ASCII by Jason Scott

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First Weekend —

This entry is mostly my giving back to all the people, the filmmakers and fans, who want to know about the projects I’ve done and the current one I’m doing. Here’s how the first weekend of filming of GET LAMP went. Some things went wrong, some things went right, and I learned a ton. It gets technical in some places, as I’m explaining what my thinking was. Feel free to ignore these parts if it’s uninteresting and focus on the pictures.

I had decided almost from the beginning of the research phase of the Text Adventure documentary that I would shoot in high definition, likely through the HDV standard, which is kind of a cheaper way to shoot high definition at the cost of a few aspects of color space and resolution. My intended camera at the time was a Sony Z1U, which retails for about five grand before extras, and which would work well with the editing software I use, Sony Vegas.

Towards the end of 2005, I became aware of another camera, the AG-HVX200 by Panasonic, which is essentially a high-definition big brother to the DVX-100, the footage of which I’ve seen and which, to my eye, looks very much like film and very beautiful. Within a short time, I decided the AG-HVX200 was the way to go. Unfortunately, the camera, which had been announced as being available at the end of December 2005, was dribbling out to the world in very small shipments.

My original plan had been to wait to get this camera, get the necessary stuff, do some test shooting to learn how it works (my way of doing this is to blow out a fun little short film, like a kung-fu scene or a music video) and then prepare for the movie itself, and shooting locally before travelling out to the more distant locations.

This all got blown out the window when I discovered, in January of this year, that Mike Berlyn was leaving the country, and possibly not returning. Mike Berlyn is the author or co-author of a ton of text adventure and adventure games, like Oo-Topos, Suspended, Infidel, Cutthroats, Tass Times in Tone Town, and Dr. Dumont’s Wild PARTI. He was a “critical interview”, one where people would ask “So, why didn’t you get that guy?” if I didn’t have some footage of him. While it would certainly be the case that I could do the film without a few “critical interviews”, it was worth my while to be able to get as many as possible. (The BBS documentary missed a few, but got a bunch of others, which I can live with).

Mike and his wife Muffy were leaving in the beginning of March, having sold off their home and most possessions, and had no timetable for ever returning. I asked if I could come interview them at the end of February, and Mike agreed.

The first thing I did was get on the waiting lists at three different Panasonic dealerships, one in Oregon, one in Texas, and one in Massachusetts. None requested money down, and all were selling the camera I wanted for about six thousand dollars. Thanks to the Adventurers’ Club, this was not a scary amount of money to face. So I got on the lists and waited and bit my nails.

Meanwhile, I contacted a couple other people to interview; a teacher named Jon and Alexis Adams, who co-founded Adventure International. I scheduled them for the Sunday after the Saturday with Mike Berlyn, so I’d have a lot of space to do Mike’s interview.

As luck would have it, Omega Broadcast Group got a HVX-200 in and offered it to me, and I purchased it immediately, paying extra to have it fedexed to me the next day. So I was out six grand but with a very nice camera to show for it. I’d already bought a new wireless clip mic for people to have as well as the boom mic I have normally recorded with, allowing me double the protection to get the sound right. And I’d bought a few other new items, like a carrying case and tripod and so on. So ideally, I was now set for Florida.

But.

Now, here’s where it gets complicated. The HVX-200 doesn’t take tape. And what I mean is, it DOES take tape, but not to shoot in high-definition. If you use tape, you can only record in standard definition. If you want to record in high definition, you have to use one of three mediums, currently:

  • P2 Cards, dedicated cards that can record the video, and which you can transfer to your laptop.
  • Hard Disks with specialized cases that can stream in the video from the camera
  • A laptop running the right software (currently certain editing programs like Avid Xpress or Final Cut Pro.

Of these, the Hard Disks are actually the most cost effective, but they don’t currently exist, and don’t expect to until sometime March at the earliest. The laptop is a good second place, but the software you need to buy to get the streaming video is currently between $1200-$1400, and that’s because you have to pay for the full editing package as well as the capture utlity… but I just want the capture utility! I edit my own way, with my own software that doesn’t currently capture the video from the camera I own.

This leaves P2 cards. P2 cards are really frigging cool. You plug them into the camera and record silently. When you press the record button, it’s instantaneous, because the camera just starts shooting data at them. And you can hot-swap them. And view the scene you just shot in real-time, skipping around to different cuts within milliseconds. It’s very neat.

