Fred Ginsburg: Q&A with a Hollywood Sound Pro – Part 3

We’re excited to bring you part three of our interview with “Hollywood Sound Specialist” Fred Ginsburg. If you missed part two of our interview you can read it here.

Fred Ginsburg Audio-Technica NAB

Fred addresses the crowd at Audio-Technica’s booth at NAB 2015.

A-T: What has been one of your favorite projects and why?

FG: It had to be the time that Orson Welles apologized to me. I was working on a filmed documentary piece for German television that revolved around interviews with this cinematic legend.

Fred Ginsburg Audio-TechnicaPrior to the shoot, our entire crew was strictly instructed that Orson Welles was a perfectionist as well as extremely well versed in the technology. If he dictated any changes on the set, we were to comply without question.

We set up for one particular shot, with him in his favorite booth at his favorite restaurant. I positioned my boom operator off to one side, which happened to be the key light side.

Orson carefully gauged the camera, lighting, and sound. After looking around a few times, he called for a hold and motioned to me to come over to him for a consult.

“Your boom man is on the wrong side. He should be stationed over there, coming in from the fill side of the lighting in order to lessen any shadows.”

I relayed the instruction to my boom operator and he now stood on the fill side of the setup. He looked at me puzzled, and I just shrugged. We were not to question Mr. Welles.

Orson inspected the set once more.

Again, he called for a hold. He motioned for the boom operator to go back to his original spot. Then Orson shocked everybody when he politely bowed in my direction.

“Fred, I sincerely apologize. You were right all along with where you put your boom man. I was so caught up in looking at the lighting that I forgot about all the mirrors around me. I should have learned a long time ago not to question a professional who obviously wouldn’t be here if he didn’t know his business. I should have let you do your job, and I am sorry.”

He invited me to dine with him at his table during lunch. Which was pretty flattering considering that he chased our producer and director away to another table, reminding them, “If you want to ask me anything, it is five thousand dollars a question. That is how I make a living these days.”

And, yes, he did graciously let me and the assistant cameraman ask him anything we wanted, no charge.

A-T: So many people look to you for guidance, but what is something about your work that most people don’t know?

FG: To begin with, I started in this industry as an aspiring cinematographer and editor, which happened to be my specializations throughout undergraduate and graduate school.

I didn’t get that heavy into sound until I began working in general film equipment sales out here in Hollywood during the late 1970s, where I had the opportunity to be personally tutored by the factory reps of major audio companies. I also began picking the brains of every sound mixer who walked through the door!

I figured that I already knew a lot about editing and camera work, so I needed to master location audio. I believed that in order to eventually become a feature director, one had to fully understand every phase of production. Remember, I was fresh out of film school with two degrees but only a lot of “East Coast” 16 mm experience.

After several months, I began taking some leave of absences from work in order to freelance and get some more advanced hands-on experience. My boss, Jack Pill, also believed that the more I knew, the more valuable an asset I would be to his company.

Even though I was not even in the sound union yet, I managed to impress the head of the production sound department at 20th Century Fox to let me “intern” on The Love Boat for a few weeks!

So, flip a lot of calendar pages, and now I was no longer an audio sales specialist, but was earning a living as a freelancer. I worked a lot as assistant camera operator under the legendary Ted Allan, noted for his classic B&W still portraits of Hollywood legends. I also edited soundtracks, mixed pre-dubs, along with some sound design on a few big features including Used Cars, Caveman, and Platoon.

A lot of people are not aware that Platoon was originally shot and edited non-union by Oliver Stone, but his mentor Blake Edwards arranged for an “anonymous” union post-production team to re-edit the film.

I filled in my slow periods by writing advertising copy for major equipment suppliers in our industry, including Arriflex and Matthews grip equipment. When I was an up-and-coming mixer hanging out with the veteran Hollywood mixers at Skyline, I offered my skills in marketing in exchange for learning from a lot of the greats.

My biggest break came when I was working as a second unit assistant cameraman on a feature film for Universal being shot on location in the Caribbean, and they needed someone to mix sound on third unit. They liked my tracks, and promoted me to second unit sound. On a bunch of occasions, they even had me mix first unit!

I remained in sound as much as possible after that. By the way, my work during Caveman got me into the sound union.

Most of my work was mixing national TV commercials or being a short term (an episode or two) first unit replacement or second unit mixer on episodic TV series. Even scored an Emmy!

I was flexible. As the saying goes, “been there, done that.”

I worked on corporate presentations, many of which spent more money on production than some commercials! Government stuff, law enforcement, even special projects for the military, which I cannot go into detail on. Some documentary and ENG [electronic news gathering] stuff for CNN and the networks. Medical stuff. Pretty much every genre out there. If the client was serious about wanting good sound, and willing to pay for a good crew and gear, then I was game.

During a few production lulls, I had been recommended as a communications consultant for a private security and investigations agency. They formed a special unit consisting of film industry technicians and actors, thoroughly trained us, and had us go in undercover on some major Hollywood productions. We would generally be on the set in the guise of a “second unit” or such, and were actually contracted by the studios to either protect politically vocal celebrities or to investigate allegations of illegal activity. Being bona fide film people, not only could we fit right in, but we could also spot individuals who didn’t! Our mics and lenses were often trained on spectators behind the “action” rather than the scene itself. And yes, we were armed, just in case.

To Be Continued!

Interested in learning more from Ginsburg? Check back soon for Part 4 of our Q&A with Fred Ginsburg.

Audio-Technica

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