What is the production sound department?
The production sound team are present through principal photography and responsible for recording full clean dialogue, wild tracks, off camera lines, room tone and any live action special effects during production. Even if there is no dialogue in the scene, the Sound Department will be recording a guide track and atmos to be used in post-production. The sound team can be quite compact, consisting of the production sound mixer who is the HoD. Boom op, also known as 1st sound assistant on some productions to create parity with the 1st AC regarding pay structure. The sound assistants who can also go by the name of 2nd sound assistant, utility sound technician or the cable person. If you are working on a bigger production, you can find the role of the trainee and Sound Department runner.
To capture live sound, the sound mixer and boom op will hide mics, or ‘plants’, within the shot. They also position radio mics on actors, with the boom op finding ways to place the boom that won’t cast a shadow; the boom op will work this out while the actors are blocking out the scene. The kit is usually supplied by the sound mixer who will arrive with their sound cart complete with mixer, hard drives, space for the radio mic receivers, cables, headphones, etc. Each sound mixer will have their cart set up differently, so if you're coming to the production off the back of another job you may be confronted with an entirely different setup.
Some sound mixers prefer to work wirelessly which can mean the boom op will have greater freedom of movement, and the mixer can set up in a convenient (often out of sight) location. If the production is using playback for the director, the sound mixer sends a mix track to the playback op who will sync it with the video signal coming from the camera. Playback ops, also known as video assist, will be responsible for setting up video village. Using a laptop, and software such as Qtake, they will provide a reviewing facility known as playback for the director and script supervisor. On smaller productions without the budget for a dedicated PB operator, the responsibility can fall to the script supervisor to operate the equipment which is dry hired in.
The sound team are required to work with all departments on set:
Lighting - to help eradicate boom shadow.
Camera - to give the boom op an edge of frame
Costume - for mic placement, troubleshooting rustling.
Locations - to help eliminate extraneous noise if working on location.
Art Department - props in particular can give the sound mixer a headache if they are particularly noisy.
WHAT ARE THE ENTRY LEVEL POSITIONS IN THE SOUND DEPARTMENT?
The role of sound trainee can be found on big budget films, television dramas and commercials. The sound trainee takes on general running duties for the department, is assigned multiple tasks to accomplish daily and lends a hand to the sound mixer and boom op. Sound mixers like to have an assistant (or 2nd sound assistant) in the team if they have a trainee on board, they would not expect a trainee to be operating at the level of an assistant who can swing a second boom and help place mics.
Working at a rental company is another way of entering the industry and can bring junior staff into contact with sound mixers who arrive at the rental house for ‘kit prep’ if they are hiring in extra kit for the jobs. If you possess excellent interpersonal skills, you can begin to build your network while expanding your knowledge of the equipment. Always keep an ear out for opportunities to act as a trainee, it’s the sound mixer who will do the hiring so be helpful while they are in the kit room.
IN WHAT OTHER AREAS OF THE INDUSTRY CAN THE SOUND TRAINEE POSITION BE FOUND?
Trainee positions are most commonly found on large scale productions that can justify the extra hands and cost. In other areas of the industry, however, the position of sound assistant can be regarded as the junior role. The responsibilities of the job may vary, and in some cases, a person with trainee level experience can be considered for an assistant's position.
If there is room in the budget for a third man/woman then the role of the sound assistant can be found in the following productions:
If you're interested in entering the Sound Department and find work as a runner/set PA on any of the above productions let the ADs know, they could be in a position to place you at the sound team’s disposal. If the mixer and the boom op are amenable, you may get to spend some quality time learning about the kit, process and etiquette of the department.
WHAT ARE THE OTHER ROLES IN THE SOUND DEPARTMENT?
The Sound Department on a feature film is comprised of the following roles:
Production sound mixer (HoD) The mixer is responsible for the department and monitoring the sound for the production. They will have liaised with the sound supervisor/designer in pre-production, but ultimately the sound mixer is running the show on set. Sound mixers keep detailed notes to pass on to the sound designer in post production.
