Los Angeles Production Sound Mixer Moe Chamberlain - his career and how he got there

Aaton-Transvideo editorial - Moe Chamberlain interview - January 2021
Mel Noonan, StylusMC, interviews Moe Chamberlain for Aaton-Digital

Me at 19 when I was still tramping around the USA trying to emulate Jack Kerouac

Was there anything that you can remember from your early life, growing up, that might have led you towards your present career?
The only thing I can think of is, when I was a kid, looking at the behind the scenes photos on the Beatles albums where they were all sitting in the studio working on their stuff, with the jumble of microphones, preamps, cables and stands that were over their heads, and they were all wearing headphones. it just fascinated me, beyond belief, and I don't know why it did, but it may or may not have influenced me. I never really was into recording or gear or anything like that as a young kid but I did have a fascination with looking at those photos. So maybe it had an influence.

When you were a child did you have a music player of any sort?
No, I listened to music on an old fashioned stereo console that was not even what you would consider a stereo player today. It was an old Zenith, a giant console that had a record player in it. The speakers were on the sides and the records stored underneath. It was pretty cool.
The first stereo I actually had was I think in 1977.

So did you buy your own records eventually?
Oh, yes. I remember the first one was a 45, The Ballad of John and Yoko when it came out in 1969.

Then you went travelling?
I did, I was 19 or 20, and I hitchhiked all around the country doing odd jobs in various cities.

Photo#1 Me at 19 when I was still tramping around the USA trying to emulate Jack Kerouac

Were you enjoying yourself?
At times, sure. I had read Jack Kerouac's book 'On the Road' and I kind of fashioned myself like him, as a traveling writer, so I'd take odd jobs and work on my stories wherever I went; all to no avail, I was completely unsuccessful. I was not a published author or anything like that.

Do you still have what you wrote?
Of course, absolutely. It's kind of embarrassing to look back on.

Have you got any anecdotes from those years?
None that I really want to talk about. A lot of cold, cold days on the side of the road, trying to get a ride. You didn't see many people hitchhiking back then. People would pick you up and say, “What are you doing out there? Only reason I picked you up is ‘cause I felt bad for you.”

Don Coufal and I in China shooting Mission Impossible III

So you eventually decided you'd had enough of that. What’s next?
My brother went to USC film school, University of Southern California, and he got a job working as a boom operator in Hollywood, and eventually as a sound mixer. He would always tell me that my personality was made for the film business, but every time I visited the film sets, to me it was as boring a prospect as I'd ever seen. You sat around for hours and you did very little and then they'd roll the camera. It just seemed extremely boring to me. I never wanted to get involved and I didn't want anybody to hand me a job like that. It just didn't feel honourable to accept a job just because your brother had a job. I wanted to do it on my own. But, I eventually got tired of being on the road and striving to be some sort of artist that I wasn't. What I realized about writing was reading any amount of literature doesn't necessarily translate into becoming a good writer. It just means you love literature and you want to be an artist, but it's not always on the cards.

So did you read a lot of books? Did that get you interested in literature?
Before I dropped out I had majored in American literature. That was my college major. I still read a lot. In fact, all my kids are readers. My daughter's in college right now and she's studying to be a writer, I guess some of it rubbed off.

Photo#2 Don Coufal and I in China shooting Mission Impossible III

Then you got this sound related job. What was that?
I worked as an intern for a sound transfer house. It was transferring the day's work from quarter inch tape that was recorded on a Nagra, one-to-one, to a 35 millimeter mag stripe film. The company was North Star Media and it was owned by three people who were very influential in my career, Jeff Wexler, Don Coufal and Roger Danielle. They all knew my brother and that's how I got the internship. So complete nepotism in that regard.

Internship, you don't get paid. Is that right?
You don't get paid at first. Then once you've proven yourself, or once they've decided that you're worth keeping around, they pay you, and I got paid a minimum wage but I learned a lot. It was like a paid education.

So whereabouts from there?
Through the company, just by the nature of the job you ended up meeting a lot of sound mixers because you had to talk to them all the time. You had to call to confirm certain things, and through that process I also ended up working on a lot of student films, which allowed me to learn the craft of boom operating, and actually it was what I really wanted to do. So I met a lot of sound mixers and they, one by one, would occasionally throw me a bone and give me a job on a low budget project. And from there I learned my craft of boom operating.

