Finding Her True Passion: Rayana Villalpando's Journey into Production Sound and the Power of Sound in Filmmaking

Rayana Villalpando is a Location Sound Boom Operator and Sound Mixer based in Los Angeles. Born and raised in Los Angeles, she played college basketball in Indiana, and later received her masters in Clinical Psychology. After being a Mental Health Therapist specialising in Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation for six years, she decided to make a career change into filmmaking. At the end of 2020 Rayana joined BearVision Production Company with her longtime friend, B.P. Edwards. Since her career transition, she has found her true passion in filmmaking and has completed over 30 projects; these include 15 narrative films, interviews, and commercial shoots.

We spoke to Rayana to find out more about her story, and how she's been able to use her background in psychology to deal with challenges on set.

You’re relatively new to the industry, can you tell us a bit about your background and what made you decide to get into production sound?

Growing up I played competitive basketball until I graduated from college. When sports ended, I had a hard time finding another passion, so I went straight into a doctorate program for clinical psychology. I was interested in psychology because my brother has autism and I always felt he was misunderstood by his actions. I ended up being a therapist, practicing transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) for 5 years. Although this was a great career, that I had worked hard for, I wasn’t happy.

Everything shifted when I met Brandon Palmore, now one of my closest friends. He owns and operates BearVision Productions (Instagram: @bearvisionpnd). He asked me to help him out with sound for a short and ever since then I fell in love with helping people tell their stories. For weeks I researched all I could find about sound, started creating my kit and taking gigs. I think when I was a psychologist, I was doing the same thing in a different space.

Sound, to me, is one of the most important parts of a movie and getting to meet creative people and help them express their stories is what I am passionate about. Sound has enabled me to have the perfect balance between creativity and physicality. From the outside looking in, it might seem like a major career change, but to me everything I’ve done has led me to excel in this career field and I am happy.

How have you found adapting to a new industry and is there anyone in particular who has been helpful or inspirational in assisting your journey into filmmaking?

With adapting to the industry, I felt like there was so much information to take in. From the on set language to how to talk to talent in order to get my job done. I was lucky enough to have some great mentors and influential people. They took the time to answer the questions I had that popped up on set and were on call for any issues that arose while I was working alone. I also learned a lot form Curtis Judd from youtube when it comes to knowledge about how to use my sound equipment properly and advice on what products to invest in. These people made entering a new industry happen with ease.

There have been three very influential people in the industry who have been helpful in my sound career. The first person is one I mentioned before, Brandon Palmore (Instagram: @bpedwardsdop) because without him instilling in me that I had the agency to create the life I wanted, I don’t know if I would be here today.

Once I started working in the field, I met two great Sound Mixers that have poured into me; Royce Hall (instagram: @obsidiansoundfield) and Chris Cole (instagram: @333cole). Both have a plethora of knowledge coming from a background in music and location sound. They have both brought me on gigs and given me free gear because they truly believe in me and have said “I want you to get where I am now but faster”. They work to help black and brown people succeed in the production space.

Lastly, I have to thank my mother and family for being so supportive of my ambition and passion for sound. They give me strength every day to continue my pursuits in this field and show up to support anything with my name on it.

Productions can often be stressful environments; do you find your background in therapy has helped you with any specific examples of dealing with stress on set?

Yes, my background in mental health has helped me navigate working with different types of people and being a source of calm energy in a space that can be chaotic. When times get stressful on set or with capturing high quality sound, I fall back on what I learned in graduate school about communication and how helpful it is to state your needs. I have had to communicate on different occasions with the production team about how certain shots or locations were not good for sound. I am grateful for the training I received while on the road to getting my doctorate in clinical psychology.

Most times therapist stress the importance of breath work as a means to reduce stress and as a boom operator, I find myself paying very close attention to how I breathe and how it affects my body and mind on set. Additionally, taking time to yourself when you are able to (lunch breaks, between takes) to walk outside for a bit or take time to regroup off set.

How do you think the industry as a whole deals with the mental well-being of the filmmaking community?

I have found that directors address the culture they would like to create on day one. For instance, they will address who to talk to if any issues arise and encourage people to positively uplift others around them on set. On a recent job for RevoltTV, before we started the shoot, they addressed how blessed and thankful they were to have the crew that they did and each day sent out an email explaining their gratitude. It’s the little things each set does that really impacts the mindset and mental health of the people working on them.

I feel that the industry doesn’t worry about mental health until it affects their money. Then they rush to find a solution to an actor who stops showing up on set or a person having a mental breakdown because the content of the script was triggering. A lot of these responsibilities can be handled in pre-production where there can be a mental health team delegated to helping cast and crew.

Rayana has been a member of BearVision Productions since 2020

Considering your background and experience, do you have any ideas on what could be done to improve in this area within our industry?

