8.30.2020

An after action report of the outdoor/indoor, 13.5 hour, video shoot with a cast of 60+ in the heart of Austin. A surprise camera emerges as the ultimate workhorse...

This is the S1 fitted with a Ninja V and a Beachtek audio interface. 

I packed the night before. There were too many variables for me not to bring too much gear. And the schedule for Saturday was ambitious; to say the least. I packed three different cameras, five lenses, twenty different batteries, a rolling case of LED lights (and we used everything in the case) as well as an audio kit that contained lav mics, reporter mics, and a couple of shotguns with furry, wind covers. I also brought along both the Zhiyun Crane gimbal (used on the vast majority of shots) and the gimbal for the phone (which never left the car). 

I crawled out of bed at 6 a.m. and made a breakfast of coffee and peanut butter and jelly on toasted sourdough bread. I wore a Cool 32 white undershirt under a Sportif long sleeve technical shirt. A well broken in pair of English Laundry short pants, Merrill hiking shoes and, of course, my wide brimmed hat. 

With so many cameras and valuable other stuff in the cases I didn't load up the car the night before. I hoisted all the cases into the Forester by 6:45 and drove over to Zach Theatre in the dark. I checked in, met up with the producer/director, got my temperature checked (97.3°) and immediately got to work setting up for an interior shot we were scheduled to do at 12:30 pm. It was a standard interview style shot with three lights and a teleprompter. I'm a bit "old school" when it comes to audio so if I have the choice between wireless mics and wired mics I still prefer to go with the latter. With the prevalence of phones and the generated interference everywhere it always seems less tedious and fraught with peril if I just hard wire stuff together.

Lighting consisted of a Godox SL150ii LED in a collapsible soft box as the key along with a Godox SL60 in the same kind of box from the back/opposite corner and then one SL60 with a grid spot, barn doors and a blue filter to hit the background with. Once I had everything set up and tested the producer and I moved on to a quick discussion of the morning's shots. He wanted to use a gimbal and do a lot of moving shots. I'd tested various camera loads on the gimbal and found the day before that the smaller and lighter G9 with the 12-60mm lens was the "just right" option for that kind of work. There are a few caveats but for the most part it was a good decision. 

Ben and I also ran a few tests on color profiles the day before since we knew we'd be in hard sun for most of the morning and, because of intransigence on the part of the owner of the project, our schedule would put us in a situation where there was heavy side lighting and back lighting to contend with. I'm sure our ultimate client's real concern was getting actors filmed before we got to the high temperatures for the day. Scheduling 60+ actors, singers and dancers has to be a struggle... And with different levels of fitness it can be dangerous for some.

At any rate Ben and I played around with the HLG color profile in the G9. It's real name is Hybrid Log Gamma but I think HLG is just fine. It's a file type that was created for HDR TV but it works like most Log files to compress tones in the highlights so they don't burn out. It takes a little bit of work in post to get a pretty file out of it but you'd be amazed how powerfully a well exposed HLG file holds onto highlights. 

The G9 has HLG as an option and it also has an HLG View Assist which basically uses an in-camera LUT to show a normalized view of what the file will (might?) look like once it's processed into a REC 709 color space. I found, when processing, that the profile keeps color accurate, requires a bump in overall exposure, and a curve to push up the contrast. Add more saturation to taste. 

But since I am not editing the project I sent along some HLG test files to the producer/director/editor and asked him to evaluate the files within his workflow (Adobe Premiere). On the morning of the shoot he gave me an enthusiastic approval of that color profile. All good so far. 

At 7:45 a.m., with face masks on and the ambient temperature already 86° with high humidity, I grabbed the gimbal with the Panasonic Lumix G9 and the 12-60mm f2.8/4.0 and we headed over (200 yards) to the wide pedestrian bridge over the river that separates Austin's downtown from the residential neighborhoods of South Austin. We had our favorite stage manager in tow. She would serve as the talent herder and all around facilitator for the entire day. We could not have done what we were able to without her! Creative talent can be unruly and keeping them all in one spot and listening to direction is a major challenge by itself. Fortunately our stage manager has worked many live shows with most of the talent assembled and knows how to nicely but firmly get everyone on the same path.