Moe Chamberlain, Shooting a commercial with Joe Pytka

When did you move to being a sound mixer?
Once I had established myself as a boom operator I was doing quite well as a single person. Then I got married and my wife and I had kids and the opportunity presented itself that if I wanted to become a sound mixer, I could. And the most logical path for me at that point was to mix commercials, because that's where the money was, and that's where I had a lot of contacts through my brother and various other people that I had met over the years. So when it came time to declare myself a mixer and buy some gear, commercials was the path for me and it turned into a pretty good run. I've been with it for over 30 years now.

I believe that you started off with a very slim equipment list, and you gradually built it up over time?
Yes, I started with a little four track Cooper mixer, one HHB DAT machine, and as my backup, I had an old 4.2 Nagra, and very little else. A couple of microphones, no radio mics, mostly second hand stuff.

Photo#3: Shooting a commercial with the legendary Joe Pytka on a helipad on top of a building in downtown LA. Joe out front, I’m the guy in while shorts. Boom operator is to the right of Joe, Alister Mann

Okay. So when did you get to hear about Aaton?
Well I knew of Aaton through their film cameras first because one of the directors I worked with early in my career as a boom operator, and for the last 30 years as a sound mixer, was Joe Pytka, a very famous commercials director. He used Aaton 35mm cameras, based on their ergonomics. He was a director cameraman and he liked to work handheld with the Aaton. He also famously hated any kind of slates or clappers. He didn't like clapping sticks to synchronize the sound because to him they broke up the rhythm of a scene. Joe had a huge temper, he was a legendary guy.
Aaton developed a synchronization system, and I learned a lot about Aaton through synchronization. They had a device called Origin C and it was a method of burning the time code between the image and the perforations of the 35mm film, so time code was burnt along the side of it. That was matched with the time code on the sound recorders, tape or whatever, and the film and sound were jammed together.

Then Aaton announced their sound recorder, the CantarX-1. I was very much interested because I'd read of it in the trade magazines, but it didn't come out immediately. However, we needed to move on from tape and the first company to come out with a digital sound recorder was Zaxcom, and so I bought their Deva. Even though I was aware of, and actually physically held the Cantar X-1 and the X-2 when they came out, I was already invested in Zaxcom.

That's an expensive bit of kit.
Yes. It was a lot. They were similar in price to the Aaton and since I had invested so much in the Zaxcom, I was not going to go with both. It wasn't until 2017 when the Aaton CantarMini came out, that's when I bought the Mini and I switched over, and haven't looked back since. And now I have just bought the X-3. So now I'm going all Cantar all the time!

Moe Chamberlain, IBM commercial circa 1990

What's the experience been like dealing with Aaton-Digital?
There's no company that I've ever worked with in this business that's come close to their responsiveness. Just this morning, on a Sunday morning, Jacques had emailed me an answer to a question I had given him just a few hours earlier. It's just unbelievable, they're so very responsive. They actually take the users' suggestions to heart and not just give lip service to it, they actually implement the changes to their software, and the revisions, and how they make things.
It's a very ergonomic design. Their cameras were, and their recorders are very, very much made for to be used by the user, by the sound mixer or the cameraman, whoever's using them. They're very much made for us, as opposed to just a box with buttons. They're very much built for us to use in the field, which is what they are, right there, the tools to be used to make films. They're great.

On the Cantar recorders, are there things on there that really stand out as making your job easier?
Absolutely. Well, first of all, even though it can be used for music recording or any kind of recording, it's really specific to the film industry. For example, these days, you have a digital imaging technician, the DIT on set, and they're constantly coming up to you and wanting your files. Well, it records on up to four different media, so I can just hand them a thumb drive and continue working. He brings the thumb drive back and I fill it up again and give it back on him. It's just so easy and so intuitive, and to have four different sources being recorded simultaneously blows your mind. And then, you know, with Dante and everything else, when you can put 64 tracks on the thing, it's almost unbelievable, but it is made for us.

And yes, some things are quirky that it takes time to wrap your head around. But once you do, you realize it's a completely logical system. Americans are very straightforward. You look from left to right. That's why the Zaxcom, and those various other Sound Devices or the radio mics or whatever, they're very straightforward and simple. The French way of looking at things is a little different. At first glance it can seem convoluted, but once you delve into it, and it doesn't take long, it's completely logical and it makes more sense the Aaton way. Once you get your hands on it and actually start pressing buttons and going through the menu structure, it's very, very logical.

