The Fiddling Frog video is the most ambitious contra video I've made to date, and I couldn't have done this by myself. I'm learning the obvious, that in film production, solo is a harder path.
Michael Baird approached me at Dancing Fool in Seattle last month, with an idea to saturate a dance at the upcoming Fiddling Frog weekend in Pasadena with cameras and specialized gear. He was hoping to really ramp up the production values from the typical contra dance video.
I subsequently decided to attend the dance, and to help manage the production. He had a crew ready to go, and I added my suggestions on how to proceed. I had my 2 Canon 5Ds, one of which I handed off, and a GoPro, which went on a dancer. Michael's colleague Tony had his 2 Canon tape cameras with one on a floor dolly. We gathered footage from several dances on Saturday morning at the Frog, Michael managing one crew, me working alone.
I downloaded all the footage on my MacBook Pro, organized it into folders, and set it to work overnight to convert everything to ProRes (using MPEG Streamclip). I threw everything into a Final Cut 7 sequence, pointed PluralEyes at it, and had a (mostly) synced 2 hour timeline by the time I left. I copied everything (200gb) onto a hard drive for Michael to play with as he saw fit. I was going to see what I could come up with on my own.
I captured sound separately on a Zoom H4N recorder set to 4 channel—2 for a line out from the board, 2 from the onboard microphones. The mix sounded great to my ears, with enough hall ambience to feel the space, and clean capture from the stage. I tossed all the camera sound—it's only used to sync the tracks.
I started with a single timeline with the entire morning's soundtrack. I chopped away all the parts that didn't have video, and the dances that had only one or two cameras on them. Remaining were three dances that had potential. I ended up making a medley of all three.
A contra dance repeats about fifteen times. I only need one or two of those cycles, but I have all the other cycles to draw footage from. Very little of what you see in the final piece is actually in sync with the original music track. What you see in the final is a 3 minute condensation of three and a half hours of footage.
The first task is to cut the music track. I highlight the sequence, turn the volume up, and on every 8th beat I tap the “M” key to leave a marker. A full dance sequence is 8 of those 8 beat marks, and I blade them apart. Then I piece together a music track from those parts, in this case, from six different pieces to make the final track. I'm disregarding the video at this point. At the transitions I tweak down to the single frame level to try and hide the discontinuities.
From there it's a matter of building a believable sequence of dance and music edits in a new Timeline. I edit the footage and throw out everything I know I'm not going to use. I stack the good bits on top of each other in sync and start trimming away Every move in this piece is in the proper sequence in the dance, but none of them happened together. I'm looking for the right rhythm of slow and fast cuts, tight and wide shots, movement that flows from one cut to the next. This is the kind of work where I lose track of time and space, I forget to eat or pee, and I'm about as deeply engaged as it is possible to be. It's my favorite part of the process.
After about four hours I emerge from the cloud with a very rough cut. The next day I refine everything to a final cut, apply color correction, compress, and post.
Over the course of the year I'm producing a series of 8 videos called Northwest Stories, for Northwest Folklife. Funding is coming from an NEA grant. The mission, as I see it, is to demonstrate the ways that music and dance serve as the glue that binds communities together, and to observe that process in the wide range of communities that make up the Pacific Northwest.
We've done Scandinavian dance, a hindu Diwali celebration, traditional Hawai'ian hula dance, and African-American gospel. The latest is on shape-note singing, a 19th century style of sacred music with a small but rabid following that assiduously hews to a traditional style of conducting the singing.
The musical style is archaic. The Sacred Harp is the tune book that the singers use that, in its current version, is barely changed from the 1840's era edition. The arrangements are in a 4-note "Fa-So-La-Mi" format of the note shapes, and the composer's intended key is generally ignored. Singers sit in four parts facing a square where the leader stands: bass, alto, tenor, and treble, though the parts barely correspond with chorale convention. A leader and the front bench keep time with their hands; it looks seriously ritualistic, like a row of arms davening in unison. The parts are not tied to a melody as we would sing it today; they wander and cross and harmonize in strange, spooky ways. It is what church music sounded like on the frontier.
Although shape-note is associated with the deep South, it is actually a Yankee form of music that migrated there and hid out in rural churches for a century. The 60's folk music revivalists "discovered" it and spread it to a more secular crowd. The Pacific Northwest is one such outlier.
My template for these videos has been an interview/B-roll format. In this piece, I had fantastic interview footage to work with, and a really compelling sound. I am now a convert to capturing all my audio separately, in this case, on a Zoom H4N. It's the best sounding piece I've done in the series. I like to have multiple voices in play, and multiple examples of the music or dance, if I can. All my video is a process of discovery for me; the interviews inform me what to look for in the events, and the the events give me questions to ask my subjects.
