While some independent films run like upscale union pictures, indie film is still, for many, synonymous with the terms “run-and-gun” and “guerrilla-style.”

When indie producers say that a film is going to be “run-and-gun”—i.e. a free set, operated without fixed protocols—or “guerrilla-style”—a run-and-gun with a skeleton crew, often without permitted locations and working very quickly—sound people will often run for their lives. Less experienced individuals and gluttons for punishment, however, might accept the job. This article is for them—sound novices who want to prepare for that sort of moviemaking. It’s a primer on how to get the best sound possible, no matter what the conditions.

First Contact

Before accepting a movie, make sure you read the script. When you do, make note of descriptions of certain sounds that accompany actions: the sound of water dripping from a broken faucet, the clinking of wine glasses during a toast, even voiceovers. Discuss these elements with the director and address them as possible concerns when recording dialogue. Emphasize that you want to grab these sounds “wild” during the course of the shoot.

Anticipating any potential noise problems will also give you an edge. Go on the location scouts and assess whether it is feasible to record sound at the location set for the scene. I can’t tell you the number of times location managers choose to have a scene take place a block from a construction zone or loud factory, or under an overlooked flight path (or one that “suddenly appears” when we start shooting). Priceless. Notify the team of problems so they can either look for another option or decide to “just live with it.” If the latter, at least you warned them, so when the editor calls in the middle of the night and screams about unusable tracks, you can simply report that the directors signed off on the location and that it wasn’t your fault. Going on location scouts also gives you a chance to get to know key members of the crew.

You will also learn whether it is practical to run your sound from a cart or go portable with a harness rig. If you’re shooting guerrilla-style, chances are you will not be running sound from a cart. Ask if there is a budget for a boom operator. If not, make a case about the importance of boom operators in terms of saving time on set, keeping things moving because of an extra hand. A lot of times production will say, “Well, can we just get a PA to hold the boom?” That’s like saying, “Well, can we just use a PA to operate the camera?” It’s an absurd request and one that always leaves me flabbergasted. The boom operator is a highly specialized job that takes years of training and experience before one becomes good at it. Most likely, though, you will end up doing everything yourself.

Tangerine co-writer and co-producer Chris Bergoch on set with sound mixer Irin Strauss

Tangerine co-writer and co-producer Chris Bergoch on set with sound mixer Irin Strauss

Wireless Mics and Costumes

After reading the script, assess what your needs will be in terms of gear. Chances are you will be relying on wireless mics. Ask yourself, “When do the actors appear outside with scripted dialogue?” Make sure you have the correct number of wireless mics. I can’t stress enough how important that is, because chances are you will not be able to capture them with a shotgun mic booming at a busy intersection or noisy setting. There may also be some matching problems in editorial.

Your skills at wiring will be put to the test—that’s a guarantee. Ask someone who knows a bit about wiring to show you the best ways at hiding the mics and minimizing clothing rustle. Practicing also helps. Dress a friend up in different types of clothes (silk shirts, cotton T-shirts, big down coats, wool coats, wool sweaters, suits and ties, dresses… you get the idea). Find ways of concealing the lavaliers while producing the best sound quality possible. That means the audio should be clear, not muffled.

Be creative. There have been many times in the field when I had to wire someone in a wool coat with a silk dress on, and thought for sure I was in trouble—until I realized that the person was wearing a wig. In these cases, politely ask the actor if they would mind a lavalier under the wig. Assure them it will not affect the way they look and will make them sound great. It works wonderfully. You may also have the opportunity to ask someone from wardrobe to look at outfits so you can form a strategy about your sound approach. The on-set wardrobe crew can be your biggest ally.

In Tangerine, one of the actresses wore very noisy bangles and jangly earrings as part of her wardrobe. I had to figure out ways to minimize the noise they made, and at the same time conceal any means I used to eliminate the sound. For earrings I used Joe’s Sticky Stuff and for the bangles some double-sided tape. Those tricks also work great for key chains and anything else that clatters or clinks.

Foot foam works great for shoes on hard floors. Often actors literally step on their lines with loud, clonking shoes. Avoid leafy walkways or gravelly sidewalks. If shooting indoors, foam the shoes before a take. If outdoors, sweep the sidewalk of leaves and gravel.

Why You Need a Good Shotgun Boom Mic

Most sound mixers entering the guerrilla arena come from reality television or documentary, where there is little to no emphasis in using the boom. But let me tell you this: For the big jobs in narrative, whether TV or feature films, the boom gives and will always give the best sound possible. Booming is 90 percent of any good sound. You are as good as your boom operator, simple as that. Your shotgun mic will sound more natural than any radio mics you ever use. If you become or have a good boom operator, that will up your game as a mixer, save time on set, and ultimately separate you from the rest of the pack.

The question isn’t “Will your wireless mics fail?” It’s “When will your wireless mics fail?” Batteries die on you in the middle of a take, the lavalier slips and drops down someone’s shirt, or the mics just break. I can’t tell you how many times an actor decides to de-mic himself and ends up pulling the lavalier out of the transmitter. Or goes to the bathroom and lets the pack fall into the toilet. Not fun. You end up scrambling to get a replacement, and that just adds to your already stressful job.

There are many good brands of shotgun or hypercardioid mics out there, so go to a vendor and try out a few. Oftentimes the sales staff will be more than happy to set up a workstation for you to try an assortment out.

