Blood, Guts, Gore … and Chiggers
Behind the Boom of THE WALKING DEAD
With Robert ‘Max’ Maxfield
Photos by Gene Page, courtesy of AMC TV, except where otherwise noted
Did you know that chiggers don’t really burrow under your skin?! Nope, actually they grab onto a hair follicle, and inject a digestive enzyme into your skin cells. The enzyme ruptures your cells so that they can drink the resulting fluid containing a protein they need to grow. Your skin hardens around the area, forming a nice big red volcano-like sore. That enzyme-filled volcano keeps you itching for a good three to four days. And you’re almost never bitten by just one!
I came by this intimate knowledge of chiggers in the early fall of 2011 when I was invited to go down to Atlanta for three weeks to boom a show I’d never heard of called The Walking Dead. It was in the middle of Season Two, and I was told that another guy would come in after me to finish the last five weeks of the schedule. It’s not a good sign when you take over in the middle of a season and it’s even less promising when they’ve already scheduled another person to come in after you. I couldn’t shake the thought that I was just another piece of raw meat for zombie lunch. And the prospect of working nights on a project with blood, guts and gore (I’ve never really taken to B-movie horror) was not attractive. I had memories of working with slimy creatures in the early ’90s series Freddy’s Nightmares and wasn’t eager to revisit the experience. So, after a short deliberation, I told the Sound Mixer, “Thank you for inviting me, but I’m going to have to pass.”
Three days later, I was driving my rental car down a pitch-black country road at six o’clock in the morning, just outside the tiny rural town of Senoia, Georgia. The stages are situated in an old chemical plant on a dead-end road, one hour south of Atlanta in a thickly forested area that only chiggers could love. It’s shrouded by trees, stagnant ponds, railroad tracks and all of the little creatures that make for a great horror flick. I fought off the feeling of this being my worst nightmare.
I arrived to some good news. They told me that I was the ninth Boom Operator on the show since its inception a year prior. “You mean that in only 13 filmed episodes, you have been through nine Boom Operators!” “Yep,” the Sound Mixer said. This was not sitting well with me. By the end of that same Season Two, they would reach the milestone of 11 Boom Operators! To this day, they call me “Number 9, Number 9, Number 9…” There have also been several Mixers over the seasons, starting with my friend and supporter, Bartek Swiatek, CAS, a Local 695 colleague who left Georgia to move to California, and coming to the present day with Michael Clark, CAS.
The day before my arrival, they had filmed the Season Two farm scene where Rick, Shane and the others, slaughtered the zombies that Herschel’s family had secretly kept in the barn. Our first setup had 12 cast members, spread 12 feet apart outside the barn, shuddering over the deaths of their kinfolk-turned-zombies. There were three cameras (a daily ritual) on three separate 30-foot lengths of dolly track that formed a large U around the actors. All of the cameras had long lenses. I was the solo Boom Operator, as the six remaining tracks on the Sound Devices 788t were allocated to the scripted speakers and the mix track. It was my first day with this Mixer, so I hoisted the boom, danced about the dollies and stretched with determination to prove that I could get some dialog; I wanted to stand out amongst the eight previous Boom Operators. My results seemed feeble, as I was only able to get a couple of lines. The Camera Operators and Dolly Grips were giving me funny looks like “What’s with the new guy? What number is he?” “Not the last,” said someone, “he’s walker bait … won’t last a week!” They all chuckled. What the hell had I gotten myself into?
Far in the back of the acting pack was Emily Kinney (playing Beth), who sobbed uncontrollably throughout the scene. She was not wired but she dominated each take with her emotional outcries. I mentioned that it would be best to pull a wire off someone that I could get on the boom and put that wire on her but there was no enthusiasm for taking the time to make the transition. As the third take commenced, a loud jet entered the shooting zone. I immediately called for a hold, but the 1st AD cut me off. “We don’t hold for planes … roll sound!” The remaining three weeks of my stay were grueling, sweaty and filled with my first set of fluid-sucking chiggers.
