Posted on December 11, 2017
As media production budgets continue to shrink the demands put upon the freelance cinematographer have grown. It’s not enough to be just a camera operator. You also need to know how to record sound, light, and produce. There’s a term for this: “one-man band.”
Most directors of photography will groan at the sight of that phrase. They know it all too well. You do the job of 3-4 people but still only get paid for one. It’s a way for production companies to save money and as long as there are enough people willing to say “yes” to those jobs, it’ll continue to happen.
I am one of those people who say “yes.” Although I understand my colleagues groans, the truth is I wouldn’t have a career if I didn’t. And not everyone can say yes—you still need to learn how to record sound, light and produce. And then you need to be able to execute them on the fly, quickly, while time is short, and come away with professional results. I’ve done each of those rolls many, many times including under the most extreme of conditions (top of mind: while filming great white sharks off the coast of Africa in a sinking boat).
And crazy as it may sound, I enjoy it. Yea, it makes for an exhausting day(s), but I have always been someone who likes learning and doing everything that comes with my chosen field. In college I worked for the student newspaper and held every position it offered at some point, some at the same time. The interest and ability to perform multiple tasks also gives me a competitive edge.
So earlier this year when I got a call from my friends and colleagues at Image Brew asking if I was available to work alone shooting a bike race for a Pearl Izumi ad of course I said, yes!
Often when I do say that I don’t always accurately account for what I have just signed up for and this was one of those projects. The race was at Copper Mountain, about two hours outside Denver. Pearl Izumi wanted a video documenting a specific person doing the ride. This person started the race at 5am, which meant I needed to be at her condo when she started getting ready at about 3am. I am not a morning person and when you are not a morning person it means you go to bed late and it’s extrememly difficult, if not impossible, to get to sleep any earlier to accommodate an early rise. So I would be beginning the day already with a handicap. Now this is where I groan.
When I arrived at the condo I met the woman I was tasked with documenting as well as her family, including her husband and two grown sons. Originally I would be driving myself and filming this woman alone, but when the producer at Image Brew learned the family was coming, he thought it might add something to her story so suggested I ride with them. I agreed with the idea and it had the benefit of providing me with a driver so I could shoot out the window. But it also added two additional complications. First, it added three more people to the story, which meant covering and directing not just one person, but four. Second, the rental car they had was a basic four-door sedan. Fortunately, I am on the smaller side but this family was not—each of the men easily cleared 6 feet. Throw in my camera and sound equipment and you’ve got a very, very tight squeeze.
The ride was about 75 miles through the Rockies. Riders had to cross three different mountain passes, including Vail pass, which begins at Minturn and climbs for seemingly ever. The woman I was covering was not the fastest rider in the race and she warned us it would take her a long time to get up Vail pass. This meant a long day was going to be even longer than originally planned. After she crossed the finish line, at about 5:30pm, I needed to set up and conduct an interview with her. I finally wrapped at about 7:30pm.
I survived the day and I had a lot of fun hanging out with her husband and two boys. The producer at Image Brew made a good call—they did end up adding a lot to the story. So much in fact, that that it became more about the family dynamic than about this woman alone so I recommended they be a larger part of the final video.
While I think the final piece ended up being much more interesting with the family included, including them in logistically as a one-man band was challenge. I mentioned the added responsibility of directing them. The other responsibility was capturing usable sound without the help of a sound recordist. Sound recording is often the most difficult task of a one-man bander. In this situation, I needed sound from four different people. There was no budget for four wireless microphones and even if there was, there’s no separate person to monitor and mix them and no practical way of mounting four receivers on a video camera.
The best option left to a one-man bander in this case is a camera-mounted shotgun mic set to “auto.” There are two important words in that sentence to pay attention to for this method to succeed—”shotgun” and “auto.”
