Courtney Goodin Part One: The Analog Years

by David Waelder

Part One: The Analog Years

Courtney Goodin is an inveterate tinkerer, the sort of fellow you hesitate to show a new toy for fear he might tear it apart on the spot to learn how it works. He’s been fooling around with sound equipment since he got his first tape recorder as a child 50 years ago. By altering the speed of the tape, he learned to create effects and was soon recording the general announcements that his school would play over the classroom loudspeakers. He even added sound effects.

The ’60s decade was a propitious time to be a techie as radio and television were rapidly expanding their coverage and universities began to offer courses in the new media. Courtney got his Third Class FCC license when only 15 and was soon working nights and weekends at a local San Antonio radio station. On some weekend and late-night shifts, he was often the only one in the station and was responsible for keeping the official FCC logs and for powering up or down the 50,000-watt transmitter.

Working at the radio station, he met a fellow DJ who was additionally working as a cameraman for KLRN-TV. That association led to occasional work filming events for KLRN.

A World’s Fair in San Antonio in 1968 led to further opportunities. Capitalizing on local events, the TV station did a live show every weekday with feature stories and interviews. Courtney remembers: “I got to experiment a lot and do a lot of creative work there because they just didn’t want to pay anybody above minimum wage. But they gave you freedom to use a brandnew multimillion-dollar studio—a color TV studio at our disposal. So it was quite a learning experience, and I learned a lot there.”

By the time he enrolled in college, he had already been working in the radio/TV field four years. While still an undergraduate, he found himself teaching some courses in sound and radio broadcasting at the University of Texas (UT). His enrollment in the Radio-TVFilm Department came just as the department was expanding and building a new television facility. The department tapped him to draw up the bid specifications for the project and that “was a great learning experience too.”

He purchased his first Nagra about 1971 and began working in low-budget features. In addition, he made industrial films with other graduates of the UT film program. They made training films for the Department of Public Safety including several that instructed Texas Rangers in the use of deadly force and proper firearms procedures. As the sound guy, Courtney wasn’t needed for every shot and was frequently tapped to be the assailant or badguy- with-the-knife in these films. For years after, any police officer stopping him for a traffic matter would have the vague sense they had met under unsavory conditions and Courtney would have to explain the origin of the bad impression.

At that time, there was no union representation for Texas film crew people. Local 205 represented stagehands but there was no mechanics local. Courtney was doing behind-the-scenes filming on Gordon Parks’ Leadbelly in the Austin area when his lack of union credentials became an issue. Leadbelly was a union show and even the behind-the-scenes technicians were expected to have credentials. Gene Cantamessa, the sound mixer on Leadbelly, signed Courtney’s application for Local 205 membership and helped facilitate his acceptance into the Local. Courtney and his UT partners worked to form a cinetechnicians group within Local 205.

Courtney continued to work as a production mixer on industrial films and also did some stagehand work and occasionally worked as a lamp operator and electrician. “Whatever work there was in the movie business, you have to pretty much do to stay alive.” When feature films would come to town, he sometimes worked in the Sound Department as a third.

In 1975, he was hired on Hawmps! as boom operator for Dallasbased mixer Bruce Shearin. “It was a crazy movie based on a true story about camels in the cavalry… It was a great film to work on. All the actors were great comic character actors like Slim Pickens, Denver Pyle, Jack Elam, James Hampton… So I got to know all these guys. It was a great fun—little bit of a torture to work on—being in Tucson, but great fun to work on. And cold. I never thought the desert could be so cold. We did scenes out in the desert where someone was supposed to be laying by this pond of water and we’d have to get flamethrowers out to thaw the water out so we could shoot the pond.”

With a legitimate feature credit on his resume, he decided it was time to come out to Hollywood and exploit some of the contacts he’d made. But he found he couldn’t get into the sound local here even though he had been a member of Local 205 in Texas for years. Making the best of a difficult situation, he found that his Local 205 contacts could get him permit work with Local 33. He’d phone in every day and be sent out on a variety of different assignments, rewiring lights over at Bardwell & McAlister or wiring the big board at Family Feud. For a natural tinkerer, it was an opportunity to learn more about how everything worked.

He continued to work in sound, doing low-budget, nonunion pictures whenever there was an opportunity. An associate from Austin was working as an editor on a film called Roar, a “crazy film … about a guy living in a big house in Africa with a bunch of lions and tigers and other jungle cats.” They needed a sound recordist and Courtney interviewed for the position. But he wanted to use his own gear, rather than equipment supplied by the production, and he asked for more money than they could afford. Oh, well.

