Armitage Shanks still of interview

Working Fast

Just finished editing a recruitment film for Armitage Shanks (or Ideal Standard). We shot at their London showroom on 20 December, 2016 and at their Armitage factory and warehouse last week (12 & 13 January, 2017).

On the shoot was writer/director Andrew Callaway, whom I often work with, and Brook Williams, my son (currently at Film School). We took along a couple of tripods, my slider and a new toy; a Ronin MX gimbal stabiliser. I also took my ancient fluorescent lights, my Sony NEX FS100 and Canon 60D. I had radio microphones on board, along with my Senheisser directional microphone and boom pole.

But what is the optimum equipment when it comes to speed v. quality and efficiency?

LESSONS LEARNED

I like to learn something from every job. Something that will help me improve. On this job, I learned about getting everything done at lightning speed (I say ‘lightning’ but, at my age, time whizzes by).

In your mind, you can carefully set up lights, check exposure and white balance, rearrange the background and ensure the location is nice and quiet. An interview, you think, could be ‘dashed off’ in 2-3 hours. In reality, you get twenty minutes to set-up, shoot and get out. It just seems so fast (and how come, when I’m on the other side of the camera, a shooting day is 19 hours! – see ‘Nobody Speak‘).

There was one moment when I felt like a ‘proper’ cameraman. Brook and I had set up the slider on the two tripods (it’s a very long slider. Too long – there’s the first lesson in time-saving). We couldn’t do it ‘in-situ’ because we were on a small footbridge with lots of people passing. So we set up below and lifted into place. We shot Ashley, the presenter of the video, with the factory behind him. We ran it through a few times (I call these rehearsals but we record anyway – it saves time if we can get the recording done in ‘rehearsal’). I couldn’t really see the screen, so I sat on the handrail (expecting Health & Safety to tick me off). Just for a while, I felt like those cameramen of old Hollywood, on those giant crane things they used to use. It didn’t last – we grabbed the shot and dashed to the next location.

I thought about writing a book (or info PDF) on this topic. A lot of people who ‘gun and run’ are pretty good at it. I have done a fair amount of media training in the past year working with journalists, so I have experienced the joys of grabbing shots and meeting deadlines. I don’t like it – I have a drama background and I far prefer to take the time to get it right (and to do loads of takes). Gunning and running isn’t really my bag.

There are many videographers who make great wedding videos. Filmic. Stunning, some of them. I admire those people. They get great looking footage without a retake in sight.

PAINTING WITH FILTERS

Editing the footage in Adobe Premiere Pro, I started playing around with many of the filters that I’ve spent so much on over the years. You have to be pretty brave to use them because they dramatically change your pictures, but they can vastly improve any footage you didn’t get quite right. Like a lick of paint, they cover a multitude of sins.

But they really should be used creatively, to improve the already perfect footage. Especially if you are shooting a highly compressed format in the first place (AVCHD for example). I started wondering what it is that helps you get that perfect look in the first place.

WHITE BALANCE

It helped that we had a bit of prep time; an hour to visit the several locations we’d be shooting at. The scedule was crazy: we start outside, filming a quick piece to camera, then go to a corridor five minutes away, then to a staircase, then an office…

By visiting in advance, I was able to white balance and store the settings. I also started thinking about lighting – looking out for sockets. Not that there was time to set up a light. Some of the areas were pretty dark so we did what we could with my camera-mounted LED and, in the worst case situations, I would up the gain (a bit).

There was no time, even for the extended interviews, to thread the levalier mics under clothing so we used the boom. Brook did a really good job with the microphone (always amazes me how close you can get the mic to someone and yet still be out of shot). At one point I was getting a buzz, some interference, via the radio bolt-on but we didn’t have the time, or the Health & Safety risk analysis, to drag leads all over the place.

It struck me that having someone carry at least one battery-operated LED soft light would make all the difference (as luck would have it, I have a second son). The ability to dim the intensity and change the colour temperature is important. Something like the Litepanel Astra 1×1. No time for backlights or even fills, but lighting a face to match the over-exposed background, quickly and accurately, is so important when it comes to the edit.