Our first shots were of individual actors who would walk, dance or sing (all the same song. all lip sync'd throughout for editing purposes) while I handled the camera and gimbal. I have now thoroughly mastered the art of walking backwards (at any speed), walking forwards, crab-walking sideways, and doing 180° walkarounds while keeping an eye on the camera's monitor (adding an external monitor = too much weight on the gimbal and in a configuration that requires too much re-balancing) and not falling on my ass. 

We used as low an ISO as the camera would allow. That's ISO 400 with HLG engaged. That meant we had to use neutral density over the lens for all the shots. Even with strong neutral density over the lens I was impressed at how well the G9 held on with continuous AF. I rarely lost AF connection with the subject, even with lots of camera and subject movements and lots of pushing in and out (walking toward the subject and walking away from the subject). 

Our first few individual shots weren't too tough as far as lighting went. We still could find suitable locations with a bit of open shade and foliage in the background but by 8:45 we were in for the roasting. As the morning went on we went from single talent scenes to groups of five to seven actors and dancers executing well rehearsed choreography, moving towards and away from camera. Some scenes required moving from a tight shot on a "star" singer in a group and taking the camera backwards to reveal the entire group as they then came, briskly, toward camera. I quickly learned how to "reverse pace" them and move backwards at a matching speed. 

By about 9:30 the "mercury" (old school term for thermometer) was heading towards 95 and the heat index was over 100. Actors showed up already covered with a sheen of sweat generated by the 200 yard walk from the air conditioned theater. Our support crew supplied ample face towels and folks would swab off their faces just before we'd start rolling on a scene. 

All the way through we needed to stop and review footage to make sure we were getting what the producer needs for the upcoming broadcast. I'd fashioned an LCD hood out of Black Wrap (heavy duty, black aluminum foil) and gaffer's tape. It was still hard to see if we were in full sun but, fortunately, anytime we stopped for reviews someone on the support crew was right there holding big umbrellas over the producer and me to shade us (and the monitor) from the harsh light. Crew members also delivered ice cold bottles of water throughout. 

We worked our way through dozens of groups and at least as many individual shots up on the bridge. The most complex was a shot that started with a singer on a park bench at one side of the bridge. He looks out over the lake and then, as if having heard a call from beyond ( the music) he gets up from the bench and walks toward the middle of the walk way and starts traveling across the bridge. I am moving backwards in front of him trying to carefully maintain the same distance throughout. As he moves towards me pairs of actors from either side fall into step behind and to the sides of the principal actor until we have a delta of performers all dancing as they move right toward camera --- which is constantly backing up to maintain distance and composition. We end that shot with the principal pointing at the lens and smiling into camera. 

This was one scene that hadn't be rehearsed in advance but everyone fell into place pretty quickly. Since we did not have the bridge to ourselves a couple of takes got blown because of a runner or family ending up in the shot but when I review our final take I feel like a SteadyCam operator on a Jason Bourne movie. It just worked so well.

Our last shot in the morning took us to noon. The producer/director and I had been on that exterior location for nearly four hours. We were hot, tired and suddenly realizing that we'd only gotten through the first third of a long day. By the time we left the bridge location we'd filmed over 60 actors in various groups and single shots. Our tally of takes was over 100 for the morning --- about 75 gigabytes of 10 bit, 4:2:2 H.264 video. 

I guess I don't have to tell most of you that gimbals are pretty amazing. The Zhiyun Crane gimbal I was using never missed a step or acted up. The better I got the balance the better it performed so I rebalanced whenever we changed focal lengths or did anything to disturb the original balance. We used that gimbal to shoot all day long and never saw the battery indicator drop below 60%. And for a lot of the time that was in temperatures over 95° coupled with high humidity. I'll never go on a video shoot without one again!