Boom operator or 1st Assistant Sound. Responsibilities include helping the sound mixer place mics, attach radio mics to cast, work out with the camera operator what the edge of frame is for the boom. If the sound mixer is called off-set the boom op will take over and the assistant will swing the boom for the rehearsal.
Sound assistant/cable person/utility sound technician (UST). The assistant takes trainee duties if there is no trainee attached to the production, they will be expected to carry out both sets of tasks during the day.
WHAT IS THE CAREER PATH IN THE SOUND DEPARTMENT?
You can work as a trainee for two years before gaining the required skills to move up the ladder on feature films. You will not only be learning about the technical process and equipment as a trainee; you should begin to understand how to conduct yourself on set and how the Sound Department works alongside the other departments during principal photography. When you are working at a junior capacity, observe how the mixer and op collaborate with the rest of the crew. It is often the case that the Sound Department will need the assistance of one of the other departments, such as moving the generator if it's causing a problem, working with costume to eliminate any rustle, etc. So sound need to be accommodating to return the favour, little things like offering a spare USB socket to charge phones or moving without complaint when the DoP wants to put a lamp just where the sound mixers cart is can go a long way.
The most common career path is to move your way to assistant, boom op and after a lengthy period swinging the boom up to the role of sound mixer. Continuing to work on short film and low budget productions throughout those early stages of your career are always advisable. Experienced production sound mixers are valued highly, and if you enjoy working on set, you may well decide to stay within this career for a period. If you want to work as a sound designer, you would need to make a move into post-production, which can mean starting as a sound editor and working up from there.
WHAT ARE THE RESPONSIBILITIES OF THE SOUND TRAINEE?
Many of your tasks will be helping the sound assistant manage their responsibilities. The sound assistants will be asked to:
Swing a second boom.
Liaise with costume concerning to mic placement.
Help the boom op place mics on talent.
Set up and break down the sound cart.
Make sure all the equipment is functioning properly.
Organise the Sound Department location move.
Be responsible for all the consumables.
The role of the sound trainee, therefore, is to help pick up the slack when it comes to maintaining overall departmental functionality. This can involve:
Moving kit. Even though you may be working wirelessly, there is always kit to lug from one location to another.
Changing batteries. Keep on top of the consumable situation, let the assistant know if you are running short on supplies. Don’t do this when you only have one 9 volt battery left, make sure to give yourself a window in which to act.
Laying cable. In some situations, it may not be possible to work wirelessly, and you can be cable bashing for the boom op or laying cable for the playback operator.
Sorting out unwanted external noise with the minimum of fuss.
The time honoured tradition of the most junior position, fetching the tea. If there is no department runner you will be asked to go on the coffee and tea run, make sure to write down how everyone takes their hot drinks on the first day to save asking later.
While carrying out these tasks you will also be shadowing the sound mixer and boom operator, so make sure you ask questions when appropriate and follow the sound assistant closely.
TOP 3 JOBS OF THE SOUND TRAINEE ON SET OR LOCATION.
Scout out potential audio issues with the sound assistant.
Be proactive on this, you don’t need to wait for the sound mixer to ask you to find out where a problematic noise source is coming from. Let the sound mixer know you are investigating. The main causes of complaint are going to be the gennie, hum from the ballast of a lamp, the lamp itself and if the gaffer has lights on dimmers (that are on low) they can produce a terrible racket. If you need to go further afield find someone from the Location Department, speak to them first as they may have a relationship or contact details of your neighbour on location. Other audio issues that may arise include radio mic interference, which the sound mixer will alert the assistant and boom operator of.
Watch the blocking of the scene.
This is where you will be shown the movements of the actors. If it's possible, help the sound assistant to put down rolls of carpet out of shot to lessen the sound of footsteps of both the principle cast and supporting artists. Also look out for noisy props in a scene. Art Department may be able to help out with something a bit quieter, or a quieter way of making it work.
Get sides for the sound team.
