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Recording Everest

Award winning sound recordist Adrian Bell gives us his thoughts on recording Everest, a feature film in which a climbing expedition on Mount Everest is devastated by a severe snow storm.

Award winning sound recordist Adrian Bell (pictured, below) gives us his thoughts on recording Everest, a feature film in which a climbing expedition on Mount Everest is devastated by a severe snow storm

Everest was possibly one of the most technically challenging commissions that I have ever worked on as a production sound mixer in the 30 years I have been working in the game. The main thing I was looking for regarding radio mics was range. I already knew the technical parameters of Lectrosonics equipment as far as the delivery of full range audio recording and transmission, but it was the range I was interested in, for I was about to be recording 12 A-list celebrity artistes on a mountainside with a film unit base half a mile away.
I decided to get involved with Lectrosonics about two to three years ago. I was an avid fan of Audio Ltd radio mics from the late 80s when I first went freelance and I stuck with them from that period. But when Lectrosonics made their product line available in Europe they soon proved that their products were absolutely far superior to anything else on the market. This was especially true of the quality of the build and the range of equipment on offer for working in a more portable style or rack mount set up.

Lectrosonics has a team of people who are absolutely passionate about the design and build of their products. I needed to know that when I or one of my assistants puts a radio mic transmitter on an A-list celebrity on a film location that it wouldn’t be the weak link in my equipment chain, especially for the demanding locations of Everest, and this gear has never let me down so far in any of the projects I have worked on, whether for major feature films or television productions.

For the initial part of the shoot we were filming in Katmandu with maybe six or eight radio mics. We filmed on a bus and around the streets, and there is very little RF activity in Katmandu so we were lucky. We also filmed at the airport where there was a lot of other RF around and the Lectrosonics proved very good at eliminating some of the unwanted RF in that vicinity.

Open air

One of the more remote areas where we wanted the greatest range was at the area close to base camp on Everest. Quite a few of the actors were wearing radio mics in thick down snowsuits. Our job was to get the Lectrosonics transmitters as close to the open air as possible to get the best transmission from the aerials. Fortunately, up near base camp the RF spectrum was very clear and open, we had very few interference issues and some of the range we got from the radio mics using the LP650 receiver antennas was brilliant. It was some of the best reception I have ever experienced using any kind of radio mics.

Because a lot of the actors were wearing the transmitters, some of the warmth from their bodies was helping to extend the battery life of the transmitters and there was definitely a trade off between having the transmitter outside the body or having it in a warm protected pouch within the down snowsuit. We used Lithium batteries for this project as a standard measure because of the life expectancy of Lithium technology and because we were working with fairly sensitive artistes who didn’t like having the batteries changed too often – it may well have been a half mile trek to get to these actors who were in fairly precarious positions on the side of a mountain. Quite often they were secured by safety climbers, safety ropes and wearing crampons which our sound team may not have been wearing, making it hard to get to them on that rock slope. We had to plan the situations where we had to re-battery these artists for whatever scene they were about to shoot. Director Baltasar Kormakur sometimes changed his mind as to which scene he was about to shoot, so we had to be ahead of the game as far as which scene we were prepared for, and which artistes were involved in which scene during the course of the filming.

I generally have two sets of receivers in my sound kit. I have one set in a flight case or bag and another set in a rack on my sound cart. I don’t like swapping gear around from one to the other in the course of a day. I have no problem having two sets. One acts as a back-up to the other and I like to ensure that they are both maximised in terms of specification.

One of the most challenging aspects of Everest was filming in the old studio complex of Rome, where the RF is not controlled and not licensed and certainly, for a European-wide spectrum, really didn’t seem to fit into any rules or regulations. We unfortunately ended up having to hire in some local frequencies and local bands of RF which were clear and marked out by local hire companies. There was no other way of finding out that information apart from being there and getting the local guys down to check exactly which bands and frequencies were clear. This in no way affected the way the Lectrosonics gear performed, it was simply down to the logistical set up of RF planning which is becoming more common especially in and around cities. In London and busy studio complexes you need to do a very specific plan of where your radio mics will be operating and what pitfalls you might encounter during filming.

The Lectrosonics app LectroRM and Frequency Finder is an invaluable tool for frequency management and planning as far as I’m concerned. The app is very good at pinpointing what frequencies might be available in the area, and might also be useful to plan out frequencies that you have not got a licence for.

Lending support

One of the most important things for me as a production sound mixer is having a support network of engineers and supply companies. This is only coming to fruition now in the UK. 2013 was a good year for Lectrosonics to finally have a small network of suppliers that can supply kit at a good rate and, more importantly, a source of technical support. Lectrosonics has made great inroads into the UK and European market as far their specification supply and technical support over that last year or two.

There is still some development potential I feel with Lectro gear. Ideally that would be eight receivers in a 1U rack mount unit. Anyone who can do that will do very well. We are always trying to minimise the footprint of our equipment on set. The transmitters have possibly reached a point where they cannot be any smaller – they are very small, very lightweight, with very good battery light and are very robust. From an engineering point of view I think it would be very hard to beat Lectro transmitters.

What I have found over the past few years is that there are some very loyal supporters of various types of radio mic equipment but Lectrosonics has definitely shaken the industry recently in the UK and as long as they keep producing the standard of products they do it will keep them at the forefront of the market for radio mic technology.