I’ve worked with an actress who visibly showed signs of uncomfortability (shaking leg, wringing hands) and had an attitude with the sound department. When my male colleague mic’ed her, he felt she didn’t like him because she was verbally giving him a difficult time with completing his job, so the next day we switched, and I had the same issue. She was so uncomfortable with us it led to her wearing her lav pack in the bathroom and accidentally dropping it in the toilet. We realized she had an issue with being touched and after a conversation she was able to tell us she wanted a room to herself to be mic’ed and that she wanted to put the mic on herself. We coached her through it and were able to finish the feature with no other issues.

I’ve also been on set where a person on the crew had a death in the family and received the information while on set. Since I had a conversation with him earlier, he felt comfortable enough to tell me. Once he talked about it, he was able to get through the day. He was a complete stranger to me, but he had the space to just feel and that was enough for him to continue his work on set.

I’ve come up with some steps to take before I even try to mic someone:

  • (1) Tell them who I am and ask for their name
  • (2) Let them know what I will be doing step-by-step
  • (3) Offer a room or space for people to get mic’ed if the lav involves removing clothing and if they want anyone present in the room while this is happening.
  • (4) Allow people to place the mic on themselves as I coach them through and ask permission to help if needed.

Some people in my field wear gloves so that they don’t actually ever touch someone’s skin with theirs. Once the process is complete, I let them know that I might be changing things on their lav pack, but I will also ask for them to step aside. These are just things to think about when working with people and aid in people’s comfortability on set.

I feel there can be more work done in pre-production discussing the type of culture they would like to create on set and how they will handle any personal issues that will arise. Additionally, having a supporting staff whether that be a licensed therapist or mental health worker that can be on call for people in need of support on set (similar to intimacy coordinators).

Often times, I think we look for a grand solution to a human problem and really all we need is to be heard, seen, and given a space to express ourselves.

What do you enjoy most about working in sound? Do you have any goals or ambitions for your career?

I enjoy making connections with likeminded people who want to create art and express themselves in unique ways. The goal in my life has always been to help people feel seen, understood, and tell their stories and that hasn’t changed working in sound. Right now, I want to learn as much as I can in and become a better sound mixer day by day so that other people don’t have to worry about if their project will sound good.

Have you faced any challenges so far in your career in production sound?

The biggest challenge for me is the affordability of gear. I’ve been lucky to meet people who have let me borrow gear or connected me with people selling gear for a lower price, but I think many people struggle with what to put their money towards while also focusing on making a living. One company that I feel has been helpful in this aspect is Deity Microphones. They create quality products at an affordable price. I have used their W.Lav Pro for short stories, podcasts and interviews.

Another challenge I’ve faced has to do with receiving the same respect that men do in my field. When I boom for male mixers, I notice the difference in respect and communication, compared to when I work alone. I’ve had directors/producers call me for sound jobs and start or end the call with “baby” – I always choose not to work with people like that. Additionally, on set, I’ve experienced people questioning my abilities or directly stating, “how did you get the job?” and being extremely impressed with the quality of my work, as if they assume I’m inadequate. Lastly, I’ve had talent on set hit on me while I am trying to lav them, which makes it very difficult to work when I know I am being sexualized.

How important do you feel it is to have a good representation of diversity within the industry?

It is very important for people to be represented in every job in filmmaking. When people hear that I do sound and I am Afro-Latina (African-American and Mexican), they are instantly wanting to support. As much as I love that ideation, their excitement also expresses the lack of representation for people that look like me. I want to encourage people from all diverse backgrounds to join the field if they have the passion regardless of what other people look like on set.

One person who is a woman in the field who inspired me is May Tsehay (instagram: @maytsehay). Since the first day I met her, she has taught me about sound for podcasting and given me major opportunities to work with high profile clients. No matter how busy she is, she makes time to teach me new things and include me in her professional world. She is a visionary, a playmaker, and has her hand in multiple lanes in the sound field. I look up to her not only as an audio producer/mixer/editor and businesswoman, but also as a person.

What tools do you find most useful on set to help you capture great sound?

The tools that make my life easier on set are the Deity timecode and slate, Sennheiser G4’s and the Bubblebee shotgun microphone Spacer Bubble windshield and fur cover system. When I was on my first feature in Detroit, I found that the windshield was very helpful for those windy outdoor scenes. Using the windshield and fur cover allows me to not need the usual blimps that people use for outdoor scenes which allows for an easy lightweight solution for less stress on the wrists and shoulders while booming. The Deity timecode and slate work effortlessly together using the Sidus audio app. The Sennheiser G4’s make it easy to choose a frequency and sync the transmitter and receiver together with one tap. These tools allow for any production I’ve worked on to flow with ease.

Do you have any advice for anyone looking to venture into filmmaking?

If you feel called to be in the industry of filmmaking, study the craft, immerse yourself in the people doing what you want to do and come modestly ready to learn. If you have time, spend it with people you look up to or people doing what you want to do. Don’t ever be afraid to ask for guidance because we have all been there before and most of us want to give back to the people wanting to learn. Have an open mind and bring a positive attitude to every set you step on, because everyone loves working with people they enjoy being around. Most of all, have fun!