First, “shotgun”: Microphones generally come in two flavors—omni-directional and uni-directional. The initial instinct would be to go with an omni-directional mic. Big mistake. An omni-directional captures sound in all directions, which means that yes, you’ll pickup whatever dialogue is going on around you, but you’ll also pick up whatever background noise is going on around you, which will drown out the dialogue and give it an echo-y sound. In other words, it’s a great way to record amateur-sounding dialogue.
Instead, use a shotgun or direction micorphone. Yes, it’ll mean sometimes the dialogue you are capturing will be off axis, but it is worth the extra trouble to pay attention to what is being said (one of those extra responsibilities of a one-man bander) and move your camera in the direction of the dialogue that you want to capture clean. Remember, an audience will forgive bad video, but an audience will not forgive bad audio. Nothing removes a viewer from a cinematic experience quicker than crap audio. This means when working as a one-man band, you are an audio recordist first and a cinematographer second.
Now for “auto”: When working as a one-man band on the run, it is simply impossible to ride audio levels at the same time as shooting. For a controlled static situation, like a sit-down interview, then yes, it’s possible. But not for “run-and-gun.” In these situations the auto setting is your best friend. It’ll protect you from getting over-modulated sound and protect you from getting sound that is too low. It’s the latter protection that I like best. In auto, the microphone will essentially hear as you hear—if someone is talking from far away, the mic is going to pic it up as you might hear it standing at that distance. So the sound feels natural. It also means you can pick up on dialogue that would be impossible to get otherwise.
I know none of us became cinematographers only to become sound recordists but what helps me is keeping in mind that I am first and foremost a filmmaker. Picture is but one part of the raw material for assembling a video production. Sound is another. It’s the process of constructing all the elements needed for a finished video that turns me on. It should turn you on, too. Your clients will be better off for it.
In post-script: one skill I didn’t mention at the top of this article that is helpful to know for one-man banders is editing. A boy I love editing. The guys at Image Brew, who have seen two feature documentaries I have shot and edited, know this. The week I dropped off the footage from this race, they were swamped and asked if I would be interested in helping to edit the video, too. It’s a savvy request because as the person who field-produced and shot the video, I was already familiar with the footage, which could save a day or more of time versus another editor coming into the project cold. And of course I said, yes!
Posted on January 9, 2017
In the summer of 2015 I worked with Eve Marson and Sarah Goldblatt on their documentary feature film, “Dr. Feelgood: Dealer or Healer?” They had most of their film shot but needed pick up shots and interviews over a three-day period and they contacted me to be their director of photography for the shoot.
Eve was the lead producer on “Fed Up,” a documentary film about the food industry narrated by Katie Couric. As someone who pays close attention to the food I put in my body, I really enjoyed that film and thought it a highly important subject. This new film is about a doctor who was imprisoned for over-prescribing oxycontin to his patients, which led to severe addictions and deaths. The doctor maintains he was just doing his job to help people. Family members of his victims disagree. With the explosion in pain medication addictions in our country, this film comes at an opportune time and explores important questions about whether these drugs and the physicians who prescribe them are helping or hurting their patients.
The trailer for finished film is above. I was happy to see the scene I shot of the physician at his piano was included. The film recently premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival and is soon to be distributed by Gravitas Ventures and will be dropped on iTunes, Amazon, and Google Play January 31. It maintains a 83 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Posted on December 19, 2016
I have friends in the video production business who are long-time owners of Honda Elements. I remember them touting their virtues as far back as 2007, especially as tools for video production.
I didn’t care much for the vehicles visual aesthetic so I didn’t share in their enthusiasm. That all changed last year when during several car camping trips I noticed a lot of people driving them. They must be on to something, I thought.
So I looked into them and what others have done to modify their appearance. After seeing some inspiring examples, I knew I had to have one.
A couple weeks later I found myself driving my new car, a 2008 Honda Element, back to Denver from Jackson, Wyoming. My next course of action with the new car was tossing the stock grill and tires. The grill I replaced with a logo-less one and for the tires I picked up a set of BFGoodrich Mud-Terrain T/A KM2s. These bad boys are a couple sizes larger than the standard tires and feature tremendous amounts of aggressive-looking tread, even on the side walls! Yes, they are great for driving in Colorado’s muddy and snowy mountains, but most of all they balance out the car so it actually looks like it should. They change the complexion of the vehicle so much that I have had people stop and ask what kind of car it is. When I tell them it is an Element, they are surprised.