Photo#4: IBM commercial, circa 1990. This is how we did multiple track recording (ISO tracks) on location prior to portable multiple recorders such as Cantar and Deva. We had to either chain as many 2 track DAT or Nagra recorders together as needed, or in this case, a Tascam DA98 8 track machine with a 2 track DAT mix

Moe Chamberlain Production Sound Mixer cart

I know that the CantarX-3 and Mini have been very successful in Europe, but I haven't had much feedback from Americans who are using it. Do you think it's becoming popular in the US?
Well, among the high end people it's taken over as far as I can tell. That's not a scientific sampling of American sound mixers, but just from my own personal observations the X-3 seems to be the recorder of choice now for the high end. A few years back, I'd say Zaxcom had had the high end market wrapped up. But they've dropped the ball on their most recent recorder. I might have gone with it had they made something that was equivalent to the progression they had promised.
Having said that, there's a middle and lower end market that's sort of taking over our industry, so I don't know how that bodes for the future. But I do know that the high-end group seems to be going for the CantarX-3 for the ergonomics and the understanding of the workflow.

I understand that you had been talking to Jacques about when the Melody2 was coming out. Is that right?
Yes I think it's due to come out in February 2021.

Photo#5: Moving my cart around the golf course on a commercial shoot, CantarMini on board

It adds more inputs. Is that its purpose?
Yes. It has two preamps. So two inputs that are accessed through the digital port.
So on my Mini I've got six inputs, six analog inputs. And that could be limiting in some circumstances, so to be able to add two more analog channels with just this little tiny preamp is pretty cool. It's a Cantar preamp, which is the equivalent of a Nagra preamp as far as the quality and the sound, the warmth of it.

Me and my brother Crew, Disney Studios, Burbank, California

Photo#6: Me and my brother Crew, Disney Studios, Burbank, California. Crew got me started in the world of sound recording

Process trailer, shooting one of the many car commercials I have done, downtown Los Angeles

Photo#7: Process trailer, shooting one of the many car commercials I have done, downtown Los Angeles

Fake snow in downtown LA on 4th street bridge. Don Coufal preparing to boom

Photo#8: Fake snow in downtown LA on 4th street bridge. Don Coufal preparing to boom

How we roll sometimes. Doing a driving shot -the actor was driving, the camera and director behind, and me in the back

Photo#9: How we roll sometimes. Doing a driving shot -the actor was driving, the camera and director behind, and me in the back

My current cart setup with the CantarMini. I will now be replacing the Mini with my new CantarX3

So Moe, from what you've said, you've done some movies and you've done a huge number of commercials.
That's correct. And a small amount of television.

Do you enjoy one more than the other?
When I first got into the business, all I wanted to do was work on films, on movies, and a certain type of movie. I mean cinema, as opposed to the big blockbusters. I like small, intimate films. It's what I would do in a heartbeat today, but I've spent a lot of my time doing commercials. For me it was the time-money ratio. I made a lot of money and I got to spend a lot of time at home watching my kids grow up, 20 years. It became a trade-off of lifestyle. Even though I love movies and I would prefer to do that, I also saw a lot of marriages break up because guys were always on the road working on movies for three months or six months at a stretch. I never wanted that, and, you know, I've been happily married for 25 years and I've got three grown up children, so it was a really a good trade-off for me.

When you're doing a commercial is it just typically a few days?
It could be anywhere from one to six days, occasionally longer, but one to six days traditionally, and most commonly about three days, and they're all in town for the most part. Sometimes you go to the local location. Sometimes you go away for a week or two. But it's not like being gone for six months on a movie.

Of the movies you did, do any stand out as being really enjoyable to do?
Yes, absolutely. There was a movie called 'Arizona Dream', filmed by Emir Kusturica here in the U S, one of Johnny Depp's first movies with Faye Dunaway and Jerry Lewis in it. It was probably the most enjoyable film to work on ever. It was fantastic.This was later in Faye Dunaway's career, she played the older woman and Johnny Depp was the young stud. It was a hell of a lot of fun. It's one of the greatest experiences of my life.

