Lights! Cameras! Scanners
By: Chuck Gysi
Re-printed from National Communications
Lights! Cameras! SCANNERS! While many films still are made in
Hollywood today, many more are made on location in towns and cities
across the United States to add a touch of realism to the set.
Thus, you shouldn't be surprised to find a film, movie or video
production crew set up in your community for a day, a week or a
month to shoot important footage for an upcoming movie,
documentary or other show. Most companies that set up a remote
production bring with them a host of equipment, personnel and
The easiest way for production crews to coordinate operations
for a set is to use two-way radio. That's been known for many years
as the Federal Communications Commission created a radio service
just for film production with overlapping frequencies shared by
road construction and farming operations and newspapers.
Originally the radio service was used primarily by film
production crews. Most of the major movie production houses all
were licensed on any of these 10 frequencies for use anywhere
generally in the United States. However, as technology for media
changed, the radio service became more of a catch-all for any film
and video production crews. The radio service once known as the
Motion Picture Radio Service now is known as the Video Production
What's the frequency, Kenneth?
While the FCC's refarming initiative has changed the face of
frequency usage in many areas, most video production crews will
remain on the original 10 frequencies allocated to the service.
That's because the radio service is somewhat itinerant in usage and
those who operate on the frequencies usually license themselves for
more than one frequency and can switch channels to avoid
interference to local users when operating in the field. For
instance, if a video crew were to come in to town and set up on a
frequency for the day and started to hear a local newspaper
dispatching drivers for missed deliveries, you can bet they'd
switch to another channel to stay on the safe side and avoid
interference to the other local user.
Because the users of the frequencies generally are itinerant,
being that they move around from one area to another and don't
remain in any one area much longer than needed to capture the local
scenery, it's a good idea that they stick to the frequencies within
the radio service to avoid upsetting the apple cart on local users.
If a video production unit were to license on frequencies
available under the FCC's refarming initiative, they might be more
likely to interfere with a local business user instead of a similar
The frequencies used by the Video Production Radio Service are
pretty simple. There are six frequencies around 153 MHz and another
four at 173 MHz. The frequencies are: 152.870, 152.900, 152.930,
152.960, 152.990, 153.020, 173.225, 173.275, 173.325 and 173.375.
The 152- and 153-MHz frequencies are shared with users in the
Special Industrial Radio Service, which includes commercial road
construction crews, builders and farmers. The 173-MHz channels are
shared with newspapers and news cooperatives such as The Associated
Video production crews also can license themselves on
frequencies in the 800-MHz band, if so desired, but you won't find
too many there.
The cameras are rolling and the action is hot on the set. Two-way radios
help coordinate each crew member's work. (Photo courtesy of The Walt Disney World Co.)
But wait, there's more
While video and film production crews have radio frequencies
that have been allocated for their shared use, there still are many
other crews that have licensed themselves on business radio
frequencies. Thus, you can find these crews on the popular
business band frequencies. These include the 2-watt handheld
channels of 154.570 and 154.600 and the itinerant business channels
of 151.625, 464.500, 464.550, 469.500 and 469.550. While many film
houses have their own two-way radios, others find it necessary to
rent handheld radios for use on the set when they come to a town
and typically they will operate on one of the above seven business
So where do you begin to search if you hear a film crew has
come to town? The best bet is to search the 10 Video Production
Radio Service frequencies first. If you don't hear activity around
153 or 173 MHz, then check the itinerant and low-power business
channels for possible activity.
There are a few other places you may find activity, too. With
the cheap availability of Family Radio Service handhelds, don't be
remiss in searching 462.5625-462.7125 and 467.5625-467.7125. The
usage of FRS frequencies for all types of activities will grow as
the popularity of the low-cost handheld service grows.
If the production you are trying to monitor is a real low-
budget operation, don't be surprised to find cheap 49-MHz handhelds
in use, too. These frequencies, shared with cordless phones and
baby monitors, are 49.83, 49.845, 49.86, 49.875 and 49.89 MHz.
In addition to hearing directors, camera operators and other
film technicians and crew members on a set, there is an additional
challenge for on-site monitors. Keeping in mind that low-power
handheld radios typically two watts or less are used by production
crews, you'll have to be within a few blocks to hear the radios
being used. But here's an even bigger challenge:
Wireless microphones are used on every actor and actress on a
film set. Not only are the wireless mics used on people, they also
may be used to carry sound from other areas of the set for mixing.
But because wireless microphones are very low power, you'll
typically have to be on the actual set or within a block to hear
the mics on your scanner.
Depending on the type of production you are attempting to
monitor, there may be several places where you might find wireless
microphone frequencies. Power is limited to 0.05 watt on these
frequencies: 169.445, 169.505, 170.245, 170.305, 171.045, 171.105,
171.845 and 171.905 MHz.
If the production you are scanning is being performed by a
broadcaster, wireless mics typically can show up anywhere in the
UHF television spectrum. Tune from 470-806 MHz and even the 944-952
MHz studio-to-transmitter link spectrum for wireless mics.
Some other wireless microphones, especially those used by
broadcasters, can be found in the 169-216 MHz range. The nice
thing about searching for wireless mics on site is that the mics
are on the air all the time usually. You don't have to wait for
someone to transmit, like you do with two-way radios. Because
wireless mics can cover such a wide frequency range, you don't
really have to search in 1- or 2-MHz segments. Search the entire
segment in one swoop because if there are wireless mics on the air,
you'll find them while searching through the band.
Who's on the air?
If you get lucky to monitor an on-site film production, you'll
discover all types of communications to monitor, especially if it
is a large-scale operation. Two-way radios may be used for any and
all of the following uses: directors, technical crews, talent
coordinators, stunt coordination, caterers (hey, actors and
actresses and the crews all need to eat!), and more. If there is
something that needs to be coordinated on a production set, you'll
likely find someone with a radio on their hip keeping in touch with
other crew members.
Scanning a film production can be exciting. You'll be plugged
in to all the key players in the making of a movie. Or maybe a new
music video. Or even a commercial. Tune in and learn all the
behind-the-scenes action involved in a production. You'll really
appreciate it when you finally see it on the big screen or TV.
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