Assisted Flying in Pease Park. Austin, Texas
Yesterday Ben and I did a project for the Oceanography Department at UT Austin (my friends in Knoxville have let me know that UT = University of Tennessee; founded long before the University of Texas at Austin. From now on we'll just call our local one "The" University). Our part was pretty straightforward, we were recording interviews with faculty and graduate students about their experiences with an intensive, immersive, three week, hands-on course. From what I gathered listening to the interviews the time spent doing real research on locations at sea is by turns challenging, rewarding and fun --- even the people prone to seasickness rallied and otherwise appreciated the adventure.
The two scientists who invited us to participate in the making of the video are friends that I swim with in our masters swimming program. Between the four of we've logged a lot of miles in the Rollingwood Pool. Seeing everyone in work clothes was a bit out of context.
The team at UT Austin wanted to improve on previous videos that featured a lot of smart phone interviews and less than perfect audio. Ben and I wanted to up the ante just a bit and also provide a second camera angle for all the interviews so that the person who will edit the programs together is able to switch views to avoid monotony.
Our first set of interviews started at 10 a.m. I had scouted the week before and we reserved a big seminar room with great acoustics and lots of space. We loaded in at 9 a.m. and set up our two cameras. I'd done a lot of microphone testing in the last few weeks and found that the Rode NTG4+ is a really good shotgun microphone. We used it for the interviews in this room because it was both large enough and also had great sound abatement everywhere. I wasn't worried about secondary reflections or phase issues caused by reverberation.
We ran the Rode Mic into a Beachtek pre-amp and ran the Beachtek into a Fujifilm X-T3, which I shot as the "main" camera. Since the audio input and headphone amplifier are both very clean in the X-T3 I didn't need to use the audio monitoring on an external device (Atomos Ninja) to make sure the fuzziness we usually hear in the headphones plugged into X-H1s wasn't in the final, recorded signal.
The X-T3 makes audio level monitoring and control easy with great on screen indicators and the ability to punch in for fine focus while recording is something every camera should feature but which was conspicuously absent on the Sony A7ii and A7Rii cameras I owned.
The lighting in the seminar room was great. With very high ceilings and bright LED fixtures (made in tubes to be interchangeable with florescent fixtures), we were able to color match our LED light + soft box with a quick custom white balance. Our light provided just enough front light to give direction and to fill in the "raccoon" eye look that happens when most of the lighting comes from directly above.
We did five interviews in the main seminar room before taking a break for lunch. The department provided a great lunch of chicken and/or steak fajitas along with rice, beans, guacamole and various salsas. Every interviewee was invited along to lunch along with our tiny video crew of two. The wonderful thing about collaborating on projects in an academic environment is that there's never that "life or death" feeling about projects that seems to be part of the corporate mindset. No fear that jobs are on the line or that some unreal deadline is hovering over the project that will keep everyone awake and on caffeine until the project is finally blessed by some sadistic VP over in marketing. That sure made our lunch a lot more fun...
Our next set of interviews was done in a hallway on the third floor of the building. We used a giant, blue, green, and tan colored map of the oceans as our out of focus background. The hallway was flooded with daylight from a window just behind me and it looked pretty incredible as is. Since the acoustics of the hallway and the proximity of the walls was so different than the downstairs area I switched to a lavaliere microphone to combat the known technical issues smaller spaces present to shotgun microphones.
I didn't have the patience to mess with a wireless system, I just wanted a solution that worked in a bulletproof manner, so I kept the radio mic system in the audio bag and pulled out a reliable Audio Technica AT-70, hardwired lav. system and attached it to the pre-amp with a long XLR cable. Perfect audio every time. You do need to be somewhat careful with mic placement (about 12 inches from the subject's mouth) and you do need to tape down cables to keep "thump" resonances at bay, but otherwise the use of a wired microphone in today's age of wireless mania is a nearly foolproof way to get good, clean audio in tight or noisy spaces. And you don't need to worry about interference from other electronic devices.
When we started filming in the morning I put on the 56mm f1.2 APD lens and used it on the main camera at f2.8 or f2.5. The backgrounds look great and the parts of the subject that are meant to be in focus are nicely detailed and snappy. Ben's camera was an X-H1 and he used the 16-55mm lens at a middle-to-wide setting and generally at f2.8. The faster lenses and wider apertures allowed us to stay in the ISO 320-640 range which made for very nice and noiseless files.
Our final location, for four interviews, was in a working lab with the attendant environmental noise of a working space. The lavaliere microphone was the logical choice in this environment as well and it did a good job of rejecting a lot of the room noise; even a vent hood that could only be turned off if we were all willing to take a chance on dying.... (kidding, kind of...).
The two camera system is a godsend for editing as you can weave different looks in and out of B-roll and make your program more dynamic. Ben and I were careful to color match both cameras and to make sure the custom white balances were done in the same settings and at the same angles. There might be slight exposure differences between the cameras but they will be easy to match in the editing process.
Between both cameras we ended up with about 180 Gigabytes of .Mov files. The real blessing of this project, for me and Ben, is that we don't have to edit it. The folks at UT Austin will be doing that in house. Once we deliver a couple of memory sticks were golden.
After we wrapped up and loaded the car the whole group headed over to Austin Beer Works for a celebratory round of Austin's great craft beer. Instead of empty discussions about market share and advertising metrics the table chat was all about "the next expedition." I was a bit jealous as my favorite scientist there told me about an upcoming scientific project in Antartica and a second project in the Mojave Desert. But those are weeks away; he's still recovering from last week's adventures of the coast of Greenland... Sounds even better than being a photographer.
Just transferring the "footage" to some flash memory right....now.