Monday, June 19, 2006

The Compleat DV Single-Hander

Travels with me in a Pelican case:
Panasonic DVX 100A Camcorder
Sennheiser Wireless Audio Kit (base and remote body mic)
Batteries, charger and AC adapter
Digital Still Camera, two lenses
Remote control
Hard-wired lavalier for quick interviews

Fed-Ex or Xtra Baggage:
Sticks with fluid head
Soft key light (Lowell)
Stand for light
Extra lamps, AA batteries
Extension cord
Blank tape stock
External LCD monitor
Second soft key or baby
Second light stand
Flex fill

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Singlehanding It

I decided I would finally do it: after 20 or so years of running field interviews as a director/writer/producer, I would go out on a shoot, a serious assignment, shooting the video entirely on my own.

This may not seem like a big deal to soldiers in the army of free-lance producers out there who never do it any other way. But for one from a corporate culture and grounded in the notion of specialization, going it alone is counter-intuitive.

I did so with some trepidation. Even though I've shot enough of my own, home video with the same gear (Panasonic DVX100), taking the plunge on a REAL job meant over-riding a little voice in my head that said, "Better watch it, you'll screw up. You'll forget to roll, or you'll get flustered and record over an entire tape, or you'll get so caught up in the technicalities that you'll be flat for the interview.", and so on.

Customarily, I go out alone and meet up with a local crew we book through an agency. They are carefully vetted; competent and well-equipped. Since we started using services like Crews Control over a decade ago, I have seldom come back with anything but usable video under my arm. There is a downside to this very convenient kind of production however—the constantly shifting camera/audio specs along with subtle differences in style, framing, and lighting to be found among video professionals. More subtle is the cost of one’s having to direct and monitor a perennially “new” crew to make sure you sure getting something approaching what you want. This distracts you from your focus on the talent and the content, which should be the center focus for you.

So for a while, I’ve wanted to just do it myself, and this seemed to be the time to give it a try. I faced a two-city, three-day tour to collect a series of sit-down interviews for a number of new video projects. All were "low risk" situations, where, if I got less than stellar material, no deadlines would be missed, and no client would be there to watch me crash and burn. Easy-to-shoot DV would be an acceptable medium for these projects, and we already owned the necessary gear.

The big plus was saving over three thousand dollars of crew fees and rentals. But a deeper reason was my own need for freedom. After years of working with video that was all over the map in terms of lighting, composition and recording parameters, I wanted to start imposing a more consistent style on the work. Shooting solo, I reasoned I'd be directly engaged in seeing and making the content, not having to direct a stranger. It was the auteur in me, wanting to get out, I guess. My own production manger discouraged me, diplomatically, pointing out the extra burden on me, avoiding saying something like: “you are not a pro shooter and you should stick to your knitting”, yet meaning just that.

This is moving against the grain, but I’ve long since lost any remaining desire to be surrounded by underlings. In many situations in our industry it is necessary to collaborate and delegate, of course. But for many processes, especially artistic ones, I’d begun to feel that people can get in the way. I was ready, after years of depending on others, to wander off and go it alone.

The question was, of course, could I deliver the goods? After many years of still photography experience, and watching countless video operators set up and shoot, I figured knew what to look for in terms of proper exposure, white-balance, and composition. I knew how to light for a portrait with a strong key and a fill source. I knew how to place a lavalier mic and set audio levels.

Actually, I had been assembling a solo capability for a while. Over the past two years, I had acquired a great little pro-sumer camera, the Panasonic DVX 100, and had picked up a Sennheiser wireless mic system designed just for it. In pro shooters’ hands, we’d already gotten usable video with this unit. With its large, flip-out viewfinder and an array of auto functions and presets, the DVX 100 goes a long way to de-mystify the process of getting “professional” video. With the technical issues thus minimized and pushed to the background, it seemed to me I could reasonably expect myself to light and set a shot, roll the camera, and be free from that point forward to concentrate almost entirely on content.

So off I have gone on my first solo. Notwithstanding a few lapses on the basics, like entirely forgetting to hit “record’ for one extended (and wonderful) take on my second major interview, and a few near-misses on starting up the remote mic, I can honestly report the results have been good.

Most gratifying has been the release from that awkward process of managing a third party to “see” the shot for me. Even in performing something as simple as a seated interview, I did not realize until now how much energy goes into directing others—especially a pick-up crew. In the beginning, you have to give as much or more attention getting to know your operator and sound man as you do your subject. Just getting names right takes some effort at first. Common courtesy always seems to require a little bit of “who have you worked with?, or “what kind of camera is that?” kind of smalltalk with a fellow professional, even when time with a subject may be squeezed. During the interview, you still have to communicate with crew to compose, tweak, “roll” and “cut”, and so forth. While you may not be touching all the technics directly, you still have to manage a social setting apart from the interview itself.

Taking the management of the tools upon myself was going to use up some attention of course. I figured part of this could be addressed by building in some set-up time alone, with just the gear to unpack and lights to set, before the subject arrived. I did this on my first solo, and enjoyed the luxury of attending entirely to my tools for an hour beforehand, and methodically wrapping out only after the subject was gone. Over time, I can see how I might become so familiar with the gear and setup protocols that they become transparent, as they have for me with still camera.

I’ve found a kind of intimacy can be achieved by working alone with a subject. Being interviewed with a crew present may be reassuring to some subjects, but it’s also true that having others watching and (presumably) listening also creates an “audience” for both of us to play to. While I’ve experienced the boost that a crew/audience can give to performers playing scripted or ensemble performances, in the interview setting at least, I’ve found my self-awareness increased. The connection with the subject suffers to that extent. This new approach may help move us back to something closer to a one-on-one conversation with the subject.

Portrait painters typically work alone with their subjects in the intimacy of the studio, their paints and brushes having become an automatic extension of their faculty for seeing. Perhaps the ideal setting for the video interviewer is the same, with the electronics and optics having been subordinated during a private conversation, only later to become a public performance.

Going solo, at least for the interview, has worked. I now know I can save thousands of dollars, most of which will go to the bottom line, and some of which can be invested in an improved single-hand kit. But it has helped me discover something even bigger: the value of self-reliance. There may be slips and misses along the way from here, but I doubt that I will ever feel anything but compromised by having to shoot with a crew again. The way for me now seems clear: to fully master the technics and continue to build a style.