With a long sleeve shirt, a cooling, evaporative neck scarf, a wide brimmed hat, "ice" gloves and sunscreen on my legs the only complaint I have from the morning's shoot was that I couldn't wear my polarized sunglasses and still see the comp on the screen (which is critical to operating a gimbal mounted camera). I had to either wear reading glasses or my bi-focals. The bright light and, I guess, the need to concentrate second-by-second on the screen as well as my surroundings, left me with a bit of a "optical" headache for the rest of the day. I don't know how I could have prevented that...

Over the course of four hours of shooting, chimping and client reviews we ran through two batteries with the G9. I tried, whenever I was not shooting to either keep the camera and gimbal in whatever small shade I could find or to cover them both with the small, white shop towel I kept hanging from my back pocket. The camera, shooting at its highest res and highest bit rate (4K, 150 megabits per second) never overheated or showed an overheat warning. Sure, it's three year old technology but it's running rings around the dreck Canon delivered a few weeks ago. The Canon might have a nicer overall image quality but it hardly matters if you're keeping a cast of 60+ waiting around in full, tropical sun while your camera cools off so you can shoot another five minutes before you need to cool it off for another half hour.... you'd be out of business by that time..).

Using a Delkin Steel USH-11 128 GB card in the camera we had no card or write issues at all. It just worked perfectly every step of the way. 

A little after noon we headed back to the theater and the wonderful cool of the air conditioned space. I walked in the door and headed straight back to the area in which I'd set up an interview scene earlier that morning. With a bottle of Gatorade on hand I finished the set by adding in an S1 camera on a tripod and wiring a lavaliere microphone to the Panasonic DMW audio interface sitting on top of the S1 (that S1 was the one without a cage and brought along specifically so we could get this shot with the audio adapter in place rather than messing with rearranging the cage and monitor clamp on the other S1. Good to have multiples...). 

We tweaked the sound, made the rounds to ask everyone to be quiet and then miked the managing director for the theater and walked her through her performance a few times. She read the teleprompter, gave an adequate speech (plea for money) and by her third run through we felt like she had warmed up and given a very nice and authentic presentation. She smiled and thanked me and was off to the next fund-raising opportunity. 

At 1:15 p.m. the producer/director and I had our first actual break of the day. We sucked down liquids, ate lukewarm tacos from Torchy's Tacos and checked for messages on our phones. We were both wiped out at that point. But we rallied. I credit the massive influx of water and coffee. 

After a quick lunch and a thorough hand-washing I spent the next half hour breaking down the gear from the "interview" set and re-packing it all in the cases. I spent most of that half hour admonishing myself for not hiring a good assistant; even though it would have been out of my own pocket. It would have been nice to have someone I could trust to re-pack and take care of the gear. Over and over again. 

After stowing the lighting and sound gear I moved the remaining camera cases into the theater auditorium and got everything set and balanced for the afternoon shoots. We'd have groups of the same actors and dancers executing the choreography for each of their numbers; again, in sync with the soundtrack that our audio team had pre-recorded in the weeks leading up. I brought in our "A" camera case with the G9, and S1 in a cage. I also brought in the gimbal, a tripod and a monopod with a fluid head ( which I like very much as a quick production tool). 

This was a fun part of the shoot since we didn't have to worry about getting absolutely fried by the sun and also because I got to collaborate with my favorite lighting designer who, with iPod in hand, worked with me to make light that both looked dramatic and fun enough but also stayed within the exposure parameters of my cameras. A benefit I almost never have when shooting live shows. We also worked almost exclusively up on the stage apron which is something I never get to do in rehearsals and live shows. 

I used the Panasonic/Leica 12-60mm during most of the dance numbers with the G9 on the gimbal. I'd start with a wide establishing shot and then move in and circulate through the dancers getting close enough to isolate them individually. It's important to watch one run through of each number and try to memorize where each person is through the piece so you can plot a course through that doesn't end with you and your camera crashing into a pirouetting dancer. Always bad form. 