In this case, I first captured the Folklife performance, then sat on that for a couple months while we finished up another story. I first filmed a house sing which, although it didn't yield any footage for the final piece (except for the the shape-note cookies), informed me of what to look for in the interviews. My producer at Folklife, Debbie Fant, conducts the formal interviews, though I tend to interrupt her a lot. She is incredibly gracious about not being demonstrably annoyed when I do that.
After interviewing two of my principal informants, we realized that I had to cover an all day singing. This is a participatory form, not a performance, and its native habitat is the day-long singings and multi-day conventions, complete with "dinner on the grounds." On short notice I drove down to Eugene, OR, and that footage became the floor on which I built the rest of the piece.
The edit came together quickly after that; in two days I had a rough cut. Four weeks later, it's released. I'm profoundly grateful to Folklife for the access to these communities, and the opportunity to make something of my time with them.
I am hard on my gear. I am not surprised or disturbed when things break. I just try to build in redundancies when I travel on assignment.
Pro camera equipment is generally up for the abuse. My first generation Canon 5D's are battered and bruised and have a proud war-ravaged patina. They still work fine. I checked into to trading them in, but Glazer's told me that they were basically worthless. I'd make more giving them away.
Audio gear--that's another story, as I found out on my recent four city assignment. By the end of the video portion of this gig I'd broken a microphone and destroyed a JuicedLink pre-amp. The microphone, mounted on the hot shoe, brushed up against a basalt cliff as I was rapelling down it. I repaired it the best I could with gaffer tape so I could get through the day. The pre-amp couldn't handle the constant collision of camera bodies dangling from my shoulder, and I lost the audio connection to the camera. The mini-pin connection sheared off internally and is now bouncing around inside the thing.
(I told JuicedLink about my problem, and they're shipping me a new DT454, which they say is more robustly built. We'll see. I guess I'm the person to try it out.)
Just like I bring more than one camera, I had brought multiple audio solutions. I have a second shotgun for the camera, it's just bigger and less convenient. I have wireless lav and wireless handheld microphones, and I have a Zoom H4N for off camera sound capture. I made it through the rest of the assignment, in merely a less tidy fashion.
Having two XLR inputs and a headphone setup is sweet and great quality, but when I'm interviewing on spontaneous impulse during what is also a still shoot, there's a lot to handle at once. I'm just at the edge of what I can handle solo. Provided the gear can hold up.
Separate audio capture is allegedly the gold standard for location audio, but the Zoom takes a long time to set up, and complicates the logistics beyond my ability to manage. You video production veterans will tell me, well duh, that's why you bring a sound guy. I'm not willing to go there, at least on these college shoots where I'm after spontaneous immediacy.
I feel like I'm in the joke about the Alaskan bush pilot, when asked why he didn't fly a plane with two engines. Wouldn't it be safer? "Na, just one more thing to go wrong," he laconically answers.
I also do projects that are slower paced, driven by formal interview footage that is well lit and has perfectly captured sound. This project is not one of those. In my quest for higher control and quality I may have sacrificed my ability to consistently capture what I need to. There is a limit to the kind of abuse location audio gear is built to withstand. I appear to have exceeded it.
About a year and a half ago my client said to me, “We want you to do a branding piece for the entire program.”
“I have no idea how to do that,” I said, truthfully.
“Oh yes you do.”
I'd been dreading the moment when I'd actually have to pull this off. This winter, discussions turned to plans. Now, I should let you in on something—I am not necessarily that imaginative. I'm not good at making things up. I react. In my still photography work, I encounter and engage the world, and find the structures and connections that tickle me. My filmmaking has been similarly documentary in structure—I talk to people, I see things. I make something out of what I find.
I am not a studio guy. Studios terrify me. That empty cyc stage is a big blank nothing that I have no idea how to fill.
We had a creative meeting where we batted around ideas. They had a tag line: Keep Learning, which was the main message. The client needed to show the diversity of their offerings. I thought it had to be aspirational, show where you want to go. I had just come off of the UW Holiday video, so that structure was in my head and we thought, well, something like that. Lots of voices. There were a couple of events coming up where I'd have access to a crowd of current and former students.
We ran into my client's boss in the hallway, who wanted to know what we'd come up with. Now, normally I am articulate and composed and witty, even under stress. We both had an idea for what this piece was going to look like now, but neither of us could say anything that didn't sound like mumbly gibberish. “It's going to have voices. Lots of them. Saying things.”
“I understand. You're in the creative mode. You can't articulate it. Good,” she said with way more confidence than I had.
Robin, my wife, the woman who talks to people all day for a living, helped me structure it. Basically, I was going to do a series of lightning interviews, and get a ton of responses. “What do you want to learn next?” she suggested. “What's your dream job?” I answered.
We found a quiet conference area near the auditorium where the resume writing panel was scheduled. The worker bees at the event helped corral and cajole people for the interviews. Once, when the line stayed empty for too long I crashed through the networking room, with a box of treats. “Cupcakes for anyone who will talk to me!”
