Even seasoned professionals make mistakes from time to time. That's why one needs to create a mental checklist.

One reader of my previous blog, about the importance of getting started and being open to failure, tallied up my article and basically said, "these are human errors and have nothing to do with technology." Well....exactly. Bold scores for reading comprehension. But there was one piece he did not acknowledge and that was the part of human nature that just assumes everything is working as it should (or as we believe it should). I have no problem with the mistakes I routinely make because every time I do falter it reinforces my need to bolster my mental checklist. The one which prompts me to double check the things that can go wrong.

But even seasoned professionals screw up from time to time. Here's my experience with one screw up from last Summer. We were on our last day of a video shoot. We'd been in the studio for a couple of days. In a funny twist of fate I was the talent on the shoot instead of the technical guy or the camera artist. I was giving a video class about studio lighting and I was delivering the content without a teleprompter or a written script. The producer much preferred that I just deliver the content in a conversational way instead of getting stiff and sticking to a literal script. A bit scary working without the net.

Working that way takes some practice. First there's practice of organizing the cogent thoughts in your head. Then there's the practice of trying to walk from point "A" to point "B", turn to the correct camera, do you introduction and then proceed to smoothly deliver content. Many times it doesn't work and often you try a scene several (or more) times until you actually get lucky and nail it.

At any rate I had been working with a really great team of professionals who did this kind of studio work every day and, in some cases, had done so for decades. On this particular scene they were using three cameras that all ran into a switcher. One camera was set up high and gave us a wide view of the entire set. The other cameras showed closer angles and the method in editing would be to switch from one camera to another to add visual interest. I was also asked to start the scene by entering the wide frame while introducing the course segment. I would continue walking and talking toward camera "A" and then I would stop, turn to face camera "B" and continue presenting the course material for the segment.

The problem is that I'm just a photographer, not a professional actor, and I can hardly walk and chew gum at the same time much less walk and talk and hit marks in a studio....

I muffed a few takes and we took a break. During the break someone re-adjusted my lavaliere mic and reoriented the transmitter on the radio link in my back pocket. Then we started again.

I walked into the scene, walked to my first mark without tripping or giggling, hit my second mark, turned to the camera and delivered the most incredible take I had ever managed. The words sounded good in my head and, more importantly, they made perfect sense to the producer/director. Every one gave me a thumbs up and we started breaking down the lights and cameras from that scene to set up for another one.

At some point the editor went back and checked the files. He was looking to make sure the visuals were good and the audio was perfect. And then he checked again and then he stopped everyone. There was a problem. My mic had been inadvertently muted during the "perfect" take. My only perfect take...

The consensus of the crew was that we had a safe back up to fall back on. There was a boom mic that usually sat just above me on the set, pointing down as a safety for the lav mic. The only problem was that in order to do the scene with a wide camera angle the microphone had to be moved way back to get it out of the shot and that made its audio unusable as well.

There was some discussion of using cutting edge science to fix the audio from the shotgun microphone that had been moved back but in the end all of the professionals knew where we were heading. We reconstructed the lighting and the cameras and we did the scene over again from the top. While I never hit the heights I had attained earlier I was able to pull off a decent performance and we moved on.

But the very bottom line is that we were, for a time, undone by the simplest of things: the "mute" button on the wireless microphone's transmitter. Now checking the "mute" button is part of my check list for audio. And, like the switching editor, checking the takes for audio and video quality before leaving a location (or ending a shooting day) is now permanently on my check list.

Stuff happens. When it hurts a bit it makes an impression in a different way than "learning" the same stuff on a website. When you have your time or pride or skin in the game and get a little burned it reinforces the lesson. That was the lesson readers were supposed to take away. Maybe I didn't write it correctly the first time around.

Sorry, I am relatively new at this blogging thing and I'm still making mistakes. Still learning. I should have it pretty much nailed down in another 1836 blog posts....


Anonymous said...

Actually, using real physical checklists is the way to go for complex jobs.

