Notes from the Boom Op
Understanding film majors, on set and off.
By Josh Kazali
Silence can be nearly impossible to come by on a film set. Both in front of and behind the camera, a set is immersed in noise. The actors practice their lines, the cinematographer wants a different light, the lighting grip can’t find an extension cord, someone is doing an emergency snack run and—wait—who got the iced latte with oat milk? Amid this chaos, “quiet on set” becomes something of an oxymoron.
However, as the boom microphone operator (boom op) on set, it’s my job to somehow find two whole minutes of quiet. This sound of silence is called “room tone,” and it plays an important role in editing. For all those coughs, bumps, or other auditory accidents that ruin an otherwise good take, an editor can use the room tone to create a smooth listening experience. On set, room tone is usually the last thing that we do for a scene, when batteries (literal and figurative) are drained.
Room tone also happens to be one of my favorite things to do as a boom operator, because for two minutes, everything stops. For two minutes, the movie depends on these students holding onto the millions of different things running through their heads and just sitting in silence. By some strange and unpredictable chain of events, my headphones are on, I am trained on the decibel levels of a silent room, and I am surrounded by an eclectic body of writers, creators, and students. Tomorrow, we will see each other in passing and wave, perhaps even have a brief conversation. Something exists between us now, an invisible thread spun through this absurd process called filmmaking that dances through campus, weaving dizzying webs of interconnectedness. Though you may not see it when walking down Broadway, if you listen closely to the room tone, you can hear the beating heart of the Columbia undergraduate film community.
In a sense, my foray into the Columbia film sphere began in 2020, when I was applying to colleges. Like any movie-obsessed teenager, film school was always something I aspired to and researched thoroughly. In the prestigious film conservatories (your NYUs and USCs), juiced-up high schoolers high on Scorsese and Kubrick enter a kind of pressure cooker of a film education. Emphasizing practical production experience, students learn every part of the filmmaking process, developing beefy portfolios. However, this also means an extremely specialized education: just film, all of the time. Lacking the decisiveness and confidence for this level of commitment, I sought more flexibility and balance. Columbia, with its seductive liberal arts philosophy, beckoned.
The undergraduate major that Columbia offers is called Film and Media Studies, a 12-course humanities major that unites most of my peers on set. In contrast to the hands-on education provided at film conservatories, a film studies program is more academically oriented. The major, as described on the college bulletin, is “scholarly, international in scope, and writing-intensive.” When I read this quote to fellow film majors I interviewed, smiles crept onto their faces, and a few laughed knowingly. Students eager to get their hands on a camera must generally wait until their junior year for production-based “labs.” In the meantime, classwork is, indeed, writing-intensive, and consists primarily of critical analysis of historically relevant and canonized films.
Through interviews and countless on-set conversations, I quickly found frustration with this design. Though students certainly develop a scholarly appreciation for film, that comes at the cost of practical know-how. Spend any time on a set, and this becomes apparent. “When it comes to undergrad,” said Alexandra Arredondo, BC ’25, “it’s hit or miss.” Student sets serve as critical learning experiences rather than well-oiled machines. To this I can certainly attest. Hours are long and laborious, with unreliable meal breaks and highly reliable technical difficulties; call times are more so guidelines than hard and fast rules. On one memorable set, filming an—ahem—intimate scene in a Furnald bathroom led to an enraged RA and a write-up for shooting “pornography.” Without the rigorous practical education of other schools, Columbia undergraduate sets often seem more like an exercise in chaos management than filmmaking.
However, taking stock of this not-so-secret society, I discovered that part of this inconsistency comes from the remarkable diversity of students’ paths toward film. In contrast to a film conservatory, whose entry requires a rigorous and specialized application process, film studies at Columbia is a major open to anyone willing to fulfill its requirements. The introductory classes are large and popular, even among non-majors, and as a result, the film department attracts curious minds who wind up falling in love with the medium. For Vincent Snyder, CC ’24, filmmaking literally found him. Snyder applied as a psychology major, until, on one fateful stroll through Riverside Park, he found himself on the set of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. “I saw them filming, and I was like, ‘Yeah, this is really cool.’ I guess that was kind of my wake-up call.” The film community at Columbia is marked by stories of this nature, each crew member having taken wildly different paths to find their way to the set.
Robert King, the head of the undergraduate film department, considers this openness a great strength of the major. He recognizes the field’s popularity, which has only grown in recent years, and described how this shifts the focus of the department. His goal is not to offer a fast-track in filmmaking, but to shepherd a nascent love for the medium toward a recognition of its academic and cultural force. “You have to recognize, it’s a discipline,” he told me. The design of the major allows students like Snyder to discover an interest in film and pursue it in a way that he couldn’t at a traditional film school, where the film students are kept separated like hazardous material. This inclusivity is an inextricable part of the identity of the film community, one marked by its differences yet simultaneously united, brought together in silence on a Sunday morning.
