How I screwed up yesterday without screwing up my whole project.

I got a call a few days ago about a video project. Could I come out and do a very short interview that would be inserted into a larger project? I've come to like shooting real interviews and I don't mind the quasi-interview process that is prefaced to the interview subject like this: "Hi Mr. Smith. We've got a thirty second gap that we're holding for you in our video. Can you touch on this (the "big" subject) and then say, quickly, how our company helped to solve the problem for your people?" I've come to see these little, episodic plug-ins as extremely valuable; especially when requested by the CEO who "owns" the budget for your overall project.

The brief was to shoot video of one person on location in another city and to come away with about thirty seconds of great messaging. We didn't need B-roll so I left Ben behind to tweak our ongoing edit, promising I wouldn't come back with anything that would run over 32 seconds. Something about  retiming all the audio. 

I'd scouted the intended location before and, since it was a sunny day, didn't think I would need lights; but I brought some anyway. While I had been shooting with the RX10 cameras I capriciously decided to mix things up a little bit. Make a few changes 95% of the way into a project....

I packed two cameras: The A7Rii and the most recently acquired A7ii.  My intention was to shoot with the A7Rii and just bring along the other camera for snapshots and back-up. I packed three lenses; the Zeiss 24-70mm, the Sony 18-105mm G lens and the Rokinon 85mm f1.5 cine lens, with an adapter.

The night before I sat at my desk and went through the A7Rii menu several times to make sure all the menu settings were on target and that I'd set up the function menu for video capture. My intention was to test out the 1080p output of the camera since the final output for the project would also be 1080p. We went into the project with the idea of shooting everything in 4K but a certain percentage of the material we ended up using was archival footage (fortunately only from a couple of years back) which was 1080p so we ended up putting everything on a 1080p timeline. Everything looked great and the camera was ready to go. I stuck it in the case along with the rest of the gear and packed the car.

The trip to Wimberley, Texas was really pleasant. Ranch to Market Route 12 is really pretty, with lots of rolling hills and fun, gentle "S" curves to glide through. I'd had the Honda CRV serviced the day before and the car just hummed along. The cherry on the ice cream was the almost total lack of other traffic. Almost like a holiday from the relentless Austin traffic...

I got to Wimberley (hippie, artist, trustfunder, escape destination for exhausted Austinites....) and found our location in the local community center. I found a room with a bank of windows on one side and no real visual or audio distractions and started setting up. I'd use the soft, indirect, window light as my main light and bounce an LED panel off the ceiling for some vague fill light.

At this point the client arrived and started talking to me in detail about the many facets of the overall project. I paid as much attention as I possibly could but in the back of my mind the countdown clock until the arrival of our talent was clicking away with urgency.

I pulled out a camera, formatted the 64 gigabyte SDXC card and slapped a microphone mixer/impedance matching device to the bottom. I attache a quick release plate to the bottom of the audio device and put the combination on the tripod. I've been wanting to try the 85mm Rokinon 1.5 (cine) lens on the A7R2 for some time so I put it on the camera.

My client stood in while I roughed in the composition for the shot. She also held a white test target so I could get a nice custom white balance (God, that makes the whole editing/grading process so much easier....). I loved the look of the shot so we marked the position for the subject on the floor with some orange tape. The last task before we got started was to set up the wireless microphone and get the levels set. During this whole process I am carrying on a somewhat technical and detail-laden conversation with my client. Lots of stuff to hammer out...

The subject walks in and we chat for a few minutes. I get the microphone position on his dress shirt and show him how to drop the cord inside his shirt and run the wire out the bottom (out of frame) and around to the radio transmitter I'm attaching to his belt. We discussed what the video project needed and what we needed him to say.

Just before we got rolling I went to change the shutter speed and the camera told me that I couldn't do that function in the current setting. The warning showed me that while we were in the movie mode the camera was set to movie/program exposure. Odd, I thought. I was almost certain I'd set that menu to manual weeks ago when I first got the A7Rii. No matter, I found the setting, changed it and then modified the shutter speed. The finder info told me we were shooting in XAVC at 50 mbs and 24 fps. I was happy and ready.

The comp of the shot and the quick fall off behind the subject was exactly what I was looking for. The interviewee was at ease in front of the camera and had a good, strong voice. I had him say the same thing a number of times and we even stopped and reviewed a couple of takes in the process. By the end of the fifteen or twenty minutes of "hands-on" engagement we all felt good about what we'd shot and I started packing up. The cameras got the lenses pulled off and put into their neoprene pouches. The cameras got their body covers and dropped into their protective cases. Everything went into the big, rolling Husky case and I headed back to the buzzing beehive of Austin. I was feeling professional; very satisfied with the work I'd just done and the ease with which we were able to coach the interviewee into giving us exactly what we needed.