My modifications have not been limited to the exterior, in fact, I have probably done more work on the interior. I removed the back seats and installed a rug. I created a custom center console that has room for four large Nalgene type water bottles and seven beverages all together. And I have created a road trip/car camping organizing system for the back as well as a foldout platform bed that is used for overnight ski trips.
It was the later system I had currently in the car when I was hired as a director of photography by the good folks at New York based ASL Productions. They had storyboarded a tracking shot of a guy riding his bike on a bike path, so I offered up my Element for the shot, which meant have to set my platform bed temporairly on the sidewalk and generated a fair share of curious looks. Miguel, operating Movi Freefly, sat on the tailgate to nab the shots while I captured the cyclist on a long lens from a tripod. Miguel’s resulting shots looked fantastic. Those friends of mine were wise, I should have gotten an Element much sooner.
Posted on November 30, 2016
Curbed.com, a website owned by Vox Media that profiles features about all things home, recently launched a video division. Their first project is a massive story on “10 Streets That Define America.” One of the streets they chose to focus on is Wynkoop Street right here in Denver, Colorado. They contracted with me to work as a field producer and cinematographer and director of photography on a video profiling the street.
The final published story and video may be found here. Two of the major landmarks on Denver’s Wynkoop St. that we focus on include the Wynkoop Brewery and Union Station. The producer of the series really loved a commercial I produced and shot for Hatchlab about seedling farmers in Boulder. She was interested in a similar style but also wanted to add smooth tracking beauty shots of the street. This was a perfect opportunity to use a newer piece of gear in my arsenal, which is a DSLR handheld gimbal made by Ikan and called “The Beholder.” It is just robust enough to accept a Canon 5D without weight issues. When I slap that on, voila! I’ve got instant steadicam-like shots. Well, maybe not instant, as it does require a bit of practice to get smooth shots, but once you have that ironed out the set up is quick.
Check out the shots of Union Station and Wynkoop I got with the setup in the final video.
Posted on October 17, 2016
“Parables of War,” a documentary film for which I served as a director of photography, just earned an IndieCapitol Award for best documentary short for 2016! Congrats to the film’s producer and director, Nina Gilden Seavey.
I’ve had the pleasure of serving as a cinematographer and a few of Nina’s projects over the years. She is a talented documentary filmmaker and her films always go on to accomplish great things. This film has been no exception.
I am happy to have been a contributor this documentary film and a part of a talented crew, including director of photography Gary Grieg, editor Ian Rummer, composer John Califra, and sound designer and mixer Cheryl Ottenritter.
The films stars Liz Lerman, Bill Pullman, Joshua Bleill, Keith Thompson, Tamara Hurwitz Pullman, Marjani Forte-Saunders.
The documentary is available to watch on iTunes and Vudu.
You can follow additional news about the film on Facebook.
Posted on September 27, 2016
These days nearly, if not all, documentary films contain an interview or more. For better or worse it is just how the structure of documentaries have come to be defined. So as a cinematographer and director of photography for documentary films, I find myself shooting lot of interviews. A. Lot. Everyone from the President to 5-year-old kids. Last month I shot perhaps my favorite one: Robert Blakley.
The interview was for a documentary being produced by Nina Gilden Seavey. Nina is a long tenured and accomplished documentary filmmaker. Additionally, she is the director of the documentary program at George Washington University and co-founder of The Silver Docs Film Festival, one of the preeminent documentary only film festivals in the world. I had the pleasure of meeting her while working as a camera operator on short documentary film of hers early in my career. That film went on to play at several film festivals win several awards. The latest film of hers with with I have worked and served as director of photography, “Parables of War,” recently completed a festival run and is now being distributed by Gravitas Ventures and has received a number of glowing reviews.