From this perspective, the scholastic nature of the program offers a valuable opportunity to access the medium, something students recognize when push comes to shove. “We’re really beginning to explore and tinker with what we know,” said Arredondo. While other schools place their emphasis on how to make films, she continues, “Columbia is all about why we do it.” Even though the majority of film students hope to find work in the film industry, they also believe gaining an understanding of the medium itself is a valuable working baseline for the craft. Moreover, the program creates a shared set of values and experiences between students, our most reliable common ground. From the surreal hilarity of Speed Racer in King’s Intro to Film to the brutally engaging A Woman Under the Influence in Annette Insdorf’s Cinema History III, shared scholarly experiences constitute the language which exists between Columbia film students.
What we do with that language, however, is left for us to wrestle with, and primarily on our own time. Such reliance on self-motivation means that the stakes of those student sets become immeasurably high. If the classroom is a site to explore your relationship with the discipline, the set is the place where this sinks or swims. Herein lies both the strength and the difficulty of studying film at Columbia; the program offers tremendous tools with which to critically engage with the art of film, yet what to do with this studied appreciation is up to the individual.
The high pressure can certainly be energizing at times, the thrill of being a part of something invisible, shooting under the cover of darkness and city lights. But this added anxiety is not always conducive to setting students up for success. Wynona Barua, BC ’22, a double major in film and English, expressed frustrations with the major’s lackluster support for those seeking entry into the pearly gates of moviemaking. I asked her about her post-graduate plans, and she told me that graduate school (a sore topic for many, given Columbia’s highly lauded practical MFA program) isn’t even an option for her. “There’s the cost, and the practicality, but also I don’t really have anything to apply with.” To a film student, this served as a chilling reminder that the work done outside of the classroom can matter just as much, if not more, in finding success in a craft-based industry.
Perhaps this explains the chip on film students’ shoulders, which often reads as confidence, or even cockiness. This façade of self-assuredness compensates for a deeply rooted fear, and one that is not unique to the Columbia film department. Job security, structure, and work-life balance aren’t really in the vocabulary of any hopeful filmmaker. In this sense, Columbia offers a highly realistic education.
At times, I think I hear that fear in the room tone—subtle shifts of breathing, the slightest hyperventilation, and the catch in someone’s throat. This is the sound of an atmosphere of anxiety, with the terrors of failure (or worse, mediocrity) lurking in the silence. It’s a familiar hum to me, and should I turn the microphone on myself, it would be heard clearer than any.
In interviewing film majors and filmmakers, I began to see glimpses of myself. As I drew further into the depths of the proverbial film major, these shades only increased, a sense of déjà vu growing with each interview. In a way, my project turned out to be a rather self-interested one. I hoped that by mastering every iteration of a Columbia film student, I could pick apart the components of success and stitch them back together, circumnavigating the pesky pitfalls of previous students. Most of all, these interviews would guide me to sweet validation, reassuring me that I would land safely on the shores of the film industry.
Unsurprisingly, reality yields no easy answers, and I have yet to discover how on earth anyone stays sane in the movie business. In naively attempting to chart a foolproof path to Hollywood, I was confronted with only one real certainty: No two paths in filmmaking are the same. This universal truth can be discomforting, refusing reassurance at all turns. However, it is also from uncertainty that cinema is born; by nature, it demands creativity, innovation, and risk-taking. It’s that very thing that keeps us coming back for more—perhaps even to a fault. Like Pacino in the Godfather films: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!”
Recently in my cinema history class, we watched a Polish film from 1991 called The Double Life of Veronique. Directed by Krzysztof Kieślowski, the film is about a Polish opera singer, Weronika, and a French music teacher, Veronique, who are doppelgängers. When Weronika dies at her big concert, Veronique feels an inexplicable sadness from thousands of miles away. Sometimes I imagine having my own mirror Josh (Wosh?) who took a different path. Am I Weronika, destined for death at my moment of triumph, or am I Veronique, the survivor who abandons her dreams of greatness?
Good room tone relies on an inherent deception. The silence must disguise what is really a very full room: Not only does it house directors, actors, cinematographers, producers, gaffers, and yes, sound guys, it also houses our spacious uncertainties. It is filled with Weronikas and Veroniques, doubles and triples of hopes and dreams actualized and abandoned. In those two minutes of silence, an entire ecosystem is crystallized in sound, and everything is laid bare when the activity stops, even for a moment. But the silence is quickly becoming too much to bear; the fear, energy, and intoxicating excitement is reaching a breaking point. I press stop on the recorder.
“We got it,” I say. After all, we have a lot of work to do.