I dragged the case into the studio and then went in to the house to find Ben. Since he is doing the primary editing for our project I thought he'd want to come into the studio and help choose the best take to include.

He came along and we headed to the workstation. I pulled the Sony A7Rii out of the case and pulled the memory card. I stuck it into the card reader and opened Final Cut Pro. On the desktop I popped open the folder in which the video clips should have been. There was nothing! It was blank. I went through every single folder on the card. Nothing. My panic started to well up. I'd have to call the client and re-shoot. Yikes. Ben suggested we put the card back in the camera and see if we could see the images on the review screen. No. Nothing. Another wave of panic.

Then I started entertaining the improbable. Was this the right camera? Had I somehow gotten the cameras mixed up? Me, the perfect technician making a technical mistake? Holy crap! I calmly asked Ben to hand me the other camera body. I pulled the card, stuck it in the card reader and....voila....there were all the precious little files. In my haste to set up in Wimberley I had grabbed the wrong camera. I'd just shot my first video on the A7ii in the middle of a real job. Something I always avoid, just in case.

My initial action was relief, followed by sheer embarrassment. What a huge fuck-up it is to choose the wrong camera. I must be loosing my marbles.

But then we looked at the cameras carefully and noticed that they are almost completely identical and, if I take off my glasses it's hard (almost impossible) for me to differential the little model insignias just to the left of the lens on the front of the camera.

Ben was gracious and acted like this was just something that happened to everyone. But I suspect he was thinking...."Ah, so this is how the inevitable decline begins......"

My two takeaways? The video from the A7ii looked great and it cuts in perfectly. I did my actual job correctly even if I did screw up in grabbing cameras. And? Bring bright orange tape. Put a swatch of it on the shooting camera to differentiate. I got lucky this time; what if I'd still been trying to shoot everything in 4K?


George said...

Great read. I was tense while reading and trying to guess where the screw-up happened. Amazing recovery, and a wonderful lesson for us all. Check everything, assume nothing. If only I had set spot metering for the pix of the little girl tutoring her friend in math... Thanks, Kirk.

Roger B. said...

Easily done! I've felt the cold touch of the fickle finger of fate a few times, right down the spine.

Now, this might be all a bit partial vacuum, eggs and an ancient female relative to you, but perhaps applying a few of those little round paper stickers on one of the bodies would do the trick. You could probably even get them in your company colours!

Tom Devlin said...

"Ah, so this is how the inevitable decline begins......"

Yes it is. Sometimes it is marvelous to behold. Most other times it varies from scary to just plain annoying.

Make good use of colored tape.


Anonymous said...

So Kirk, you really are just human after all!? It all worked out though.
"To err is human. To blame someone else is politics". Hubert H. Humphrey
Happy these days you are not a politician.


Anonymous said...

Sorry I'm laughing! That just proves that in fact you are human and subject to making incidental mistakes, just like everyone else. Although probably not that incidental this time. Love the inference about senior moment!

Andy deBruyn said...

I realize some photographers may not have camera straps on all cameras. I have three Nikon bodies with different colored straps. Green is my favorite color so my main unit has the green strap. Whether they're in a bag or on the table I look at the strap first. Maybe this idea would be helpful to some.

Richard Leacock said...

If running more than 1 camera in a shoot (as well as when a back-up camera comes along) I'll sticker them and number them, just in case...

Mike Rosiak said...

Good buildup of suspense. What was the screw up? Will it hurt the job? When will Kirk find out? And, who killed the Count?
Warming up for the next novel, I think.

Roger B. said...

Er, I screwed up today by not reading your last paragraph. Hence my previous comment. I should know not to make comment when I've just got in and I haven't had my tea yet. I shall now go away and apply some stickers to myself... : ]

Anonymous said...

Hi Kirk, happy for you that fate was with you on this project.

Tying into your previous post, I really enjoy reading about your experiences, both the working projects and your thought processes about what you do and what you purchase. I mainly love to shoot landscape and nature, so it's interesting to me to read about what many of your professional and personal projects look like.

I don't know how long it takes you to put together a blog post like this one, but I can understand if you choose not to continue. I would definitely miss you if VSL was no more.

Regards, Jim Restle

JereK said...

I have the different color strap approach for this problem. Happy you got out of it without the need to make a recording altogether.

Kris Jorgensen said...

I did the same thing with my Nikon D3s and D3x. Thought I brought the D3x for a large studio light shoot and had the D3s instead . It all turned out good, but now I have orange gaffers tape on the D3x to remind me of what can happen.
Also your previous post about your thoughts on continuing or not. Please keep doing what you do. I like many out there read your site and yours is one of two sites that I would bother to read, Luminous Landscape would be the other.