Sides are a printout of the scenes to be shot that day. Usually one of the ADs or the floor runner will have these. Search them out during breakfast and get them to your team as soon as you can. Also find out if your mixer likes anything done to the sides. Some like the characters names highlighted in different colours. Sometimes each line will need to be numbered.
WHAT IS THE SOUND DEPARTMENT LIKE TO WORK IN?
Working on set or location can present its fair share of frustrations, ‘waiting on sound’ is a common cause of jovial complaint much to the chagrin of the sound mixer. Those who work in the ‘on-camera’ departments are often acutely aware of any problems as they are clearly visible on the monitor. For the Sound Department who are working ‘off camera’, only the mixer and the director can hear what the microphones pick up. Ultimately, any sound issues that arise which can’t be solved during the shoot are forwarded to the post-production sound team. During production, sound mixers make detailed notes and mark up areas of concern on the sound report sheets, such as a scene that involves dancing on a noisy floor or mumbled dialogue. In situations like this, it's the director’s call to decide what gets solved on the day and what gets left until post.
The majority of people who work in the Sound Department will be technically proficient, and if you need a cable soldered then make your way over to the sound desk. Much of this knowledge comes from working with the delicate kit. Radio mics and XLR cables can be quite fragile, so being able to fix equipment quickly on the job is often necessary. A trainee who listens carefully to instruction and asks the right questions can learn a lot from mixers and boom operators, who are often very happy to pass on their knowledge and experience.
The Sound Department is one of the smallest on set, and you will find most mixers and boom ops work together frequently on a variety of jobs, from commercials and features to short films. When working on productions of a smaller budget, the sound team need to be adaptable when it comes to kit, the smaller the production, the less kit they have with them, and the less likely that you as a trainee will be there.
HOW DO I FIND WORK AS A SOUND TRAINEE?
Sound trainees and those wanting to pursue production sound as a career can come into the industry from a variety of backgrounds. Recording studios, post production sound, degree/MA courses and other areas of the industry such as TV entertainment, OB (outside broadcast) units, theatre or music venues. If you’re coming into the film industry as a career change or from another area of the business, you need to know that your initial experiences are not going to be well paid, if indeed paid at all when gaining drama experience on short films. To be considered for trainee or assistant positions you’re going to need to demonstrate some experience and knowledge of drama and location sound recording. Collaborations are a great place to start; you can use this entry point to build experience and contacts in the industry. When looking for paid work as a trainee or assistant you may find that opportunities come infrequently, so it's important to have another source of income to tide you over while waiting for the next job.
If you are in stage one of your career plan, you are going to need to gain some valuable experience working on scripted drama, one way of doing this is to work on short films or student productions to get a taste of what working n a drama is going to be like. A CV without any experience stands a poor chance of success when looking for trainee roles. The film industry is fiercely competitive so you need to use all resources available to you. Alongside the opportunities we list here on MFJF, you can also look to our resources section to see the other service providers for collaborations. University websites all have noticeboards or areas of their site that are dedicated to ‘collaborations or swaps’. If you are living in a town with a university that has an MA film course, keep checking to see if they are crewing up or needed any extra help. Many short films are shot over a weekend, so if you are working to pay the bills, you can still be adding experience on your CV.
Although we do recommend collaborations, do your research first to find out who is going to be working on the production. The university will back student films, so you know it has a budget and insurance for the production will be taken care of. If you're working on a short film with people you don’t know make sure the check out the producer's track record and back catalogue of work; you want to know they are following best industry practice and will be running the production properly. This means the production will be insured, catering (or at least some form of feeding the crew) has been devised, there is a schedule that is realistic and location, transport and travel plans are all considered. If it’s a friend you’re helping out then obviously you will be less rigorous in assessing these things, everyone likes helping out their friends if they can, even if it means long hours and a sandwich for supper.
