4.05.2019

Yeah. It's a post about video. I know... you hate even thinking about video. That's okay. I may write about something different later. Have more coffee.

On Saturday, Sunday and Tuesday, last week, I concentrated on making 
marketing photographs for the Zach Theatre play, Matilda.
Then I did a corporate event job last night.
Today was a change of pace...

(Image: Jimmy Moore as Ms. Agatha Trunchbull). 

If you do the same stuff over and over again your brain will turn to jello and life will seem like a Moebius strip of unending and repetitious boredom.  People will move away from you at cocktail parties, fearful that you will once again tell that story you tell all the time about those same things that you do the same way all the time. I do a lot of photography (maybe too much) so every once in a while, when I get to do a video project, it's like breaking an unsavory habit.

The folks at Zach Theatre's marketing department seem never to sleep. No sooner do they finish the amazing project just in front of them, and watch the curtains rise on the labor of love they've been selling for the last month, than they clear their brains and advertising palettes, and dive into the next project. By the time that project is ready for an audience they will have moved on yet again.

I got a note a couple of weeks ago asking if I'd be willing to help with a video project for an upcoming play that involves two people who fall in love and help each other (metaphorically) help each other unpack their baggage. There is a lot of great music in the play and both of the actors who are cast in the lead role are performers whom I admire and love watching on stage. The theatre's smart, young director of social media and interesting video content wanted to know if I'd collaborate with him to produce content for several videos and three interviews; all of which we'd shoot today. I love collaborating with people who are far less than half my age so I was on board in a flash.

The formula was that Joshua (the theater guy) would bring the concept, the directorial vision and the editing prowess if I could supply the camera work, the audio savvy and the lighting. We talked the project over well in advance and I liked his concept: the two lead characters would go into a recording studio and produce the sound track for radio, television and anything else we needed for our project. We would video them singing this incredible song from every point of view that made sense, add in a bunch of b-roll that we'd also shoot during our afternoon in the recording studio, and then, if we had time, we'd interview each of the actors as well as the musical director for the play; individually.

It was decided that the optimum way to handle a time-limited production like this would be to use a three camera set up which would allow us to shoot the recording session with, simultaneously, a wide central "A" camera, then additional cameras for me and Joshua so each of us could concentrate on cross shooting the talent as they sang the money song over and over again until the sound engineers figured they had everything just right. Lucky for us I just happened to have three exactly matched Fujifilm X-H1 cameras and a Think Tank roller case filled with Fujinon lenses.

I was a little under the weather today. I'm still battling a cold and a cough, and I worked on a job for a tech company called, WP Engine, until late last night in San Antonio, driving back and arriving home just after midnight. That's why I pre-packed most of my stuff for the video shoot the day before. Packing should be done when one is rested, rational and deeply satisfied with existence (pick any two). 
It's never fun to get somewhere and realize that in a Sudafed inflicted haze you have forgotten the most needed piece of gear; the linchpin for everything else...

The studio was one of those typical Austin Old Music affairs. Hidden behind an electrical supply company, no signage anywhere, no parking; it's almost like they are daring customers to find them. But these places seem to attracts some genius engineers who can create great sound and some of the Austin music royalty seek them out. I knew we were in the right place when I saw the Studer one inch tape recording machine in one corner, and a mixing board older than the creative director with whom I was working.

The "live room" where the talent and our two man photo crew worked wasn't particularly large but the acoustics were absolutely perfect. We figured out where we wanted to position our talent and then set up the "A" camera on a tripod. A 14mm lens was the perfect choice for our wide, static POV. I roughed in the lighting as Joshua styled the set, adding some great older guitar amps to the background and taking out stuff that doesn't fit the milieu we were creating for the show.  I used three big LED fixtures bounced into 4x4 foot reflectors and used up pretty high. We also turned on all the soft, old fashioned "practicals" (table lamps) in the room which softened the shadows and warmed up the overall color balance. 

Joshua and I cross shot the scene. Each of use shooting the person on furthest from us. It was all about getting the right angles. Joshua shot nice medium shot, handheld, while I went in tight with a 90mm f2.0 balanced on a monopod. Once we each had good coverage from our initial angles we switched sides and switched the talent we were shooting. Me getting tight shots of the person he'd shot wide previously, and vice versa. 