Since the stage show is still a work in progress we had a lot of "hurry up and wait" times as the choreographer and the show director (different from my producer/director) tried variations which we would then film--- only to have them modified and ready to be filmed again....and again....

There were a number of set-ups with actors and dancers on stage in which we wanted the lead performer to come downstage and end at a specific mark in front of the camera. We'd put a flourescent tape mark on the floor and then have a stand-in take the position so we could carefully focus and frame. Using the 24-70mm f2.4 S-Pro allowed me to use manual focus settings that were repeatable so I could mark a position on the lens that gave use a good focus on the ensemble and a different focus point that was our pinpoint end stop and I could accurately "rack" focus between them to get the best effect. It's more certain and repeatable than depending on continuous AF; especially when dancers are crossing in front of each other--- which is confusing even for the finest auto focus systems. The other part of shooting like this is making sure you rehearse the moves and make sure the actor can actually hit their marks...

After hours and hours of stage work we changed batteries in the primary cameras and took a fifteen minute break for receiving and re-distributing fluids. We also took a moment to breeze through a bunch of our takes on the stage to make sure we nailed what we needed to nail. It looks like we did. 

Our final shoots were back outside. It was nearly 7:15 p.m. and the cast was dragging. (No dinner...). We needed to shoot a legendary singer lip syncing to the music she'd recorded with our audio team earlier in the month. We wanted to film her alone first, on the big plaza in front of the theater, moving the gimbal mounted camera around her in a 180° half circle as she performed. At that point some delays (not on our part) started creeping in to the schedule. When we finally had the actor our daylight was on the way out and we had a split lighting situation where our actor was in open shade but there was still weak day light on the face of the building. Also, the open shade had no contrast to the light. It was flat as a pancake. I ran inside and grabbed my most powerful LED light (SL150ii) and an open faced soft box (diffuser removed) and rushed out to set it up. It was just the punch we needed for that shot. 

Then we needed to do the actor/singer's performance again but with a crowd "arriving" at the theater and stopping to marvel at the open air singing. And to dance. It took forever to assemble and rehearse the crowd (totally out of my control) but we grabbed the scene with the last few photons of the day. At that point we had two more quick but important shots to do and our daylight was on fumes. The scenes were way too wide and encompassing to light (and we didn't have any time) so I switched from the G9 to the S1 on a monopod and moved all the way up to ISO 4000. We got the last two shots by the skin of our teeth... but we did get them. 

At 9:00 p.m. we started packing and wrapping. You'd think it would have been cooler after the sun went down but according to my phone it was still 97 degrees. I dragged my gear back into the office at home base around 9:30pm and went into the house looking for food and wine....and water, sure. When I woke up this morning I felt like I'd been hit by a truck. I guess eight or so hours with a gimbal in your hands adds up to a decent workout.

I was looking across the web today while eating breakfast and came across a video by Jared Polin (Fro Knows Photos) where he talks about having shot a bunch of non-repeatable video in London and having his memory card go tits up. The card manufacturer tried to recover the data but was unsuccessful. I thought, for half a second, about all the set ups, all the actors, and all the behind-the-scenes efforts that went into making yesterday work and I stood up from the table and almost ran into the studio. I grabbed the G9, the camera with 80 % of our work on it from yesterday, took a deep breath and started the transfer from the memory card to the big 10 GB HD I'm using as the primary back-up. I held my breath for the next 18 minutes as I watched the progress bar slowly wend its way from left to right. On completion I spot checked some of the 200+ .MOV files and sighed a big exhale of utter relief. 

Then I downloaded the work from the other two cameras onto the same hard drive. I hooked up the SSD I'm using to shuttle work to the client and also the HD I'm using as a secondary back up and put the files on these drives as well. So, we've now got the files backed up in three places and as soon as the producer/director gets the shuttle drive he'll do back-ups on the theater's servers as well.  Now I can go in search of a peaceful cup of coffee and curse Jared Polin for temporarily scaring the crap out of me. 

