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Recording the sound of frozen wastes

Not all television production crews today include a sound recordist but, as extreme location cameraman and director Phil Coates tells Kevin Hilton, that does not mean audio is any less important in the making of exciting and stimulating programmes.

Human endeavour, endurance and adventure are a popular mainstay of TV schedules these days. And the more remote or dangerous the location the better. This means these programmes cannot be made in the same way as conventional shows, which, even if they do not have a sound recordist on the crew, will feature a camera operator, a producer and perhaps a production assistant.

Having a team of people like that following explorers up Mount Everest or to the North Pole is not practical or sensible, which is why a new breed of specialist filmmaker has emerged.

Phil Coates has shot video and audio in some of the most desolate and dangerous places on earth and says the priority for any camera operator working on this kind of production is to come back from an adventure with “a great narrative, some fine sequences the editor can cut together well and sumptuous images”. But, he adds, the thing many people still forget is to also have good quality location audio.

This point will be emphasised during Coates’ audio seminar presentation at BVE 2012 in London on Wednesday 15th February. Recording Sound in Extreme Locations will look at the importance of good location sound production and the potential challenges in recording quality audio as a solo director/cameraman working in some of the most inhospitable places on the planet.

To achieve the best results there are some basic technical/operational rules to follow but, says Coates, much of how he approaches an extreme shoot comes down to experience over several years. Coates started out on the production side of TV, working for the BBC science and features department as first a researcher and latterly a producer. He later went freelance, setting up a logistics company to advise people about organising safe and successful expeditions.

As well as consulting on projects, providing risk management and training personnel, Coates continues to make films on location. He works variously for the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5, Discovery International and National Geographic Television, with recent destinations including the north side of Everest, the Greenland Ice Cap and the magnetic North Pole.

Coates will use his experiences on location to illustrate in the BVE session the importance of having what he describes as “crisp, clean audio on location”. The presentation is aimed at both PD (producer/director) shooters and young filmmakers starting out in the business.

Like many lone PD operators Coates is shooting on the latest generation small digital cameras, including the Canon XF100 and the Canon XA-10. In most cases he works with “top mics” mounted on the camera. These have been principally the Sennheiser ME 66 highly directional super-cardioid shotgun but recently he has started to test the MKH 8060. He says this is suitable for smaller cameras, with the response being directional but not to the same extent as the ME 66.

The shotgun mics are mounted in Rycote suspensions, including some Coates modified himself to make even more robust to suit different terrain and weather conditions. He also has two Sennheiser Evolution wireless systems, which are fitted inside the cold weather clothing worn by explorers – although, Coates acknowledges, this can cause problems with rustling and movement noise – and run on long-life Lithium batteries.

For his last project Coates was filming three adventurers on a multi-million pound expedition. Each person in the team, including him, pulled a sledge laden with equipment. “Anybody on a trip like that has to deal with the physicality and be very methodical, ensuring they don’t get frostbite or altitude sickness,” he says. “In addition to that I have to consider the quality of the images and sound.”

In most cases, Coates says, he won’t be wearing headphones and so relies on the level display on the camera. “If I can’t see something, I don’t shoot it,” he explains. If he’s using a top mic with one input on the camera Coates will split the channels, setting a higher level to one and a lower level to the other. This way, he says, he will get at least one good recording. “We may have to do something with it in post but it work,” he observes. Similarly radio mics are recorded through a two-channel input.

As well as the camera mic and wireless units, Coates often travels with a boom pole and “commandeers” a member of the expedition to use it. Being a one-man band, Coates records sound on the audio tracks of the camera and tries to get as much material as possible on location rather than having to put in spot effects or Foley during post-production. “You can always tell canned wind noise,” he adds, “so I record as much as I can so it sounds realistic.”

During his career Coates has been on BBC courses to learn the fundamental operational skills. Now he runs his own instruction sessions for PD shooters, aspiring filmmakers and adventurers. He says the advice for getting good sound depends on which of these groups he is talking to but the basics are: aim the mic directly at the sound source and get it as close as possible; buy a mic that is as expensive as you can afford because “quality always delivers quality”; and always shoot wearing headphone but if you cannot do that be familiar with the camera set-up and keep the audio levels in vision at all times.

“Everything else comes down to experience, craft and the skills you learn as you go along,” Coates says. He admits that he has brought back material, listened to it and sworn because it’s not been any good. “But I make sure that happens only once.”