The recording studio was actually creating the song as we worked and when they nailed down a perfect mix we used the mix, piped into the performers' headphones, to help them lip sync exactly so that no matter which versions of video clips we used in the final edit we'd have a better than average shot at everything syncing up well. We ran through the song in this fashion enough times to do dolly shots for each person, in close up, Some push in shots, and some super tight stuff on the performers' mouths and eyes. Really striking stuff but hard to keep in focus. (I'll keep practicing). 

I talked in a recent post about having a problem when monitoring audio through the battery grip headphone plug on my XH-1s. There seemed to be a little bit of distortion. I tested them enough to know that the issue was with the headphone circuit and NOT what was being written to the memory card but on a project like this, where audio is all important, I wanted to be doubly sure. 

Here's my work-around: I used an Atomos Ninja Flame, 7 inch, 4K monitor/recorder as an "A" camera mounted monitor. It served several purposes; the play's director and the theater's marketing director were able to get a good idea of what the whole visual effect was. I would get second (back up) recording of everything we shot on the "A" camera (but only in 1080P, laid down as Pro Res files). And the most important benefit of using the Atomos was that it has a headphone jack and monitors what is being recorded to the SSD in the Atomos. If that signal is good then so is the audio coming out of the HDMI jack on the camera. I still don't have a clear idea about the camera's headphone jack.....

So, the "A" camera is locked down on sticks and fitted out with the 14mm lens. Joshua is using maybe three different focal lengths like, 23mm, 35mm and the 50mm, while I'm mostly using the 16-55mm f2.8 with a close in "assist" from either the 90mm or the 60mm macro. 

We wanted to warm up the whole set and a little trial and error with the Kelvin setting convinced us that 6300K was just right. We used that setting on all three cameras and never varied it. We also kept all three cameras locked in at ISO800 and the video files are virtually noise free. I preferred to shoot the longer lenses on a "chicken foot" monopod while a non-caffeinated and 27 year old Joshua took his chances and shot handheld with an assist from the in-body image stabilization. Finally, I now swear by the Eterna profile in the camera. It does a beautiful job holding onto highlights, with the tenacity of a terrier, and provides nicely open shadows as well.

The "A" camera took a line feed of the beautiful audio coming off the mixing board while the other two cameras just used internal mics to provide tracks we can use to sync up clips in post production. The line out from the board is the wrong level and impedance for consumer video cameras but a Beach Tek DXA 2T does a nice job matching balanced XLRs to unbalanced camera inputs. It also provides a dial for each channel to pad down levels. Still easier than trying to change levels on a touch screen any day. 

After we shot the music section of our production we re-set for individual interviews. Now we were off the safety net of the sound studio's audio system and I had to change hats into my "sound guy" beret. I decided to go with a lavaliere microphone instead of a cardiod or super-cardiod microphone on a boom pole. You'd be so proud of me, I tested both sets of my Sennheiser wireless systems earlier in the week and drilled with them until I could set them (almost) blindfolded. The real trick is knowing exactly where to place them on each person for the very best audio. I only own six sets of lavaliere microphones and have used "lavs" for paid and personal work since the mid-1980s. I'm still just a student when it comes to microphone placement. Today I lucked out and did a good job. 

I had the receiver in a cold shoe on my camera cage and ran the output from the lav receiver into the Beach Tek again just to have total control over levels. The audio sounded good to me and I handed the headphones to my young collaborator to get his buy-in. All good. 

We shot a classic, two camera interview set-up with almost "classic" three point lighting. Joshua had written down his questions for each person which endeared him to me in no small measure. I hate "seat of the pants" interviewers...

We went a bit over our reservation time in the studio and had to pack and be out in a bit less than half an hour. I spot checked footage all the way through and everything looked good. I had an inventory list in each case and I'm happy to say we didn't even forget a bongo tie. We marched into the recording stuff (well I shuffled, what with a profound lack of sleep and cold virus induced headache) at one p.m. shot a lot of good content and were loading cases back into the incredibly sexy Subaru Forester right at 4:30 pm. I slipped into rush hour traffic and listened to "real" news on NPR all the way home. 

Sometime tomorrow I'll transfer all the footage onto an SSD drive and hand it off to Joshua. He's pretty excited about hitting the edit and showing off a bit. I can't blame him; he did a masterful job of imagining this project and putting all the pieces together to pull it off brilliantly. It's the kind of collaboration that can only make my reel look better and better.