It’s Not About the Camera, or Our Workflow, Pt. 2

28 05 2010

In the last post I detailed the technical basics of our workflow. As I mentioned, a lot of people – friends and strangers alike — email me to ask about the camera and the look we use.  The questions spiral out: is the camera is easy? What kind of mic-rig do we employ? How big is our crew?  How much lighting does Michael do?

I answer all of these questions because I appreciate the interest in the project and in our techniques, but the actual truth is: none of this matters.   While the camera we use (the Mark 5d) has gotten a lot of attention in a lot of circles, it’s no more important than what type of pistol grip we use for the microphone.

We’re in a period when the technology to produce moving images is changing drastically every six-months.  Six-months ago it was the Red One, now it’s these HDSLRs and six month’s from now it’ll be the Epic or some other oddly named tapeless camera.

Unfortunately – and I saw this a lot at film school – there’s often an inordinate amount of faith put into the technology being used, and by this I mean there’s a sense that if you somehow use the cutting-edge camera your work will simply be better.  That’s not the case, and I don’t think it ever has been.

A couple of years ago there were literally thousands of people using Panasonic’s HVX200 to shoot narrative films, but there was only one person who could make it look like this. And while James Laxton’s work on that film is flat-out great, none of it would’ve really mattered if Barry Jenkins wasn’t able to illicit intimate and lived-in performances that matched the film’s palette.   Without having spoken to them about it my guess is that their choices – in terms of camera, crew and workflow – came about organically and by necessity.

And that’s the way our workflow has emerged.  We shoot the way we do because most of the time we’re a crew of two people – Michael and myself (with the very capable Jon Schwarz helping shoot at times).  To do this we need both a camera and a sound rig that are mobile, don’t attract attention and can record high volumes of footage without having to offload the data all the time.  That’s how we came to this camera and that has in turn influenced the aesthetic.  (Read more here).

This strikes me as being just what I’m driving at: through this project I’ve learned to relax and go where it takes us in a number of ways but one of the crucial ones is learning that your necessity drives your aesthetics and the work gets a lot better when you accept that.

With that I want to offer a quick thought and a little praise to the visual steward of these films, Michael Totten:

What strikes me – pretty much every month – about Michael’s cinematography is that what he chooses to focus on is always reflective of the larger themes at work in the piece.  He’s there with me listening to the interviews and feeling the energy of the people and the space and then somehow intuits the right image to reflect what’s being touched on — or better yet — what’s going unspoken.

He does it month in and month out, and with an eye like that, it doesn’t really matter what camera he’s using.


Our Workflow, pt. 1

26 05 2010

We get a lot of emails asking about our workflow on the Sparrow Songs films and about the sound and camera set up we use, so I thought I’d just lay out our basic workflow here.


We shoot on the Canon Mark II 5d and record second source sound on either a Sound Devices 744T (when we can afford it) and more often on a Tascam DR100.   When we’re doing interviews in which the subjects are seated and will be in one place for a little while we mount the boom mic on a C-stand, when we’re shooting more verite pieces (the moment of prayer in L’Arche, all of Donuts) I hold the microphone and move around to get the best angle.

Getting into Post

The Mark 5d shoots everything in the h264 codec.  To work with it in Final Cut you need to transcode it to the Apple ProRes 422 codec.  We use MPEG Streamclip to do this.  This transcode takes a long long time, somewhere around3-4 times real time.  In other words if you have three hours of footage the transcode will take nine to 12 hours.


Because we record a guidetrack on the camera we’re able use a program called PluralEyes that automatically syncs the second source sound to picture.  (I know, I know, I didn’t believe it would work when I heard about it either).


This basically involves me staying up for three to four nights in a row, going to my day job completely exhausted, coming home and getting frustrated with the cut and then finding some way to push through.

Near the end I tend to get technically sloppy because I’m feeling the pressure of the end of the month coming and I’m too tired to stay focused on those things, so I’ve taken to writing notes to myself that say things like: ‘Do an audio pass before finishing’ ‘Collapse video layers.’ ‘Add fades.’


I then turn the Final Cut Pro project file — with collapsed video layers — of the piece back over to Michael who does a quick color pass using the program, Color.