The project isn't finished (we've got a couple more shoots scheduled in the next two weeks) yet but this was the hugest and most nerve racking single day for everyone. We have one or two high profiles performers to go but nothing like the time commitment and sheer size of cast as yesterday's shoot. I learned so much about moving the camera all through the video. I'm coming from a different background where we mostly were concerning with static interviews and complacent b-roll. I feel like I'm starting from scratch and that's both scary and fun. Fortunately, at this point in life, no one is really depending on my photo/video income for....anything. And the price of failure will be measured only by the wounds to my ego and not to my actual survival. Not a bad way to work.
 

17 comments:

Fred said...

Wow. I got tired just reading this. How did you even have the energy to write it up after yesterday. It must be the extra stamina that swimmers have.
It is interesting that you used the G9 so much, kind of shocking really, when everyone knows from a casual search of the internet that anything smaller than "full frame" is useless in this day and age. And manual focusing, oh my! So last week. :-)

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Hi Fred,

I have to admit, I was pushing it yesterday. By the end of the day I felt like I had run a marathon. I woke up sore in places today...and very hungry.

Don't discount that G9. It's a pretty amazing package. A couple of those and some lenses and you'd be able to run a good video business. Not super high end but good enough for anything destined solely for YouTube.

As to the writing...you have to do something to occupy yourself while downloading and archiving large amounts of data. Unlike some bloggers who confess to taking hours and hours or days and days to construct a blog post I generally spend less than an hour writing something like this. Writers seem, by their very nature, to be extremely lazy. They all need to learn to write at speed. Too much rumination ruins a blog post just as too many cooks spoil the broth...

Revisions are for cowards. Write once, post often.

G Gudmundsson said...

Write once, post often! --- lol --- great advice ...or, as that very successful slogan states - Just do it!

Michael Matthews said...

Wow. After reading this I had to lie down. Immediately. Point of clarification, please: are you doing promotional material for the show...or the show itself? This looks like it should have required two or more full crews.

Tom Vadnais said...

Wow, another fantastic post. I almost feel that I was there, although from the comfort of my air conditioned house. As always, lots to take in and learn. Thanks, Kirk.

I don't do much video and haven't used a gimbal since the original Steadicam JR probably twenty years ago. Your descriptions of the balancing and practice walking quickly in any direction resurrected forgotten memories. Your post was fascinating and informative as usual. It's amazing how you can write something so complete and interesting so quickly. Kudos!

Tom

Unknown said...

I'm now too old to return to filmmaking (I won't say how old, but well over 25!), and you have reassured me once again that retirement was the best decision! ~Mark

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Hi MM,

Here's the project: Zach Theatre usually has a big fundraising gala each year. People dress up, donate hundreds of thousands of dollars and enjoy an evening of fine dining (usually catered by the Four Seasons Hotel) and non-stop live entertainment. This year the theater is suffering from the pandemic lock down. There can't be an in person gala so they are attempting to do a live stream gala that will stream live on the 26th of September. Given the circumstances the management decided to do as much of the entertainment and the prevailing storyline in advance. That way we can maintain the health rules like social distancing more effectively.

The show will feature two live emcees, a auction, etc. but the vast majority of the one hour program will consist for pre-recorded segments. We're doing those (and will probably get roped into the live show as well...in some capacity).

They've chosen a theme song to open with and that's the work we being doing for the last week. The song is: "Everyday People" and the story line is that we have this incredible singer singing this on camera and we cut to all kinds of people all over Austin who are going about their everyday stuff: shopping, checking phone mail, out for a walk, visiting a landmark. They hear the song (in some magical way) and start tapping toes, breaking into song and dancing euphorically. The song is calling everyone to the theater.

We've filmed the "real people" singing and breaking into dance all over Austin. Along with lots of Austin b-roll. Yesterday we filmed individuals on the pedestrian bridge hearing the siren call, and then forming into small groups dancing the choreography and lip syncing to the music.