About a week later, he received a call from the Roar production company agreeing to all his terms and asking him to come out to the location right away. It seems that the fellow they hired had a mishap with their Nagra and they needed a replacement. They had already gone through a number of mixers on the project. Nearly every scene featured multiple lions or tigers wandering through the set and sound people had a tendency to remember prior bookings after they did a scene with six or eight lions. Courtney agreed to come in and take over the project, at least temporarily, and also train the very green mixer to work as his boom operator. He ended up staying for many months and trained not just Laurence Abrams but also, later, Tim Cooney who was originally one of the animal handlers.

Roar presented a number of challenges that demanded more than the usual amount of ingenuity to meet. Not the least of these was the antipathy the cats had for the boom. Noel Marshall, the producer/ director/cat trainer (as well as lead actor), would often demand that the boom pull out because it was distracting the lions. Couldn’t have that. Courtney rigged plant mikes throughout the set to capture audio when it wasn’t possible to use a boom. Since multiple cameras were routinely used to capture events as they happened, it wasn’t possible for him to set up in the same room as the action. He rigged a video camera in an inconspicuous place that had a good view of the whole playing area and watched a remote monitor to judge when to fade up the various plant mikes.

The presence of the big cats was integral to the story and the crew would often wait for all the elements to align just right and then roll cameras spontaneously. On some days, they shot 50,000 feet of film this way. With several cameras shooting and cutting independently, and no reliable slates, syncing all the film was a nightmare. Coordinating with Panavision, Courtney modified the remote roll switches for the cameras so he would have an indicator light when a camera turned on and would know to roll the Nagra. When that camera switched off, it would momentarily trip the Nagra’s internal oscillator to provide a sync mark. He would attach the modified cable to whichever camera had the widest view and the editors would visually match the other cameras to the master.

Courtney continued to work on the film for more than two years, staying on as post-production supervisor after filming wrapped. Since the ranch in Soledad Canyon was so distant, he and others took to living in trailers during the week so they wouldn’t need to commute. A flash flood during the rainy season nearly washed the whole enterprise away and Courtney escaped only because of a late-night alert from the assistant editor. He and some others spent a very cold night in a tree on a thin spit of land with water rushing on either side. All the trailers with the editing gear, work print and tracks were washed down the canyon. The negative was safe in the MGM lab vaults and Courtney had had the foresight to move the 1/4-inch tape to a safe place. The next several weeks were spent digging KEM editing machines out of mud, hosing them down and taking them apart for a complete cleaning and rebuild. For Courtney, this calamity was another opportunity to hone technical skills.

Virtually every invention Courtney has made was to address a need that was not being met by equipment manufacturers. Few field mixers were available for the Nagra and none of them had a way to feed audio to a boom operator. Courtney set about making a remote roll switch that would provide a slate mike, audio feed to the boom operator and automatic tail tones at the end of every take. In a box about the size of a CB radio mike he put: “…a condenser mike, mike pre-amp, audio headphone amplifier for the boom man, remote roll switch, logic that would control the Nagra, start-stop and generate two tail tones that go at the end of every take. Besides a slate mike, it had a private line talkback to the boom man. The slate switch would open the slate mike to the recorder and roll the tape for the ID. I could use the PL button to talk to the boom man during the take without it going on the tape. Since he had a separate amplified feed, we could adjust his headphone level, separate from mine.”

Although originally made just to meet his own needs, so many mixers asked him to make one for them that Courtney marketed the Goodsound Talk Back Box through Audio Services Corporation (now Location Sound) and sold hundreds.

He also developed an add-on pre-amp for the Nagra. The pre-amps used in Nagra recorders at that time were modular components that could be purchased separately and swapped in the recorder depending on whether one needed a standard 200-ohm unit or one with T-power. Courtney built them into a housing that could connect to the mixer input of the recorder and provide an additional input. He cleverly designed it so that the external pre-amps could be daisy chained, effectively making a mixer that could be assembled with as many channels as needed. He sold a few but never actively marketed it.

The first personal computers came out in the mid-’70s and Courtney was an early adopter. He had taken a course in computer software in college and had done a little programming in Fortran but had little formal training. By the time he was experimenting with writing for his Radio Shack Model One, the process of saving files had moved from punch cards to cassette tape but it might still require 20 minutes to load a program. Even so, he was enthralled by the possibilities and purchased an Atari 400 for its color graphics as soon as they became available.

He began writing programs for the Atari as well and developed a program for creating and editing computer graphic images called “Graphic Master” that he successfully marketed through DataSoft, a game and utility software company in Northridge. He also figured out a clever way to print in color with a dot-matrix printer using multiple passes and color carbon paper. He marketed that program through DataSoft as well until carbon paper became less available and the printer companies began offering multi-color ribbons. But all of this tinkering yielded familiarity with the graphics possibilities of the Atari processor and led to another product. But that is a subject for the next installment.

The next installment will cover the development of computerized teleprompting and audio software.