are hired by the producer as the location recordist, you’re given the scope of the job, and then you turn back to them and say, I’m going to need five people for this show?

ERIC:  A lot of that is known.  Maybe the beginners wouldn’t know.   It depends on the show.  Now if I’m doing a single camera show, I’m rarely going to need more than two other people.  And that’s assumed.  Now if you have a big scene you’re going to need extra people or a playback operator or such, they’ll generally tell you first.  The director will usually figure out I’m going to do this and this and this, it’s a lot of people, we may want to let sound know we may need another boom cause I want to have all this in the shot.  A lot of this stuff is bouncing back and forth in a real time situation.  A lot of times they’ll know that.  It’s rare that I’ll need more than 2 booms, which for the second boom the utility sound technician will take care of.  But as far as hiring, they absolutely don’t care.  They hire me, and I give them a list.

WOODY:  What are some of the challenges of location recording?  Is there a particular story you can tell?

ERIC:  I know I’ve got stories but they’re all in the back of my head buried in places I don’t want to find them.   (Laughs)  The very first thing I do right of the bat is walk around and look for the noise and listen for noise, whether it be fans or humming and where’s it coming from and can we turn it off.  Get every bit of noise, find out where it is and we either get it shut off or if it’s a refrigerator can we have someone on this to turn it on and off.  It’s the very first thing I do when I get on any set, even if it’s on a stage, just listen for noises.  Maybe video assist has noisy computer fans, which is quite often, and they’ll be right next to the set.  It’s like, let’s move you back a bit and put some pads in front of this.  The time you really notices the noises are when everyone finally shuts up when you’re doing a take.  If you can deal with those first thing in the day [is best], because maybe they need to find somebody with a key to go unlock something to be able to get to fan control or something.  So it’s the very first thing.  Reel the carts in, look for the noises and any potential noises – this is a hardwood floor, do we have any hard shoes – whatever could possibly happen, that’s the first thing.

WOODY:  Do you also deal with reverberant spaces?

ERIC:   Oh yeah.  Sometimes I get my furniture pads out if I can and I’ll spread them out on the floor.  You can spread those all over a floor or get some C-stands and clip them along walls.  Usually the floor is the easiest because it’s usually the most reverberant part.  And at least if you can dampen one or two walls you’ll cut your reflections down immensely because it’s going to stop after one or two reflections instead of going on and on and on.  That’s what really kills you.  And sometimes if it’s too live, you have go to two wireless mics just for that.  Or what I’ll do is I’ll boom it, but we’ll also wire them.  So when you’re sitting in a quiet room and you’re trying to do your edits and your reverb is overlapping or it’s just too much, you can always go to the wireless mics in your backup [track deliveries].  It’s one thing that the multi-track has given us is being able to present options.  We prefer to use the boom, but if we’re not too sold on the sound of it, but we don’t really want to go with wires in case maybe the room works well, so we’ll give you that option.  We’ll give you a boom on your dialog track, and then just sitting on tracks will also be their wireless tracks.   The other challenges, other than the obvious, are what are your shots and just trying to keep up with that.

I started [working on] a stage based [television] show, and the producer said, “I don’t really want to do this, but we have an exterior that we need to shoot.”  I hate starting a show off in the exterior right off the bat, but they’re forcing me into it.  So we’re going to shoot it outside the stage on the Disney lot right up against that wall on the west.   So I go out there and as soon as I turn the corner to it, I hear what sounds like a jet plane getting ready to take off.  We are two hundred feet from the central air conditioning plant for the entire [Disney Studio] lot where it runs 24/7, 365, it does not shut off.  And I walked back and said, “you can’t shoot out there.  You’re right next to the thing.”  “Oh, I didn’t even think of that.”  We ended up shooting with the idea, I said, “okay, they’re in a car, if we have all the windows closed, that’s fine.  You’ll still hear it, but you can bury it, it’s fine.”  Well then, not only did the DP want the windows open for the cross shot, but he also took the windshield off and the car was facing that.  So, our very first shot on a show that never has [had any] ADR (automated dialog replacement) was ADR’d.

WOODY:  What kind of advice would you give to a first time director of a feature film regarding your job and what they should know about location recording?

