ASCII by Jason Scott

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Spinning Plates —

Back from a weekend of work and documentary shooting.

I spent Saturday at the Vintage Computer Festival East 3.0, held in Wall, NJ. A good time had by all. I got to see some old friends, make some new ones, and meet some heroes, including David Ahl, who is truly one of the greats. He was the editor/founder of Creative Computing, a book author many times over, and a true pioneer in gaining interest and mythology around computers and computing in general. I saw some excellent exhibits, and even bought a few books for myself, some of which were relevant to the documentaries.

Also, I got to shoot a couple interviews. A little about that, and about a situation with filming that one tends to forget, and which comes back each time, and which I always make a point to talk about and then don’t.

As mentioned innumerable times, I tend to be a one-man crew on my shoots. This means I am doing the following:

  • Interview subject greeter/handler
  • Director
  • Lighting Designer
  • Cameraman
  • Grip
  • Sound Guy
  • Interviewer
  • Set photographer

…and probably another bunch, but let’s go from there.

Because of this situation, my attention is shoved in a lot of different places. I end up trying to focus on the quality of questions and the quality of the shot from the LCD screen, with some nod to making sure the sound is getting in there properly and that we’re going in good directions with the line of questioning, but that’s a lot of plates. A ton of plates, all spinning and me keeping them spinning.

What this comes down to, is something ends up being borked. And because I’m not able to keep full attention on all these relevant aspects, it’ll stay borked through most of the interview shoot.

This happened tons of times on the BBS Documentary shoot. Dozens of times. Boom mike in shot. Grating sound in background I didn’t notice. Strange behavior by interview subject. Interview subject stopping saying something really informative and jettisoned off into a tangent and never went back. Camera shook. Camera white balance was sucko. Out of focus. Me showing up in reflections or as shadow.

Now, this would be expected looking at stuff from a cold hard viewpoint, but of course that’s not what I have. What I want is a perfectly shot film, every image and person a pristine incredible cinematic triumph, going on for hours. With a one-person crew, this does not happen, not matter how expensive the camera is.

So I did two interviews this weekend. One is great, absolutely what I wanted, with interesting lighting, good sound, good subject matter, good round of questions. The other is not so great. Good sound, good layout of shot, but slightly fuzzy visage. This bothers me, bothers me big.

But the thing is, one can look at this as a “failure”, or you can look at what I did get properly, and go from there. In the case of my interview with slightly fuzzy footage, the fuzziness is only relative. Most people won’t notice it. Some will. It encourages me to add more images over that interview. It also encourages me to look at the shot and wonder how I could really jazz it up and work around that problem. In other words, it lets me move away from the shot as being the sum total of work and instead use it as a base to make the documentary’s look even more interesting.

For example, I might take that shot, which looks good but is slightly fuzzy, and then shrink it so it’s a block on the screen, and then around that block are scrolling shots of the stuff the subject is talking about. Interesting! Informative! Layers of imagery going by what would otherwise be a talking head!

But there’s always that sad feeling, that one of wanting it to be perfect. But there’s a lot to being perfect, and some of it are resources of money and crew that I simply do not have. And, like I said, luck plays into it. I’m still learning the aspects of the camera, and whereas in the old camera setup I learned that there’s this enormous noise floor with the equipment, which majorly pissed me off in the editing process, in this one it is hell and a half to get a solid focus going. It just is, and it’s part of the game.

What I am saying here, and what is part of the secret sauce of all this stuff, is just that some people look at my finished work, or other’s finished work, and go “wow, they really nailed it all along, and my stuff doesn’t nail it at all half the time”. That is simply not true. Remember, I shot two hundred and fifty hours of footage. That’s eleven solid days of footage. After going through it, I ended up with 40 hours of footage, representing 4,200 clips, that I thought even had a chance of making it in. This means that for every hour I shot, where I got up, went across the country, found the person’s house, talked with them, discussed stuff, set up the shots as best I could, started recording, interviewed them, and then completed, thanked them, and left…. four out of five times, I was not even going to consider using that hour after looking at it again.

That’s statistically. Actually, what it came down to was that there are interviews where I talked to people for an hour and I used one specific sentence. I can think of about 10 interviews where that happened. I can think of some where I only used a paragraph. That’s probably 60-70 of them. It’s the nature of how I do this stuff and how it works out.

There were about 5-6 interviews where I didn’t use a single clip. Nothing. Not a sentence, a shot, a gesture, a moment. Were these a waste? Hell no! I’ll be releasing the full interviews anyway (there’s a fantastic one up right now on with Mark Nasstrom that I’m really proud of) but the content and the editing I was doing just didn’t mesh with it so it didn’t get used. But it’s a great shot, good sound, solid stuff.

Two of my biggest (in terms of figure) interviews, Tom Jennings and Vinton Cerf, have major flaws in the footage. Not fatal, obviously, since I used them, but definitely sub-par things that happened. In the case of Tom Jennings, you can clearly see both the boom mike, and my shadow dancing along the wall next to him. In the case of Vinton Cerf, the cabinets behind him reflected, quite clearly, me. You don’t notice it in still frames and when my head isn’t moving, but as soon as I shift, you can clearly make me out in the cabinets. The whole time. In both cases.

The solution was that I cut and edited them as if things were fine, and then went in and computer modified the images to remove the boom mike and me. This increases render time but otherwise, it’s just another filter. This happened a lot, relatively, and there’s not much I could have done about it. The circumstances of the interviews, the pressing of time, and how I had to go about it all meant that such problems were likely inevitable. But if I’d decided that I needed to sink or swim the whole production on both shots being perfect, I’d have likely gone nuts a long time ago.

I mention all this because despair is part of the process, and using mistakes and unintended effects as jumping points to make your work even better than it was is also part of that process. There is a lot of stuff on the cutting room floor or the tape bin for a reason, and there’s a lot of stuff that gets on in slightly changed form because of it. So don’t worry. All those plates in the air, some are going to crash. Just don’t think the crashed plates are, in some way, a mark of incompetence or failure. They’re a result of the challenge.

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  1. Krisjohn says:

    Interesting. How big does the viewfinder need to be on an HD camera before you can be sure you’re perfectly focused?

  2. Jason Scott says:

    The solution most often used, which I do not use, is an external monitor, simple as that.