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OT Courtroom documentary

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Greg Ball
OT Courtroom documentary
on Dec 4, 2009 at 3:16:53 pm

I've posted this on the Broadcast forum, but you guys always seem to have great ideas here, so I thought
I'd post this here as well. Sorry for cross posting.

I'm planning on shooting a courtroom documentary featuring an actual trial. Trying to have it look like a 20/20 or Primetime segment. My question involves audio. How would you record optimum sound in a live courtroom. Obviously you can't put a lav on each attorney, witness and the Judge. Does anybody have experience shooting something like this? Any suggestions? Thanks very much.

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Todd Terry
Re: OT Courtroom documentary
on Dec 4, 2009 at 3:47:50 pm

Well, the good thing about that situation is that except when attorneys stand and walk around to talk, everyone in a court proceeding is pretty much speaking from fixed positions... the prosecution and defense tables, the witness stand, the judge's bench, etc. It should be fairly easy to mic those locations, either hardwired or wireless.

There will even be existing microphones in those locations most likely. You might be able to piggyback off of them.

Shotguns or parabolics might be an option, but I'm not sure they would be allowed in most courts. Not very discrete.

Some courtrooms already have fairly good audio systems (some, not all or even most though). The guy who does our audio engineering has designed sound systems for courtooms all over the country, and many of them are quite advanced. If you are lucky enough to get into one of those, then you might be able to just pull a feed from the house system.

As I said, the attorneys are the only ones likely do be doing any movement. Can they wear radio mics? Shooting in a courtroom usually requires the judge's permission, often with the stipulation that "so long as neither of the parties objects" (meaning the plaintiff and defendant). If you have everyone's blessing to shoot, then putting mics on those two might not be a problem. I've been on shoots in tons of courtrooms (in my previous life as a news reporter), and sometimes the parties were given the say, sometimes it was purely the judge's call.

If you watch a really well done court doc, such as HBO's "Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills" you'll see that many parties are wearing radio mics... obviously they had good and full participation of everyone.

It's a good thing you are thinking about audio though, it's critical. A colleague recently produced a web series of courtroom action, and while the visuals were fine the sound really sucked out loud. Made it very difficult to watch.


Todd Terry
Creative Director
Fantastic Plastic Entertainment, Inc.

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Mark Suszko
Re: OT Courtroom documentary
on Dec 4, 2009 at 4:37:14 pm

The lawyers probably won't agree to wear a wire; they need to be absolutely sure at times that what and they they are whispering at a particular time is private or off the record, and the mechanics of controlling when the mics are on and off will become too complicated politically. My opinion is you'll have to do this completely with passive mics. I like PZM type boundary mics for this because they can be easy to hide and have a huge pickup range comapared to a lav. Maybe not as good as a shotgun, but better than nothing.

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Steve Kownacki
Re: OT Courtroom documentary
on Dec 4, 2009 at 9:38:14 pm

If you could piggy-back like Terry suggests I think that would be optimum as you are not the point-man for any technical issues for what may possibly happen during the live event.

A few years ago I video'd a series of hearings (in all types of rooms from hotel rooms to boardrooms, but no courtrooms): 2 teams of 2 atty's each, a podium for presenting, and 5 hearing board people - 10 mics total + sound from computer and DVD playback. I used Shure wired desktop mics similar to these [http://www_shure_com] for each person. Generally provided great sound.

The Issues: You need a 10 channel+ mixer to adjust for each situation and mic. Mics have a limited pickup pattern, about 18" at best for the ones I used. I was also providing house sound, so feedback was always in the back of my mind. Or are you just concerned with your recording? These mics also have mute switches on them so when attys didn't want anything heard they would have a tendency to mute and then NOT turn them back on- so have a runner to do that for you or lock out the mutes; the other great things is they would cover the mic with their hand - thinking we didn't hear them, well, we heard them along with alot of thunderous booming as they hit the mic. That noise would also go to the house sound and the mixed recording occasionally drowning out important dialogue from another presenter. Or they would turn the mics around or push them away - again the need for a runner to put them back in place. (Be sure to share this with your client - in a live courtroom I'm sure a runner would be frowned upon). I think I rented each for $30/day/mic plus mixer, engineer, etc. Not cheap, but they could afford to do it right, I think the least expensive one there was $400/hr. I've also used PZMs with success, and you can probably get away with fewer mics overall, but still take a soundperson along.

And if you're mixing to 2 channels any issues you get you have to live with. Since you have limited control on the situation, you need to find ways to take control. Find a great audio person with a multi-channel mobile recording capability and track each mic separately.

I think this situation calls for what is discussed here very frequently - talk with your client and be honest about what you can do for a given amount of money and be open about the things you can't control. Expressing the complexity now of what needs to be done is far easier than trying to explain your way out of an attorney coughing fit that drowns out the most important audio of the shoot. You hate to have to say I told you so to them, but things happen. This is why I don't do weddings. Oh, an remember the backup to the backup. At least 3 extra mics, 10 cables, etc. And you'll need LOTS of setup time too.

And think about the edit too, what's going to make that process easier? And how long is the whole trial going to last - hours, days, weeks? That's lots of footage to cope with.

I see you have over 1400 posts, if you fill out your profile we'll know what level of production you're trying to accomplish.


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Scott Carnegie
Re: OT Courtroom documentary
on Dec 7, 2009 at 3:34:20 pm

You might be able to tie into the building existsing audio system, and put up a few room mics for ammbience.

Media Production Services
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

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Tom Dunn
Re: OT Courtroom documentary
on Dec 8, 2009 at 10:54:33 pm

Years ago I did a lot of work for Court TV in LA when they were covering lots of 'Live" trials. This is what we always did for audio.

Most of the courtrooms we worked in had hard wired mics for the judge, witness and attorneys, and most people involved in the trials were conditioned to speak into the mics. The only exception was attorneys who walked around while questioning witnesses. We would attach our own lavaliere mics to the bottom of the hard wired mics and run them into a mixer. If there were no mics at the attorney table, we would use boundary mics/PZMs. We often would place a couple of shotguns pointing into the area an attorney may walk around in while doing questioning. This setup gave us very good coverage for most situations, IF we had a competent mixer working the board.

As has already been mentioned, the judge controls his courtroom, and may be very welcoming to extensive audio setup, but he may not. I have experience many of both.

Tom Dunn
Director Digital Media Production
JP Catholic University
San Diego, CA

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