Sound Chat #21 - Lincoln Morrison (Production Sound Mixer)

I chat with Lincoln Morrison, known for his work on shows like Ice Road Truckers.

How did you get started in your sound career?

I recorded sound while directing my senior practicum film as a student at Emerson College. We had an old CP16, a Nagra 3 with (I think) a Sennheiser ME66. We spent our money on 400’ of reversal film (great lesson in reading light meters accurately) and one 5” roll of tape. The concept was that we would show a day in the life of a telephone booth. I convinced New England Bell to loan me a booth and a payphone with no coin box. The only vehicle I could find large enough for the phone booth, camera and sound gear, and a couple of us was my buddy’s unusual car: a hearse!

So on the day of the shoot, we load up the hearse and head for our location, the Boston Common. As we’re unloading, we’re sort of fumbling a bit with the telephone booth and the Boston Police come rolling up, ready to arrest us for stealing the phone booth! After much excited explaining, the words sank in for them that we were “film students” “Emerson College” and the whole matter quickly deescalated, fortunately, and we got on with filming. Anyway, that was the shoot on which I rolled my first sound (and it sounded great btw.)

During that same period, I was working part time (and taking internship credits) for a 16mm. edge-coding service. After graduation, the owner bought an Aaton and a little lighting/grip package and invited me to be production manager for the production company he was founding. Little did I know I was signing on for my real education: that job was my apprenticeship. I had to learn about electricity, do tie-in’s to live electrical panels and distribute power to the set, set flags, load mags, push dolly, pull focus, make deals for gear and crew, drive the truck, fix anything that broke, write carnets, do international production, you name it.

My boss always hated seeing money go out of house, and sound men usually did pretty well between their day rate, gear, and overtime. I was pretty much AC or gaffer on most jobs, but sometimes did a little sound. Finally we brought on a former intern to take over as AC and oversee the gear, while I focused more on the management side of production and became the company mixer. I went to New York with a cashier’s check, bought a Nagra 4.2, a boom, cradle, and zeppelin, some cable, and a Schoeps CMC4 w/ Cut 1 filter and an Mk41 capsule. I had the 7” lid conversion done while I waited and I came back on the plane a soundman. Well, OK, maybe it took a little while to get seasoned, but I cut my sound teeth on ¼” tape doing regional advertising, and documentary and corporate films.

One other cool toy we eventually got was a mag. striping machine. One of my jobs was to transfer the audio from ¼” to 16mm. mag. (for magnetic) stock for the editor. We had a 6 plate Steenbeck in the offices, and I’d be in there with the editor as he was cutting – he’d turn and say something like “We need a good train sound here”. I’d grab the Nagra, go to South Station, record some train sounds, bring the back, dub them over, and he’d be cutting them in in hours instead of the days it used to take when we had to ship everything to New York.

Bet people today don’t know what the hell I’m talking about with edge-coding and mag striping…

What type of work are you doing in terms of formats such as TV?

Well, this is another tale: I’d always wanted to be the king hotshot cinematographer. I worked with the cameras as a staffer, then worked as an assistant. I pulled focus on my first feature summer 1990 in the USSR. When I got back to Boston I moved to LA and worked as an assistant, then operator, then 2nd Unit Director/DP. The bottom fell out from runaway production in the mid-to-late 90’s shortly after I’d accomplished my hard earned goal of finally joining the union. Production dried up and many people were affected. Things were so slow for so long for me, that when opportunity next came knocking, it was in the form of reality TV. Since I’d worked with Nagras on film shoots and FP32’s on video shoots, I understood the basics of mixing and talked my way into a job on the show “Mr. Personality” (a reality shows where the girl picks from the masked male suitors the one with the best personality, so looks had “nothing to do with her decision”.) I hit it off with the A1 and he brought me on the next show, and then the show after that. Then I took over a contract for a buddy that led to two more shows. Just like that, my transition from feature cameraman to reality TV soundman was made. Most recently I’ve enjoyed a variety of recent work from corporate/doc work to ENG bag mixing on reality shows.

Sound was never something I sought to do, was never my vocation, my calling. However, because of my well-rounded background, I respect the importance of sound and its parity with picture. Therefore, I’m probably a pretty good soundman because I respect the craft as an integral part of filmmaking. Picture with no sound is called surveillance, isn’t that the old joke?

What is your kit for TV Documentaries?

Right now I own simply a 442, 3 wires, and booms with either a 416 or a CMC641. Oh, and a Zoom H4n. Let folks laugh, that’s a snazzy little machine. Two years ago I used it to record the field tracks and ADR for what will most likely be the last true three-strip Cinerama film,“IN THE PICTURE”. Get the irony in that? History’s biggest format, and the sound recorded on the dinkiest recorder! Oh, the result far exceeded anyone’s expectations.

What do you do to plan for a shoot like Ice Road Truckers?

First thing is communicate with everyone from the producers to the equipment suppliers to the operators. Once I know their desires and expectations, we draw up an inventory list: # of packages/teams, what gear to use, who likes or dislikes which piece of gear so lets get them something they like, etc.

Then the prep. The show happens in prep in my opinion. If you have your act together and the prep goes smoothly, the fieldwork will generally be pretty smooth. Everything gets tested, labeled, and inventoried. You have to be extremely detail oriented to do prep, both with the gear and the paperwork.

Then I check back with producers/production to touch base, cover any unresolved issues, and ensure that we’re covered gear-wise for field breakage. Stuff WILL go down, and having a spare transmitter/receiver mic can save the day. Collect per diem checks and head to REI for some good Smartwool long underwear – you want to be plenty warm in the Arctic and cotton kills!

When we went with the show to India, Bolivia, and Peru there were added details to take care of: vaccinations, visa’s, emergency and lifesaving training, carnet’s for the gear, etc. One of the difficult things to prepare for was trucks that ran on 24 volt electrical systems rather than 12 volt. We had to procure transformers and inverters to power the camera gear off the truck electrical systems, and those systems were different country to country. Also, in the Arctic the cold can be brutal. We learned after the first year that we had to have shelter to rig the trucks and how to adequately weatherproof the gear.

How has your other experiences as a camera op helped with your sound work?

Filmmakers can’t work as solo artists – we need a team of collaborators. Every department is a craft and deserves respect. When all departments run smoothly together, we enjoy our work. When departments are bumpy, the ride is bumpy for everyone. We are interdependent. We rely on one another to do what we were brought to location to do. Screamers and drama queens make life a drag, as much as ineptitude or arrogance. As a cameraman you are at the apex of the attention circle. Your opinion has weight. A good director or producer will recognize that everyone on the crew has that same ability, that same voice. A good sound man will do his job so unobtrusively as to sometimes be perceived by themselves as not respected in proportion to the weight of their opinion. A good soundman can ease production or confound it. The same goes for every other crew member. The old saying “One bad apple” truly applies when it comes to crew morale – one guy bitching can degrade everyone’s experience. It takes time to do things right, and either production is willing to get it right or is willing to live with it wrong. So, in a nutshell: respect equally to all departments/fellow crewmembers.

If you could give your former self some advice when you were starting out what would it be?

When I moved to LA, I should have stuck to my guns as a Director/DP and gone to work as a bartender until my film career developed instead of succumbing to the fiscal temptations of focus pulling – in retrospect I feel I gave up my dream so I could earn a living.

Seriously, the best advice I can give anyone in this business is: Own the product. You will make more money producing a show or film and then selling it than you can ever possibly make as a technician.

Oh, and work with nice people. We spend a great proportion of our lives on set and life's too short to spend it around people you don’t enjoy.