CFVA Interview with Jeff Knudsen
Dealing with live sound is always a challenge, but when you throw in brutal elements, difficult terrain, and grueling physical exertion, it becomes even more demanding. For Jeff Knudsen, a Denver native and sound mixer, working over a decade with some of the biggest names in the business in Los Angeles and New Mexico, these challenges are more readily overcome with experience and knowledge. After this stint away from Colorado, Jeff recently moved back to Denver, with an impressive list of credits where he has fine-tuned his craft, including Breaking Bad, The Last Stand, Crazy Horse and No Country for Old Men, among others. Jeff also had the opportunity, while in New Mexico, to work with some of the best local sound mixers around, in particular Bayard Carey (The Missing, Crazy Heart), David Brownlow (Hoosiers, The Spirit) and Darryl Frank (Breaking Bad, The Last Stand), as well as the big Hollywood sound mixers who would come in to town, such as David Macmillan (Speed, Twilight, Blades of Glory). While working in Los Angeles, Jeff was able to work on a wide range of projects, from commercials to documentaries to ENG/EPK. Jeff credits his success to these years away from Colorado, learning from incredible talent, and is excited to be working back in Colorado.
For our newer readers, explain some of the differences between the multiple job titles when hired on set (sound mixer, boom operator, utility sound tech, etc.).
The sound mixer on a production has a lot of weight on their shoulders. They must deliver a quality product with clean dialogue, even in the most hostile sound environments. They’re expected to provide all of the sound gear on a production, as well as pick the finest crew they can find. These folks are basically chained to their sound carts, finger on the button at all times, and they take home the stresses of the day.
The boom operator is the sound department representative on-set. The boom keeps up with the needs of the actors, their wardrobe, the Director’s wants for any particular scene and the Assistant Director’s schedule for shooting. They must keep up with the pace of the production, plan for set ups, be in constant communication with the Director of Photography and the Camera Operators, so they can get as close to the action as possible, without being IN the action. They also have the most physically demanding job. Holding that pole overhead is only part of the workout a boom gets on a daily basis. They’ve got to run with actors in action, often running backwards at full-speed or hurdling cables without looking down.
Tell us what your typical job duties and day looks like as a sound mixer on a set.
On a typical day we’ll arrive early for breakfast, unload gear and talk with the AD staff about the first scene to be shot. This way, we know where to hide out and avoid being caught in the wide shots. Then, we’ll set up the record deck, jam slates and cameras, and we’ll wait for the talent to arrive, so we can all rehearse.
What kind of equipment do you use, or prefer to use?
Lately I’ve seen a lot of Sound Devices recorders and mixers being used; it’s also the gear that I have and trust. Microphone choice varies per crew, but I prefer the Sennheiser 50 and 60, as well as the Sanken shotguns and lavaliers.
What kind of information do you want to be aware of before beginning on a project (weather, location, equipment needed, etc)?
This is a business of information; we need any and all information we can get regarding what’s to come, where we’re shooting, who’ll be in it and what’s up first. That’s why relationships are the most important part of the job. Whether or not you’re in the right place at the right time, with the right gear is completely dependent upon who you’re getting your information from. You have to be able to sniff out the disinformation. That being said, the two best people to build relationships with immediately are the Director and the First AD.
Who do you report to when on site (director, producer, etc)? And how do you deal with a difficult supervisor?
We don’t really “report” to anyone, we simply show up, everyone will know you’re there when you push your carts onto set and take up space that someone else thought was theirs.
As far as difficult supervisors go, “Yes Sir, Sir!” is always the best policy. Kill them with kindness.
What are some of the elements you enjoy on a major set vs. a low-budget indie set?
You never know if a show is going to have good organization or not, whether big budget or small, but the professionalism and experience of the crew on the bigger shows helps us all to see through moments of confusion. Probably the best part of having a sizeable budget is having enough crew to cover what needs to be done. Not enough can be said about having the full three-person sound crew, it’s absolutely necessary for expert-level production sound.
What have been some of your favorite experiences in your line of work and why?
Watching a great actor make a character come to life is always exciting. They bring the energy to the show. When Jeff Bridges set down his guitar, danced with a woman in the crowd, then jumped back up on stage in Crazy Heart, it was spur-of-the-moment, he blew life into that scene. My favorite thing about Bryan Cranston is that he’ll be telling the crew a great story, usually quite a funny one, the Director will call action, and Bryan’s immediately in character. When “cut” is called, he’ll give us the punch line, like he never stopped the story. He’s a true master, and very entertaining for everyone on set. He helps us all get through the grueling days.
What is it like to work in Colorado with local talent? And how do you like working in Colorado vs. other states?
It’s always nice to get to work on the corner of the streets you grew up on. I’m excited to bring my experience home to Colorado, I’ve missed being home. But I believe it was essential for me to leave in order to get that experience. That will remain true until we get some real tax incentives here, then maybe our locals won’t have to leave town to work in the majors.
Being a member of the CFVA, have you been able to connect with other film industry people that you may not have met otherwise?
While in New Mexico, I worked on Toby Keith’s first movie Beer for My Horses, that’s where I met Donald Zuckerman, he was one of our producers. Having been gone for eleven years, and only moving back less than a year ago, I still have a long way to go to feel fully in the network here. I have met some wonderful people since returning, and some excellent crew, but I think I’ve only scratched the surface. I’m excited to get into the groove, and to make a piece of it my own.
Jeff is currently working on a series of music videos for Silver Halide Pictures, as well as a show for the Cooking Channel with High Noon Entertainment. He is active on the Colorado Film and Video Association Production Guide and the best way to contact him is by phone or e-mail. His website is http://www.jeffknudsen.com
Chris Joye is a Denver-based film and television composer and multi-instrumentalist. A dual-major graduate of Berklee College of Music in Film Scoring and Bass Performance, he has credits in numerous feature films and documentaries, television and web commercials, and has music being licensed with companies such as Red Bull Media House UK, The New Yorker, MTV, and VH1. He is currently scoring a short, Colorado-based film Wrong Side Up [http://www.dustbowlmovie.com]and gearing up to score a feature documentary, also based in Colorado, Programming Hope [http://programminghope.com]. Contact him through the Production Guide today.