ERIC:  I think the main thing is, what I said before about when you’re doing your location surveys, listen.  It looks quite pretty.  I did some stuff for some first time directors who were doing a series of one-minute films.  They found this great location where they wanted to have a stalled out car out in the middle of absolutely nowhere where you can see in the distance for miles.  Just nothing there.  Just mountains and trees and a big cavernous canyon.  They found the greatest location.  I drove about an hour plus to get to this place, and I parked and they said this is where we’re going to shoot.  I said okay and we have the 15 freeway on a grade about 5,000 feet away and I said, “are you going to see the freeway?”  And they said no.  And I said, “cause you’re going to hear it.”  And we’re talking loud just to talk over the [noise of the] freeway.  Trucks are at low gear, high whine and on the other side they’re braking.  Well, it’s what you’re going to hear.  And they’re like, oh, we didn’t think of that.  So it’s the same thing – listen.

WOODY:  That’s the best advice.

ERIC:  I shot for a first time director, it actually collapsed after the first day, but it was a Sunday morning.  They were supposed to be in there five or six o’clock to this restaurant where he had access.  And we’re shooting upstairs in what was supposed to be a desolate bar in Harlem.  Where we’re shooting, which was the bar area of this restaurant was a mezzanine of a big huge family style restaurant that only had a thick curtain between the bar and that.  The idea was the kitchen staff would get there about 1 o’clock and they opened about 4 o’clock for dinner.  Well we didn’t get the first shot off until noon.  The DP just lit and lit and lit and so by the time we finished up, we had a full family restaurant with kids screaming, dishes clattering, an open air kitchen down below, it was like, none of this is going to be used.  None of it.  And the guy kind of realized it and realized he had made a mistake with the DP.  It ended up collapsing and he realized he had to re-think it.  He realized he wasn’t ready.

WOODY:  What is your background?  How did you get started?

ERIC:   I started playing with tape recorders as a little kid.  I discovered public radio when I was a junior in high school so I just rode my bicycle down to the local college station and got my [radio] license and started doing broadcast.  Not as a personality, but I would engineer for other people, do taped and live shows, sometimes voiceover station ID.  But pretty much just keep the station running.  I did a lot of weekends where you’d start off with your taped programming or you’d send live or something that had just been recorded, go into some other taped programming, someone would come in and do a two hour show and you’d engineer for them and that kind of thing.  And that was kind of it because I didn’t know you could make any money doing sound.  The only thing I knew was radio and I know there were concerts.  And I tried the radio, I couldn’t get a paying job anywhere, I didn’t know anything about concerts, and it never ever dawned on me that anyone was making a living or had a job in sound on movies and television.  And I ended up getting a job for a company called AudioTech, which was a small company split off from a company called Burn-Shoker Audio.  And they were a PA company, a sound reinforcement company that was geared towards television.  And the very first thing they did was they took me NBC who was a client and showed me around to where I’d be delivering things and picking up things.  And I looked around and I remember that day clearly because I was in such shock.  I saw people walking around carrying microphones and cables and operating consoles and it never ever dawned on me [that people did sound for that].  So from there I just kept working and meeting people in television and film and kept learning and doing different things.

WOODY:  Any advice regarding location sound for budding directors?

ERIC:  One thing I’d like to say to budding filmmakers and directors is try not to let the technology get in the way of the story.  More and more directors are relying on video assists.  I’ve actually seen productions come to an absolute standstill because there’s been a problem with the video assist where they [the directors] can’t shoot unless they see the frame.  Well, look through the eyepiece, get the idea of the frame, and then trust your operator and your DP.  They made films for 90 years without video assists and they’re some of the greatest films ever made.  Regarding the multitracks and the wireless mics – instead of relying on wiring everybody, you know we have 12 people on a scene, and 12 wireless mics out, you know, stage your shots a bit, don’t just rely on that.  Rely on sticking to your script a bit more.  I’ve just seen people go into things with an idea and “we’ll work it out in the process.”  And either you’ll boom it and half of it’s off mic because everyone’s just shouting out things that come to the top of their head, or you wire everybody and it’s just a wireless nightmare.

WOODY:  What do you love about your job?

ERIC:  I like being involved with the picture making process where you have all these challenges.  I guess that’s one thing, to have a challenge, and to watch it.  To watch the director say “okay, here’s the scene and this is how we want to do it.”  And then the scene plays out and you watch them develop the characters.  I’m in this work because I love movies and I love the process where you see it start from just a bunch of people with a script and then by the time you’re done the characters have direction and they pull things out of the script that you’ve never seen before or [they create] shots that are really cool and really make that scene work.   It’s very satisfying.

WOODY:  We’ll keep an ear out for your work!