Production Roundup: The Communal Atmosphere of a Collaborative Shoot | B&H Photo Video Pro Audio
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Production Roundup: A day on the set of a collaborative shoot

By Ron Seifried

The mass popularity of sites such as YouTube has created a paradigm shift in how viewers watch their entertainment, and has severely affected how traditional TV shows are viewed. Many shows today are available on broadcast network websites for a period of time after the initial airing, sometimes with expanded scenes called webisodes, produced exclusively for the online viewer. Viewers no longer sit in front of the "boob tube" at a set time with the rest of the family and enjoy the same programs, as computers have become personalized to its individual's tastes and habits. This commodity has crossed over to video watching habits.

The move to online video content has been noticed by the one source that is dependent on the old standard bearer of television watching; advertisers. More often, advertisers are looking for new ways to take advantage of the evolving habits of TV viewers and expand its reach to the web. They didn't look very far, as the mass popularity of online video sharing sites are showcasing amateur videos of cat tricks, backyard wrestling matches and eccentric video diaries that are generating millions of viewers. Yes, that's right, millions. The mass audiences advertisers crave are available at their fingertips. But online viewers are savvier than the old 1.0 version of TV watchers. Instead of getting up to get a quick bite to eat during commercial breaks, people simply move onto other videos with the click of the mouse. And when moving from one video to the other, the average web-surfer is seeking out the low budget production that could be produced by them.

Some astute advertisers now figured if you can't beat them, join them. Online video contests are becoming more common as anyone with a video camera can shoot and edit low budget productions and easily post them on the web. Simply produce a short video centering on the manufacturers product, upload onto their site, and let the masses come and vote for their favorite clip. I was intrigued with one particular contest enough to write a script, assemble together a cast and crew and bring together some gear to produce one of these "low-budget" clips.

Casting

The concept of this contest was to produce a 30-90 second video focusing on the main product, a particular ice cream brand.* I wrote a script pitting two rivals in an ice cream eating contest, set in a dimly lit underworld with gambling and a seedy atmosphere. The first thing I needed was actors to perform before the cameras. Fortunately, one of my good friends, Shawn Amaro, is a regular comedy improv performer with plenty of friends and colleagues who perform in the New York improv circuit who were interested in this project. After a few emails bounced back and forth, I had the very difficult decision to reject over 20 prospects. But in the end, we had a cast of four very talented actors (Shawn, Binu Paulose, Chrissie Mayr and Ernest Privetera) willing to work for food, some potential cash windfall if we won, and at the very least, something for their reels.

Crew

Now that I had a cast in place, the next step was to put together a crew. Working at B&H has some definite advantages, including a wide range of experienced and talented video/audio professionals on staff. My major concern was getting people together outside regular work hours, especially on a spec project with people you don't know or without the promise of pay, all at their leisure time. Everyone I approached was very willing to help, despite the limited resources. I should mention we had just over one month to produce the video and upload it to the contest's website.

My primary goal was to tryout potential crew to for a feature length documentary on doo-wop music. I knew the doc needed to be shot on high definition, but hadn't yet decided which format would be best for the planned workflow. Since the production process will probably last around two years, I knew it was important to select an archival format I could easily access in case the primary editing drives failed. I decided to rent a Sony PDW-F355 XDCAM HD camera for this test shoot. I chose it for a variety of reasons, but mainly its ability to store everything shot on XDCAM HD disc for archival purposes. I didn't want to worry about if we are running out of storage space while using flash memory. The F355 also has 3 " CCDs, records 1080i at different bitrates and frame rate, and excellent over and under cranking for slow and high speed recording/playback. I already decided on two cameramen, Craig Rosenzweig and Kyle Doris, to operate the F355 for the day so they could get a personal feel for the camera.

The crew arrived on set at the 9 AM call time, ready to dive in. With the cast set to arrive by 10:30am, and shooting to begin by noon, my rusty pre-production skills were beginning to show. But the last minute surprise I got was that one of the cameramen, Kyle Doris arrived with his reliable Panasonic AG-HVX200 as well as an old family friend to assist. This development enabled me to assign Craig to operate the F355, while Kyle and his assistant John Warren, ran the B-roll with the HVX.

