"Sound speeds!" That’s what the boom operator yells out on movie sets when the 1st Assistant Director yells, “roll sound and camera”. It lets the crew know sound is recording. Next the camera rolls, we clap the slate, and then ACTION is called.
I worked in Hollywood for over 13 years as a production sound mixer and boom operator on feature films and scripted television series. I’ve certainly been around the block in that time. However, like many, I started out working on smaller movies. Non-union, low budget films. Low pay, no benefits, long-ass hours (although even on the big movies those hours don’t change).
These formative years in the industry however allowed me to learn and develop my skills as a sound mixer, a department head, and a technician. They taught me how to be a working professional and took me from being “a kid” to “a man”. I grew up. I learned how to navigate the sets, how to get what we need regarding the sound department, how the gear works, working with other departments, dealing with assholes, etc.
Within the Hollywood union sound department hierarchy, the “typical” career trajectory was from the bottom up- sound utility, then boom operator, then sound mixer. The non-union world, however, rarely has a utility, and often people begin as a sound mixer because investing money in equipment is the way to make more money. So that’s what I did, too. After a handful of small movies swinging a boom pole for other sound mixers, I bought equipment, and now I was the sound mixer.
As time went (and a lot of hustling) I was finally a working sound mixer making a quality living mixing non-union movies, television movies, commercials, and reality TV shows. In fact, I have worked on eight Lifetime/Hallmark movies…Yeah, I know. Good times.
One thing people don’t teach you though, is that from the small movies (well, professional small movies, not amateur ones) to the big movies, the workflow, the gear, the personnel is about 80% the same whether a film has a $500k budget or a $50 million budget. So, these movies were preparing myself for the next phase of my career, joining the union and moving on to the big jobs.
These small movies where I was the head of the department put me in a good position upon (finally) getting into the union (Hollywood is mostly a union industry top to bottom). Once getting accepted into the union I wanted to take a step back, and work for “the top dogs” sound mixers as their sound utility. I knew by working for mixers doing the big movies, I could learn so much from them since for years I have only worked for myself. Time to find out how it’s done in the big leagues.
Since the gear is the same (and I owned my own sound gear), I already knew the equipment. Since the personnel was the same, I already knew how to navigate the set. Since the workflow was the same, I already knew exactly what needed to be done. I immediately began working for an Emmy-winning, Academy Award nominated sound mixer and he was impressed with my skills and knowledge. Those years on small movies running my department put me leaps and bounds ahead of “new union members”.
What I found, however, is that since I was now working for someone else, instead of myself, I found myself trying to please him as my prime objective. I was trying to do everything how I thought he would want me to do them. I was trying to do things “his way” instead of “my way”.
Makes sense, right? Not exactly. When my main objective was to “please the boss” and only do it his way first, instead of “just get the job done and done right” my performance suffered.
When I eventually stopped asking myself, “How does Tom want me to do this?” and started telling myself, “Just get the task accomplished! Do it your way if you must. You’ve done this before, and you know what needs to be done. You got this!” that is when my performance went through the roof. I was more confident. Remember when I said 80% of filmmaking is the same regardless of budget? Yup.
I came into my own in the union world when I just did what I know needed to be done. I stopped second guessing myself and worrying about how my boss wanted something done and focused solely on getting it done. I did it my way. Is my way different? Sometimes. At the end of the day all that matters is the task was completed. Period.
I started following my gut, my knowledge, and my own experience and less worry went into “pleasing the boss”. This was when my performance in “the big leagues” soared to new heights. I wasn’t on edge anymore. My confidence grew. I trusted myself and I did what I knew needed to be done, regardless of who I was working for. Even the most critical people don’t want to have to babysit their crew.
When people are on edge or worried about getting “yelled at” their performance tanks. I saw it on film sets every day (Hollywood is an anxiety provoking industry if you let it be). Poor leaders put their people on edge, great leaders know how to inspire and get the best out of their employees.
So don’t focus on pleasing those around you, instead focus on doing the things you know need to be done. If that means doing it your way in the name of “completion” then do it your way. We all have different skill sets and techniques for accomplishing the same end goal. I’m willing to bet you’ll do a better, more confident job when you follow your own gut.
Your performance will improve, and your authenticity will shine.
About the Author:
James Appleton is a founder and co-owner of Absolute Aid. When he's not running a company or writing content, he is usually somewhere in the great outdoors, climbing mountains, deadlifting, or spending time with his wife and daughters. James is passionate about helping others to become the only source of motivation and inspiration they need to accomplish the goals they seek. He fully embodies the essence of Seek To Do More day in and day out.
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