SFP: "The Office"

Oct 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Blair Jackson

FAUX DOCUMENTARY STYLE IS HARDER THAN IT LOOKS

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The Office cast

Now entering its fifth season on NBC, The Office has developed a rabid following for its blend of silly and subtle comedy, and the spot-on timing of its enormously talented ensemble cast led by Steve Carell, Jenna Fischer, John Krasinski and Rainn Wilson. If you're at all familiar with the series (or its earlier British counterpart on which it is based), you know that the style of the show is faux documentary — we, the viewers, are essentially eavesdropping on the professional and personal goings-on at the Dunder-Mifflin paper company in Scranton, Penn., thanks to an unseen documentary film crew. Occasionally, characters even address the cameras directly in brief “interview” segments. This stylistic conceit gives The Office a feeling that is different from any other scripted show on network television, and it informs every aspect of the production, including the way sound is handled from shooting through post.

Production sound mixer Ben Patrick has been with the show since the pilot in 2005. A veteran of numerous — mostly indie — features and TV series, including The West Wing and Andy Barker, P.I., Patrick came to The Office through co-executive producer Kent Zbornak, with whom he'd worked on an unsold pilot. Asked if Zbornak, producer and occasional director Ken Kwapis and producer/director/co-creator Greg Daniels had any advice for him about the show's aesthetic, Patrick responds, “They didn't really explain anything to me; in fact, I sort of explained it to them because they didn't know documentary-style sound. Ken Kwapis was well-versed in the ways of television and filmmaking, but he wasn't really a doc guy. I've done a fair number of docs.”

The show is shot on the stages of the Chandler Valley Center Studios in Van Nuys, Calif. (a part of town that “we made to look like Scranton!” Patrick reveals). During the first season, however, the “office” scenes were shot in the actual production office for the show, with a stage being used only for the warehouse scenes. Since then, they've duplicated the look of that real office on one of the stages, which gives Patrick — and everyone else — a little more control. The show is shot with two handheld cameras for maximum flexibility, and Patrick notes that the camera operators are “incredibly agile. They come from reality TV, from Eco-Challenge and Survivor and things like that, and they're amazing to watch because they're so precise and good at what they do. They can shoot within inches of each other in a full room with no problem. My boom operator has to be agile, as well, because there's a lot of movement in this show within a somewhat confined space.”

Patrick captures the all-important dialog with a combination of a boom mic — always operated by Brian Wittle, with whom he has worked on and off for a dozen years now — and multiple Lectrosonics RF mics. The first year, the heart of Patrick's rig was a stereo DAT (with MiniDisc backup) and Cooper 106 mixer, and much of his production track went out on the air as he mixed it. But his setup has evolved considerably, now incorporating the Sound Devices 744T and MetaCorder multitrack recorders and a new mixer. “Today is the first day of shooting Season Five,” he reports, “and I'm working on my brand-new Yamaha 01V96V2 board, which is a big departure from my Cooper with seven channels that I had for years and years and years. I had no complaints with the Cooper — the guy [Andy Cooper] is local, he made a great board and it wasn't as expensive as a Sonosax; it was fantastic. But I needed more channels. I've just been recording a conference room scene and I've got 14 wires — radio mics — on, but when I only had seven pots, I either had to cascade another mixer in or we'd get crafty with plant mics or two booms and we'd be more selective in making things work. We'd really have to decide where the funny was — where the joke was — in those situations, and we wouldn't be as concerned with some other actors' lines. My boom man and I would make those decisions together.” Patrick credits fellow production mixer Mark Ulano (Iron Man and Disturbia are just two of his recent credits) with helping him set up the new 16-channel Yamaha board.

Typically, an episode is shot over five days, with work beginning at 7:05 a.m. sharp and stretching about 11-and-a-half hours — “pretty reasonable,” Patrick says. “When we start rolling, they'll roll the cameras, roll sound and we'll go for 22 minutes to 40 minutes, and in that time they might stop and talk a bit, but we'll keep the cameras rolling and the actors will do the scene again and again and again, with little variations usually. At first, there's not a whole lot of improvisation. We get a lot of takes because of that style of shooting, and there isn't a lot of time to go and fix someone's radio mic or turn off a fan or something, so you have to figure out how to fit it in between the acting.”

Might a character unexpectedly improvise a line mid-scene? “It used to happen all the time,” Patrick says. “The accountant, Kevin, was always coming up with little things, and you'd see him in the back and his lips were flapping, and you'd think, ‘Poor Kevin, he's not going to make the cut’ [because he wasn't covered by an RF or boom].” Patrick notes that the quasi-documentary style of the shoot gives him license to leave the sound a little rougher than he might ordinarily: “We can live with a little extraneous noise — like air conditioning — as long as we can still hear the actors clearly.”

When it comes to the brief “interview” segments, with characters speaking directly into the camera, “I let my microphones and my preamps do the work for me,” he says. “I put a beautiful Schoeps hyper[cardioid] right on top of them and I actually employ my old documentary trick of sticking it in a boom stand when it's going to be a long session because we'll shoot those up to an hour. There are all these nuances where they'll change a word, change the whole scenario, so it can go on for a while. Normally when you do a doc, you put a lavalier on the person and a microphone on top so you have two different options. Well, I don't do the lavalier here, but I like to have a warm interview mic. I tried the Oktavas a couple of times and they were almost too warm, so I went back to the brightness of the Schoeps. We just got the new Schoeps shotgun — the blue CMIT 5U — and that's wonderful. We used it almost exclusively on the last Sam Mendes picture we did.”






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