Videojournalist Etiquette: Microphones Part One

Put yourself in the position of one of your subjects. There’s a cameraman coming at you – both hands out – holding a microphone. He’s aiming at your chest. Time to panic, especially if you’re female. What IS this guy up to?

Face it – we’re in a strange business. We ask personal questions, get answers from people that they might never confide to family members, and we constantly invade personal space. And there are times we may forget how strange our actions really are. We walk around with thirty pounds of technology on our shoulders, sometimes forgetting how it looks because it is so much a part of us. And we try to draw others into our fantasy world.

Nowhere does it get stranger than when we mike an interview. We need good sound, but the fantasy side of the business requires that we hide the mike so the viewer can watch our stories without seeing cables. So in my time I’ve reached up the backs and fronts of both male and female subjects, dropped cables down the backs of their pants/skirts and retrieved cables from said locations.

Obviously I prefer shotgun and stick mikes, but they really don’t allow freedom of movement like a well-concealed lav (clip on) mike. So how do you tell someone you are about to really invade their personal space?

My first preference is to avoid personal contact – this works if the subject has a jacket or suit. Just clip the lav to the inner lapel and run the transmitter and cable down and clip on the waist. But sometimes circumstances require you to place your gear under the subject’s shirt or other clothing – where you have to get personal.

First have the right attitude – be objective. As I walk up to the subject, I say, “Excuse me, but I have to attach this mike to you. We need to conceal the cables, so may I drop it down the back of your shirt?” Generally I am ready to perform the act at this point and most of the time I get the nod of consent. As I begin my maneuvers, I explain what I am doing at each step, so that there are no suprises. And here it is:

I’m pulling the back of your shirt away and dropping the wireless transmitter (or cable for the mike). It may feel a bit cold.
Now I have to reach under the bottom or your shirt to retrieve the transmitter/cable. Next I’m going to have to clip the transmitter to your pants (or put in a pocket or whatever action I need to do).
All right, now I have to adjust the mike. Let me clip it on your collar and hide the cable. I may need to use a bit of tape to make certain it doesn’t slip.
Great – that’s it. Could you talk for a minute so I can get a sound check?

Get the idea? Talking the subject through the process educates them and tells them exactly what you are doing as you do it and there are no surprises. Keeping your voice objective removes any tension they might have that you have other motives. Kind of like a doctor as she does an intimate exam. You have a job to do and you’re a pro.

Sometimes the subject may not be comfortable with you placing the mike – so you have to let them do it. Just explain why you need to hide the mike and cable and tell them what to do. You’ll probably have to position the mike before doing the sound check.

Retrieving the mike is pretty easy – tell your subject you are going to pull the transmitter cable out and then either unclip the mike and gently pull it down the back of the shirt or pull the transmitter up the back of the shirt.

Why not have the subject do it every time? First – they are amateurs and I don’t want them damaging my wireless gear. It’s expensive. If they place the mike, most of them won’t place it properly and I have to put it where it needs to be once they’ve placed the transmitter. I can do it in half the time or less than they can. This is especially important in news – time is critical.

News photogs all have at least one fun story about wireless mikes. I’ve found that people who are “professional interviews” – politicians and others who are interviewed frequently, often begin unbuttoning their shirts when they see the mike coming.

Shotgun mikes and stick mikes require a different approach. More on that later.

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