We keep all original media on two redundant drives.  Lately we’ve been getting inquiries from film festivals about screening some (or all) of the pieces and since we’ve preserved all of the original elements of each piece we’ll be able to go back in and re-work the look and sound of some of the pieces.

My guess is after reading this you may have more questions than answers so feel free to email or post a comment and I’ll answer it the best I can.

Next up, why none of this matters.

Episode Seven

12 05 2010

This is the paragraph where-in I mention how tough this particular episode was.  And — as always seems to be the case – this one was indeed difficult.  In fact, the basic subject matter alone made the whole thing feel like a minefield.  In its most elemental form this month’s film is a piece about the ‘9/11 Truth Movement’ that has sprung up centered around the belief that the terrorist attacks of September 11th were actually orchaestrated by the US government.  At the same time the piece aims to neither put forward the 9/11 Truth theories nor pass judgment on their beliefs, and wants to do all of this without using any footage from September 11th.

That’s a tall order, but those constraints speak to what we’re trying to do with this one.  I have no interest in disproving various conspiracy theories, nor do I have any interest in re-hashing the events of that September day (once was too much to begin with). Rather my interest with this piece was to find a group that had a shared sense of having found the truth and an intense need to share this truth with others.

What that specific ‘truth’ is, is irrelevant.  My hope was to be able to convey to the audience the fervency and urgency that accompanies a deep-held feeling of possessing the truth when others around you are ‘unconscious’ or oblivious and how this feeling changes the possessor’s life.

Now that that’s out of the way, a note on the style of this piece:  one of the joys of doing Sparrow Songs is being able to try out different stylistic approaches, interview techniques and constructions with each film.  For much of the first half-dozen we’ve employed a kind of gentle still-life approach that works to use the existing exterior world to illustrate the interior world of the people with whom we’re speaking.  This month’s episode feels like a bit of a departure (to me at least).

Early on in the project Michael put me on to Errol Morris’ First Person series that was made for IFC.   With this piece, on some level, I was looking to ape his approach less because I want to mimic Morris and more because I wanted to see what I could learn from it.  To this end, one big lesson came early on: any time you put the camera directly between yourself and the subject it immediately creates distance and tension.  That isn’t necessarily a bad thing if that’s what you’re going for, but it was interesting to feel the difference between sitting behind the lens and sitting next to it.

Room Tone and Its Visual Equivalent

6 05 2010

This blog hasn’t touched on technique a whole lot during the first half of the Sparrow Songs year, but as we enter the second half I’m going to work to add more posts on techniques we’re using.  I want to do this, in part, because it seems to be something that folks are interested in, but also because I’m learning so much by making these films and I know a lot of lessons go unlearned for having not been written down.

Technically ‘room tone’ is the recorded silence of a room.  Sit quietly, with all distractions turned off and you’ll hear that wherever you are has it’s own distinct silence – a refrigerator hum, the fan from the building next-door, etc.  Sound recordists make a point of recording this so that during editing when a gap appears in the dialogue the editor can drop in a piece of room tone that then covers that gap.

In practice, the recording of room tone offers the closest thing to meditation that a production can have.  Someone calls out that room tone is being recorded and every one sits silently or stands in place and statue-still for a full minute.   On big movies, it’s a remarkable thing to watch simply because these are the few moments of the day that are completely quiet.  Even on our small two-person shoots it’s a nice moment and gives both Michael and I and our subjects a little break.

At some point – during Episode 2, I think – we started rolling the camera while we recorded tone as well.  The result was great.  Here, all of a sudden, you have thirty seconds or a minute of just someone’s uninterrupted gaze.  The subjects sit quietly or fidget — whatever it is they do they’re usually not thinking about being on camera — which affords a certain honesty in their movements and expressions.  These moments lend a certain tone and credence to some of the pieces.  In Porn Star Karaoke you can see them strung together at the opening of the piece.

I’ve never tried just rolling the camera for thirty seconds to a minute during a narrative piece, but my sense is that having footage of your actors during quiet moments would bear fruit as well.

Now having said all this, I completely forgot to do any of it during Episode 7, which will be up in the coming days.