We use them constantly in aerospace. The consequences of mistakes are bad.

You will never eliminate human error 100%, but a good checklist goes a long way to getting close

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

We use them for packing, for shot lists, call sheets, etc. but you need a good mental list to use while you are actually doing the fluid process of shooting or directing. That's why tattooing stuff onto your brain is so important. You need to make some things in the progression so automatic that you never forget to check them.

I thought about dabbling in the aerospace industry but the consequences of your mistakes are far more grievous than mine will ever be....

BLB529 said...


Anonymous said...

There was no confusion in the earlier post regarding the human element 'variable.' I think some readers are too quick to presume you're externalizing blame. Shame on them, as your points were well taken.
I also appreciated your point on how a steady work-load keeps us sharp in our techniques and familiarity with the equipment and procedures. Still, the check-list is good for filling in the lapses that come with down time.

Anonymous said...

One of the reasons for physical checklists is the inevitable complacency that comes with doing the same task for ages. It’s easy to blip over that line in the mental checklist. That is the danger of auto-pilot.

On the other hand, maybe buying new cameras that require a learning curve keeps things fresh and complacency away.

theaterculture said...

Reminds me of a 3 day shoot I did when I was in Uni. Travelled from NYC to Boston to shoot a doc about a guy who was at the Berkeley School of Music; I was doing audio and we were using a Canon XL1 camera. We had the main subject lav'd most of the time, and in various situations in and out of the studios at the school we used a combination of a shotgun on a boom, and a wider mic positioned in a good spot to pick up a nicely balanced recording of what was being played - the guy was a jazz guitarist, and we recorded him several times playing with 3-5 piece ensembles in acoustically beautiful studios and in a club. I hot-mixed everything by ear through a four-channel over-the-shoulder box that was connected to the xlr ins on the camera.

I still maintain that I did an amazing job of getting the mixes down, especially in the challenging environment of a crowded club. But we'll never know because the director, who insisted on operating the camera himself even though he'd paid to bring a d.p. who was much more experienced than him with the XL1 up from NY, insisted on being the only one who actually touched the camera. He didn't notice that the last person to use it had turned the audio recording on the camera off, and he never reviewed any of the footage while on location, so I wore out my arms booming audio that was not recorded and he spent his entire budget getting 8 hours of footage of musicians without sound...

To this day I'm compulsive about doing test-shots for audio levels before packing for a video shoot, and then reviewing at least a sample of footage before changing setups. Better to wait five minutes while the audio gets reviewed than come back an extra day for reshoots!

Greg said...

In the book "Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance" by Atul Gawande he looks at how professionals make errors and how to avoid them. Great writer, very good read!

The March issue of Scientific American has an article on how experts overlook simple solutions. Quite interesting.

Thank you


Anonymous said...

I wrote the first comment about checklists. Someone said I thought you were externalizing blame. No, no a thousand times no. The blame game is probably the most destructive thing to progress in any field. It makes it so hard to improve process when people are concentrated on "who" rather than "why".

Also, I am not going to tell a long term professional how to do their job. No one wants to ruin your spontaneity and artistic mojo. Yes, you have to know your equipment well enough to do it blindfolded and I no doubt believe you know your stuff that well. This is a good thing.

That said, I believe in checklists. Checklists can prevent disaster. Your use of checklists for packing etc is common and the value is obvious.

Process checklists, even for simple tasks, can make job faster, and ensure more consistent results. Especially if you are working with someone who isn't familiar with your process.

Finally, nothing is so automatic it never fails.

Unknown said...

Thank you, Kirk, this is EXACTLY the kind of post I enjoy reading and re-reading. I love seeing your process and how you solve problems on the fly, like we all do. Heartening too to see you solve the problem of the card reader with the best tool for the job, rather than the "newer is more better" approach. I would have probably done the same thing, given the choice of the A99 vs. A850. Particularly enjoyed your discussion of background, passive fill, active lighting with the diffused beauty dish to provide a subtle cheek highlight. Always striving to learn something new from you.