Picayune native Zach Lancaster currently serves as the sound mixer for HGTV’s “Home Town” series filmed in Laurel. He has been working in the industry since 2014 and and has an extensive list of credits working as both a sound mixer and boom operator, most recently on films like “Breaking New in Yuba County” and “Where the Crawdads Sing.”
Where did you grow up and go to school?
I grew up in Picayune and I went to Pearl River Central High School, where I played football and did theater. I went to William Carey University on a theater scholarship. That’s where I started getting into sound, mainly sound design and music composition. I designed and scored six or eight plays. I was nominated for Barbizon Awards for a majority of my designs, which is like the Tonys for college theater.
At what moment did you discover an interest in working in film and TV?
After graduating college, I realized it was going to be tough to find a job doing theater in the south. So I jumped in and started doing performance audio for concerts and bands and stuff like that. And then after that, I had a buddy who was doing a short film and needed a sound mixer, and said he had the gear and everything and just needed somebody to come in and mix it.
He knew that I’d mixed bands, and he was like, it can’t be much different. So, I went and did this little short film with him, and it was the first time I’d done production audio and I really got into it.
When you mix concerts, you’re mixing up to 96 channels a show. It was fewer channels, which made it easier. But you also get to really dive into those fewer channels, which I thought is really unique. You have to really get in there and get it perfect. You can kind of hide some bad stuff in performance audio because it’s a massive mix. But as far as production audio, you’ve got a lavalier mic and a boom mic, and that’s it. Good luck! I love that aspect of it.
At what point did you realize you could live and work in Mississippi?
I ended up leaving the performance audio side of it and just dove deep into production audio and hustled. It took me about two years to get everything going, and to buy some more equipment and get my name out there and figure things out.
Then I got a job as a boom operator on a movie in Mobile that the union ended up flipping. Then I had the opportunity to join the union, and I weighed my odds. What were the pros and cons? I liked the idea of them picking up my insurance and having a 401K, so it felt almost more like a big boy job.
Whenever you tell family and friends that you work in the movies, they’ll look at you like, “Oh, bless your heart, are you OK?” Especially living in Mississippi, they would be like what the heck are you doing? What are you working on in Mississippi? And I’d say, there’s a few things to work on. But we also have Louisiana right next door. This was around 2014 before things really picked up here. So I joined the union, and it’s been full steam ever since.
Have you had any formal training?
A lot of it is trial by fire. And you get on forums and look and read and try to research and learn. Especially the equipment. It’s ever-changing, ever-evolving. That’s been the big thing.
As far as formal training, there’s a sound mixer that I work as a boom operator for, and his name is Paul Ledford. He’s a Louisiana native and he’s got a resume that will make your head turn. He’s Steven Soderbergh’s buddy. The first movie on his resume is “Sex, Lies and Videotape.”
I got blessed enough to do a movie with Paul in Natchez, called “Breaking News in Yuba County.” And it was just a match made in heaven. The first two weeks it was tough getting to know one another and getting to know one another’s workflow. But after that, we’ve done three movies since then. He’s been awesome. He’s got nearly 40 years of experience in this industry as a sound mixer and knows everything about everything.
He knows that I do mixing too, so instead of keeping me at a boom op’s distance, he’ll explain things to me and show me different things, and we have a great relationship. He has been a mentor for me. Being somewhat arrogant, I thought I knew everything I needed to know. Until I met Paul! And then I realized that, oh, I’m still in kindergarten.
What was your first film/TV job?
What are your current and recent projects?
I did “Where the Crawdads Sing,” which just came to theaters. I was the boom op on that with Paul, and we also did a movie that’s coming to Disney Plus called “The Crater” that’s like “The Goonies” on the moon. As far as made-in-Mississippi stuff, working on “Breaking News in Yuba County” in Natchez was super fun. And I’m working on HGTV’s “Home Town” in Laurel pretty much year round. We finish season 6 on Sept. 15, and we’ll pretty much pick right back up and start on season 7 in November. I’m hoping to be able to jump on a movie during the break.
What has been the most surprising thing for you about working in the film industry?
The people you meet, for better or for worse, and luckily, mainly better than worse. You get to meet a lot of amazing people. And not just actors and actresses or, you know, reality hosts like Ben and Erin, but crew members too.
For instance: “Where the Crawdads Sing.” It was an extremely tough movie to work on. We shot in the swamps of Louisiana in the middle of the summer, so if we weren’t dying of sweat, we were stuck in mud. But you’ve got a crew of 150 people working every single day to make this movie. Everybody’s got their own creative niche, whether it’s sound, camera, grip and electric, hair and makeup, the production crew, it’s everybody working together but also doing their own thing. And then it all comes together at the end. And then you have this awesome work of art, and that’s something to be super pumped up about. There’s not a lot of jobs out there where that is a thing, where you have a massive amount of people working on a single vision.
That’s what keeps me going. What I love about it is the fact that you’re always learning and working with awesome new people from the next job to the next. It keeps you moving and keeps your brain going. And if you’re not learning, you’re not living.
