Sun Tzu's Art of Boom Shadow

When I was trying to get my foot in the door in the industry, I PA'ed on some union features and TV shows. On one of those, I was chatting with the boom operator looking for advice from a seasoned vet. One of the things he told me to expect when you're a boom operator is, he told me, "I have to constantly teach G&E how to light." I wasn't too sure exactly what he meant and was surprised that union Gaffers, grips, electricians, etc. still have to be taught how to "light" by a boom operator.

Fast forward a few years and I think I'm starting to understand what he had told me. I've been mixing, and booming a variety of formats over the years including plenty of narrative. I've worked on some smaller shoots but lately, I've been privileged to work with some fantastic DPs, Gaffers, Grips, etc. Some of whom I've worked with on a handful of different projects. Once I got a pretty good amount of experience as a Boom Operator, I've learned the hard way and the easy way on how to avoid things like reflections, and boom shadows in frame. Working with a crew that has plenty of experience, and knowledge of how to light a scene, I've become a bit spoiled. It's become extremely rare for anyone to see my boom shadow in frames. It shouldn't happen if the shot is lit well and I have a clue of how to do my job. However, occasionally, I still find myself on smaller shoots with low budgets and a lesser experienced crew.

All of the sudden, boom shadows are a regular thing on rehearsals or take 1. Of course, pretty much everyone blames the boom operator for the boom shadow. Now, I've heard the joke, "It's not the pole the makes the shadow, it's the light." A joke it may be, but it's true. Look at the variables; experienced DP, Gaffer, grips, electricians, etc, plus a boom operator and no boom shadows. Now, keep the same boom operator, replace the DP, G&E crew, and possibly lighting kit, and all of the sudden we have boom shadows galore. Yet, it's still the Boom Operator that everyone blames, rather than the only changing variable.

Lets breakdown a boom shadow so we can understand a bit better, why we're seeing it and why we're not. First off, if there is a light, and if something is in its path in any kind of way (which there always is), there will be a shadow. There are always shadows. The key is to throw the shadows off screen. This is not usually too challenging, because it's my understanding that the standard set up for "good" lighting is to have a key light basically in front of, but mostly to the side of the subjects in frame, throwing shadows to the side, off screen. The same goes for the fill. It's also important to keep the subject far enough away from walls, especially white walls to avoid this. With this, we have dynamic looking lighting rather than a flat look, pointing lights straight into the subject's faces. If the key light is right above the camera pointing straight towards talent, they look flat, possibly blown out, and they don't pop from the background.

Boom poles are not the only thing that casts a shadow. Talent casts shadows as well, and their shadows move every time they move. So if the light is straight on enough to cast talent's shadows in frame, it'll likely cast boom shadow into frame as well, giving us poor lighting and distracting, ugly moving shadows from many things in the frame.

However, as a Boom Operator or Sound Mixer, I'm not going to walk up to the DP or Gaffer and say, "Your lighting sucks, fix it so I can do my job." I need to figure out a polite way of bringing it up. When I had little experience doing this, I was often too nervous to ask a Gaffer if he could help get rid of a boom shadow. But after working with some fantastic people, I've learned that often, if there's something that can help me do my job, it'll also help other departments. For example, if we see a boom shadow on the wall in the background, often, I can request from G&E that we can throw up a flag or some black wrap around a practical, or whatever light is casting the shadow and we only have this flag cut light off the wall which is where my boom shadow was. This helps me in being able to keep the boom close, getting good sound and it actually helps the visuals as well, because even a great crew will just light what they want to, and often not care about how the light hits other things in frame. I've had DPs and Gaffers tell me that the flag I requested helps them because it makes the background darker, which makes the talent pop out more. They never intended on throwing all that light on the wall in the back; it was just easy.

A few years ago, I gripped a few indie features and was a Grip PA on a network reality show. I asked tons of questions and picked up a lot from my department on all the crazy tools and resources they have and use to shape light. It's really helped me because on smaller shoots, and even a bit on bigger ones, when I see a boom shadow during rehearsal or beforehand, I can quickly request something very specific rather than "What can you do to get rid of my shadow?" I can notice a boom shadow, and a hot spot on talent's face during rehearsal, request from Gaffer, referring to the overhead practical casting a hotspot on talent's head when they walk underneath, "I'm getting a boom shadow from this light overheard. Are we able to put some diffusion on that or some black wrap so the light still hits talent, but doesn't hit the wall behind them, eliminating my shadow?" They then reply, "Oh, yeah, sure, that actually helps us, because we got to fix that hot spot anyways." Then I grab them a banana and gushers from crafty. :) Actually, I've noticed CapriSun and Twinkies are most popular amongst our G&E saviors.

But this doesn't stop at boom shadows. Some shoots I'm on have no budget for Art Department or Wardrobe Department, so I'll get talent wearing a transparent white shirt. I'm about to put a lav on them. Sound doesn't like white nor do we like transparent shirts. No one has brought anything up because it's not their job. But I'll ask the actor if this is their final wardrobe, expecting to get, "Of course it is, this white transparent shirt is my character." Rather, what I almost aways get is, "Oh, I guess. I don't know. I just brought this shirt. Maybe we should ask the Director if she likes it." Short pause. Yes, lets ask the Director, the Director says it looks bad, then asks the DP who says the white is no good for lighting, they change the wardrobe and I can easily hide a lav mic on them and everyone's happier. Or if we have no Art Department, we walk onto set to start shooting on location and we have unscripted mirrors that don't play, all over the place. Camera puts their camera in the only spot where we don't see their reflection. But if you ask yourself, If a Production Designer were to design and build this set from scratch, would they have any reason to place all these mirrors in the scene? No. Get rid of them before we start shooting and have to keep them for continuity by the time it's a real issue.

All of this goes back to my conversation with the union Boom Op I spoke with years ago. He also told me that when there's a boom shadow, people ask him, "Can't you just use the lavs?" He replied with a firm, "No. There's a reason the most expensive lav mic costs only a small fraction of the cost of a standard shotgun mic."

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