The history of booming this show aside, there was a lot of pressure on me to boom some scenes because of challenges with wind, wardrobe, props and the active nature of the staging. One night, I had to boom a scene that took place in a tent. Both of the characters, Rick Grimes (Andy Lincoln) and Lori Grimes (Sarah Wayne Callies), entered the tent while talking and then disrobed and continued with their dialog. It was impossible to wire them, so I had to figure out a way to boom them in the tent. Do you have any idea how much space is available in a tent after two cameras, two operators and two assistants have been employed? Add in four apple boxes and two 4-foot sliders, and it’s really cramped. The only thing going for me was that they had to raise the side flap to position the cameras. There was barely enough room for me to insert a 12-foot boom pole with a Schoeps MK41 capsule on a GVC. I had to start the shot crouched down, yet standing, so as to reach the tent’s entrance. Fortunately, I was able to aim the microphone straight through the fabric to bring them into the tent talking. I was just millimeters from the cloth ceiling, so I had to be extremely careful not to whisk the microphone on the cloth, while keeping it equidistant to their mouths. After they entered and began taking off their clothes, I had to back up and get down on both knees. At one point, Rick delivered a couple lines looking away from Lori. I couldn’t possibly get them both, so I put a plant microphone on a nearby table, and boomed Lori until Rick turned back. The plant did its job. It was four o’clock in the morning, the last scene of the night, and I was exhausted. It was truly my best booming feat during the entire three weeks. But, as the Camera Operator, Michael Satrazemis, said that first week, “It’s a tough show, but that’s what makes it great.”
Yet I still wasn’t convinced that I wanted to be a part of it when I was asked to join Season Three full time. I had doubts, so many, in fact, that I said, “NO.” I continued to say, “NO” for about four weeks. The thing that really turned me around was the fact that the Sound Mixer went to the wall to get me a rate I couldn’t refuse. Yep, it came down to money. But now, after two full seasons, I look back, and I look forward, and I confess, it isn’t the money that makes working on The Walking Dead worth it, it’s the family spirit. It’s the excitement of being part of one of the most amazing TV shows ever.
The setting of this TV series is unique in character, in that it takes place in a post-apocalyptic world. There is no electricity or running water, no trains, no planes, only a few cars and so far, no boat. We do have one obnoxious motorcycle, and usually we can get Norman (as Daryl) to turn it off before he speaks, but sometimes this is logistically impossible. A post-apocalyptic world is a quiet world. But, we shoot in rural Georgia. We have highways, lots of trains, farm implements, bustling towns and our studios are right in the approaching pathway of Atlanta Hartsfield International Airport. It’s not easy recording dead quiet takes in our modern world.
Locations are often deep in the woods, on rarely traveled dirt roads, abandoned railroad tracks and around brush-shrouded ponds. This means that we have to load our equipment onto flatbed trailers and get pulled by four-wheel-drive vehicles to our locations. When the going gets rough, we all pitch in to get it down. And when a deluge of rain comes in, we all take the hit on another sloppy mud fest to get ourselves out of the swamp bog.
Many of these locations lay along the unused rail tracks that serviced the now-abandoned enterprises in this part of rural Georgia. The Construction Department built several wooden carts to help move gear along the tracks. They’re very helpful when they work but they often break down and we’re forced to remove our carts and roll or drag them along the gravel rail-beds adjacent to the tracks. Zombie apocalypses don’t generally occur right next to the Walmart so we often need to haul the gear a considerable distance. That the carts are wobbly and tend to squeak doesn’t really bother us except when they are pressed into service as camera dollies. Then the noise of the cart layered with the sound of grips pushing it on the gravel rail-bed does make recording a clean track difficult.
Actors on The Walking Dead roll around, run, shout, yell, fight, whisper, snap their heads from one side to side, kneel, bend over and swing lots of props (guns, knives, katanas, crossbows, backpacks, hammers, crow bars, bottles, etc.), all in the same setup. And, they do it amongst trees, vines, creeks, tall grass, railroad tracks, rubble, fences, furniture and the like. This constant activity makes booming the show a unique experience; my legwork has never been more tested. The dizzying array of props needed to combat zombies forces us to be creative in radio microphone placement. We’ve rigged collars, hats, hair, the props themselves and everywhere else imaginable.