The likelihood is you'll be working for expenses, make sure that is the case as you should always talk money before you agree. So, be certain you come away from the production with what you need; which is an experience of working on a properly run shoot, experience of working with a professional team, making some contacts who are working in the industry and adding a credit to your CV. Although inadvisable to turn down an opportunity if your gut feeling is these criteria are unlikely, (you will know within the first five minutes) you could decide to say thanks but no thanks and look for the next opportunity.
When working on your CV check it through (or ask someone else to) to see it reads well and is correctly formatted. You can use the CV advice and CV builder to help create a CV and covering letter. You can check your CV against our example CVs to see it includes all the relevant information. You're going to want to keep your CV short and to the point, many production coordinators or sound mixers will be ‘scanning’ rather than reading, cut out the chaff and try and keep it down to one page.
Finding work and applying for positions can be a full-time job in itself. Some people will get lucky, finding work almost instantaneously. Some may have put in the hours on short films while they are studying and made some contacts, some people might just be in the right place at the right time. In whatever situation you find yourself, the resounding advice from professionals working in the film industry is to be persistent; persistent and relentless in the pursuit of your chosen career. Keep applying for positions and sending emails. You can study the British Film Council, Facebook’s UK Production News and The Knowledge noticeboards to see what's going into production; it doesn't hurt to send in a CV - just make sure you have enough experience on there for it to have a chance.
Knowing how sound is recorded is a must for anyone wanting to enter the department, and that’s not as simple as making sure the mic is facing the actor ... although that’s going to help. Knowing how sound travels, how it moves through the air, bends and bounces off objects is vital in understanding how to capture it and get better results. Also knowing how the equipment works will greatly aid your chances of impressing the sound mixer if you have questions ask them, or ask their opinion on one mic versus another. There are a host of blogs, books and internet resources available to gain further insight into the work of the Production Sound Department. Sound recordists love talking kit and war stories, take advantage of the forums on the following websites which offer a wealth of information. To start you off here is a selection:
The network you build while working on shorts and other productions will enable you to branch out to look for jobs elsewhere in the industry. If you've worked with other assistants or trainees ask them to keep you in mind for when they are unavailable to work, referrals to sound mixers are great ways of getting your foot in the door. Remain in contact with everyone you meet, send the odd email, social media is a great way to stay in touch. Use your time to create opportunities, don’t wait for them to come to you.
With some experience on short films, student productions, micro-budget features or work from other areas of the industry, you can look for trainee positions run by Creative Skillset, who work to place trainees on good size, well run productions. You can also look to AMPS and the IPS, who provide mentoring and training courses for members of the industry and those looking to forge a career in the Sound Department.
Personality and Attitude
Finding regular work and gaining experience in production is a hard road to travel. There are many people out there who want to do this job: you’re going to have to give yourself the best chance of succeeding by working incredibly hard and developing a thick skin for when people don’t get back to you. Financially the first few years are going to be tricky; paid work can be sporadic as you’re building up a reputation as someone who is professional, eager and very hard working. You may need a financial fallback plan; this can be working behind a bar, waiting tables, temping or pouring coffees, anything that will give you the flexibility to gain experience in your own time and be able to accept a few weeks work with a few weeks notice.
At times it's going to be frustrating when you’re not getting the roles you want, keep in mind the advice on being relentless and go back to your CV, think about what you can do to make it better, what experience could you gain in another capacity to start ticking boxes for potential employers. Reflect on the reasons your CV is not being chosen for roles; it could be a lack of experience, the way your CV is presented or if you’re sending in generic CVs and covering letters - you should yourself the best possible chance by tailoring each one to each job role or production.
Although the industry is incredibly flexible when it comes to changing career, if you’re applying for positions in another area of the industry you will need to be clear why you want to make the change, and give examples of what you have been doing to facilitate the move.
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Looking for some advice or have a question on careers in this area? Then please get in touch, we are here to help!
DO I NEED ANY QUALIFICATIONS?
You don’t need any academic qualifications to work as a sound trainee, but you do need to display common sense when it comes to health and safety procedures, running cable can be part of the job as can working long hours where mistakes are easily made. If you can use a soldering iron and understand basic electronics your skill set is already valuable. Being able to fix kit (which can break as mics are very delicate) on site can be exceptionally useful.
