Interview with Sound Recordist Lellan Thomas

In this exclusive Cinema Sound interview, we have Hollywood Sound Recordist Lellan Thomas. I actually met Lellan on the set of Blade of Honor in 2016, and he was one of the most flexible, excellent and professional sound recordists I’ve ever worked with. I can also tell you that there will be no ADR in post for Blade of Honor…and that’s with folks wearing nylon and thick military jackets and even robes doing action.

Mark Edward Lewis [MEL] Lellan, it’s great to have you with us!

Lellan Thomas [LT] It’s my pleasure!

MEL: When did you know you were destined to be a sound recordist?

LT: I want to school for filmmaking at Arizona State University. I got my bachelor’s, but after I graduated I really didn’t know which direction to go. I wanted to direct actually, but I needed to find a way to make money in the mean time.

MEL: I like that. “I wanted to direct, but I didn’t want to be broke….”

LT: Exactly! I went back home to the reservation and started working for a local broadcasting company. Over the Summer we ended up  helping out a

Lellan on His First Gig as a Boom Operator

local feature film that was shooting. I ended up being a PA. I remember I met the director before, because I auditioned for him. Didn’t get the part. I’d taken acting classes in college. So here’s me working on his set as a PA. Then he takes me aside and asks if I know how to hold a boom pole, because they didn’t have anyone. Fortunately, I had learned the basics in college. He hooks me up with their sound recordist who was 22, and I was 24. But he knew everything, because he’d gone to school for audio. He was a great kid, and he just started teaching me everything he knew.

I never really thought of sound as something I wanted to do. Everyone wants to work camera, but everyone forgets sound. I did too. Look, I hate office work. I can’t work in an office, and I love being on set. And when you’re an audio guy, you’re always in the action. I don’t mind working 12 hours a day or longer. I love it. And for me, there’s certain things I want to see how they’re shot so I can learn. I want to see how it’s all done. And I think you have to have that kind of curiosity to survive on set. Sound is always there and you’re always solving puzzles. That’s the part I love most: solving how I’m going to get the sound I want as best I can. It’s always a puzzle. I always have to look out for shadows, reflections, room issues, clothing issues, alright I can’t go here, I can’t go there, oh this is the sweet spot, I can swoop in…so I start learning all these new techniques and this kid got me really fired up.

After that show wrapped that sound mixer and I, we just got talking, and he would asked if I’d like to continue doing the job. I said yes, so he just kept giving me more days. Then I had to buy a mixer, but I didn’t have a lot of money, but he would go in and give me advice about what to buy. I had to catch up on a lot, and I taught myself a lot: how to hold a boom – really hold it – and all the rest. I enjoy puzzles, and when I saw how much fun it was, work yeah, but fun too, that’s when I knew.

MEL: What are some of the most challenging things you face on set?

LT: Clothing. Most of the productions that I work with are very low budget. That means wardrobe is low budget too. I try to let wardrobe know not to use

Lellan Working At Paramount as a Recordist.

hard fabrics, but it’s an uphill battle. It’s the fabric that causes so much noise. Sometimes the clothing looks cute, but perhaps is transparent or things like that which makes it kind it difficult for me to hide my lavalier. I usually have to try go taping around everything. Nobody likes that. I prefer to have a lavalier on all talent and have a boom as a back up. Nobody thinks about the issues of sound when it comes to wardrobe choices. I mean, right now, I’m wearing this polyester shirt. [he rubs it above the pocket]. Hear that? Yeah. It’s loud in a mic! This is really bad shirt to wear for sound. Now if I move my arms around [he does] it gets even worse. You get rustle on top of it. Some people nowadays try to be trendy and wear very tight shirts, and then they wear very tight hard fabric shirts too so the moment they actually expand their arms their chest gets a little bit bigger it compresses the microphone in between the fabric and the body. All you hear is just like that rubbing sound. So for me, I don’t control what the talent wears. I try to tell the director that something won’t work for audio, but, hey, it’s their vision I have to do the best I can to make it work.

The other thing is Location. Location, location, location. A lot of my work ends up being in North Hollywood especially near Bob Hope Airport. It’s probably just the cost of things. Every two minutes we have to hold. The plane will go over, we’ll wave at them, and it’s a great site to see, but we’ve got work to do. I’m usually by trains right by a railroad track. Yeah.

MEL: Who thought that was a good idea?

LT: What do you mean? YOU shot Blade of Honor next to a railroad track!

MEL: Yes. Well. That’s true. But we only had to hold for one take in four days!