Your boom can be your best friend. I did the film Manny and Lo with just one mic. It was an indie feature starring a young Scarlett Johansson and Aleksa Palladino. I used radio mics maybe twice in that whole film and they ended up looping only two lines in the entire movie, because we were next to a noisy waterfall.

A good boom op saves everyone time and money and is an essential asset to the sound department. I implore all mixers to spend a few years booming. On most big sets, the boom operator is the on-set voice of the sound department. They communicate the shot and devise a strategy to cover the scene. They communicate any notes to the assistant director, like overlaps, planes, extraneous noise and so on. Often when there’s action in the foreground and my boom op can’t get to the action in the background, I send my utility in to boom the background—just so I don’t have to wire anyone. (Wiring is time-consuming for everyone: Production has to wait on talent to get wired and editorial has to tweak the wires in post to get them to sound natural.)

On run-and-gun sets, booming is your responsibility, so travel light. I usually travel with a nine-foot pole. Chances are if the camera ops are doing long shots, you will be relying on wires. When doing close-ups, a long pole will not be required. Plus, long poles call attention to the crew and can be a red flag when your crew is attempting to “steal” shots at locations without a permit, or trying to capture a natural setting without calling attention to spectators. I can never believe how many people gather as soon as they see a boom mic in the air to ask if they can be in the movie. This can slow everyone up and gunk up the rhythm and flow of a scene. Don’t hesitate asking to buy a few inches of headroom to get the boom closer to the DP.

The Ready Kit

Guerrilla productions will be small and moving constantly, so pack only as much you can carry. My ready kit usually consists of a mixer bag with my mixer/recorder, wireless mics and straps, moleskin (to pad lavalier mics, reducing noise), Transpore tape, 2” black paper tape, shoe foam, Joe’s Sticky Stuff, double-sided tape, my shotgun mic and pole. In my backpack: stash mics, backup NP lithium-ion batteries, a charger and some nine-volts and AAs to get me through the day. Not to mention a water bottle and protein bars.

Strauss' toolkit. Clockwise from left. Not to scale. Courtesy of Irin Strauss.

Clockwise from top left: adhesive foam padding, small portable recorder, moleskin, headphones, BongoTies, paper tape, transpore tape, headlamp (not to scale)

Rehearsals, No Rehearsals, and Mixing

Some directors like to shoot the rehearsal, hoping to capture some of the magic they think will happen during the first few takes. This is a big misconception, I believe—rehearsals are usually never any good, because the ACs are still working out focus marks and sound people still need to sort out the mix. It’s ultimately counterproductive, taking up more time than saving it. The proper process for shooting narrative is: director’s rehearsal, blocking rehearsal, first team goes into makeup and wardrobe, rehearsal, then shooting. It is a simple, tried and true system. That way, by the time everyone is ready to shoot, they are on the same page.

Of course nothing is ever certain in guerrilla filmmaking, and this procedure usually flies right out the window. Most times there simply is no rehearsal and you are expected to mix on the fly, using your best guess. Those challenges become exponential if much of the dialogue is improvised, like on Tangerine, where actors were given a scenario or context and then told to perform. An impossible situation for sound? When you are organized and prepared, you can meet almost any challenge.

When I mix for narrative, I create a “dailies track” and isolate (“ISO”) all of my individual tracks consisting of boom tracks and wireless tracks. The editors will be able to break down and work with individual tracks for sound design. The dailies track is your mix, the way you feel the scene should sound. Sometimes, on a shoestring budget with little to no money left for post, your mix becomes “the mix” after some slight tweaking. It’s a credit to the production that finds a mixer with good mixing skills.

Tangerine director Sean Baker shoots a pivotal donut shop scene as Strauss looks on

Keeping Healthy and Sane

Whether you are a seasoned meditator or not, the trick to being a good sound person is maintaining your equilibrium. You may be on your feet for eight hours before you realize that you haven’t eaten or put down your rig. Young, ambitious directors sometimes motor through a 15-hour day without batting an eyelash and expect everyone else to do the same (especially if you’re not in a union). Indie productions are analogous to tours of duty, so the preservation of sanity is essential.

My whole harness rig weighed about 43 pounds on Starlet and Tangerine. Fortunately, years of yoga have given me a strong back. Whenever you have a chance, drop your stuff and stretch. Do a forward bend and stay there for a good minute or two, breathing normally. This will do wonders for the back, which takes the brunt of the work after a long day with a harness rig on.

Sit and zone out. It’s good for the mind to relax after staying focused for so long. You’ve been listening to the constant chatter of talent and directors for hours, and that drains energy. Take off the headphone for five minutes every so often. It’s all about pacing yourself. There will be times when you are in a high RF (radio frequency) zone, on an empty stomach, scrambling to find a clean frequency, nearing the end of your CF card’s storage, chasing daylight, surrounded by cars honking during rush-hour traffic, and you’ll wonder why you even got into the business in the first place, because no one wants to wait the 30 seconds for you to change frequencies on one of the transmitters. Stay positive and relaxed. Assure them you know what you’re doing. MM

Irin Strauss has worked in the sound department on films from Welcome to the Dollhouse to Tangerine, and series such as The Leftovers and Blue’s Clues.

This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Complete Guide to Making Movies 2016. All images courtesy of Irin Strauss.