Working with professional actors. A quick take.

Steve Vinovich as LBJ.

I spent Wednesday, Friday and Saturday following NYC actor, Steve Vinovich, around the LBJ Museum, Johnson City, the LBJ ranch and also to an interview with two of LBJ's staffers before ending up at the Whisenhunt Stage at Zach Theatre yesterday in the late afternoon. Steve and the artistic team at Zach have been researching everything they can for their upcoming production of, All The Way. It's a play about LBJ's presidency. 

There are three cameras I've used to shoot "run and gun" video, more controlled video interviews and still images and all of them are Nikons. The best of the batch for video and still images is the D810. It's big and solid and it creates great files in both spheres. 

I was up early on Saturday in order to make it to the 7:30am swim practice. My family obligations have taken precedence over my swimming and I wanted to get some good, hard yardage in before I got back to work. Coach, Chris Kemp delivered. We really worked hard all the way through. 

Once out of the water I grabbed coffee and an egg, sausage and cheese sandwich, along with a venti coffee at Starbucks, before rushing back to the studio to pack for the first project of the day. I would be videotaping and photographing an interview/conversation with two of LBJ's staffers. I was accompanied by the theater's artistic director, the theater's PR person, actor Steve V. and a dramaturg named Russ who has been researching LBJ in depth for this project. 

We were running a bit late so my set up time was minimal. I used the D810 as the video camera for the interview. There was ample light and the general look for the light was good so we didn't need to add anything to it. I used an older Rode StereoMic on a Gitzo mic boom and situated the microphone directly between the two people being interviewed. The mic sat about three feet in front of them. 

The microphone was hardwired to the camera and I set levels manually. I monitored the interview audio with a set of closed, AKG headphones. While I had to stop and restart the camera every twenty minutes we were able to record about two hours of interview at the highest quality settings with no overheating or unscheduled camera shut downs. I used the 24-85mm f3.5 to 4.5 zoom lens. To cover my ass I also employed a Zoom H4n digital audio recorder. This allowed me to record everything without any break in continuity. If this audio is better than that recored by the camera it should be easy to sync the audio up in post processing and edit in some alternate angles or still images when the camera breaks happen. I placed the H4n right on the table, facing the interviewees.

The camera was flawless and the footage looks great. I shot it in the flat profile and then added back saturation and contrast in post and it looks pretty amazing.

We finished up the interviews about 2:30 pm and by the time I got packed back up and back to my studio it was 3:15 which left me just enough time for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a big glass of milk before I rushed back out to the studio to dump off the video gear and assemble my usual traveling studio lighting kit, a long roll of white seamless paper and some fresh batteries, and still be at Zach Theatre by 4:00 pm to set up a lighting design for some marketing images of Steve V. in character as LBJ. 

We were much more interested, for this shoot, in the overall tonality of the images being correct than getting to pure white in the background but we have more than enough contrast and detail in the images to be able to do good drop outs. These images of our actor will be used, with different backgrounds dropped in, for the theater's advertising campaigns and displays.

I started lighting at 4:00 and the make-up and costuming people started working on Steve at the same time. Around 4:30pm my art director arrived and we did a few tests. I have two lights in black backed umbrellas on the background, one light in an elinchrom collapsible softbox modifier and one large, 72" Fotodiox white umbrella dialed way, way down for fill. All four lights are Elinchrom mono-lights. Most were used at minimum power but the main light is set for half power. 

I used the D810 and once again was happily surprised at the sheer quality of the files and the expansive dynamic range. I'm quickly becoming best friends with the 24-85mm (cheap) zoom lens and have pressed it into service for just about every D810 related shoot.

Steve walked out into the lighting set up and we started shooting in earnest. The shoot started at 5 and was well over by 5:15. That's faster than we go through shoots with most CEOs. I'm certain it's because I'd been working with Steve for days by then and we'd establish a very good working rapport. 

I'm just now home from visiting my parents in San Antonio and I'm in the middle of ingesting three hours of video and several hundred, huge raw files while packing for a video shoot we'll be doing at the Austin airport tomorrow morning (totally different client). It's been a most productive week.  I'm always happy to be busy both shooting and figuring out how to shoot. 

I've now watched several hours of video tape of president Johnson and I've seen Steve in character and it's amazing to see a real professional actor take on a character and make it totally convincing...not just the look but the stances, intonation and even the tilt of his head at just the right times. The experience reminds me of a short novel by Robert Heinlein entitled, Double Star. The book is about an actor who "doubles" for a beloved politician after a vicious attack sidelines him. It's a fun sci-fi read.  

This should be a great play. But that's not my goal. My goal is to make great images that will help sell tickets. 

It's been an amazing week, getting to know Steve Vinovich and also getting to know the "real" LBJ through his associates and through our research. But it's also been fun to get comfortable with the D810 as a video camera. It takes time to master any new tool but the versatility in that camera is amazing. 

By the way VSL readers, I appreciate having you along for the ride. 

A quick advertising note: Craftsy is offering a bunch of course at up to 50% off. It's a good way to learn new stuff. You might want to browse their photo offerings. I'll be looking at the cooking classes.....   Here's the link!


Frank Grygier said...

Somehow this takes me back to my PBS days. Thanks for allowing us to tag along.

John Krumm said...

It's amazing how a good actor can convince you of their character, even a well known historical character. With that first of the two portraits I really see LBJ, the turn of his lips and the look of the eyebrows.

Tom Northenscold said...

I'm not surprised about your D810 observations. I shoot the D800, which from a stills image quality perspective, is on par with the D810. I find the D800 files to be absolutely gorgeous. I also shoot a mirrorless camera, the GH3, which again, from a stills image quality perspective is the equal of the GH4, which I know you shoot. I enjoy shooting the GH3, but for stills image quality, I will always reach for my D800.

David Corney said...

Saw the play in New York with, Brian Cranston. Have tickets for this version of it. This is theater at its best. Get a ticket while there are still some to have.

Kirk Tuck said...

The play starts on April 8th. They are just now going into rehearsal though Steve V. was the understudy for Brian Cranston on the NY run....

George McKay said...

I appreciate the thorough run-through you give in describing the details of your various shoots. Useful to us as a technical how-to and presented in an accessible, almost conversational style.
Incidentally, the play, All the Way, got its start here in Ashland as a commissioned project for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.