You see the singer singing in front of the theater and we zoom into an ECU of her then cut to her onstage and do a reciprocal zoom out. There is a crew of dancers behind her in costume doing the dance. Etc. Etc.

That's the biggest piece in the show and with all the lead in and riffs should be about six minutes of the show. That seems about right....two and a half weeks of work, a cast of more than 60 all for six minutes of screen time. But we'll also do modules of a singer on stage who is coming in from L.A. as well as three or four dance numbers and a few solos. All of which we'll be filming between now and the day we go live with the streams on Facebook and Youtube. We're essentially putting about 2/3rds of the entire show, well edited, in the can, in advance.

So, in coordination with the Zach internal marketing staff I'm shooting all the pre-recorded video for the program. Allen Robertson has been doing all the original music arrangement and we're syncing to tracks he's already pre-recorded from the various artists.

The conceit is that people can come to the party but still be in the safety of their homes. Cue the confetti canons....

It's my hope that the theater will find a company to do the day of live show. They'll program in all the art content around the emcee bits. But now we're even considering putting some of the emcee messages in the can. The idea being that our editors can do better edits and audio mixes in advance rather than trying to switch and present live.

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Continued from above:

It would have been nice to have multiple crews but the budget is just about zero. Several volunteers have fallen through. Others have decided it's more work then they counted on. I seem to be one of the few who is either stupid enough or stubborn enough to carry on to the end. That's why we jumped in early and spread the workflow over a month's time. I'd just hate to have to edit all of this together but one thing is for sure, the editor will not be hurting for content, transitions or b-roll. Not on my watch! (smiley face implied).

So far all of the material looks great and sounds even better. I'm about 200 GB of footage into this project and we'll probably do 100 more.

As to promotional material....That's someone else's responsibility. But I'll assume it will be mostly ads on social media and mailings to their e-mail list. They'll probably edit down teasers from the footage we're shooting because that just makes sense but I'm not involved in that. I'm only engaged in the original content creation.

Hope that's a good answer. It's all I've got.

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Gee Mark, a thirteen hour day in up to 105° heat, a gimbal and camera tweaking your left arm. I thought this was a great idea for what to do in retirement...

It sure beats work?

Unknown said...

I hear, ya, Kirk. I once worked 135 hours in one week as production manager on a Jet Li film in 1990, and then we shot for the next three months. ~Mark M. (PS: Not sure why I'm "unknown". I enjoy reading your amazing output and learning about Austin, swimming, cameras, your family, etc. Thanks for all you do!)

Michael Matthews said...

Thanks for the detailed explanation. I somehow mistakenly drew from an earlier post that you'd be doing promos for the event. This is a gargantuan amount of work for basically one guy. There's no underestimating the value of your fitness discipline. Just surviving this marathon is an accomplishment. Turning out quality video in these circumstances kicks it up to an even higher level. Here's hoping prospective clients who read this don't get the idea that this is the way you prefer to work.

Eric Rose said...

Amazing recap!! Like others I feel tired out just reading it. Even though this type of product hasn't been your main gig all these years, experience, physical and mental conditioning saved the day. Micro 4/3rds to the rescue! Canon and Nikon mirrorless cameras would crater at the beginning of the day.

I can't wait to see the eventual Zach Theatre product. Gee I might have to get on their donor list just to make sure.

Eric

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Eric, thanks! But don't splash out for that donor's list yet. They're streaming the show for free. Sept. 26th. You know I'll start posting details and reminders the week of the show.

I just scrolled through yesterday's work. Now I'm tired. Really tired.

Tinderbox said...

Really amazed that nothing overheated!

Gato said...

Amazing project. Made me tired just reading it, then tired again reading your comment above. Hope I'll get a chance to see the finished product -- or at least some samples.

I'm not sure I could have made it through that kind of day in my prime, especially in the Austin heat and humidity. Sounds like that swimming and walking pays off.

Good job

robert quiet photographer said...

For sure an hard day's work ! Very interesting to read, thanks.

Eric Rose said...

I would love to see a photo of the gimble on your G9.

Thanks,

Eric