Should you wish to gain a better understanding of the Sound Department and sound as a creative medium then you may wish to consider a short course such as:
Be aware that the Sound Department can be very physically demanding, especially when operating a boom. If you stand for five minutes with your arms raised above your head with a broom in your hands you should get a clear indication of how your arms will feel when working as a future boom op, it’s best to start with some powerlifting now!
10 essentail tips every new entrant should know
Be familiar with the gear and know where it’s kept.
Take your first few days on set to know how the kit works, which case it’s stored in and where it lives at the end of the day. Most equipment is hired in or belongs to the sound mixer, make sure you take better care of it than they do.
It may sound simple, but there is much to distract you on a film set. Keep your attention on your colleagues and what they are asking you to do, don’t stand and stare at the actors.
Make sure you have a sturdy notebook that fits into your back pocket and pen, a plethora of tasks will be assigned at the beginning of each day, it can be easy to forget what they are when you’re in the thick of things. Writing your tasks down also gives the mixer and boom op confidence that you are not going to forget.
Embrace the different working environment.
If you are coming into the film industry from the music industry, be prepared to re-learn a lot. While the technical process is the same, the techniques and principles are very different. It goes without saying that if you are unsure of anything then just ask, especially if it’s about protocol.
Always put kit back where you found it.
Unless it’s about to fall off the cart, it’s most likely been put there for a reason. Again no one will mind if you ask, it just shows you are vigilant.
Help the sound assistant.
Make sure the sound cart is stocked with consumables, and flag up any areas where consumables are running low. Little jobs like these help the sound assistant out.
Be aware of your surrounding.
Whilst it’s the boom operator's job to be ‘on set’ (visible and close to the action) make sure you are not. Space is often at a premium when working close to the action, and the sound trainee is much better placed away from the action with the sound mixer.
If anything breaks bring it straight to the attention of the sound assistant who can flag it up with the sound mixer, tape it up with NG written all over it. NG stands for No Good!
Make sure you have the same call time as the sound assistant, who may be called half and hour before the rest of the department to set up the sound cart.
This is important for any of the junior roles that work on set. If the sound assistant is needed to bring in a secondary boom be their eyes and ears, and place yourself in their eye line in case you need to run for them. Be observant of tip 7, this may mean you need eyes like an owl.
Phrases every entrant to the sound department should know.
Earwig. An in-ear receiver worn by actors for cueing and music playback
Bag work. Location kit that can be worn over the shoulder.
MOS. A scene recorded without audio. If you see the 2nd AC slating a shot with his hand through the sticks, stand down. Guide sound is more useful in post that no sound, so reasons for shooting MOS could be a camera set-up or location that makes it impractical.
DFI. We have changed our mind.
IEM or IFB. In-ear monitor and interruptible fold back. Names for wireless headphone sets given to the director, script supervisor, producer, ADs, friends of cast or producers.
Wildtrack. Actors will repeat their lines - preferably with a bit of performance - but without whatever noise was necessary during the scene which could have been noisy props, wind or another sound getting in the way of recording clean dialogue. This will give post production an option while they are editing.
Buzz track, atmos, room tone. The sound of the room or environment you are filming in. This helps when editing the scene together to cover any changes in background noise/ambience and when extraneous sounds have to be removed.
Consumables/Expendables. Items considered to be consumables are batteries, camera and gaffa tape, windmic covers.
What hours will I be working?
Your day can range from 10 to 12 hours on camera, depending on the shoot. For most of this you will be on your feet, and as the junior member of the team, you'll be called upon to do most of the running. As you can work long hours make sure to take care of yourself and others in the department. When you are tired it is easy to forget what has been asked of you, so make lists and prioritise your tasks.
What are the industry bodies for the Sound Department?
The guilds and unions for the creative industries are only as useful as the members who join them, so if you would like to get involved, then there is no better time to start than now. Please familiarise yourself with what they have to offer as they run courses and provide valuable information to new entrants and veterans alike. The Sound Department are represented by AMPS and BECTU.