It’s also astoundingly, astoundingly expensive. An 8 gigabyte card, which will hold 20 minutes of 720p video (which I am shooting in), costs $1400. FOURTEEN HUNDRED DOLLARS. This is down from $1800 earlier this year. If you can live with half that, ten minutes of 720p video, it’s “only” $675.

It is not realistic to shoot less than an hour at a time. So that’s $1400 x 3. $4,200. To be able to shoot an hour of high definition video. That is insane. That is not valid.

Now, it was Monday before the shoot that upcoming weekend. So, completely walled in, I chose to try to rent these cards.

As it turns out, there’s a great local place, Rule Broadcast Systems, that rent and sell video and audio equipment. They’re tip-top quality. They also had both an HVX-200 for rent, along with the cards. The question was, could I rent just the cards?

As it turned out, I could. After going through a credit/professional check, I was able to rent 4 cards, two 8gb and two 4gb, from Wednesday afternoon to Monday morning, for about $460, including insurance and a couple other fees. This was great, giving me time to experiment with the camera, learn how it all worked, and so on.

The thng to note here, however, was that I had basically given myself less than three days to try out my equipment, learn how to use it, find the best settings, and practice my arranged settings before setting off in a plane to Florida to do a one-shot deal interviewing someone who would not be available again. The potential for disaster was great. And as it turns out, I met that potential.

After a whirlwind of practice, I flew down to Florida. As mentioned before, I hate flying, but we had a great deal on JetBlue and I tend to enjoy those flights because they have DirectTV at every seat and TV does a great job of making me forget I am about to crash out of the sky. I got through the flight, as I always have, eventually.

In Florida, I booked a hotel room and tried out all the equipment. One of the lights died on the trip, but that’s the way it goes. It just needed a new bulb. I experimented with recording myself, setting all the lights, and sound, and so on. I needed hard drive space outside of the 80gb my laptop had to dump these cards, so I bought two 300gb external seagate drives at a nearby Best Buy. I tried everything out, and figured I was somewhat in good shape.

The next day, I called Mike Berlyn and got directions to the interview location.

The interview itself went great. Mike was patient, friendly, and helpful as I stumbled along with my new setup. I found the new setup somewhat clunky and weird, and I had a hell of time getting the sound right in an appropriate way for the situation.

After the first 30 minutes of interview, I checked the footage on the laptop and found it was too dark. Way too dark, almost unusable. The sound was good, but not the video. I made the right fixes on the camera and we shot for another hour. Later, I found out the clip mic was set wrong and that sound was distorted, but the boom mike picked him up perfectly, so we had great sound, as I cut out the bad channel.

There are ways around the dark footage. I have the sound, so I can just put the sound in with other footage (scrolling shots, photos, and so on) and get around it. I’ve done similar before. It’s not the end of the world.

Mike and his wife Muffy and I had a lunch at a local diner, and then we did some more interviewing. It all went well, we covered some great subjects. They were kind, gracious and absolutely wonderful to do an interview with.

The photos and a couple screengrabs from the interview are here: http://www.getlamp.com/photos/000berlyn. The whole page needs a little bit of tuning but you get the idea.

The next day, I interviewed the other two subjects. One of them, Jon, is a teacher who used Text Adventures in classes. We had a real fun time, covered a lot of ground, and had some fine pizza delivered in.

Now, this is key to understand:

The interview with Jon is not usable.

I messed up. I set something wrong, and the sound did not come out right. A dumb mistake, the kind of mistake that you wouldn’t make if you had a camera for more than 3 days before shooting with it. But I made that mistake, and I have to live with it, with an interview that didn’t come out. I felt depressed about it that night, and then called Jon and offered to fly him up later in the year to Boston, my expense, put him up, and re-interview him. To make things right, because his story was cool. Later in the year, I’ll have my act together with all the equipment and we’ll nail it.

I mention this, make this admission, because I want people out there making films to know this sort of thing happens. I am a veteran of over 200 conducted interviews. I shot hundreds of hours of footage, and had years of training, and this mess-up still happened. I leveraged the lack of experience with the equipment for the quality of the shots and the ability to interview someone before they were gone forever, and in doing so, there was collateral damage. It happens. It doesn’t mean you should give up, or walk away. It means you get to try again. You take the shot, give it another try, you keep moving. I’ll keep moving.

The sum total, however, was positive. The critical interview was gotten. Of the other two interviews, the third came out “pretty good”, as I’d made the same mistake in sound but the setup made up for it and I can save the sound without any problem. So the result was that I got a few hours of good solid interview.