Photo#10: My current cart setup with the CantarMini. I will now be replacing the Mini with my new CantarX3

Was that shot in and around Los Angeles?
No, it was shot in Douglas, Arizona. It's basically the armpit of the world it's right on the border with Mexico, a terrible place, but it was a fantastic experience. I've worked on a lot of bigger films and I've worked on a lot more successful films, but I enjoyed that one more. It was really embracing cinema. I also worked on part of a Jim Jarmusch movie called 'Night on Earth', early in my career. That was a lot of fun because they're filmmakers as opposed to big time Hollywood directors. These guys really care about cinema, and for the most part, with those kind of films the cast and crew are very small. And so it's a very intimate process as opposed to these giant films or like this giant TV show I'm working on now. You don't know half the people, there's so many crew members and it's like a giant corporation affair. That's one of the things I like about commercials, the intimacy of it. There are only a handful of people making them and certain directors can be a lot of fun to work with.

I certainly recognise how important good sound is in a movie but do you come across directors who really don't pay much attention to it?
Yes, absolutely. You definitely have those who care about sound and they give you the freedom to do your job and do it well. They give you their support because it all comes from the top down. If the director cares about sound, the rest of the crew has to care about sound. If he doesn't care about sound, they'll just continue to make a noise on set, park the generator right next to the set, people talking during scenes or whatever. If the top guy doesn't care, who am I, I'm just a crew member. If the director cares, then you get a lot of help. So yes, some guys are great. Joe Pytka is one of them, he lets me do my job. That's one of the reasons I like working with him.

Moe Chamberlain booming on Arizona Dream

Photo#11: Me booming on Arizona Dream, my first movie. 1989-90. Johnny Depp pedalling, Faye Dunaway in white. I’d say this was the most enjoyable movie I’ve ever been involved in. I had a great time

Shooting a documentary, using the CantarMini in Monument Valley. October 2020

Photo#12: Shooting a documentary, using the CantarMini in Monument Valley. October 2020, one of the many iconic places where the Cantar has proven itself invaluable

Moe Chamberlain working in confined spaces where the Cantars come into their own

Photo#13: We work in many different confined spaces where the Cantars come into their own

Just arrived! My new Aaton CantarX3

Do you have any anecdotes from all those years that you'd like to put into print, sound related or not?
Sure. We were doing a commercial in New York City. Joe Pytka, had flown me out to do this big Hallmark commercial. Back then we were recording on DAT and the recorder I had was an HHB. It was freezing cold shooting in Central Park, waiting for Joe to show up on set because he had flown in from Los Angeles. Joe arrives and sets up the shot. It's a big long walk and talk with these two actors, very intimate. Hallmark is a greeting card company, so it's very sappy commercial. So it was the big long walk and talk and they're going along, and we’re doing the shot.

All of a sudden my recorder starts to flash 'dewpoint', there was a condensation problem due to the freezing conditions and the machine was failing. So I had to tell Joe I don't have the sound and he starts to scream bloody murder. “I drive all this way from Los Angeles and what the hell do I get for it?” He's yelling and screaming “What are we going to do?” And I said, “Well, I've got a Nagra in the truck. Let me go and run and get it.” So I ran and get the Nagra, and as I'm coming back, I realize that we don't have any way to sync the shot because I didn't bring a time code slate.

There was no time code to put on both. So as I came up to him, I said “Well, you know, the Nagra is an old one, it doesn't have time code”. And he says, “Well how the hell are we going to do this? What are you going to do?” And I said, “Well, just after you call action, just have the actors clap their hands in front of their face once, and then they'll be able to sync image and sound”. So he tells the actors, “Okay, we're going to do this real quick. My stupid sound man from Los Angeles says you have to clap your hands in front of your face before we roll”. And so we did and it worked, but the point here, the moral of that story, is always have a reliable backup. And from then on, I never used the HHB DAT machine again.

Photo#14: Just arrived! My new Aaton CantarX-3

I meant to ask you about Covid. Has your work been interrupted by Covid?
It's completely affected us. We shut down in March with the rest of the world pretty much. Our industry shut down completely. There was zero work through the summer really, and then the producers and the unions got together and formulated a plan of going forward. We've been quite busy since then, but with a lot of protections. We have to get tested before we go to the set and then we get tested on the set and we have to wear masks and do all of that, of course. And then we try to distance and we sanitize equipment. So it's been very interruptive.

Mel: Moe, we've come the end of the interview. At the start you said I wouldn't find much to write about but it's been fascinating to hear where you started and how you got to where you are now. Thank you for sparing the time to talk to us.