LT: Luck. [both laugh]. I just finished a shoot which went for a few weeks that was a quarter mile from a railroad track. Every now and then you hear it go by, but it was one of those reality shows so they didn’t mind. A lot of times you’re right by a freeway. They look at the shot and think, “Wow this will look amazing,” but no one really listens around the environment or they can only afford to get this one location for what they wanted, but they don’t realize there’s these giant industrial power lines above with 10,000 volts surging through them. Not only do you hear this buzzing, but it also messes with the frequencies of the lavaliers.

MEL: What kind of gear did you start with and what do you have now?

LT: I started out like a lot of guys did with a Zoom H4N. I got a few jobs off of that,  and then I got an Audio Technica shotgun mic. It was a little condenser shotgun mic I and a boom pole I was able to get for $180. Then I was finally able to upgrade to lavaliers. Then I got my second mixer which was a Tascam DR 680 Mark II which allowed me to record a lot more, and helped me out a lot. Right now I upgraded to a Zoom F8 with 8 XLR inputs which means I can plug in a ton of lavs and run timecode which my previous mixers couldn’t do. I also use Sennheiser G3 lavaliers. I’ve upgraded my shotgun since then so I have the Sennheiser 416. I basically use Sennheisers. There’s nothing out there that I’d suggest anyone “steer clear” of. Everything is pretty good. The reason I started using Sennheisers was the brand. My very first production used them, and I knew them and I know the quality is there when I use them now. They’re affordable. People don’t understand audio at all, but they’ll recognize a brand. I’ve gotten a lot of gigs because I may not have the gear in the world, but when I say I’m running Sennheisers, people know that name and think you’re “more professional.” Their ears perk up. I have a Sennheiser G3 lavalier, but I am using a different microphone than the stock right now. I am using the  MKE2 GOLD Mic. Oh my gosh it sounds great. I’ll work with anything. A lot of guys use Røde. You use them.

MEL: I do!

LT: The one thing that Røde has that Sennheiser doesn’t is the powered boom [NewsShooter Kit Transmitter]. It’s got phantom power. It’s great.

MEL: I heard about it on the Sound Advice Tour, and I told them I was going to have to have one. Then we used a Beta version for Cinema Sound in Australia, and I told them the same thing. Now I have one, and I ain’t ever giving it up. [read the article on Mark’s review here] Do you have any pointers for audio folks or filmmakers?

LT: I guess the main thing for actors, first and foremost, is always be respectful of them. Whenever I go up to talent that I work with I always at least say “hi.” I hear a lot from actors that they appreciate his, because a lot of sound people just walk up and stick their hands up talent’s shirts. Always be respectful. You’re here putting your hands on somebody else, and they might not know you. They might not be as comfortable with other people, but you should always just be respectful. When I go in, I always introduce myself, and I tell them exactly where the microphone is going on them and where the wires will run down, and where the pack will end up being. If it’s female talent when I have to touch or place my hands on them I usually let them know beforehand where it’s going to go. If I have to start taping things down or leave the wires, then I definitely need to let them know. I don’t want them taking off their jacket that’s wired to my microphones and having something break or destroy wardrobe etc. Still, it’s a good idea to keep an eye on actors who are walking around with your mics. “If you’re hot, I’ll come and take the jacket off.”

For me directors typically let me run the audio show by myself. They let me do my own thing. The only time they get involved is if…

MEL: …if they have audio education websites for filmmakers and tell you what mics to use…

LT: Ah.. yeah. That happened on Blade of Honor for certain. You get mad props for understanding audio as a director and introducing your gear into my

Lellan and Mark working on the set of Blade of Honor

kit.  I’m grateful that you introduced your mics and techniques in putting a mic in the hair.

MEL: Oh yeah. When HAVI [Jasmine Waltz] is wearing something so tight we have to peel her out of it, how do you put a lav somewhere? In the hair! I remember the look on your face. It was like, “really dude? Wardrobe like that? Now where the heck am I supposed to get sound from her?” I mean, you didn’t say that. You were super cool about it. But it’s my job to read faces as a director, and yours was an open book.

LT: Maybe. But you were probably reading that I had to mic 6 actors and I had the AD breathing down my neck to shoot.

MEL: Ah. That for certain then. There was a lot of neck breathing that day.

LT: I always try to learn as many techniques as possible to fix a problem. I learned this from my dad who is a mechanic. He taught me a great deal on troubleshooting and learning alternate ways to fix a problem. I know it’s not backbreaking as a mechanic’s job, but problem solving can be applied to anything. Which goes back to me thinking of audio as a puzzle. I appreciate all input that helps me hone my craft.

MEL: You were incredibly generous about it. Not every recordist is going to be like, “Sure. I’ll happily use gear I don’t own on a gig where every line matters.” Thank you.

