Lowering the Boom on Boom Microphone Critics

Over the past year I have been working as the executive producer of an independent art film, and in that capacity was looking yesterday at some of the great raw footage the director had shot. The boom microphone was visible at the top of many of the shots, which reminded me of an unpleasant college experience.

I organized the classic film series for my university, which competed fairly unsuccessfully for audience with the latest blockbusters. In an attempt to boost interest, we asked the university newspaper’s film critic to watch our next planned film in advance. We set everything up in a small office and ran the film for the critic on a regular 16mm projector using a pop-up screen such as exists in countless class rooms around the country. In his published review, the critic mocked at length the fact that he could see the boom mike in many of the shots, which he cited as proof that the movies we showed were poorly made. The review drove our normally sparse attendance down to even more dispiriting level: Me and the projectionist.

The university critic’s gripe was a common one. Similar snark is unleashed by made many film goers today, usually accompanied by some smug commentary about how those fools in Hollywood can spend $100 million on a movie and still apparently not know how to keep the microphone out of the shot.

But it’s all utter nonsense. When you make a movie you shoot a broader shot than you intend the audience to see. If you project raw film (i.e., the day’s rushes) onto a pop-up screen 10 feet away, you will see all the unneeded “edge material” but you know to ignore it (unless you are a dopey university newspaper film critic). When the film is shown in theaters, the print goes out to venues that have widely varying screen sizes, framings, throws and cameras. The job of the projectionist is to make the film look good keeping those variables in mind. When you seem the boom mike at the top of your local movie screen, it generally means the projectionist, not the film maker, has screwed up by showing the audience something that should be off-screen.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

7 thoughts on “Lowering the Boom on Boom Microphone Critics”

  1. This may be the case when shooting on film, but if shooting on tape in DV or other prosumer SD/HD formats, what you see is what you use in Post and onwards.

  2. Who knew?

    For all the energy and expense put into cinematography and editing, it’s surprising that studios would release anything other than the finished, final, framed version to theaters. It’s one thing to have the edges of a film cut off (as is common — alas — on television), but it’s bizarre to send out a multi-million-dollar production with extra junk in the frame.

  3. You need to get the boom as close to the actors as you can. If you’re keeping it completely out of frame at all times, even the part of the frame that isn’t supposed to be shown, you’re not getting it as close as possible.

    It’s the projectionist’s job to prevent the audience from seeing the boom, not the editor, cinematographer, or boom operator’s. Movie projection is a trade and there are unions for it. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that you seem more booms in non-union theatres or ones that skip the full time projectionist and have the 20 year old assistant manager flip a switch in between cash drops from the vending stand.

  4. The reason that there are typically large regions at the top and bottom of the frame that aren’t intended to be shown is that the frame size for 35mm is standardized, and hasn’t changed since the days of Thomas Edison.

    Edison’s films use the entire frame, giving an aspect ratio (width to height ratio) of about 1.33 to 1. When sound was invented, a portion of the frame was taken by the sound track. The space left for the picture had an aspect ratio of about 1.17 to 1, but since theaters already had screens designed for the 1.33 to 1 aspect ratio, the decsion was made to stick with 1.33 to 1 by simply not using the top and bottom portions of the picture area.

    In the 1950’s, there was a big push to move to wider screens. There were a bunch of competing formats, but the one that ended up being the most popular in the United States was to leave more unused space at the top and the bottom of the rame, giving an aspect ratio of 1.85 to 1. The other approach which is still in common use is to compress the image horizontally during filming, so that it will fit in the portion of the frame left over after the sound track is accounted for. In this scheme, the projector is fitted with an anamorphic lens which reverses the compression by magnifying the image twice as much in the horizontal direction as in the vertical direction, resulting in an aspect ration of 2.35 to 1.

    When projecting 35mm films, the cropping is the responsibility of the projectionist. An alternative approach would be to have the film maker perform the cropping (by printing black over the portion of the image that isn’t suppose to be shown). This would ensure that the cropping was done precisely, but would mean projecting solid black on the areas of the screen outside the borders of the image. Black is the the worst possible color to project, because it makes any ambient light in the theater or scratches on the film real obvious. So what happens instead is that the projectionist crops the image, covering the portions of the screen that don’t contain an image with non-reflective black cloth. This produces much better results if the projectionist is good.

    If the projectionist is lazy or incompetent, then the framing may be off, so you may lose part of the picture you are supposed to see, or see portions of the picture that you aren’t supposed to see. Modern film makers normally make allowances for lazy and incompetent projectionists, so they will make sure important details aren’t right at the edge of the frame, and ensure that stuff that would ruin the illusion (such as boom mikes) are not immediately outside the frame. So if you see a boom mike, that suggests that the framing is very bad.

    Films shot in 16mm have a 1.36 to 1 aspect ratio and the entire image should be projected; the projectionist is not reponsible for framing. I don’t know what the story is with 16mm prints of films shot in 35mm. I will say that Keith Humphreys should have directed some of his ire at the projectionist, who should have figured out what was going on, and either come up with a fix (perhaps some black felt paperclipped to the screen would work) or informed the reviewer tbat the framing would be incorrect before showing the film.

    If you are a professional reviewer, or even a serious film fan, you want to see what the film maker intended to put on the screen. When you see 16mm prints, it’s because the films were shot in 16mm. It is not uncommon for projectionists to chop a little off the edge when showing 16mm films because projectionists want to do the framing even though the film maker has already done it for them. If this causes a problem, a professional reviewer should know that the fault lies with the projectionist rather than the film maker. On the other hand, if you see a boom mike in a films shot in 16mm, that’s the film maker’s fault. If the rules are different when the 16mm print was made from a 35mm negative, that’s a sufficiently obscure case that I haven’t heard of it before. While a good film reviewer should generally distinguish between film maker error and projectionist error, I’m not sure I’d expect even an experienced professional reviewer to get this one right because it’s not something they would normally encounter.

  5. Kenneth: Thank you very much for your learned and clear exposition. Just FYI: In my university experience, we didn’t have a professional projectionist for the preview. We assumed that any experienced critic would know that when you just flip on a projector 8 feet from a pop up screen and let it run, it will not look exactly as it will when showed by a professional projectionist in a theater. Obviously, we were too optimistic in that assumption.

  6. Reading some of the complaints about “The Adjustment Bureau” makes me question whether the projectionists are at fault. For example, one individual talked to the manager and the manager said that he was aware of the problem and that the framing had been adjusted as far as the projector allowed.

    The film was distributed in both digital and 35mm formats. My guess is that the director and studio executives signed off on the digital version, and that 35mm prints were only produced after final cut was approved for distribution. Perhaps some framing adjustments were made to the digital version of the film to move the boom microphone out of the frame, and those adjustments were (mistakenly) not applied when the 35mm prints were produced.

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