What can I expect to earn as a sound trainee
Some productions will have you on a 5 or 6 day working week, with a 10-12 hr day on camera. Other productions will pay you a daily rate. BECTU (Broadcasting, Entertainment, Cinematograph and Theatre Union) have their recommended Sound Department Rate Card, which lists sound trainees working on a high-end feature film for a 10 hr day as £176 per day (inc holiday pay).
Although work may be sporadic and the majority of the film industry is self-employed, the role of the trainee/runner/assistant is not currently recognised by HMRC as a ‘grade’ for self-employment. If you’re working on features films for weeks or months, the production will pay you weekly using the PAYE pay structure, meaning they will deduct your tax and national insurance at source, providing you with a P45 and P60 at the end of the engagement. However, if you’re just starting out and looking for work, potentially on dailies, this presents complications.
Fortunately, HMRC is aware of the infrequency of work in the film and television industry especially in the entry level roles, so they use a seven-day rule. If an engagement is less than seven days, PAYE does not need to be applied, but the production company will still deduct your national insurance. This is to stop you being over taxed or emergency taxed, which could leave you with a very small pay packet indeed. Make sure you are meticulous with your record keeping, filing all documentation such as your P45 and P60’s, you may need them for reference at the end of the tax year.
If you have been in the film industry for 12 months and worked for multiple companies on short term contracts, you can be eligible to apply to HMRC for the Lorimer or LP10 letter. The Lorimer Letter is a Letter of Authority that is valid for three years and can be implemented to engagements of 10 days or less. To apply for this you have to demonstrate that you are in business on your own account so that individual short-term engagements which would otherwise be treated as employment are seen as part of an overall business set-up. So, even though you are not one the approved ‘grades’ listed by HMRC you will be invoicing the production for the full sum - but you will need to generate your own invoicing, file your own tax return as self-employed and be responsible for paying your Class 2 and Class 4 National Insurance.
Please make sure to set up your invoicing structure in a way that will enable you to be consistent with your numbering. For example, if you're John Smith you may decide to structure your invoicing as JS01. Try not to change your format too much, when it comes to the end of the tax year (April 5th); you’re going to want to keep things as simple as possible.
How long will I be a sound trainee?
Two years is the benchmark for working as a sound trainee. If you're a trainee who uses their initiative, and more importantly has a flair for the technical aspect of the sound department you could make real progress relatively quickly. If you end up taking two years or more you will have accrued significant experience working on features and will find the jump to sound assistant relatively straightforward.
What can I do to speed up my progress?
Working on short films and friend’s projects are sure fire ways to bolster your competence within the Sound Department. It’s worth remembering that you meet many people on short films, and creating good working relationships on a freebie can lead to paid work.
If I have a problem who do I go to?
The first port of call is always your Head of Department, but if they are unavailable or they are the problem visit the unit production manager who has an overall duty of care to the crew.
Can I start a career in broadcast and cross over to film?
Absolutely, but remember that the etiquette on film is very different to broadcast. Often you are working with a larger crew which is much more hierarchical. As a trainee, you will see and learn how it works. Also expect to demote yourself for a time. Respected sound recordists on documentaries can be found swinging a boom on a feature rather than mixing.
What tools should I have with me on my first day?
A good pair of shoes. You will spend a lot of time on your feet, and it will not always be dry so shoes which have a waterproof covering of sorts. Keep in mind you should be also able to walk quietly in them, so squeaky shoes are out!
Wet weather gear will be a useful component to your shooting kit if out on location.
A Leatherman, Gerber, or similar multi tool - something with a flat bladed screwdriver.
A pair of scissors for cutting tape, they don't need to be too big but should be sturdy.
A permanent marker, very useful for labelling up damaged equipment.
Thank you's ...
My First Job in Film would like to thank Richard Miller for sharing his experience and giving up his time to offer advice for this career guide.