Denver Director of Photography & Cinematographer
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!