(Note: I wrote this for the Medium Writer’s Contest last year, but this is where it belongs!)
You don’t know me. I’m nobody.
But I’ve shaken hands with Gwyneth Paltrow, Joe Montana and Venus Williams, met Brad Pitt, Henry Kissinger, Beyonce, Lady Gaga, and all of Run DMC. I’ve been flirted with by Johnny Depp and Queen Latifah, Tony Soprano kissed my hand once, and I’ve had my fingers under the tight clothes of too many supermodels to count. I’ve been paid to watch murders being committed, battles of superheroes and ninja turtles, and people having sex — men and women, men and men, women and women, in all sorts of places and positions. I’ve walked through a herd of cows in Central Park, followed a leprechaun around Wall Street, and joined a parade carrying a naked teenaged boy through the streets of Brooklyn.
I work in the film business. I’ve been doing location sound work on movies, television shows and commercials for over 25 years, spending my days in a world of strange and unique experiences you couldn’t have anywhere else. But it’s also one where you’re not allowed to be even five minutes late and you’re told exactly how long you get to eat, but nobody has to inform you about when your day’s going to end — 15, 18, 20 hours, whatever it takes to get the scene, the shot, the proper pronunciation of the word “orangutan,” or for the French fry to arrive at the right position with a perfectly-sized and -shaped dollop of ketchup on the end. Because believe it or not, that’s show business. It’s a lifestyle that encourages promiscuity and breaks up families, fosters drug and alcohol abuse, and promotes a high incidence of unhealthy conditions from massive beer guts to knee and back injuries to colon cancer — some say caused by sitting on ballasts generating electricity for 20,000-watt lights, some say from not being allowed enough time during the day for a toilet break. Yep, it’s a business where crew people like myself live as close as anyone can to absurd heights of fame and success without actually getting any for ourselves. And I think that’s what really kills us. Most of us who work on film crews are aspiring filmmakers just waiting to get The Big Break — even though every year we spend working those hours, not writing or making anything because we’re too exhausted to do anything at the end of the day other than drink, sleep and fuck (most of the time not even that) just keeps us in oblivion.
Bitter? Maybe. Okay, yes. Okay, sometimes, a lot. The truth is, I don’t want to be famous. I’m pretty familiar, by now, with what that can do to people: the intense need to have all eyes on you while hating it so much that you tell your people that anyone who makes eye contact will be fired; the obsession the world has with your looks that inevitably leads to anorexia and dermal fillers; the numbers game of seducing and discarding women, just because you can; the hubris of knowing everyone is so fascinated with you that you lose the ability to have a conversation that doesn’t involve just going on and on about yourself, combined with the hollowness of having no idea of who you actually are; the privilege that makes you scream at whoever’s in sight when you don’t get whatever you ask for, while knowing deep down that it’ll never be enough. No thanks. I’d just like to get paid to write and direct films rather than be the labor on someone else’s “labor of love,” which is usually just a labor of greed, or of self-indulgent masturbation. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve worked on a lot of good projects, I’ve been happy to see people achieve their dreams, but at this point, I’ve got no more stars in my eyes about the work. It’s just a job and I’m just a grunt with a few stories to tell.
Most of the time, I work as a boom operator. This means that my primary activity is standing on set holding a long pole with a microphone at the end just out of frame and pointing it at the mouth of whoever is speaking. Because some directors like to do take after take without cutting, sometimes I have to hold it up there until the camera needs to be reloaded, which used to be ten minutes, but in the age of digital can be 45. That might sound like a weird occupation for a 5’2” not-especially-coordinated woman with two degrees, but when I first started doing it, in my 20s, I was fresh out of film school and looking for a job that would enable me to see how everything worked on set. Plus, I found it empowering to do this physical thing that nobody who knew me would ever have imagined I’d do.
