Straight Outta Compton

by Willie Burton CAS
Photos by Jaimie Trueblood

I was working with Matt Alvarez, one of the producers of the film Beyond the Lights, in September of 2013. Matt said he would be producing a film entitled Straight Outta Compton. I said, “That sounds like a great project and I would love to be involved with a movie of that caliber.” Several months later, I was in Atlanta working on the film Selma and heard that Straight Outta Compton was in preproduction. I scanned through Production Weekly and saw that true to his word, Matt was one of the producers. I emailed him right away and asked if he would submit my name for the job. His reply was “yes.”

A few weeks later, I received a call from Gigi Causey, the Production Supervisor, inquiring about my availability and if I was interested in the project. I explained to her that I was in Atlanta working on Selma and would not be in Los Angeles for a couple more weeks, but would love to be involved in the film. Gigi asked me to send a résumé to the producers and the director. Shortly afterward, I received another phone call; the producers wanted me to come in for an interview upon my return to Los Angeles. The script was emailed to me and, after reading it; I was hyped and excited about the possibility of being involved in such a prestigious film.

I finally went in for the interview. It was with Adam Merims, the Line Producer, and Gigi, which was very unusual. I normally interview with the director and producers. I left with mixed feelings as filming was set to start in a couple of weeks. My concern was short-lived as I was asked to come in and meet Director F. Gary Gray. I left that meeting feeling very positive and excited but wasn’t sure if I had the job. I still hadn’t heard from the production, a week before location scouting was set to begin. But happily, I received the call. “The director liked you and we want you to be on the scout Monday morning.”

My first step is to break down the script and have a good understanding of the story. Scouting locations is also a very important element of filmmaking. It allows you to prepare and come up with solutions in helping to reduce background noise when shooting in noisy interior sets. Many times we don’t get to scout and you end up with a lot of surprises and no time to solve the problem. I knew this was going to be a challenging project because of the large cast, as well as music playback, live recordings and earwigs for each member of the group N.W.A. For a project of this magnitude, you have to have the proper equipment and a great crew.

My cart consists of a Zaxcom Mix-12, 2 Deva 5s each with 10 tracks, as a main recorder and a backup, as well as 2 Lectrosonics Venue receivers. I have an assortment of lav mics, Sanken Cos-11, Countryman B-6 and DPA. I use Lectrosonics UM400 plug on transmitters for the boom poles with Sennheiser MKH 50 and Schoeps for all interiors and MKH 50 and MKH 60 for all exteriors. I knew I would have to have a minimum of ten tracks, lots of wireless microphones and Comtek receivers.


I assembled my team, with Boom Operator Michael Piotrowski, Utility/Second Boom David Parker and Pro Tools Playback Engineer Mark Agostino. The second unit Sound Mixer was Bartek Swiatek. The one challenge was keeping up with all the IFBs and Comtek receivers that were used for both public and private communication. We started off with eighteen IFBs and increased the number daily until we reached a total of thirty-one. That was a challenge in itself. It was suggested by one of the producers that we buy a toolbox with a lock so we could keep track of all the receivers that were all over the place. We bought the toolbox and lock, but we never locked it as a number of visitors frequently visited the set and it seemed like every few minutes we were passing out receivers and changing batteries. We spent additional time each day looking for the units.

Each performer was equipped with a Lectrosonics SM 2 transmitter, Sanken COS-11 lavalier and earwigs. There were also live microphones on the stage. This allowed us to capture the performance and all the ad-libs. In each musical performance, we would do a couple of takes with playback through the PA system. Then record the vocals live with playback through their earwigs. We tied into the house PA system when possible, in conjunction with our own system that consisted of two Turbosound and two JBL speakers. I recorded timecode on one track and music on another from Pro Tools for reference. I also supplied Mark with outputs from the live performances in case we needed to play back the tracks and also for Post.

Recording sound on exterior locations is always a challenge, especially shooting in the city of Compton. You have to have many blocks of wireless frequencies. I used blocks 470, 19, 20, 21, 22, 25 and 26. Filming was challenging because of all the police radio traffic and the other devices being transmitted. We recorded as many wild tracks as possible to capture the real sound of neighborhoods and the location. Another challenge was rewrites and dialog changes being made at the last minute, which meant my team and I always watched rehearsal and were ready for whatever was thrown at us. We mic’d all the offstage lines for overlaps and protection. Being organized and thinking ahead is the key to being successful. Our DP, Matty Libatique, would run multiple cameras the majority of the time, incorporating wide, medium and close-up coverage. Panning from one cast member to another made it more difficult to capture the sound, which means the Boom Operator has to pay very close attention to what is being filmed. None of it was predictable. Two wireless booms were used in conjunction with body mics. I used Channel 1 for my mix and each actor was recorded on a pre-fader isolation track in order to have protection if there were issues.

It is also much more challenging for the Boom Operator when all the sets are practical. We could not move walls in order to have more room to work. It was most important to have cooperation from our DP, camera operators, set lighting, grips, Art Department and our location team. Thanks to our director for trusting my team and me to do our job. The cast was very cooperative, allowing us to put radio mics on and make adjustments as necessary. This film was definitely a collaborative effort. Special thanks to my production crew and the talented post sound team for their work in all stages of post production. The post team did a great job with my production recordings and created a brilliant sound design and final mix.

We are always so busy doing principal photography, there is never the right time to take pictures with the cast or director. Dr. Dre threw this extravagant and fabulous wrap party in the Hollywood Hills. He was there, taking pictures with various people. This was my opportunity to take a picture with him. I gave my camera to a partygoer and wouldn’t you know it, the flash didn’t work. So I have a picture in darkness with him.

That’s a wrap.