Boom Operator > Sound > Crew
The boom operator serves as the assistant to the production sound mixer, primarily seen on set wielding a long boom pole—“fishpole”—with a fuzzy microphone at the end. (Depending on the action of the scene, the boom can also be mounted to a dolly.) Their main task is to properly record sound every take by positioning the boom close enough to the actors so their lines and/or certain sound effects in the scene are captured clearly and with the best quality for sound mixers to work with. They also need to make sure the mic never enters or creates a shadow in the shot. The latter detail, if successful, ends up saving the project a lot of money as it eliminates the need to re-record dialogue or edit the visual out in post-production.
The boom operator generally stands alongside the camera operator and wears a set of headphones, listening to monitor the audio quality of the dialogue.
“There’s a lot of technique involved; it’s not about brute force,” says Tony Cook (“Trainspotting,” “Shallow Grave,” “The Crying Game”). “It’s about getting the balance right, and good footwork, and getting as close as you can to get the sound but keeping out of shot. It’s also a timing thing: you have keywords that bounce you to the next actor.”
The boom operator is also in charge of setting up and maintaining sound equipment, checking their levels before shooting, ensuring all audio is recording correctly, making any minor adjustments if needed, and helping with any other sound devices on set. He or she also attaches clip microphones to actors’ clothing when necessary. It’s crucial for a boom operator to be well-acquainted with the script (which character talks when, any dialogue changes, etc.) and camera movements/lighting setups as their job is to swing the mic wherever someone is talking and to avoid dipping into frame.
Boom operators report to production sound mixers and other members of the sound department. Within that crew, the boom operator is generally an entry-level position.
Most boom operators bounce from job to job as contract workers and freelancers, so rates vary and are dependent on experience, the project’s budget/location, and how long the shooting day has been. According to the Houston Chronicle, boom operators working in California earn an average of $15.70 an hour. Over time, with more experience, and working on bigger productions, audio/video equipment technicians often take home a median salary of $42,190 a year and motion picture and sound recorders earn $51,460 a year.
Boom operators are represented by IATSE Local 695, which means members are entitled to minimum wage requirements on any union production.
Boom operators are generally some of the first crew to arrive on set and some of the last to leave: they almost always need to be present during rehearsals so they can get a handle on where actors and cameras will be positioned and pack up the sound gear at the end of the day. They’re required to be engaged in and aware of the scenes, dialogue, camera, and lighting movements, which helps in terms of job security for the duration of the shoot. A focused, quick learner (whose boom never drops into frame) is likely to be remembered by the camera and sound crews for future jobs.
Being a boom operator, though, is strenuous, physically demanding work, standing in one place with their arms raised for sometimes hours at a time. Like PAs, they work long hours and are among the lowest tier of crew members, but the job is a great way to absorb all aspects of production and determine what field you might want to pursue more seriously. Many boom operators graduate to the role of sound mixer.
“Booming is the absolute best position from which to learn filmmaking,” says Kris Johnson, a prolific boom operator on independent films. “Producers can’t always be on the set. Writers are barely allowed on the set. PAs are sent all over the city to do errands. But the boom operator is inches out of the frame of virtually every shot. I see actors’ performance, I can hear the director’s notes to them, I have to know camera lenses to know where my frameline is (you should rarely have to ask), lighting schemes and their geometry so I don't cast a shadow into the shot, I have to know a little electric [and] post-production. (Can we separate the argument dialogue?) And even a little about the director’s storytelling intent. (Do I have to swing the mic back to get the woman's dialogue, or will we cover that later?)”
Experience + Skills
Being a good boom operator requires a keen eye for detail, memorization skills, troubleshooting skills, the ability to learn a lot at once, vast knowledge of sound design/specialized sound recording equipment/microphones/cameras, agility, flexibility, patience, and, yes, great physical fitness (upper body strength is basically a must).
While it doesn’t hurt for a boom operator to have a degree in film and/or sound, the best way to be good at the job is to do it. A great way to get started is just to dabble with sound and microphones on student films and/or absorbing as much information on sound equipment as possible.
For more on how to get work on a film crew, visit Backstage’s crew hub!