There are other parts of my job too. I generally help set up and break down the equipment on the sound cart (like a hot dog cart, but with the knishes and condiments replaced with all of the gear sound people need for the day, made portable) and testing it all to make sure it works, because something you learn early on is that any piece of equipment can fail at any time, and often will at the worst one. Sometimes I have to wire people, which means hiding radio mics on their bodies in places where they’ll sound good but won’t be seen, and sometimes I have to plant microphones in cars or under tables. Usually I only do these two tasks if the sound mixer (my boss) doesn’t have time (how I got to mic Michelle Obama) or doesn’t want to do it (how I got to mic Donald Trump), and the rewards are minimal, because you’re always rushed and, while most actors are used to it and professional, nobody really likes having you all up in their personal space like that. Plus, mixers are so darn picky that, very often, they’ll go back and change what I’ve done after I do it, which used to hurt my feelings and now I know doesn’t have anything to do with how good I am — and if it does, meh. The mixer also often makes mistakes at doing these tasks, but they generally have the advantage of having me to blame when things go wrong rather than beating up on themselves (although many of them can multitask and do both). But I’ve managed to get my level of caring to where I can do everything I do just well enough to keep getting hired without really feeling bad about it when I fuck up, which is probably the only good thing about having what was supposed to be a side job become a 28-year career.
Then there are the aspects of my work that I don’t like and therefore am actually not so good at. Like listening for and finding sound problems — humming refrigerators or HMI ballasts, open windows letting in the sound of chainsaws or leaf blowers — testing and tossing batteries — menial, and also bad for the environment — and handing out headsets to the Important People (directors and producers, and on commercials, also clients and agency folks) so they can listen to what we’re recording. Something else I have to do that’s truly nasty is run cable, an activity guaranteed to transfer centuries of toxic grime on to your handsif you don’t wear gloves. I will always remember the slick unctuousness of the cables I had to coil up after a day of working in the Meat Packing District in the 90s, and while we’re not living in that New York any more — ah, the good old days of entrails in the streets — the city isn’t really that much cleaner now, and having to scrape the black shit out of your fingerprint whorls is no fun. Then there’s even more manual labor, like setting and sandbagging c-stands (the metal poles with feet and adjustable arms that grips — the set’s masters of manual labor — use for basically everything) with blankets on them that we use to deaden sound problems. My sound blanket tents to cover electrical ballasts (they have fans inside them that often emit a loud hum) tend to look like the ones I made with fitted sheets and the dining room chairs when I was a child — in other words, not extremely professional. Sometimes when I’m trying to stop them from sagging, I’ll turn around to see some grip standing behind me, shaking his head. If it’s a friend of mine and they ask me if I need help, I may acquiesce, but by now, most of my friends know better than to ask, because, as a woman who came up in this industry at a time when there were hardly any of us on set, I made for damn sure that I didn’t ever need help, even if I did.
See, there’s this whole thing about being a woman on a film set, even to this day, where you have to ask for things with a smile — which especially sucks when you have to ask for things all day long, and when smiling on demand is yet another thing that you’re not good at. The problem is, as sound people, a lot of what we need to do our work belongs to other departments. The hardware, the power we need to run our sound equipment, even the sound blankets — even though they are actually called sound blankets — it all technically falls under someone else’s purview. And this is actually a big part of why I do get hired (I knew you were starting to wonder) aside from the fact that I’m okay at swinging the pole: I know what needs to happen when. That’s important, because it’s not just equipment I need from other departments to do the very fundamentals of my job, but help — to figure out the frame, to eliminate a shadow, to know when the actors are ready to be miked, to mic someone in a costume that’s especially challenging. My way of looking at it is that we are all part of one team, where we all respect each other, where none of us should have to smile or beg more than anyone else. It’s just unfortunate that a lot of people on set don’t see it that way. Not just because I’m female, to be fair, but because we’re the sound department, and when it comes to filmmaking, images will always be more important to just about everyone. So they have all these objects and information we need to do our job, and what have we got for them?
Actually there is one thing we have that they need: timecode. Our digital sound recorders have timecode generators, which are used as the master to feed the cameras, to make sure that every frame of their video and our sound can be located and easily synched up in the edit. And we also provide the slate, used every time we roll camera to provide both a visual representation of the timecode and a scene, shot and take number. It’s both a backup to the cameras’ timecode and the way we make sure that we all are working in sync as well.
And this brings me to what I am somewhat embarrassed to admit is my favorite part of my job: calling “Speed.” The term “speed” comes from back when we actually had to wait for the tape on the old analog, reel-to-reel recorders to come up to speed, and we still say it because, as with so many aspects of what we do in this business, it’s just what we’ve always done. Since I’m the one in the middle of the set, the sound mixer will tell me when they are rolling (another holdover term, from when we used to have literal rolls of tape and film) through the little mic in their board that goes to my headphones. Then, my job is to call it out for the rest of the set to hear, so we can roll camera. For those of you who don’t know, when we do a take, this is how it goes:
1st assistant director: Picture’s up!…Lock it up, please!…And…roll sound!
