Sound recording, work flow, and kit analysis on expedition to Antarctica and the 5 deepest points on the planet
The last couple of jobs have been filming expeditions, that have required me to cover the sound of many people (not necessarily in the same room), unassisted, with multiple cameras, and multi-disciplines, at times I’ve had to go off and fly the drone and cover publicity stills whilst the filming is happening.
Audio Limited’s latest A10 digital radio mics were a vital component in my sound strategy on a 2 month expedition in Antarctica earlier this year, and my current expedition recording sound at the very deepest points on Earth for ‘5 Deeps’ also know as ‘Deep Ocean Challenge’.
I have been using Audio Ltd’s A10 mics as part of my work flow as they have the extra ability to record, and hold time code. Whilst this isn’t the only product on the market that does this, Audio Limited have always produced the best sounding radio mics. These weren’t rushed to market, I hung on for almost a couple of years as they perfected them, and they haven’t disappointed.
I have had to confidently be able to leave mics on contributors, unmonitored, to service self-shooters, only monitoring my own mix with the camera person I’m working with at the time. This has meant that I have had to have faith in my initial micing up for clean sound, and that the equipment recording it not letting me down. Additionally, I have to provide sound to sync in with an array of small cameras in a manned submersible down at the deepest points on the planet.
Challenging, but whilst not ideal, the circumstances have caused me to think out a strategy. Both these jobs have been aboard ships, and the tight space and lack of berths has meant that compromises have had to be made, and risks taken, that you wouldn’t do on a normal day. Compromises like, not always hiding the mic as invisibly as usual, particularly when we are dealing with Polar clothing and windy conditions, and how much data is being generated, which will impact not only on digital storage, but post production and your workflow. Risks such as not being able to monitor all the sound being recorded all of the time. The day gets longer with preparation, each mic takes me about 5 mins to get ready, though I’ve split that between end of day and start of day now, and I do take the extra minute to check each time code is correctly taken using the App, (which I have a few suggestions to improve ;-) .
Time code is key to this workflow and any mess-ups with it will cause a huge headache to post production, already on a tight turn around. I use Tentacle sync boxes on all the cameras and slave everything from my Sound Devices 788t recording mixer. Camera department love the Tentacles for their lightness, I love them for their simplicity and they just work.
The front mic on board the camera is normally the first thing a sound person removes, not wanting the front mic to be confused with their work. On these jobs I have embraced the front mic as a vital tool. I have thrown out the cheap mics and put good quality Sennheiser mics on each camera, with a decent mount. Quite often the camera is poking into very small spaces and I’m very happy they can get in tighter than I, and we’ve got the same mic, but the other advantages are; It’s the only sound going into camera, so the edit can rough cut pre-sync; the loggers can work off it; if there is a time code fail it can help with the sync. Also, if a self-shooter gets a vital interview and the interviewee hasn’t got an A10 mic on, there is the possibility it could be used if really necessary. We’re shooting documentary at the end of the day, we try and predict where the action will be but there’s always the curve ball to be prepared for.
In my work I’m not after awards, there are sweeter sounding microphones than the old school 416’s, and smaller ones to carry about, I’m after solutions that cover the whole shebang as practically and professionally as possible. To this end my equipment has to be a work horse, tough and reliable, and whilst, as I say, there are sweeter sounding microphones out there than the Sennheiser 416, none can match them for unfussiness, they work in all environments, cold, hot, humid, they survive being dropped and travelling around in flight cases and the sound quality is a great, I love mine. My kit needs to fit to the best sound/reliable ratio.
Anyway back to workflow. These jobs ideally required either 2 recordists or a recordist with an experienced sound assistant, but that wasn’t possible, and for once wasn’t a budget decision but a lack of space on the expeditions. I took 6 x A10’s as many as I would want to deal with on my own. These were chopped on and off different groups of people throughout the day. The A10-Tx Remote App enables you to change the names on the sound files for each person, I’m very careful to do so to keep the metadata correct. These small disciplines are essential, I never shortcut these, it might take a minute but in the long run will save much time. The App also allows you to put the A10’s into record mode or to put it into ‘sleep’ mode remotely. It uses blue tooth, which at time can feel slow and the connection can be flaky, but overall it’s a huge asset to the workflow. On the days that I’ve got the A10 mics in Aquapacs in particular it’s a real help.
On solo dive days on ‘5 Deeps’ I double mic sub pilot Victor Vescovo, one of these mics will be on battery saving mode and not transmitting sound just recording. The battery will go for over 11 hours this way, even the mic that has been transmitting has been able to come up from his dives still transmitting after 8 plus hours, and if there is an aborted dive, it can be much quicker, we are straight onto the action when he surfaces.
I use the Energizer lithium AA batteries as they will pretty much last all day, and I cannot be checking them all all the time. On longer days I will change all the batteries mid afternoon, and keep the ones I take out for controlled days, pick up interviews etc.
I’m the first up on a job, prepping all the mics and cameras with time code, and the last to the bar, excluding the DIT, if I get there at all, with the end of day break up, battery charging and downloading and converting of files, retrieval of all the mics, re-prep, managing the day’s stills, and checking the drone footage. The longer the filming day the longer the evening. A shorter day would be welcomed but it’s only for a few weeks at a time so I can do it. I’m on expedition at the end of the day, and we all roll up our sleeves and get on with what needs to be done, it’s part of the experience and I love it.
Kit list: Sound
An experienced operator
Sound Devices 788t Hard Disk recorder
6 x Audio Limited A10 radio mics with Sanken Cos 11 mics or DPA 4060 heavy duty waterproof mics
6 x Tentacle sync boxes
Sennheiser 416 microphones
Arctic ‘Polar Flex’ cables (Henry Smith Audio)
A shed load of Rycotte stickies and fluffies
Projects from this article:
January and Feburay 2019: The hunt for Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance, sunk in the Weddell Sea, Antarctica 1915, with reconstruction of life on the ice from this incredible, failed expedition. We spent 2 months with the Weddell Sea Expedition put together by the Flotilla Foundation, to find the wreck using underwater autonomous vehicles to scan the area recorded as the wreck site, and complete ground breaking science in an area so inaccessible it is very rarely visited by humans.
Film produced by Atlantic Productions. Still in post-production
August 2018 to October 2019: 5 Deeps / Deep Ocean Challenge (WT): One man, Texan, Victor Vescovo’s mission to be the first person to go to the deepest points of each ocean. He brings a team of submersible designers and makers in to make him a ground breaking and unique submersible to allow him to do multiple dives to the deepest points on the planet, most of these trenches have never been dived before. He brings a science team in to study the Hadal zones at the bottom of the trenches he visits. He brings in a ships crew, logistics planners, and scanning crew to map the bottom of the ocean and find the deepest points. and an expert comms crew, to communicate with the ship from 11 km below the ocean. Everything here is ground breaking.
Film produced by Atlantic Productions.
I also do the production stills and drone shots.
Main Photo Credit: Paul Williams our DOP