So I was happy to hear about her latest project when she called me to ask if I wanted to film an interview with her in Phoenix, Arizona. Blakley, now 85 and a retired attorney, lead the House Assassinations Committee investigations into the JFK and MLK assassinations in the late 1970s. If there is a person alive who knows most accurately the truth behind those assassinations, it is this man. Nina’s film concerns the student protest and Civil Rights Movement protests in the late 1960s so for purposed of the interview was interested specifically in Blakley’s knowledge of the Martin Luther King assassination.
But I couldn’t leave without an inquiry into the John F. Kennedy assassination. As a child growing up in the 1980s and early ’90s, every November 22 the JFK assassination was discussed. I remember my social studies teacher showing the Zapruder film and the analysis of the trajectories of the bullets. My teachers, along with my parents, were baby-boomers and children at the time of the assassination. It as much a mark of their childhood as the Challenger explosion in 1986 might be for mine. So I grew up surrounded by the emotional memories of that event and the continued efforts, some 30 years later, to grapple with what happened.
The discussion seems to have faded dramatically since that time yet I don’t recall a conclusion or consensus reached on what actually was behind the assassination. So after we wrapped the interview. my curiosity got the best of me and while I was packing up my camera and lighting gear, I asked Blakley jokingly if he thought there was another shooter behind the grassy knoll. “Yes,” he said. “There were two shooters and I’m pretty sure I know who they were.” Say again? We talked for a quite a while longer in which he revealed that actors from the mafia and the Cuban-American community were behind the plot to assassinate the president. My mind was blown. Here is the man who perhaps knowns most accurately the truth behind the most notorious assassination of the last several generations and yet here he is quietly living out his retirement years in Scottsdale where none seems to be interested in talking to him about what he knows.
Fortunately, he has written a book about his findings. I’ll hold back on the details here and instead direct you to said book. It’s available for one cent. I’m reading it now.
Posted on April 14, 2016
This week sound recordist Rich Jacobs and I worked on a touching film shoot in Colorado Springs for Voice of America that is garnering a lot of press from all the major news outlets.
Standing next to me in this photo is 87-year-old Helga Kissell. She wrote a letter to a 16-year-old Syrian refugee. “I know it is always difficult to adjust in a different country. I feel very deeply for you,” Kissell wrote. “There will be better times ahead.”
Kissell is no stranger to what it is like to be a refugee. She grew up in Germany during WWII. After her town was bombed by the Allies, her family escaped with only the clothes on their backs. A short time later, an American soldier she had met and befriended earlier while working at a photo printing shop sent her and her family a care package containing food and clothes.
That man, Leo, is now her husband (and is standing on the right). They kept in touch via letters for three years before Kissell was able to fly to the United States and marry Leo.
CARE, the same service Leo used to send packages to Helga is providing that same service to Syrian refugees.
Posted on March 18, 2016
This month I had the pleasure of producing and shooting a video for a commercial real estate broker. I got to work with several fun toys on this one, including the Freefly Movi, which is a gimble system that allows for smooth camera movement. I love it because it frees me up to create movement with the camera in any way I chose.
This being a real estate video, we of course needed aerial photography. I have been casually training myself on drone operation but for the time being I am unable to do so for commercial purposes. This is because the FAA requires UAV operators to possess a pilot’s license and a Section 333 exemption. Pretty steep requirements but understandable since UAVs are dangerous and it pays to have someone with experience and credentials behind the wheel.
So I work with Elite Air Productions. They come as a two-man operation with dedicated operators for both the piloting and the camera. This comes with several benefits — first and foremost it allows the pilot to keep his eyes squarely focused on the drone. You’d be surprised how easy it is to lose a drone in the air. Elite Air’s pilot, Jonathan Gruber, is a commercial airline pilot, so he comes with thousands of hours of experience logged at the controls. I was pleased to see that safety was his first concern: he would land the drone any time a pedestrian or auto approached.
Check out our work below in the finished piece.