My assistant put a lav mike on the subject as they sat down. “Thanks so much for doing this,” I'd say. “What's your name?” “What program are you in?” Then, “What's your dream job?” “Now, repeat after me: Keep Learning.” It took about 90 seconds a person. I had hoped for a hundred such interviews. I had about 35.
I thought for sure I didn't have enough to work with, and I'd have to come back again at a future event. I threw everything in Final Cut, started slicing and dicing and organizing the responses and throwing things onto timelines. There was more than enough to work with, it turned out. I was sloppy about lining up clips, and discovered I really liked the overlapping voices. That became the way I ramped up the energy. I made a big, rousing climax of 35 voices all saying “Keep Learning.” I made a rough cut, the client loved the concept, and I refined it from there. They supplied the ending animation, and I farmed out the sound sweetening and SD broadcast conversion (I also produced a 30 second version for TV).
Collaboration, a client who can tolerate my vague and undefined process, and my own faith in the creative mode of the edit bay—this made the piece.
My wife has been watching my creative process for 20 years. She says I go through a predictable sequence of emotional states with any project, and this has not changed with video production. If anything, I'm worse.
She says I always come back from a shoot in a state of euphoria. It's true. I've been in deep connection with many people, I've been in the world and I've seen wondrous things. In my mind I've captured masterworks. This is before I've seen any of it; the experience still dominates.
Then I look at what I've captured. I might be excited to see things that I hadn't recognized during the shoot. Or, more likely, I am disappointed at where I've missed the mark. Yet I have to make something out of what I've hunted and gathered.
This is where I predictably descend into my dark night of the soul. In the darkroom days, it was a self-flagellation of my creative ability. The shoot is derivative, and I can't print worth a damn anymore. With video it's worse. Much worse. There's nothing here. I am lost in my test sequences. The B roll sucks. I missed the key moments, again and again. There isn't any variety. I have nothing to illustrate the most important point in the interview. I can't find a narrative thread that ties together the interviews. I have to reshoot everything. I mope and I'm difficult to have around. I'm a failure and we will lose the house and the cat will go without food.
Robin is not taking me seriously. Worse than that, she's teasing me. You're right, the cat will starve.
At some point, I've pared enough of the dross away to see that there is, indeed, a story present. I accidentally copy and paste a segment next to another, and suddenly, it works. I mistakenly overlap dialog, and I like the effect. A direction emerges. For the first time, I have a vision of what the final piece is going to look like. Now I enter the phase of joyous construction of the edifice. I am exultant. I am not a failure. Even better, I like what I've got and I'm pretty sure my client will too.
Exhilaration, reality, depression, more depression, avoidance, desperation, transformation, exultation. I pretty much know this is the sequence of any project, and I tend not to buy into any single state for very long. It's just the way it has to proceed. Even-keel I'm not.
On December 9th, 2010, 250,000 people with a uw.edu address received a link to the University of Washington holiday video. It is probably the widest distribution I've ever had for one of my motion projects.
This was a high profile project, and it's pretty amazing that they let me proceed in my usual I-have-no-idea-what-we're-going-to-get process. The client and I talked at length about possible approaches, and they offered several questions to try. The end result could go in many possible directions.
The first day was a test-drive shoot, to see what questions elicited what kind of answers. It was a two to three person crew--me and the client. We roamed Red Square and Paccar Hall and I walked up to various students bearing my camera rig (Canon 5D) on a tripod. "Hi," I'd say, in my earnest, disarming way. "Can I ask you a a question?" When I handed them my microphone it was pretty obvious what was going to happen. Rarely did anyone turn us down. "Thinking of 2010, what are you grateful for?"
That night I composed a rough cut of the best answers and posted it on a password protected Vimeo page for the client to see. It looked good, but the long answers would make it hard to show the diversity of the campus community in a 2 minute piece. We brainstormed some more about possible approaches, and the client suggested a one word response, which is what really nailed it.
We shot a couple hours a day over the course of five more days, including one long day where we covered both the Tacoma and the Bothell campuses. I handed over a rough cut, to which the client made changes that fit the messaging that they had in mind. Victory Studios composed the final edit and post, which made it through the many layers of administrative approvals (it is only the University President's greeting, after all) with no changes. That fact alone made this an unprecedented achievement.
Another dance documentary, this time of the Chesapeake Dance Camp near Annapolis, MD, held in April. This was a relaxed weekend of shooting and dancing, and a relaxed summer of editing (it was four months before I even had a moment to look at the footage). The dance organizers wanted to wait until late fall for me to release it so they could start drumming up excitement for the next camp. Now's the moment.
My morning at work, at Plymouth Housing Group, in 5 second increments.
Once upon a time, in the film era, it took a cartload of gear like this for practically any assignment. Now it's a rare event to haul the lighting gear onto a job. For portraits however, you need a studio. I bring my own.