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A boom operator is a member of the sound team responsible for capturing live sound during on movie or television sets. The title refers to one type of microphone held by the operator, which is called the boom mic. Working as a boom operator requires some basic training and also requires shoulder and arm strength, as the microphone must be held up for long periods of time.
A boom operator may serve as the microphone technician for an entire set, in charge of not only the boom mic, but area and body microphones as well. Because of this type of responsibility, it is important for a boom operator to have a good background in acoustics and knowledge of sound recording. Boom operators, often in concert with the sound mixer, must be able to quickly judge the acoustics of any shooting location and set up a microphone system that will capture as much of the sound as possible.
The microphones most often associated with a boom operator consist of a long pole with a detachable microphone head. There are several different types of boom microphones that can be used with the pole, but one of the most basic is called a shotgun mic. These microphones are held just outside the frame of the camera, and typically serve as the main microphone capturing dialogue spoken by actors. Often, the easiest place to hold a boom mic is just above the camera frame, meaning that the boom operator must hold the boom pole over his or her head for the entire shot, never allowing the microphone to dip into the frame.
In addition to bracing the boom mic over his or her head, the operator must also sometimes twist the pole back and forth to angle the placement of the microphone. If two or more actors are speaking in a shot, the operator may be constantly switching the placement of the microphone to catch each actor's words. Arm and shoulder strength and endurance are a big part of being a boom operator, and proper stance is required to avoid arm, neck, or back injury.
Boom operators must be able to communicate easily with the sound mixer, who typically is nearby whenever sound is being recorded. The mixer often listens on headphones to the sound coming through the boom microphone, and can give valuable information about how the recording is going. Occasionally, an operator will also serve as a sound mixer, and will be able to hear what the microphone is picking up directly through headphones.
Starting out as a boom operator takes little training, and first jobs can be found easily by contacting film schools. Very few film schools have a sound department, so many student productions require outside sound technicians. Although these jobs rarely pay, they often provide the necessary equipment as well as teaching valuable onset skills and allowing professional relationships to form. Once skill has improved, many boom operators work on a freelance basis, using a network of contacts to find work or applying for sound jobs on independent or low budget shoots.
I have am very athletic and had been without back problems my whole life, until I began operating a boom mic. I injured my lower back on my first feature length shoot. The pain subsided after a couple of months of rest, with a few very short projects during that time, but after that, with each lengthy project, especially if it was necessary to work with a fully extended boom pole, or forced to relocate gear from one stating area to another more than a couple of times per day, the pain would recur with a vengeance.
At this point, it has become clear that this could very well end my career as a boom operator. From what I've seen
, camera operators who are forced to use big shoulder rigs, and especially Steadicam rigs, are at similar risk, with regard to lower back injury, though I think the extended boom pole is potentially more harmful. Even a little weight at the end of a very long lever, like 10 or 12 feet, can be very dangerous.
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