Dialogue and/or singing is a critical part of most acting performances, and so hearing the actors clearly is paramount. Effectively miking of actors is essential to capturing their voices in both filmed media and in live performances.
Do actors wear microphones in film theatre, and other performances? In modern professional productions (theatre, film, television, etc.) it’s nearly always the case that actors are wearing miniature wireless microphones. Wearing these mics provides a clean and consistent audio pickup while allowing the actors to move about freely.
In this article, we’ll describe the benefits of miking actors closely along with the methods and techniques to properly mic them.
What Type Of Microphones Do Actors Wear?
Consistency and proximity are the name of the game when it comes to capturing clean audio from actors. The real challenge is to do so without showing the microphone to the audience and/or camera.
In film and theatre, this is done primarily with miniature lavalier microphones (with wireless transmitters) attached to the actors and hidden from plain sight.
What is a lavalier microphone? A lavalier mic (body mic) is a miniature mic (typically an electret condenser) that is attached to performers either directly or in their clothing. These small mics are easily hidden and are standard in media/performances where regular miking techniques would interfere with visuals and movement.
For more information on lavalier microphones, check out my article How And Where To Attach A Lavalier/Lapel Microphone.
The Point Source Audio CO-8WL (pictured) is but one of the professional standard lavalier mics that actors wear on film sets and in theatre.
Connecting a lavalier mic to a wireless system allows us to effectively hide microphones on actors without inhibiting their movement whatsoever.
For more information on wireless microphones, check out my article How Do Wireless Microphones Work?
The Q5X BeltPack (pictured) is an example of a compact wireless transmitter that is easily concealable on an actor.
This transmitter sends audio wirelessly to a receiver which then connects to the audio mixer/recorder.
This audio is then recorded (in film and video settings) and/or sent to the sound system of a particular venue (in theatre settings).
Methods Of Close-Miking Actors
In order to maintain the realness of an acting performance, the microphones must remain hidden from the audience (whether in film or in theatre).
So how do we hide the microphones that actors wear? Well, audio, makeup, and wardrobe teams must cooperate and be creative to find the ideal mic placement on any given actor.
There are quite a few go-to methods to close-mic an actor, they include:
- Hiding the microphone just inside the hairline of an actor. The mic cable an be drawn down the back of the actor to connect to the wireless transmitter or the transmitter can be hidden in larger hair styles or inside headwear.
- Attaching the mic to the outside of headwear with the transmitter located inside the headwear.
- Clipping the mic just inside the collar of an actor’s shirt with the cable connected to the transmitter inside the clothing.
- Sewing the microphone (and oftentimes the transmitter) into the outfit of the actor in an inconspicuous location near the actor’s head.
- Taping the mic to the actor’s chest area.
There are many ways for an actor to effectively wear a lavalier microphone. So long as the mic placement provides a consistent and clean capture of the actor’s voice while remaining hidden from the camera and/or audience, then the placement will work.
Do Actors Absolutely Need To Wear Microphones?
In nearly every professional production that features actors (television shows, movies, theatre performances, etc.) the actors are wearing microphones.
That being said, professional-grade lavalier microphones and wireless mic systems are not easy on the budget (Broadway shows often used well over $100,000 worth of mics in a single show). Often times it’s just not possible to fit all (if any) of your actors with their own microphones.
So do actors absolutely need to wear microphones? Although individual microphones for every actor will yield the best results in terms of dialogue capture. They’re not necessarily needed in theatre or even in film.
Let’s talk about alternative ways to capture audio from actors without having them wear any microphones.
Theatre Performances Without Body Mics
Theatrical performances without body mics happen all the time. In fact, it’s uncommon to find miked up amateur actors at any school play or variety show.
We can get away without mics in smaller theatres because the acoustic design (of a proper theatre) allows a well-projected voice to reach the back of the room without need for amplification.
In larger theatres with smaller budgets, stage mics can be set up to capture the dialogue of the performers.
Placing PZMs (boundary mics) on the floor of stage and/or overhead mics in concealed areas above the stage can prove very helpful.
These stage mics provide some sound reinforcement to the performance. However, some limitations do apply:
- Stage mics (particularly floor mics) do not provide a great amount of gain-before-feedback because the mics are open and in proximity to the sound system.
- For the best and most consistent results with stage mics, the dialogue between actors should take place in close range to the microphones throughout the performance.
Because we cannot boost the gain of a stage mic to capture distant actors without risking feedback, the actors must stay close to the mics in order to have consistent levels. This greatly reduces the amount of the stage that is usable during a performance.
However, in a small budget, some sound reinforcement is often better than none.
Film/Video Performances Without Body Mics
Sometimes body mics are not an option or simply unattainable for a film/video shoot or scene.
Boom mics provide one method of capturing clean audio. These movable mics are attached to the end of a long boom pole (hence the name). The boom operator is positioned outside of the frame and holds the pole and mic out-of-frame to capture audio.
The wonderful things about boom mics is that they are fluid in their movement. If the actors are to move, the boom mic can follow them while maintaining its proximity. Similarly, if many actors are in dialogue, a single boom mic can point at whichever actor is talk and then switch to point at the next actor (so on and so forth).
Boom mics always have a lobar or “shotgun” polar pattern, which makes them highly directional. Pointing them at a source will capture the source while rejecting off-axis sounds.
For more information on the lobar/shotgun microphone polar pattern, check out my article The Lobar/Shotgun Microphone Polar Pattern (With Mic Examples).
Another option is to mount a similar shotgun mic to the camera. The camera naturally points toward the actors and so it makes a great candidate for holding a highly directional mic. In this case, the microphone will effectively pick up audio where the camera is pointing.
For my camera mic recommendations, check out my article Best Shotgun Microphones For A Camera.
Microphones (or lack thereof) may very well not capture clean enough audio for a professional-grade product.
- The lavs may sound too muddy or may have scratched against the actor’s clothing during a line.
- The boom and/or camera mic may not isolate the dialogue enough.
In this case, the actors for the film/video will often be required to perform additional dialogue recording (ADR).
ADR happens in a studio, where actors perform their lines along to the already-shot footage. Studio environment will undoubtedly be more controlled than any film set in terms of capturing clean audio.
This is often how blockbuster films capture their dialogue in the cleanest way possible.
For my recommended ADR microphones, check out my article Best Voiceover Microphones.
What is a mic boom? A mic boom typically refers to the combination of a highly directional shotgun mic at the end of a boom pole. These mics are used in film to provide moving overhead audio capture. The long boom pole allows the operator to stand out-of-frame and hold the mic above the actors’ heads out-of-frame.
For more information on mic booms, check out my article How To Properly Hold A Boom Pole And Microphone.
What is the puffy thing on a mic called? The “puffy thing” on many outdoor and film mics is generally referred to as a windscreen. The term “dead cat” is often used to describe the furry sock that goes over a windscreen. As the name suggests, these covers drastically reduce the amount of wind noise the mic will pickup in its signal.
For more information on boom microphones and windscreens, check out my article What Are Dead Cats And Why Are Outdoor Microphones Furry?