Sound mixer and Traverse City native Michael Piotrowski lives in his hometown with his wife Angeline (they met on the set of the movie Radio, where she was the director’s assistant) and their two young boys. Through his company Kids Creek Productions, he’s been a mixer or boom operator on shows like MTV’s Laguna Beach, HGTV’s Carter Can and Fox’s Arrested Development. His sound team, led by Peter Devlin, was nominated for an Academy Award for their work in Transformers. And thanks to Michigan’s film industry tax incentive, Piotrowski has been working closer to home more often, just completing the sound mixing for Rosie O’Donnell’s Lifetime movie, America, in Detroit. Look for his name on the credits of the Oscar-nominated Frost/Nixon, Ron Howard’s Angels and Demons and J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek coming out in May.
What was the first sound project you did?
I started college at NMC in ’87 and was a DJ at WNMC radio. I think my show was called Alternating Currents.
How did you get started in sound for film?
In film school at Grand Valley no one wanted sound—they wanted the more glamorous roles. When I went out to L.A., I thought, I’m going to direct and edit films. I did one music video, then went back to Grand Valley and got a masters of science so I could do sound mixing. With sound you’re in the background, but it’s a good way to still learn from all these great directors.
What’s running through the boom operator’s head during filming?
Keeping the mic as close to the frame line as possible for the best sound, and from the perspective of the camera so the sound matches the picture, and over the top of the set without creating shadows. We memorize all of the dialogue so we can go back and forth between the actors—up to 8 people talking. We hold the boom for 12 to 14 hours a day with both arms above our heads—most boom operators I know have bad backs. Every morning starts out with stretching.
Did you ever imagine you’d be able to work on films in your home state?
It took me totally by surprise. My wife and I were living in L.A. and moved back here 7 months before the tax break was announced. Because I’m a Michigan resident, filmmakers get a 40-percent rebate on my salary. That’s huge.
Do action films like Star Trek and Transformers require special sound skills?
In heavy action movies you wire up an actor in a way that’s safe for all the action they’re doing. With the Star Trek wardrobe it was difficult to disguise the wires.
I love the show Arrested Development. Tell me something good.
Jason Bateman and Will Arnett were hilarious from the moment they arrived on set. Will is Canadian and a hockey fan—he figured out I was a Red Wings fan. That first season I coached the Arrested Development softball team on the Prime Time Softball League. Michael Cera and Jason Bateman were on the team. We played crew and cast from different shows—Without a Trace, Smallville, the Los Angeles news channels.
Did you get to go to the Academy Awards when you were nominated for sound mixing for Transformers?
Peter Devlin had a ticket for me and my wife, but it was at the end of a 5-month time away, and I wanted to come home to Traverse City to see Angeline and the boys.
Any word of more films coming Michigan-way?
This winter the threat of an actors strike held up any production from getting the green light in Michigan or elsewhere. The actors decided not to strike, and things are starting to pick up again. Betty Ann Waters with Hilary Swank and Minnie Driver began shooting in Ann Arbor in February.