Sound Track: The Invisible Mike

Viewers indulge the display of the tools of our trade in certain types
of videos. A handheld mike here, a tripod there–the occasional intrusion
of equipment doesn’t affect the message much. In most cases, though, our
goal is to make viewers forget they’re watching a video. The accidental
reflection of yourself, your camcorder and a blinking red light in a car
window doesn’t exactly help sustain the illusion that this is real life.

The same goes for microphones. An on-the-street interview gains some credibility
when your talent holds a professional-looking mike. A quiet, romantic discussion
between two young lovers, on the other hand, is hard to swallow when there’s
a microphone clearly visible between them.

This month, we’ll explore ways to get great-sounding audio from external
mikes your viewers will never know are there. We’ll get our money’s worth
from one simple principle: if the camcorder doesn’t see it, it doesn’t exist.

Hiding Out

One of the best ways to get clean, up-close sound and dialog is to hide
a mike on-screen with your talent. This works best when your talent is stationary,
giving you the chance to plant a mike somewhere in your "set."

Remember that your camcorder captures a two-dimensional image from a single
vantage point. If one object obscures another, the obscured object doesn’t
exist as far as the camcorder is concerned. The real key to stealth miking
is finding surfaces or objects behind which you can place a mike.

What can you put a mike behind? The only real limit is your imagination.
In a home setting, possibilities include houseplants, lamps, coffee mugs,
coffee tables and books. For an office shot, try placing a mike behind a
phone, paperweight or calculator. Shooting in a fast-food restaurant? Try
putting a mike behind a napkin dispenser or pitcher.

If there isn’t an object in a convenient spot for stealth miking, put one
there. Find something that works well in the shot and provides adequate
cover for your mike. Taking a few minutes arranging your set for good sound
as well as a nice look will help you make a better video.

Sometimes, the best place to hide a mike is behind a more substantial element
in the scene. If you’re shooting a bartender’s-eye view of two characters
bellied up to the bar, you may get great sound from a mike between them
and just under the bar. Say you’re shooting a mother and daughter assembling
a puzzle on a card table. A good mike placement might be just out of sight
on the other side of the table.

When it comes to hiding something on-camera, smaller is definitely better.
The lavalier mike is the easiest mike of all to camouflage, thanks to its
diminutive size. You can tape, clip or hang a lav behind virtually anything.
Another plus of most lav mikes for this application is their non-directional
pickup pattern. Most lavalier mikes are omnidirectional, meaning you don’t
have to worry about which way they’re pointing.

Larger mikes designed for handheld use or stand-mounting will work for
covert miking, they just take a little more care in placement. In some cases,
you may find it easiest to use a small tabletop mike stand to hold these
larger mikes in position.

A third type of mike well-suited to invisible miking is the boundary layer
or pressure-zone mike. These mikes have a flat shape and low profile, making
them easy to hide on the set. Most pick up sound equally from all directions
above the plate, making them nearly as forgiving as a true omnidirectional
mike. The crisp, articulate sound of the boundary layer mike is another
definite plus.

Along for the Ride

Stashing mikes around an indoor set is a great technique–provided you have
a set. But what if you’re shooting outdoors and there’s no place to hide
a mike? Or what if your talent is moving around enough to make stationary
mikes impractical?

One option is to attach lavalier mikes to your talent, but not in the usual
pinned-on-the-shirt fashion. Instead, you capitalize on the lavalier mike’s
small size and actually hide it somewhere on the person. Big-budget filmmakers
use this technique all the time. They stash ultra-high-quality wireless
mikes on the actors, recording great audio regardless of how intense the
action.

Any place you can put the lav mike where it will have a relatively direct
shot to the mouth–without being seen–is fair game. This could be tucked
into a fold in a scarf, peeking out from under a lapel, or pinned behind
a corsage. Broadway performers often have lav mikes placed just at their
hairline on their forehead. While this may be a bit extreme for most video
applications, placement in the lace or fabric of a woman’s hat can work
well. You can also try taping a lav mike to the underside of a baseball
cap bill.

There are countless other creative possibilities. For an on-camera engineer
or technician, cut a small hole in the fabric behind a shirt pocket (with
their permission, of course). Run the lav into the pocket from behind, taping
or pinning it so it just peeks over the edge of the pocket. Surrounded by
other pens and small tools, the lav mike will be unnoticed. You may get
great results by taping a lav mike to the backside of a woman’s purse, provided
she holds the purse relatively steady during the shot.

If you have more than one person on-screen, things aren’t so simple. You
either need to mike your talent individually, or find a hiding place for
the mike that picks up all talent equally.

Tunnel Vision

We can exploit the "what the camera can’t see doesn’t exist" principle
in more ways than one. Instead of hiding mikes in the shot, for example,
we can perch a mike just outside of the visible frame. On medium and close
shots, this technique can put the mike within just a few feet of your talent.
Sound should be clean and crisp at this distance, and you don’t have to
resort to on-set subterfuge.

The easiest and most common method of keeping a mike at the frame edge
is the fishpole. This long, skinny pole holds a mike in a special shock
mount at its very end. A human helper moves the pole to follow the action,
being careful (in theory) to keep the mike safely out of the frame. You
can buy a professional fishpole, or you can build one yourself from any
thin, light pole. Use foam or elastic to suspend the mike and protect it
from mechanical bumps. Rubber bands cris-crossing the ends of a piece of
PVC pipe work well (see figure 1).

For stationary shots, you don’t really need a fishpole. A normal mike stand,
designed for music applications, is perfect for holding the mike just out
of the frame. For the most flexibility in placement, get a boom arm attachment
for the mike stand. You can then position the mike high in the air, or extend
the mike out several feet from the base of the stand.

Yet another option for invisible miking is to hang a mike from overhead.
You may be able to attach the mike cable to an unused light fixture, interior
beam or tree limb. Dangle the mike just above and in front of your talent.

With any edge-of-the-frame miking method, you have to be very careful to
not let the mike intrude into the shot. The edges of your camcorder’s viewfinder
may differ from the average TV, so be conservative as you set up your framing.
If possible, bring a monitor along to get a second opinion of your mike
placement.

The Walls Have Ears

In some videos, you’ll need clean, consistent audio as your talent moves
from place to place mid-scene. One solution (if you’re not miking the talent
directly) is to stash mikes in several different places around your set.
You may have a full-size mike hiding out behind a houseplant near the front
door, a lavalier mike behind a small statue on the end table and another
lav tucked behind the drapes by the back window.

Simply stage the action so the actors are close to the hidden mikes when
they’re speaking. With some thought and practice, the audience will never
know the natural-looking movements of the talent is actually a product of
mike placement.

Combine the outputs of all these mikes in an audio mixer, and send the
mix to your camcorder. Plan on walking through the shot a few times to get
levels and equalization set for consistent sound from mike to mike. When
you’ve got everything set up right, your viewers will hear clean, crisp
audio as your talent moves from point to point.

And they’ll never see a thing.

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