Roomtone: An Experimental Short

A Short Film showing a small part of the sound mixers job, room tone.

I wanted to have a quick chat with Mark (Director/Producer) about the film and see where the inspiration came from and what his perception of sound people are.

What inspired you to make the film?

A long-time appreciation for audio in general and specifically sound for film. Oddly for a Director I’m more auditory than visual - would like to have been a DJ producer or something like that. After 20 years in the business, I’ve decided the sound mixer is the most marginalized person on-set – always has to move his cart because it’s where a light stand needs to be, or the client table, or craft service. Picture will always be king I guess, but I really value the importance of sound and the sound mixer, especially when we’re editing.

What is your experience of sound mixers throughout your career?

Always positive, except one or two cases where a higher-end film audio guy seemed a little arrogant (back in the Nagra days). I expect that from DPs, makeup artists, the talent maybe, but the sound mixers have always been hard working, humble, anxious to please. They want to discuss what we’re shooting beforehand (sometimes at great length) to know what the situations will be - so they can be prepared. I don’t have the luxury of ADR on my projects, so what we record on-location is what we’re going to end up with.

When did you come up with the idea for the film?

I wanted to do an experimental short, something unexpected. I was watching “Living in Oblivion” with Steve Buscemi, a great movie about independent filmmaking. There’s this scene at the end where he calls ‘wrap’ for a location and everyone hurries to strike. As I recall they’re behind schedule, everything’s been going wrong, etc. The sound mixer reminds them they still need to record ambience, everyone groans and returns to their spot. In that seemingly endless 30-seconds of ‘silence’ you go from character to character as their inner thoughts are revealed. It’s a funny, insightful scene – something for insiders to appreciate. Anyway, I thought a film about room tone would be funny at least – with the challenge of trying to make something meaningful out an absurd concept. Plus I had most of the shots I needed in my archives – from the tailings of countless HD industrials and low budget commercials.

Living in Oblivion also has a great scene involving the actors and a wireless mic that’s left on.

What do you hope audiences take from the film?

A deeper appreciation for the role of location sound and for a production element nobody stops to think about. Also that every place has a unique sound character, that silence is almost never silent and that ambient noise is really the underscore for our lives. When you roll for room tone the camera usually frames up to the microphone or zooms out so you can see the edge of the set – basically letting the editor know NOT to use this shot because ‘it’s just room tone.’ So the pictures are kind of like the ambience recorded – marginalized, something nobody was meant to see, discarded in a sense. Hopefully the film expresses how we sometimes throw away things that are really quite important.

As a director what qualities do you look for in a sound recordist?

Humor, flexibility, intuitiveness for whatever’s happening on-set at the moment. I think the sound guys I’ve worked with can tell I appreciate their role and value their opinions, so when we need to make a decision that isn’t necessarily best for sound, it’s not like it wasn’t pondered. Did I mention quirky? Most of the sound mixers I’ve worked with are outliers, rebels or conspiracy theorists – no wonder we get on well. I see collaboration with the sound mixer at the same level as the DP or Art Director – just usually in quieter voices and off to the side. Oh, and one last…  I love it when I work out of town and sometimes the location audio guy is actually a ‘girl.’ Not many sound ladies so far, but cheers to the few there are!

Mark Whittier, Producer/Director Broken Films - creativity in a flash