24-Bit Dailies in a 16-Bit World

Walkie Talkies

walkie talkieSo how many walkie talkies does it take to screw up a production?

Don't get me wrong. Walkie-talkies have been a staple on film production sets for as long as I can remember. They are efficient and immediate solutions for critical communications between the set, base camp, and extended outposts.

However, they are not toys. They are not status symbols. They are tools.

Like most power tools, they can save you a lot of energy and time; but when mis-handled, they are accidents waiting to happen!

Students and novice filmmakers are notorious for wasting their scant production funds on way too many walkie talkies. I have stopped counting how many young producers clog their budgets with requests for more radios & headsets than they even have total crew members. A couple dozen radios is okay for a Hollywood episodic TV show, but not for a small student show.

So why I am so anti-radio? (I am not anti-radio, I am anti excess radio.)

Radios put out a lot of RF and a lot of physical noise. Every time that someone trips the transmit button, up to 5 full watts of RF engergy blasts through the set. Those RF blasts, albeit silent in their transmission, can "rattle" the delicate recording circuits of digital audio and video recorders. Sometimes it is an audible glitch; sometimes it can jiggle a menu setting. Depends on the gear, depends on where the radio is, depends on the gods' sense of humor. One thing is certain, though. It never happens during run throughs.... only on important takes!

Radios also put out actual sound. Squelch tones, static, loudspeaker voice, clicking, whispering/shouting into lip mics. Crew members may or may not be using headsets, but real audio often bleeds out of some earsets.

The more radios that you have on the set; the greater the risk of RF and audio noise interference!

We're not done, yet. There is also a great financial risk.

To begin with, walkie talkies cost money to rent. And they are very expensive to purchase. (Remember, filmmakers are using commercial 5 watt units, not the toy 0.1 watt "family" communicators.)

Why do I stress that you are renting costly units to buy? After all, you are renting, right?

You are renting until you lose them! Walkie talkies tend to get lost or stolen very easily on film sets. Nefarious extras and even crew members think about having their own radios for personal events, or resale on the black market. They figure that no one will miss one or two units, that they add to the units that they have swiped in the past to build up their inventory.

These units do get missed. And rental companies will ding you for "full replacement value, along with accrued rentals until time of payment". Read your contract!

"No matter. We're insured."

Read your contract. Insurance companies are not stupid. They know how common it is for walkies to go missing. One way or another, they are NOT going to pay for your loss. Walkie talkies usually have very high deductibles, or outright exclusions. "Check the very fine print on page 31 of the policy appended sub-article referring to the attached binder of the non-exclusionary exclusionary secondary terms of the fourth part, which is only published on our password protected website or available for viewing in the lobby of our international based sub-office."

Maybe if a boulder rolled down the hill and crushed the camera sound truck, they "might" be covered to an extent. But a handful of walkies and headsets reported as lost or damaged -- get your checkbook ready. We're talking several hundred dollars each, not counting the headsets.

There are some things that you can do to minimize your potential losses. To begin with, only rent as many radios as you actually need. Every crew member does not need a radio. Every department head does not need a radio. You only need enough communication so that the set can call to someone in control at the base camp, and maybe to a manned outpost or two. Most of the crew are working just a few feet away from each other!

Very often, you can just use cell phones to stay in touch with the outposts, such as PA's driving around on errands.

When you do give out radios to the crew, make sure that you have a sign out/in logsheet, AND collect a drivers license (or credit card) from everyone. Crew members tend to keep a close watch on their equipment when their drivers license or Amex card is being held hostage. Radios are not carelessly left around, nor readily passed along to anyone who asks to borrow it (and then passed along to yet another).

Very recently, a student crew did not heed this advice, and only collected "hostages" for around half of their radio inventory. That same day, one radio turned up missing. I was so tempted to laugh in their faces and singsong "I told you so." But the fact is, I did not need to. These young producers learned their first, very expensive lesson. Money that they could not afford, but had to cough up anyway. Out of their post production meager budget.


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