There is a special feeling when you are on a film set. A balance of anticipation, excitement, and calm. It feels comfortable while also being in a state of mind where you are completely present. You’re surrounded by talented and creative people helping to bring a story to life and it’s some of the most fun that you can have. A few months ago I was on a film set in a supporting role, mixing sound. I’m on a set often as a teacher, but that’s a much different role than the ones I filled while working on films. In recent years most of my film work has been on the editing side which is the (generally) calmer and quieter side of production. I love editing and working within the constraints of footage, but there is something magical about being on set.
It has been a long time since I’d been on set in a role other than an observer or supervisor, so when asked to record sound for one of the Atlantic Filmmakers Co-operative FILM 5 films, I was eager to do it. Sound is where I started to learn about film production at the New Brunswick Filmmakers’ Co-operative when I just finished high school. Back then in the 80s we shot on 16mm film and recorded sound on magnetic tape using a Nagra sound recorder. It was beautiful.
Things have changed a lot since then and now not many people shoot on film, but the techniques and processes remain mostly the same even though everything is a lot more digital now. The key similarity is that many films still shoot “double-system”, which is where the picture and sound are recorded separately and synchronized later. That’s why you use a slate with clap sticks as the visual of the sticks coming together and the sound of them snapping is the reference point to have the picture and sound match up. In the old days we’d mark an X on the frame of film and the frame of magnetic stock and line them up, but now it’s done within editing software.
The FILM 5 program combines experienced crew members with emerging filmmakers to provide a framework for learning and creativity. The films are short and the production schedule is tight with only a couple of days for shooting. It’s a chance to mentor and practice while making a film out in the world. On this production, named “Black Guitar”, I was working with many graduates of the NSCC Screen Arts program where I teach. The producer was Todd Fraser, and the writer/director was Devin Casario. Working with them outside of school was great and it was a nice to be in a role where I was only responsible for a small part of the whole film. I had the talented Dan Langlois who I was mentoring in the sound department as boom operator and he was invaluable in capturing the sound on this production that was shot all on location in Halifax.
A film crew is a finely-tuned machine with each person playing their role and the interaction of the parts on set all managed by the First Assistant Director. She keeps things focussed and running smoothly by controlling what happens when and always keeping safety and efficiency in mind. A good 1st AD sets the tone for the production and on this production Nicole Close did an amazing job keeping us safe and getting the shots that we needed in the most efficient way possible. The conditions were challenging at times as we were shooting over two evenings and there was rain (which gave the film a great look).
We were lucky to have one of the top cinematographers in the country, Christopher Ball, as director of photography. Being in the sound department meant that I was close to the camera most of the time as while it’s important to be able to hear everything, the sound department and their equipment can’t be visible in the shot at all, so you always have to be aware of where the camera is, what it is seeing, and any effect that you will have on the lighting or the movement of the actors or the camera. Christopher Ball and his team created some beautiful shots both inside and outside with understated lighting in challenging conditions in terms of time and weather. It’s at times like that when the experience and professionalism of the crew makes it a wonderful experience in making a film.
One of the other crucial elements for a successful film production is food, and we had some great meals. For those outside of the industry, it may seem like a luxury to have snacks and food readily available on set, but when you have a group of people working twelve hour days with most of that time spent moving around, it’s important to stay hydrated and fed to maintain your energy. It’s physically and mentally demanding and not having to worry about what to eat is important. Having a warm meal is a wonderful thing especially when you’ve been outside in the rain working.
When you teach people you have a different relationship with them as you’re a resource and you encourage people to do their best and to learn. As people get out into the world and working one of the best things to see is how they continue to learn as they work and help other people. On the set of the film during breaks I was able to catch up with many of the graduates who I had taught to find out how they were doing. Their range of experiences and future plans are inspiring and encouraging in the face of an industry that is going through some large challenges.
People don’t go into the filmmaking world because it’s a way to make a lot of money but because they love telling stories. Figuring out the balance between a career that pays the bills and one that sustains the soul is common for many people. Being able to work with talented people and to help them on that journey with great films being produced along the way is one of the best parts of my job. I’m so grateful that I was able to play a different role and immerse myself in this world again.
Black Guitar premieres at the 36th Atlantic Film Festival in Halifax, Nova Scotia on Friday, September 16 at 3:30 pm as part of the Reel East Coast Shorts Program 1.