Anyone who has viewed the show is well aware of how location-driven the sets are. We work in the forest a lot. We work on gravel roads a lot. We work in fields a lot. We work with the elements a lot. But we also work a lot indoors. The difference is, 99.9% of our locations, wherever they may be, are filthy. They’re dusted, shredded, destroyed, trashed, wetted, burned and pillaged. Everything is dirty on The Walking Dead. The only good thing, as far as sound goes, is that the mills and plants that serve as our sets are typically vacant and out of business. Turning off noisy appliances is not so much an issue with us. But, the sheer volume of filth complicates placing microphones on the actors. In fact, the costumers go to great lengths to pat them down with blood, dust, dirt and oil. Blood and oil are the real test. And this show really uses blood—lots of blood—gallons of blood. In fact, there’s something like 10 types of blood: live blood, dead blood, real dead blood, drippy blood, gooey blood, thick blood, blue blood, black blood, it’s bloody unbelievable! As much as we all love Joe’s clear butyl, it doesn’t work on bloody and oily clothes. Perspiration doesn’t make such a good friend either. We end up having to sew most of the lavaliers into their clothes, especially during the warm months. This takes extra time. Fortunately, over the seasons we have conditioned the production staff to bring the actors to us extra early. Unfortunately, they have to be un-sewn whenever there is a technical issue with the lavalier, or when there is a wardrobe change. To avoid the need for re-sewing, we do tests, placing the microphone in the proposed position and having the actor go through anticipated body motions. Sometimes we’ll wire additional wardrobe in advance. We’ve wired as many as three shirts at one time. On this show pre-planning is imperative, because we almost never do rehearsals, and time is so precious. Then, at wrap, the actors must come to us after a grueling day of rolling and fighting their way through the zombie apocalypse to have their microphones extracted from their costumes.
The sun provides its own little challenge. Ordinarily, “fly swatters” (20 x 20 diffusion frames rigged onto an overhead condor) would soften the shadows on exterior shots but they aren’t used on The Walking Dead. The difficulty of getting that kind of gear a quarter mile down rail tracks to a shooting location precludes their use. Sometimes this forces us to use two booms to capture shadow-free dialog from a single player.
Much of The Walking Dead is shot in the summer. Georgia is sweltering hot with singing cicadas, croaking frogs and stinging sunburns on the back of your neck. Every time I wring out my shirt, I have occasion to remember the line from David Lynch’s Wild at Heart, with Laura Dern and Nicolas Cage, “You’re as hot as Georgia asphalt.” Summer is when the chiggers, ticks, mosquitos and spiders are most plentiful. Sometimes, before we even arrive on set, we drench our bare legs, arms, necks and midsections with a not-so-healthy dose of DEET. It stings a bit at first but really does the job. We don’t like it, but it beats scratching for days on end until your flesh comes off. Ahhh, the glamour of Hollywood.
The Directors and Directors of Photography make full use, as they should, of all the visual tools at their disposal. They use Steadicams, Go Pros, DSLRs, below-ground positions, hidden cameras, long custom- made sliders to go among vines and trees, high-angle crane shots and every device imaginable to achieve an expressive image. Typically, several of these elements will be combined for multiple views of the action. This adds to the challenge of getting good dialog tracks.
These same cells presented one of our biggest acoustic challenges. Although they were prison cells, and ought to sound like prison cells, they were really made of wood. We used furniture pads on the walls, and acoustic tiles in the corners when they wouldn’t be seen, but many times we couldn’t control things. Fortunately, the reverberant effects that Post Production added fixed the problem, and made for some very interesting character effects.
Despite these extraordinary elements, the soundtracks have been getting better and better. This is due to a solid proactive plan, teamwork, ample first-rate equipment and excellent execution. Production Sound Mixer Michael P. Clark, CAS leads us through the process by being very involved. Days in advance he will be analyzing scripts, talking with decision makers, preparing equipment and contemplating solutions. And his mixing skills are sharp, clean and logical. Dennis Sanborn, the Utility person, is assertively proactive in preparing equipment, securing locations and most importantly, wiring all of the actors. He is both skillful and resourceful. As arduous as recording sound is on The Walking Dead, these guys step up to the challenge of working on one of the most difficult shows in television with grace and determination.
I’ve never before been part of something so deep, difficult and complex as the process of making this show. More than any project I have ever worked, the shared sentiment that “We Are the Walking Dead” makes this one of the most remarkable career experiences that I have ever had. It has truly changed my life … and my career.