Saltwater to Electronic Equipment Is like Dying

By Butler, John | American Cinematographer, February 1977 | Go to article overview

Saltwater to Electronic Equipment Is like Dying


Butler, John, American Cinematographer


Despite devastating effects of seawater, miniaturized, custom-built recording unit endures to provide sync-sound for every foot of film

It is almost impossible to record continuous sync sound on a moving boat. On a sailboat, it's easier - no man-made noise. But the sea, the sound of the waves, wind, saltwater spray, rust, humidity - all these things can cause failure to microphones and recorders. This is the time when you put sound gear away. As for a storm, what sound or dialogue can you record that can be used anyway . . . .?

I discussed with our producer/director, Dale Bell, the formidable problems of keeping the recording equipment dry. We could not risk our good equipment recording in these conditions, was informed that I was to shoot syno sound in any kind of weather, 24 hours a day, day or night - "I don't care how you do it, but do it!"

The voyage canoe Hokule'a presented an impossible situation. It was an open double-hull canoe with a platform between the two hulls without shelter - not even for the crew. Hence, there was no way to keep the equipment dry.

Our first trial sail was to Kauai the next day. We left the mainland with all conventional sound recording equipment. We expected this voyage of Hokule'a to Kauai to take a day or so in which we could test our conventional sound gear. We had plastic bags to keep our equipment dry.

Ryder Sound and Larry Johnson had spent some time putting together a mixer to be used with the SN recorder, knowing that the Nagra IV would be too large and bulky to carry around the neck at sea. We elected to use an 815 mike that Ryder Sound built for us. The Nagra IV system was to be used on land only, for standard documentary filming. In short order we discovered that our plastic bags were not enough to keep the SN mixer or the SN recorder dry. We had problems of changing tapes and the wind noise was too great for the 815 windscreens. The wireless receiver gave us moisture problems, too. Our past experience with this equipment had worked well. All we had to do was keep it dry and we could get good sound. But our editor could not find slates, and mike taps were not enough to do the job of slating on the double-hulled canoe.

Our next trip to Hawaii was to be our proving ground. For our new slating system, we now had a waterproof case for the SN and mixer, thanks to Mike Schaeffer and the NGS Special Projects Department which had built underwater housing for cameras and an SN recorder. We now had a waterproof system. For slating, we chose to use Cody's wireless start-and-stop system and the old standby 815 with new windscreen. Our sail back to Oahu from Kauai through the Kauai Channel turned out to be the proving seas for the Polynesian Voyaging Society and the film crew. The canoe swamped. Again, we got our list to count our sound casualties, lick our wounds and find out who's winning - the sea or us.

Electronic equipment is destroyed by saltwater. Immediate effects are to be heard in frequency response, pattern and sensitivity. The deterioration by rust continues unabated. With some help and proper waterproofing, these problems could be solved. As a result of the PVS Board of Inquiry findings as to why the canoe swamped, the number of people on the canoe was reduced, and we could only have one cameraman aboard. (Our original plans were for soundman, cameraman and producer/director.)

We began again. Record sync sound, double-system without a soundman. This was fine for the cameraman - no microphones in his shots. At last the cameraman could shoot without worrying about a soundman telling him, "Camera noise." Again our producer, Dale Bell, spoke. "I want sync sound double-system on every foot of film - and it better be good!"

Roy Brubaker, Director of the Film Department, told Joe Seamans (Assistant Cameraman), Norris Brock (Cameraman), and myself, "You have 30 days to solve the problems. Let me know if I can help." If only we could have replied, "You solve the problems. …

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