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Sound and the single filmmaker

Nick Read, cameraman, documentary filmmaker and winner of this year's Rory Peck Sony Professional Impact Award, talks to Kevin Hilton about the importance of audio in his work and how he tries to capture the best possible sound as a solo operator.

Nick Read, cameraman, documentary filmmaker and winner of this year’s Rory Peck Sony Professional Impact Award, talks to Kevin Hilton about the importance of audio in his work and how he tries to capture the best possible sound as a solo operator.

The Slumdog Children of Mumbai is a shocking, moving film about four young children who live and work on the streets of India’s most populous city. Nick Read shot it over two months during monsoon season in 2009. He captured not just stark and candid images of four children aged between seven and 11 fighting to survive but also sound that both allowed his subjects to tell their stories and placed them in the context of an urban sprawl of great contrasts between glamour and wealth and poverty and desperation.

Shown on Channel 4 in its Dispatches reportage strand, The Slumdog Children of Mumbai won the Sony Professional Impact Award at the 2010 Rory Peck Awards, held in London during November. The Awards recognise the skill, bravery and determination of freelance camera operators seeking out stories in some of the most dangerous or remote parts of the world.

The judges described Read’s film as “beautifully shot, deeply moving and profoundly shocking”. One judge commented, “The difficulties of filming with street children in Mumbai during the monsoon can’t be overstated. This is exceptional camerawork.” The Rory Peck Awards honour camera operators who often work alone to shoot the images that will tell the story.

But they also have to think about audio. Budgets are always a problem but because of the way they work and the places they have to get to, having a full crew with a sound recordist is not just a luxury, it’s a rarity.

Nick Read has experienced this change over a 25-year career. He trained at the National Film School and during the 1980s worked as a TV news cameraman covering stories in some of the major trouble spots of the time, including Northern Ireland, Lebanon and Nicaragua. His move into documentary filmmaking came in 1989, with a study of the Czechoslovakian secret police during the country’s Velvet Revolution.

“Crew sizes seem to have diminished exponential to my age and experience,” he says. “When I started out there would be a minimum of four to five crew, excluding the director.” For the last two years Read as been, in his words, a one-man band, shooting pictures and sound on a handheld camcorder.

For many years Read shot on DigiBeta and now has moved to smaller cameras and new media formats, including HDV and XDCAM. As the cameras have changed, so has how he works with sound. “There was a time when I would never have dreamt of going out without a recordist,” he says. “But now I work alone – not because I don’t want to work with a recordist or can’t afford to, it’s down to the nature of the subject and working undercover.”

The Slumdog Children of Mumbai is a good example of this new style of filmmaking, where the story, the subjects and the location just cannot accommodate a big gaggle of people moving around with cameras, audio recorders, lights and clipboards.

Usually Read works with a local producer or fixer but other than that, it’s just him and his camera. “Working with the kids in Mumbai I had to have the lowest possible profile,” he explains. “I do work with a recordist when I feel there would be an unacceptable compromise in the work, for example if there were multiple voices. But generally I’m producing, shooting and, you can say, recording – all on the camera head.”

Read says he tends to use at least one radio microphone in addition to the camera-mounted gun mic, with the option to add a second wireless unit recorded onto the second audio track of the camcorder. “If I’ve got a small cast of characters, as I did with Slumdog Children, or I’m focused on a single subject, then I usually manage,” he explains. “Two radio mics and the camera mic works for intimate shoots. I just have to be careful if there are more people in a shot, with multiple voices. Then I have to decide how close to get to people who are not miked up.”

If Read anticipates a situation where there are several people to film, all of whom might be speaking at the same time, or if he thinks the technical needs of the shoot will be too great for him to handle on his own, he will bring in a recordist. “I’ve been working this way for some time now and it’s rare that I come back with something unusable,” he says. “The problem is anticipating what might happen. You’ve got to be pretty disciplined in organising everything so you can make sure you get everything the picture editor needs.”

Once Read has returned with the footage the offline picture editor will cut together the dialogue, laying up the location sound typically as 8 to 12 tracks, with additional spot effects. When that is done the sound-track goes to an audio house for a day to be “polished”. Read says some of the final mix will be about repairing elements to make them sound better. “I make documentaries about real people but there is always a compromise, so about 30 percent of the audio is done in post, the rest is as it was on location.”

With his camcorder clamped to his eye, Read says he wouldn’t go into a situation without an extra pair of eyes that can look out for him while he’s shooting. These generally belong to a fixer or local assistant, rather than a recordist. “I would rather work everyday with a recordist but working the way I do now allows me longer on location,” he comments. “I shot Slumdog Children over two months and if I had worked with a local soundman I might have got something different. But I was able to shoot for 28 days – if I had spent money on a recordist I would have had fewer days.”

Nick Read is now shooting in Colombia and has also been working on a film about teenage runaways in the UK. He says he has close friends who are sound recordists and misses working with them. “I miss them and their creative input and friendship,” he concludes. “But working on location is always risky. However, if I had my way I wouldn’t leave home without one.”