Craig, an experienced camera operator, assembled my Lowell 3-point light kit (Tota , Omni and Rifa-Lite Softbox Light) and Impact collapsible reflector with stand, and set to work lighting for up to seven different setups. I consulted with Craig, now the impromptu Director of Photography, on what type of lighting I was looking for, which was a "Fight Club" look with green florescent tones and slight grain, for gritty realism. Viewing a DVD copy of "Fight Club" and running it on Kyle's Apple MacBook Pro, we briefly went over the storyboard and shotlist and quickly went to work. Pulling out his Sekonic L-358 light meter, Craig started lighting for the first setup, which he set to the F355. Kyle was left to his own devices with the HVX-200, relying on his personal experience with the camera and ability to capture the moment when action was called.

The PDW- F355 has a sensitivity of 2000 lux at F/9 (10.6 lux = 1 foot-candles; 2000 / 10.6 = 189 foot-candles). The film sensitivity # is just like an ISO/ASA number used for film speed. When one shoots motion picture/stills, the film they use has an ISO/ASA rating, which is what the DP sets his meter for. On this particular shoot, Kyle and Craig figured it was between 320-350, which is approximately 2/3 of a stop lower than the actual sensitivity of 500. Because Craig rated his meter to 320, in essence we over exposed approximately 2/3 of an f-stop. This cinematic technique serves to raise the exposure value in the Blacks (shadow area) giving the shadows more detail. This enhanced the overall "Fight Club" look we were going for.

Director of Photography Craig Rosenzweig takes a light reading. Notice the window screen adding diffusion to the shot.

By 11am I welcomed the four actors, three of whom I'd never met. After a few minutes of getting to know each other, we went over the three page script and reviewed the scenes. After some brief Q&A with the cast, I left them alone to rehearse their parts while I headed back to the set, which was in my recently cleaned out basement. Word to the wise; if you want to get motivated to clean out your house, schedule a short video production like I did-your spouse will love you for it. I also rewarded my wife Anne a brief cameo in the crowd shots.

By this time Ryan Perry, a local high school graduate I met at a documentary seminar, arrived to lend a hand. I asked him if he was interested in working on this production based on some impressive short films he shot over the course of his high school career. He was just eager to work on a production and absorb everything around him. He quickly wore many hats throughout the 8-hour shoot; boom mic operator, assistant to the DP and on camera extra. The entire cast and crew was amazed at his professionalism. We were also fortunate enough to get Scott Manngard to be a production assistant and Chris Hendrick to shoot all of the "making-of" photos and video.

With the first setup ready and the actors taking their places, we were ready to roll. By the time I called "action," we realized one important piece of equipment missing in a mini production such as this was an LCD monitor connected to the primary camera. The ability for a director to track the shots while the action is taking place is important for any type of production. For the next shoot, my wish list will include a Marshall V-R70P-HDA LCD monitor. We were fortunate that everybody brought their "A" game, creating excellent footage.

It should be worth mentioning that if you are the producer, it is important to feed the cast and crew in case the shoot goes over 5 hours. I naively thought barbequing burgers and dogs would be the best way to go, but it is impossible to work the grill while producing and directing. I strongly recommend ordering hero's or deli platters, and make sure there is some type of vegetarian meal available.

The actors (Binu Paulose, Chrissie Mayr, Shawn Amaro and Ernest Privetera) going over their lines

Recording brought different issues, in which the HVX200 had only one 4GB P2 card. So about every 30 minutes, we had to stop production and download the P2 footage into Kyle's Apple Final Cut Studio system to a Lacie d2 hard drive. This process actually had a positive effect by forcing to review the footage as we went along, enabling us to adjust lighting and shot setups. Kyle set the frame rate to 60fps in 24pN mode, to give a dramatic slow motion look; this greatly enhanced the shots.