LT: Thank you. Other than that, the only time directors get involved is if the location is really bad: construction sites, planes, trains, automobiles. They’re always around you, and I always like to keep the director informed of any issues with sound. It helps to connect with them, because they have to know that refrigerators and AC needs to be off during a take.

The other thing is to not lose your cool. I like to work with an assistant, but a lot of times I’m doing it all myself. And somewhere between an actor in blocking, rehearsals, makeup, wardrobe and more rehearsals, I’ve got introduce myself and mic them. That’s fine unless there’s 8 people I have to do that with. The pressure is on. You only have a finite amount of time to be like, “Hi my name is Lellan” and throw a mic on and check it. Then production will try to help by giving you a PA to assist. That’s fine, but I usually have to go back and redo their work, because they don’t have any training on where to put a lav. Sometimes that’s just more time consuming. Add to the pressure that the AC is turned off as well as all fans, so you’re burning up sometimes on your back or your stomach in cramped spaces with headphones smashed on your head. You just gotta try to not lose your cool.

MEL: If there was one thing you wish all filmmakers knew, what would it be?

LT: Location, Location, Location. There’s a lot of factors that go into sound, and I I didn’t realize how many things really made noise. People don’t

Lellan using all 8 channels on his F8

understand how sensitive our instruments are. Believe me. I can hear your whispering conversation…especially when we’re doing room tone. It’s the funniest thing to try to get a crew to do something as simple as be still for 30 seconds. It’s hard to try to quiet a room down. They just they think that they can tippy-toe around you or if they’re sitting down in a chair they think if they go slower with the creaking somehow makes it less noisy.

The other thing is to bring your audio person to the location scout. Or at least bring someone who knows sound. Don’t be like, “okay this looks like a great shot let’s move on.” No. Stop and listen; really listen to the area. Go on the same day of the week that you’re shooting. If you’re going to be shooting on a Saturday, go on a Saturday and see what what the life is like. Don’t go there on a Monday or Tuesday and expect it to be the same. “Well it’s Saturday, we’re shooting now, and we got people doing lawnmowers outside…” I wish people knew more about sound, and how sensitive our equipment is that would be great.

MEL: What’s your favorite horror story?

LT: I’ve been on the good and bad sets throughout these years. Sometimes you can’t win with sound and you just have to go with it, but it is funny when you’re expecting something to be one thing, but it turns out to be something else.

A few months ago I was working on this horror feature film and this one scene was to be shot up in Lancaster. Lancaster is quiet. This production had the worst locations throughout the shoot. There was always something going on in the background or very windy or shooting in rush hour. We’d learned our lesson, and we couldn’t go back to that location. So they thought Lancaster would be fine. I’m thinking, “yeah, I’m not going to have worry about anything.” So I’m pulling up to the location for a 10am start and an 8pm wrap in a suburban area thinking, this is going to be great! I get closer to the house and I see a bounce palace and about 100 white chairs in two sections in the front year of the house next door. Oh yeah. It’s a wedding completely with mariachi band. Next. Door. Fortunately, they set up while we’re setting up, but when we start shooting the band is fine tuning their instruments!

So the director thought we could get the most important audio before 4 pm. But he didn’t take into account the set up time for us and the practice time from the band. Because of the bad planning, (and minor set backs) all the heavy dialogue took place around the party. Sure enough at 2 o’clock the wedding starts, and then when that’s done the reception starts with the band. The director finally comes to me and says that he was told they’d be done by 4.

MEL: [laughing] My favorite part of this story so far is that the director thought it was cool to have “the major part of dialog during the wedding before 4 o’clock” and that it wouldn’t be noisy having 100 people milling around at a Latino wedding.

LT: Exactly!  And the scene we’re shooting is of this boy who is turning into a killer. We’re shooting this scene with all this grit and intensity and killing and the soundtrack – getting picked up quite well by the mics in spite of tons of furni-pads on the walls – is a mariachi band [musical mariachi noise] and 100 people cheering. Finally, they just sent me home and said that the rest of the shoot would be MOS [without sound]. For 4 hours, I basically picked up the actors while doing my best to keep the neighborhood out. And then a big party sprang up a few doors down with an MC and “How’s everybody doin’ tonight?!?!” [cheering noise]. Yeah. Oh my God, Lancaster must be the place to be on a weekend. Sometimes you just can’t win with sound. You end up on location and there’s a wedding going on next-door that you were unaware about.

MEL: Which WOULD have been caught if someone had brought an audio person on the scout.

LT: Totally.

MEL: Lellan, thanks so much for being with us, and best of luck with your career!

LT: Thank you!

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