I used my 50mm prime lens when I could – f1.4 for the light and a really shallow depth of field. But there were times when I could only use the zoom, for the time it saves in composition.

THE EDIT

I loved using the filters. It was The Rolling Stones who gave me the idea. Their Blue and Lonesome videos use a lot of glow, and split screen. Quick cuts. So I wanted to see if I could do the same with toilets and basins (video can make almost anything look exciting).

Even as I write this, having just now uploaded the video to Vimeo, the client has come back to say they love it (phew). That’s great news, of course, but I realise it could all be so much better. There is plenty of room for improvement. I don’t like working quickly, but I realise it has to be that way. Planning the shots and having the right gear is vital.

So, back to my info-doc (can’t really call it a book). It would outline my conclusions on where I need to improve.

IMPROVEMENT(S) TO CONSIDER

Time is of the essence. Slider and tracking shots are great but…

My slider is too long! I bought it because I wanted the option of a near tracking shot from the slider. But it takes two tripods to set up which makes it fiddly. A shorter slider, mounted on the one tripod, is often all you need. It would also be handy to have a (silent) motor so that the movement remains steady. Any slight jerkiness in the slide really shows up on screen. Maybe one of those handle thingies.

Ronin practice. The Ronin MX is great, as far as it goes. A gimbal is such fun! But it takes affair amount of setting up in the first place (balancing, etc.) and it has its faults: you can’t plug in jack plugs for sound, so it is only any good for General Views (unless you record the sound separately). You really do need a decent monitor and, annoyingly, a means of remotely holding focus (which is expensive and requires another operator). The Ronin is also very heavy and, although it comes with a stand, we were trawling around a factory so didn’t take it with us most of the time. It takes a lot of practice to get right and you have to use a dedicated camera. There simply wouldn’t have been time to put the Sony on and off.

Drones. I did consider using drone footage. Drone shots are everywhere these days and look really good. But you can’t use a drone for commercial purposes unless you have done the exams and got CAA permission. Besides, I’m not sure it would have been that great here, nor did we have time for it. But I would like to use them in future. There is also the problem that 75% of the time, the drone cannot be used (for a variety of reasons). Try telling that to the client.

Lighting. As mentioned, I used an onboard LED. It would have ben so much better to have trawled a decent light around with us to get some 45 degree fill. Battery operated for speed, and not too heavy.

Better cameras. I used my Go-pro, which is now a bit dated. Shot in a fairly dark warehouse so the result is a bit grainy. I would also advise having a good choice of arms and attachments (I used a suction pad attachment, which worked well, but you need to get the camera in the correct angle). My Sony is about five years old now and the technology has moved on apace. But what is the best format to shoot on? The filtered footage looks great on a retina screen, but not so good on a 60inch TV set. So what is the answer to that? I can’t afford to buy an Alexa but, if you really want to muck about with the footage in post, you need RAW or ProRes 4444 or something. Maybe the Blackmagic URSA with a selection of top notch lenses.

CONCLUSION

I’m as confused about what equipment to buy as I ever was. One week after this shoot, I’m out in central London (freezing cold by the river) shooting vox-pox of any passers-by we can talk into an interview. My Sony sits on my shoulder (via my new shoulder rail-kit). The Blackmagic, or the Alexa, wouldn’t be the best or easiest cameras to use here. So, maybe the answer is simply to buy five or six cameras, each for a different purpose, and upgrade them every 2-3 years.

But if I were on;y to make films like the Armitage recruitment film, I would use a higher grade camera, a decent zoom lens (for speed), I’d carry a battery operated LED lamp around (or, rather, have an assistant do it). I’d keep the camera on a short slider mounted on a single tripod and I’d have a boom operator trail around with us too. As we did, I’d also make sure we had a good Ronin operator (with a second camera of the same make?) grabbing decent close ups and action shots.

And I’d continue to ‘think’ about using that drone.