Sound mixer rolls the sound and tells the boom op “Speed.”
Boom operator: Speed!
2nd assistant camera: Scene 24 Apple (“Apple” means “A”), Take 3.
(1st assistant camera rolls the camera.)
1st AC: Mark it!
The 2nd AC claps the slate closed with a loud “WHACK!” Or a soft “whack,” hopefully, if it’s close to the actor’s nose.
The director or the 1st AD: Action!
And then at the end of the take: Cut!
There are variations. Some assistant directors like to put their own, personal stamp on the day, or reveal that they are complete control freaks (which most ADs are. Sorry, guys), by adding something unique to the sequence:
“Sound is rolling!”
“Roll the sound!”
“Camera at will!”
(All the camera calls being totally unnecessary because any AC worth a damn knows that once they hear “Speed” it’s time to do their thing. I also particularly hate ADs who continually say “Roll camera” instead of “Roll sound” when it’s a sound shot and I’m standing right in front of them. Do they think I’m hoisting this microphone stick over my head for my health?)
“And we are cut!”
You can also find different ways to communicate “Speed” if you want to get creative. Some of the ways in which certain mixers I’ve worked with like to do this are:
“You got speed.”
BOOP BOOP (this is someone who doesn’t like to actually have to say “Speed,” and will instead use the tone button).
And the ever popular “_______,” which happens when a mixer doesn’t push their slate mic button down enough, or is too far away from it for me to hear them say “Speed,” and so I’m not sure what they said and just hope that they actually meant to say “Speed,” and not “Stand by” — which means, “Don’t call speed yet.” Not a good mistake to make. While it’s embarrassing for me to have to contradict myself when I’ve already called “Speed” and say, “Wait, no, we don’t have speed, stand by,” and I know everyone will look at me like I’m an idiot, it’s better than missing a take, especially if you don’t realize or reveal it until later. That’s when somebody gets fired, and nobody ever hears from them again, except when they’re having a conversation like, “Hey, remember that mixer who always forgot to roll? What was his/her name?”
Anyway, I never do anything but yell, “Speed!” or “Sound speed,” at varying volumes. Why? Because it’s not appropriate, really, when you’re in the middle of the set and everyone is listening to you, to get up and shout something like, “Speed, motherfuckers!”, no matter how awesome that would be. And I also just don’t feel the need to draw any more attention to myself — particularly because I have, at times, screwed up the speed call. I’ve had to call “Speed” when I was losing my voice, which didn’t keep people from making fun of how I sounded, despite the fact that I had the flu. Once I actually yawned “Speed.” I didn’t even realize I was doing it until I saw everyone staring at me. Luckily, the director was someone I worked with fairly often and who had better things to do than take it personally, so his reaction was an amused, “And a very tired ‘Speed,’ and action!”
When I first started doing commercials, I had a boss who pointed out to me that I did not call “Speed” well. Of course, he was a model of tact about it.
“You know, you really sound bad when you do that. Do you listen to yourself?”
“I can’t believe you’re telling me how to call ‘Speed’! Do I tell you how to do your job?”
“Well, that’s irrelevant.”
Of course, once I did listen to myself, I realized I called “Speed” like a little boy whose voice was changing. So I started working on it, eventually getting to the point where I can now call it in a strong, clear voice, the way they tell you to call for help if you’re attacked. I’ve noticed that this doesn’t necessarily apply, for me, to other, authoritative raising-of-the-voice situations, or public speaking. I’ve done a bunch of teaching and my voice still cracks when I’m trying to speak to the back row, which is a real confidence builder. And in those situations where I’m talking with Important People about my work, I tend to get short of breath and blurt out my logline in such a way that it’s impossible to understand, yet they are too uncomfortable to ask me to repeat it.
So why do I like calling “Speed”? Because in a weird way, it’s my moment. It’s the time when everyone else has to wait on me without bitching, when, if I’m not ready, I can take a whole, oh, five seconds for myself. Yeah, it’s a real moment of leisure. And, to a certain extent, it’s a moment of power. But most importantly, it’s the moment when everyone knows I’m there, the one time all eyes (or ears) are on me, and I know exactly what I’m supposed to do and how to do it. I don’t get that role too often in life, so why not enjoy it?