Because this shoot involved a ton of ice cream (over 130 bars of it), I thought it would be cute to incorporate a child in some of the cutaways, even though no children under 18 were permitted in the final contest submission. I couldn't think of anyone cuter than my three-year-old daughter Julia, so she got her big break. I thought it would be easy to for her to yell "ice cream" on cue, but that proved more difficult than expected with a cast and crew standing around. After several takes with my little prima donna (just kidding), we got her in the can. I now have a deep appreciation for directors like Steven Spielberg who work so well with kids.

Kyle Doris and John Warren reviewing the P2 footage on set with Final Cut

At the end of the day we had over 2 hours of footage between the XDCAM HD and P2 cameras. We reviewed some of the video on Kyle's Mac and match the two cameras. Using cameras with wide color space gave us the ability to color correct (with Apple Color) without much difficulty. Kyle was able to color grade using in realtime, allowing me to preview the shots on set during each lighting setup, which helped us to move along at a rapid pace.

Crowd shot before color correction from footage shot with the PDW- F355.
Ernest Privetera and Shawna Amaro in a frame zoomed in approximately 20% in Final Cut, the XDCAM HD was still able to give a relatively sharp image while keeping to the original concept of the video. Image displayed is before color correction.
Binu Paulose in the opening shot of the video shot with the HVX200 after color correction to give it a more dark, florescent look.

Since the XDCAM HD requires a bit of CPU horsepower and Kyle already had the clips loaded onto his Mac, he volunteered to edit the final piece. Within a couple of days, he delivered a quick cut, slow motion music video cut to a well known hip-hop track that took my original concept to a different level. I was originally going to edit the video, but was impressed with the results of Kyle's edits. Directors usually take control of the post process in small productions, sometimes because they can't afford anyone else to cut. It is a nice convenience to have a third party to give their fresh prospective. After a few weeks of back and forth between the editor and myself over some minor changes in edits and the addition of some "Snatch" opening title elements created in Motion (to be covered in a future article), we proceeded to upload the video to the contest website.

Distribution

That proved more difficult than expected. The first problem was our final video ran 93 seconds, and the contest rules explicitly stated nothing would be accepted over 90. Our initial video was rejected via a form email response without specifications. After 12 hours of email and phone calls with the contest coordinators, we were able to upload a 90 second version by trimming 3 seconds off the end title card. After a few more hours waiting to see the video onsite, we were disappointed to see that the video was being played back in a 4:3 aspect ratio video screen. Unfortunately, the contest rules only specified the file format of the video, never detailing file size or aspect ratio. This was a bit of a pain since HD is always 16:9 widescreen. We reformatted the video in letterbox in Final Cut, but it was too close to the deadline to change the video, so we had to live with the anamorphic squeeze. This didn't seem to affect our place in the number of votes that were being generated, as we were consistently in the top 10 of plays with over 900 submissions.

Setting up the money shot with the PDW-F355

Conclusion

Despite all the headaches that occurred, everybody involved was really satisfied with the final production. Since we have over 2 hours of footage, a "Directors Cut" utilizing footage we couldn't use due to the contest rules has been created.

It is difficult to create any kind of video, whether it be music, comedy or commercial, unless you have assembled a creative cast and crew that understands the limitations and is willing to go the extra mile to perform. I know there are many one-man/women producers (aka Preditors) that have a variety of reason why they need to control the process from pre to post production, without any input from others that may affect their final vision. I can be that person too. However, it was a surprisingly liberating experience to work with a talented group of people. Everyone contributed their own ideas, lifting this short to levels I did not imagine. It is important to gauge personalities and see if they can work in a creative group environment, while at the same time putting aside egos for the overall end result. It reminds me of when John Lennon put together his first post-Beatles group, the Plastic Ono Band. Their tag line was "YOU are the Plastic Ono Band," which simply meant whoever happened to be in the room with him at the time was automatically part of the band. They put out some incredible music with that group, so he must have been on to something.

*Due to copyright and trademark infringement, B&H cannot specify the product brand or name. Additionally, due to copyright issues, B&H is unable to show the final production.


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