View From the Crew RSC
Richard Gott, Sound Recordist for NextShoot, discusses the challenges of working at the Royal Shakespeare Company to record and produce a series of educational videos.
Before I trained and made a career as a sound recordist for broadcast documentaries I worked as a stage manager. In many ways my decision to become a sound technician was to get one step closer to performance, outside of the defined space of a studio or theatre. All the world’s a stage, after all. And yet whenever I enter a studio, like the rehearsal space at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-Upon-Avon, it feels like I’m coming home.
In its finished form each video we filmed with the RSC explores key aspects of a Shakespeare play with the directors and actors who have recently staged it. The video captures them debating textual interpretation and approaches to performance, rehearsing key scenes, and at times speaking directly to camera to define specific terms used in discussing the plays, such as iambic petametre.
The focus throughout is on how to effectively transform Shakespearean text from the page to a performance on the stage through an appreciation of its meaning and the dramatist’s intent – hence the video series title Text Detectives. The objectives are to give young students an appreciation of the literary and dramatic techniques used, a deeper understanding of the text and ultimately to foster an enjoyment of Shakespeare’s many works.
Ahead of any filming with the RSC a chat with the production team is always needed, mainly to establish the maximum number of contributors who require miccing up at any one time. It’s a truism that sound can get overlooked in video production, but without quality sound – or enough microphones - a video of this nature is rendered useless. Good quality sound and poor visual material on the other hand can still be understood. Make of that what you will!
For the trips to Warwickshire I packed my typical kit for this type of shoot: a portable 6-8 channel mixer/recorder, a super-cardioid microphone on a boom pole, a collection of ‘lavaliere’ microphones (also known as ‘lapel mics’) and transmitters, and some timecode equipment to keep my sound files in sync with the camera files.
For the recording of rehearsed scene excerpts ‘slinging a boom’ wasn’t possible – there were too many people and entirely improvised movements - so it was vital that every actor was wearing a personal radio mic, allowing them to move unencumbered whilst I captured clear dialogue. From a production perspective it was important that these mics couldn’t be seen on camera. This is now a common requirement in documentary television production and, of course, narrative film production, though the approaches are subtly different with these two disciplines. With narrative film work, such as TV drama or feature films, there’s a pre-production period during which the Sound Department can collaborate with the Costume Department to find ways of concealing the two key components of the body-worn radio mic kit, namely the transmitter and the microphone. There’s also generally more time on set to tweak and perfect the mic and transmitter placement, and there’s usually a Sound Department of at least three people. With non-narrative work, such as these RSC recordings, it’s a Sound Department of just one person and there’s no prior knowledge of what people will be wearing when they turn up to rehearsal, so all decisions need to be made in on-the-fly in a dynamic fashion.
No surprise then that as soon as our RSC contributors entered the rehearsal space I was immediately observing and assessing them for radio mic placement, inspecting their attire and looking over their anatomy. Certain clothing choices fill me with joy, others with dread. If only everyone wore a polo shirt, I’d live a happy stress-free life. There’s a sweet spot between the lowest button and the end of the placket that’s perfect for mounting the mic out of sight, sandwiched between the front and back layers. If, however, someone turns up in body-hugging spandex (not at the RSC, of course) my job becomes a little more complex. There will inevitably be a lot of fiddling around to get the cable and transmitter concealed and the sound coming through nice and clear. Chest hair, which tends to scratch against the microphone, can also be a challenge, as can troublesome jewellery - necklaces that might foul with my mic or bangles that make a clanking noise. Whilst I can politely ask anyone wearing disruptive jewellery if they’d mind removing it while we record, you just have to work around the chest hair.
With our RSC contributors I usually prepared a low-profile waist belt to house the transmitter that normally sat in the small of the back, or perhaps a thigh belt if their clothing choice made a waist belt unworkable, such as a tight dress where the bulge of the transmitter would be easily seen through the fabric. Happily, actors in rehearsal tend not to wear much jewellery, their clothes are usually loose to allow them free movement, and they tend to be used to having mics placed on them, which makes the negotiation of personal space much easier. Miccing someone and being micced requires a sensitive negotiation. I have to route cables between layers of clothes, sometimes anchoring the cable to skin using medical tape. Everyone has a different level of comfort with this process which needs to be respected. Go wisely and slowly, said the Bard. In this moment I am also engaging with the talent at the very start of the filming process. While RSC actors inevitably take a shoot day in their stride with little apprehension, on shoots with regular contributors miccing them up is a chance to settle their nerves by giving them a positive experience of the crew and a sense of reassurance that we’re onside, there to help.
During the filming process, there were inevitably moments when unwanted sound (noise) occurred, such as a door banging outside somewhere or an actor thumping their chest in a moment of passionate proclamation, and, by default, also whacking the radio mic and rendering the audio unusable. I needed to make a judgement about whether to retake these scenes. For example, if the door bang happened over a moment of dialogue, I’d push for another take, but if it happened in a gap between words the editor would be able to remove the noise in post-production and replace it with some ‘room tone’ (a deliberate recording of the ambient sound of the room, without anyone talking). If the actor has thumped their chest, I’d be assessing whether there was another micced actor close enough to offer the editor an alternative microphone source.
During each take, I was in constant non-verbal communication with the video producer or director (being able to read the meaning of the nods, winks and grimaces of your team is a crucial skill) to make them aware when there was a noise issue. They could then make a call as to whether to let the scene run or to halt it and restart. There are very subtle judgements to be made in these scenarios to remain sensitive to the creative process. If you interrupt the flow too often, you can lose the goodwill and focus of the participants to the point where you wished you’d kept quiet and accepted a few imperfections to edit around.
From my past life working in theatre, I know how ‘sacred’ the rehearsal space needs to be for the actors and director. It’s a place of great trust as individuals make a personal journey in the context of a collaborative one, towards a shared creative goal. It can be an exposing process. Vulnerabilities are laid bare. So, it’s important that whoever comes into that space from outside is aware of this dynamic and is simpatico. Our team has filmed many times with the RSC and each time the skills and personalities of the crew are matched to the specific requirements of this type of filming. We are there to observe, to record and to interject minimally. Give every man your ear, but few your voice.
For me these shoots have offered great job satisfaction, not only because they combine my love for sound and the theatre, but because we’re contributing to series of videos which aims to make a difference to young people by deepening their engagement with Shakespeare’s work and, more broadly, with the positively life-changing world of theatre.
In a Prospero-like coda I leave with some final profound comments, especially for those of you who may be called upon for filming. Spare a thought for the sound recordist – leave your noisy jewellery at home and resist wearing that spandex body suit. And I bet you’d look just fabulous in a polo shirt.
Exit, pursued by a bear.