The Sound of Down the Fence

September 18, 2017

Throughout the last four years of production for “Down the Fence,” Patrick Thompson has heard it all.

Born and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah, Patrick set foot on Brandon Buttar’s ranch in August of 2013 with little to no horse experience under his belt. Wearing headphones that would later earn him the nickname “Radar,” Patrick was afforded the opportunity as the Production Sound Mixer to spend his days listening to the top men and women of the working cow horse community as they prepared for competition. “I had no experience with what they were doing, but we were listening to the legends of their sport, anyone can appreciate that.”

“I’ve always had an interest in creating moving pictures and storytelling. It’s creative and technical, combining the best of both worlds.” This combination placed him in a unique position to record the stories that were taking place in arenas across the United States. Traveling from Southern Kansas to the Central Coast of California, Patrick is more in tune with the country than ever before.

“Places are never quiet – you would think being in Northern Utah in the middle of nowhere is quiet, but it’s not. There is always some sound. Thats where choice of microphone comes into play, certain microphones are more selective depending on their design, and the specific sound you’re looking for. To me, it’s more interesting to keep those ambient noises in order to get a better sense of the setting. Each place has its own sound just as much as it has its own look.”

“While often you try to cut down on these noises, I’ve always thought it was important to hear the birds, or the traffic – that’s just as much a part of the ranch as anything else. In Simi Valley when we were filming Randy Paul, there was a lot of traffic and it was really loud. But that’s all part of it, he’s close to a large city. Whereas Kansas had a very different sound. It’s part of their story.”

Patrick saw firsthand the widespread differences within this community of horsemen. “It was cool to see all of the different communities. Even though it’s not my world it was cool to see how people set up their ranches, and their homes. To see how Southern Kansas looked completely different from Bakersfield, and how Doug Williamson uses buffalo instead of cows to work his horses. It was cool to see the different mindsets within this community. It would be hard to pick a favorite place, they were all so unique and beautiful in their own way.”

How he went about capturing the sound of “Down the Fence” would be different than any other project to date. “I had to learn about things I hadn’t thought of before, like keeping the boom microphone away from a horse’s face. You always want to have the microphone close to your subject but when working around horses, that’s not always possible. MJ pointed out a lot of things for me as well, like don’t get between a wall and a horse, don’t stand directly behind a horse … so in that sense it changes how you go about recording.”

“After a while you can gauge how the horses will react. I would never claim to know exactly what they were going to do, but you could start to see which horses understood what was going on, and which ones didn’t, which made it a little easier.”

“I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to put a mic on a cowboy while they’re riding. It’s a weird thing in the film industry, people are super coy about revealing their secrets, which I always thought was silly. So I learned a lot of what works and what doesn’t through the nitty-gritty, like what tape to use, and how to secure it to someone’s coat while keeping it hidden. As an observer you wouldn’t hear it, but from the creaking of the saddle to the scuff of a winter jacket there is always a lot of sound when mic’ing up a cowboy. When recording they say to wear soft cotton shirts to cut down on the noise but of course all cowboys starch their shirts, which creates a lot of noise on a microphone when they move, but like I said that’s all part of it.”

“The horse shows in general were really hard, cause it’s not going to stop for you. Sometimes there were two cameras, and there was only one microphone, only one me. There were a couple times during the shows, where you just kinda get backed into a corner, and you have to find a way to get out of the corner while still recording.”

“At one point we mic’d up the herd help. I don’t think we ended up using it but it was entertaining to listen to! They have their own language for describing these horses, and cattle, and sometimes it’s pretty colorful! People start to get comfortable with wearing a mic, so you always hear a lot of conversations. But you get a better sense of what’s going on hearing these conversations, and simultaneously communicating with the crew members. You’re getting these two worlds, and you’re completely in the know. While it can be overwhelming, it’s almost better to hear everything because then I could tell Lori or Fernando what was happening or going to happen which helped line up future shots.”

It wasn’t all high-energy days in the arena, a great deal of the crew’s time was spent on ranches with the trainers themselves. “For most of the interviews we would go out there for three or four days. We’d start the day by building the cameras, and our packs, and getting everyone mic’d up, and often we would just follow them around for a day. We were in Bakersfield in the middle of the summer, so Doug would get up really early to work his horses in the morning and we would go with him. We’d take a break during the middle of the day when it was the hottest and then go back out in the evening with him to work his horses again.”

“Whereas when we were In Southern Utah in the middle of winter. It was really cold, and they are still out there at 5:00 a.m., and they have to do the exact same thing as any other day. Brandon would start first thing, feeding his cows and working his horses. Once you got warmed up there wasn’t as much of a need to stop so he would work all day.”

“It humbles you, ya know? Here these people get up at the same time every single day of the year regardless if it’s freezing, or 110 degrees outside. My having to get up every morning just to go sit in front of a computer, or camera is easy by comparison.”

“Being city-folk you have these sort of ideas of what a cowboy is and what their community is like. And some ideas carried over, ideas like cowboys being very hardworking, these men and women work their asses off. And that is only reinforced by seeing them first-hand getting up every single day and getting to work. But other things we’re different than I thought – this community is made up of such kind people and they are so strong together, they support each other. For me that’s the best part of the film. We were a bunch of outsiders, there were four or five of us on the crew that had never been around horseshows at all. Before the Reno show we could walk around Paso Robles and people may not necessarily know your name but they know who you are and make a point to talk with you and joke around. Then we were in Reno for two weeks, and by then the horse people know who you are, they trust you, and they’re excited to see what you’re doing, and they watch out for you.”

“Like Sophie, Brandon’s wife loaning me her cowboy hat. I needed one to be in the arena while they were competing, and all I had was a baseball hat. So Sophie lent me a cowboy hat to use and then at the end she just gave it to me. It was a hat she said she had won something like $50,000 in, and she just gave it me. I still have it.”

“That part of the movie is most important to me because they really are such kind, considerate people – even to outsiders that they may never see again. The whole project was really good, and fun, and rewarding, especially getting to meet all the people. In some ways it gives you a better sense of America. Not just in a patriotic sense, but having an understanding of who your neighbors are and what their challenges and struggles are. It gives you a different point of view. It gave me a better understanding of the people in our country, it gave me a better understanding of who Americans are.”

P.S. Bozeman will be hosting a screening of Down the Fence, September 21, 2017. Don’t miss it! Tickets available here:

Down-the-fenceAll videos and images courtesy of Down the Fence

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