House of Cards and Digital Boom Removal

by Lorenzo Millan

I began my career in 1993, in a circuitous path, growing up in Baltimore, Maryland. My family owned an old reel-to-reel tape recorder that was purchased to teach my father English, but my older brother and I commandeered it, where we recorded ourselves playing instruments.

Thanks to a geometry teacher in high school, who screened 16mm prints of Battleship Potemkin, Birth of a Nation and Un Chien Andalou. He encouraged us to make two Super 8 movies a semester and on graduation, I decided to apply to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. I signed up for a class called “Sound Image.” I was hooked and for the next four years, was the Sound Mixer on many of my fellow student film projects.

After returning to Baltimore, I taught a film class for two years at my old school and later, was introduced to Cameraman Richard Chisolm, who gave me the phone numbers of several local Sound Mixers. I joined IATSE Local 487 and worked on commercials and then Second Unit for NBC’s Homicide: Life on the Street.

Bruce Litecky, the mixer on that show, asked me if I wanted to boom the fifth season. That was 1996, I was so green, however, I dedicated myself to it and ended up being the main boom operator in the Baltimore area.

In 2010, when The Social Network came into town, I worked with Mark Weingarten for several days. Mark called me again in 2012 to ask if I would like to work on a new show, House of Cards, as a Utility. I was trying to do more mixing and declined his offer, going on to mix an independent movie, Better Living Through Chemistry.

Shortly after finishing that project, Mark asked me to come in to do Second Unit on House of Cards. Mark listened to a few of my takes and told me he was going home for his son’s birthday and would I be available to cover him for that week? I’ll be honest, I was scared, but I said yes. The week went off without a hitch and Mark told me he was leaving to do a feature and wanted to recommend me as his replacement. Mark was even kind enough to leave much of his equipment package. It was a steep learning curve, but I grew with confidence.

I was asked back for the second season of HOC, it was now ‘my’ show. One of the producers had mentioned putting booms in the shot, but I was unclear of the parameters. When David Fincher came to visit, I asked him to explain the process and had a good discussion about it with the director and some producers. We tried it while Fincher watched and explained when to and when to not use it.

The opportunity to put booms in the frame helps in many ways. First, we get good quality sound and don’t have to wire the actors. Secondly, the directors don’t have to sacrifice a performance by having to loop a scene later. Thirdly, other departments can take advantage of the same principle with a stand, flag or light.

There are several hard rules to “busting the frame.” If the shot has some movement at the top, then we look at the possibility of dropping the mics in, once the move has ended. Sometimes it isn’t practical to do this just for a few lines of dialog, as the majority will have to be on a wireless, due to distance from the boom, lighting, and/or geography.

If the wide shot is static, then we’ll bust the shot from the top and decide how we are breaking down the scene with the two booms.

We consider the vocal levels of the actors and what their tendencies are. How much of the room is covered by the cameras. Sometimes we end up with a triangle of people so we’ll decide who to wire and who is the best to cover with the booms.

If it’s crucial dialog in the scene, like a speech by Francis Underwood, I want to get those on the boom.

We look at the boom movement. Are there reflections, shadows on the actors? Is the boom crossing through moving foliage in the windows? It’s an organic discussion with Boom Operator Randy Pease, Chris Jones, our Second Boom/Utility, and the A Camera Operator, Gary Jay.

Sometimes after a rehearsal, Gary will say, “Well, you can bust this one.”

We make sure the 1st AD and the Director know we need a few seconds at the top before action. We’ll roll a clear frame without the booms and count off a second or two. Then Gary says, “OK, come on in boys.” We do the same at the end of a scene too.

I’m benefiting from David Fincher, who is the innovator and I am just riding that wave. The Post Production Supervisor, Peter Mavromates, and the current Post Supervisor, Hameed Shaukat, and their teams of Editors and VFX people have been enormously helpful.

I always record every line on camera or off. We have also built a small ADR booth on our stage, located in Edgewood, Maryland, about 20 minutes northeast of Baltimore.

We use the PIX System, LLC, so the editors in Los Angeles can upload a QuickTime file and a cue sheet and I can record the actor with my Zaxcom Nomad and a Sennheiser MKH 40.

I began the second season with a Cooper 106+1, recording onto a Deva 4. I use Lectrosonics wireless and Sanken lavs.

The boom microphones are the Sennheiser MKH 50 and sometimes the 60 and even the 70. I love the sharpness of Sennheiser and the MKH 50 in particular. For podiums, we use the Sennheiser MKH 40 or the same Shure SM57VIP dual microphones that match the presidential podium.

Sanken CUBS are for car interiors. They are very natural sounding and can be positioned very easily.

I moved to the Zaxcom Fusion 12 and the Mix 12 for season three.

We don’t use slates on HOC. Everything is linked by timecode and metadata. The workflow begins with my metadata; episode, scene and take numbers in tight collaboration with our Script Supervisor, Robb Foglia. The Assistant Picture Editors use my file name for the clips.

Fortunately, we have a very experienced camera crew and great Camera Operators who look out for things that I can’t always see. House of Cards treats the sound department and my tracks with great respect. The stages and sets are quiet. The actors expect quiet as well. Many times before I’ve had a chance to tell the AD department about noise issues during a take, an actor has already spoken about it. It is the way it should be.