Who has been an influence on your career and why?
I did theater in high school, and I was an arrogant teenager that wanted to be an actor. And then I go to William Carey, first year freshman, and we do the first auditions for the first show, and I don’t get cast. You want to talk about leveling me!
But then I fell into doing sound. Our director knew I played music and they needed someone to do the music for a children’s show. And I ran with it and fell in love with it. And I got nominated for it, the first show I ever did. So there I was, after being leveled for not getting cast, I got nominated for an award for sound design.
Dewey gave me some of the best advice that I ever got, especially at that age. He said, “Good actors look for work. But good crewmen, work looks for them.” And it is so true. I haven’t looked for a job in probably four, five years. I’ve gotten contacted and then accepted a job. I can’t even tell you how much I’ve had to turn down.
How important is sound to the medium of film?
I did a workshop at the Magnolia Film Festival this year, and I talked a lot about just that. I mean, when’s the last time you saw a silent film do well? OK, “The Artist” won an Oscar, big whoop. (laughs)
Sound is literally 50 percent of your movie. But I get it, how it gets ignored. They say, “Lights, camera, action.” They leave out sound. But I say it’s 50 percent because if the sound sucks, you can’t watch it. People will turn it off. Have you ever watched a show on TV and the loop is off? When you can tell their mouths are moving, but the audio isn’t in sync? It just distracts you. It takes you out of it. You can get away with a bad shot or an out of focus shot here and there. But nobody cares about your movie if they can’t understand or hear what’s going on.
Do you have a favorite moment working on a project?
Really, it’s the same for every movie. A majority of the work I’ve done, especially on bigger movies, I’ve been a boom op. The boom op is the voice of sound on set. It’s next to the camera. It’s next to the director. It’s next to the actors, everything. Being able to be there and command that is an experience. What I love about it is how up close and personal I get to be with the actors and actresses, you know, because I’m putting a microphone on them, and it can be uncomfortable at times. I’m this random guy that’s putting a mic up your shirt or your dress, you know? The way that I get around that is just talk to them and be polite. You get them talking and they’re not even thinking about what you’re doing. In doing that, they get to know me, and I get to know them.
Allison Janney is probably one of the most special people I’ve ever worked with. And she was such a peach every day at work. She knew I have two girls, and she would ask me, when we would come back from the weekend, “What did y’all do? Show me pictures!” You find out they’re just humans like us who just got dealt a different hand in life. So, it’s not a single moment, but it’s those moments on every set.
If you could create a movie or a scene built around one place or location in Mississippi, where would that be and why?
I think just any small town. You know, you have Natchez, you have Jackson, you have Gulfport, Biloxi, Ocean Springs, Starkville, Tupelo, even Hattiesburg. But a smaller place, like Soso, Mississippi, or Hot Coffee, Mississippi, it’s these tiny little places that actually make up Mississippi. If I was to make a movie, some small little town where everybody knows everyone’s name and everybody knows everybody’s business, I think that is true Mississippi.
What would you say to convince or encourage someone to bring a project to Mississippi?
I’d say the locations are beautiful and inexpensive. You want to shoot an antebellum home? Well, we got it. You want to shoot some secluded island? We got it. We can turn a high school gymnasium into a soundstage. We can figure it out. And I think that’s the one of the best qualities of Mississippi, and what I always preach about Mississippi, is how creative the people are.
What are your hopes for the film industry in Mississippi?
I would like to see the crew base grow. And maybe that starts with expanding the incentive to get bigger projects. I know many people from Mississippi who are still working in movies, but they don’t live here anymore. They’ve moved to New Orleans, Baton Rouge or to Atlanta.
For me, I won the lottery. I got on a television show 25 miles away from my house, and we shoot eight to nine months out of the year. I can live in Hattiesburg with my partner and two beautiful girls. And I get to commute and it’s just like any 9 to 5. That’s allowed me to stay.
Lately I’ve been getting more and more calls for jobs in-state. And that’s amazing. That’s what’s going to help keep people here. As long as there are movies, as long as there’s work here in the state, I feel like our crew base will grow and grow.
What advice would you give to somebody looking to get into the film business?
My biggest piece of advice would be no job is too small. Don’t have such an ego that you think you can just start at the top. I see a lot of crash and burns. People that’ll go and buy all this equipment, take out a monster loan and think that they’re going to go right into being a sound mixer, or think that they’re going to be a DP right away and realize, wait, nobody knows who I am. Don’t think you have to start at the top to do what I do. Take the small jobs, get your name out there.
What do you do when you’re not working on a project?
I have two incredible little girls, Mila and Vaeda, and they are six and five, 14 months apart, and they are my little monsters. They’re awesome. When I’m not working, I’m trying to be as close to them as humanly possible. And I like to fish, I like bass fishing. Yet another reason I love Mississippi is there’s a lot of good bass fishing. So just being a dad and then trying to catch that double digit, you know?
How can people reach you?
My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. And I’m @prozachlan on Instagram, and I’m on Facebook too.