A few scrapes, a little clang, but the ship has sailed. I’ve started the GET LAMP documentary. I am taking a month to get the rest of the equipment I need (the external camera-compatible hard drive) and then I will begin filming in earnest. I will be doing this at least until the end of the year. I will push on. And I will finish it.

It’s never easy. I just want that known. Don’t think it ever is. I save money by having a one man crew, but I also open myself to risks of mistakes because I have nobody to double-check my work. I take this balance and do my best. If you’re out there, making your own sets of risks and benefits, you’re not alone. Keep it going. Just keep it going.


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7 Comments

  1. phil says:

    HDV is approacing us all in the industry like a down hill freight train with failed breaks. For the record, P2 cards are both coming down in price and going up in capacity… just not quickly enough.

    I wasn’t aware that you could dump straight into Avid Xpress Pro HD. Lovely environment to edit in, (we have been since 2.0 – let Premiere and never looked back) but picky about hardware especially firewire cards!

    As for mistakes setting up cameras, not switching on the microphone has caught me once.

  2. Jaddle says:

    This sort of thing always bugs me… why require crazy proprietary hardware at all? I mean, of course you can’t just use normal flash memory for probably perfectly valid technical reasons (though I’m curious what those reasons are?). What about a simple firewire, or even USB2 connection? Is the bandwidth too low for that? Why not just have two connectors then? It’s not like the hardware to interface with this sort of thing is big and bulky or expensive – you can get usb controllers into a tiny little mp3 player.

    It seems there are all kinds of cheap and simple ways around this… but I’m probably just not understanding the technical requirements of the storage.

    Still, $1400 for a few gigs is pretty ludicrous. It’d be cheaper to just rig up a pseudo-raid device with a dozen SD slots or something.

  3. Tim says:

    I really curious what went wrong with the sound, especially after checking it during the interview.

    There’s a limited set of things that could be completely destructive in that way…

  4. Jason Scott says:

    Well, I shouldn’t leave you hanging.

    In between the Saturday and Sunday shoots, I did an insert shot involving a brass lantern. I switched over to the on-camera mic from the external audio ports.

    When I set up the shot with Jon, I was still on on-camera mic. Since the camera was new to me, I:

    - Didn’t recognize the audio graph behavior consistent with reading from the on-camera mic (I knew the old camera’s behavior)

    - Was too focused on getting the light settings right, because the screen misrepresents how the image looks in terms of darkness/light

    - Did a couple audio tests, and focused on the fact it was not distorting.

    So what I got was over-echoy distant sound. In theory, I could do a ton and maybe get the sound back to something resembling normal, but if I can just fly Jon up to Boston and give him a free trip up to New England with room and board, everyone wins, right?

  5. Michael Kohne says:

    The reason you can’t use standard ‘off the shelf’ as it were flash cards, etc is that they mostly have one of two problems:
    1) their transfer rate tends to be low (most flash cards). Most average flash cards have bandwidth in the 10′s of megabits per second. 720p video (depending on frame rate, and NOT COUNTING the audio) starts at around 50 megabits per second.

    2) Consumer equipment like firewire hard disks is not uniform in it’s latencies. It turns out that not every hard disk can do streamed writes, continuously, for hours at a time without skipping a beat. It’s OK when doing file transfers to occasionally pause for things like thermal recalibration – when you are streaming HD video to the disk, it is not OK, because eventually the disk falls behind and you end up losing data. There are a lot of reasons that a consumer hard disk (or the interface to one) might hiccup, and none of them are acceptable in this environment.

    So, sadly, the professional ends up paying the big bucks for his equipment.

    Good luck Jason!

  6. Krisjohn says:

    I’ve noted that a popular technique currently used in interviews is to have a second camera filming from a different angle. Footage from that camera is often only shown in black and white, which tends to imply that it’s low quality and they’re trying to hide the upscaling artifacts, but it’s still a useful way to break up long edits of a talking head. Have you considered taking a second, SD, camera as a backup that can be used either as a part of an artistic style or, say, to at least show a small talking head in a box while the rest of the HD frame contains example footage of a game or something?

  7. Jason Scott says:

    I’ve weighed this, Kris, and I’ve decided that, for the moment, the additional workload of two cameras and not just one will lead to even more in the way of screwups and missed checks. It’s also a transport nightmare.