May, 2004

Recording Lite

May 26th, 2004 May 26th, 2004
Posted in Film making
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Ignorance of the past condemns us to repeat its mishtakes. But that doesn’t mean you can’t reproduce the mistakes you created before with entirely new circumshtances.

Take basketball, for instance. Basketball was the first serious thing we went out to film when I set up West Herts Television (aka. Parallel Pictures). Okay, it was the first serious thing we filmed after I’d made a highlights video showing clips of all the marvellous programmes we’d supposedly already made. That was shot over a weekend and edited at the BBC’s training facilities at Elstree. That was quality. No mishtake. Ahem.

Anyway, basketball. Hemel and Watford Royals Basketball team played in the national league, the Budweiser League, in a supporting role. A propping-up role, in fact, as they were usually near the bottom. Despite that, they had several big advantages as an event to film. One, they played indoors in a floodlit arena, so weather was never an issue in recording. Two, no one else filmed basketball at the time, so they liked the idea of being on TV.

Most importantly, however, the Hemel and Watford Royals were owned by the kindly Vincent Macaulay-Razaq and his partner, Christine Thompson. And they just happened to run a film company, Fine Cut Films, in London. Which meant they had equipment. Which was good. Because we only had one camera. And no recorder.

Actually, we also had no vision mixer (aka. switcher in American parlance), no sound desk, no mic’s, monitors or talkback either. But I persuaded the (largely ignorant) cable company that a switcher and monitors were essential for transmission, so they hired them in and we set up on a ricketty table with Vince’s U-matic recorder plus their camera (for wide shots) on the bleachers.

Ahh, those were the days. Those were the days when it didn’t matter about comms–I could flick the long cable connecting a camera to the switcher up at the cameraman to get his attention. It didn’t matter that the recorder didn’t work perfectly or that one camera had slightly green pictures. We’d figure it out. It probably did matter that I didn’t know the difference between “mic level” and “line level” (I do now!) but I didn’t know what I didn’t know back then.

I’m not sure who our commentator for that first game was, but they too turned out not to matter. Because, after 90 minutes of fighting with jammed tapes and stuck buttons, we eventually recorded just 16 minutes of the last quarter. With no sound. What can you do with a tape with no sound? Cunningly, I played the whole thing out on the local channel with a title card saying “Basketball Highlights” and graphics occasionally coming up saying “We apologise for the loss of sound. Our engineers are working on the problem.” Nice. Ah, those were the days.

*****

After several weeks, we did eventually get it together and recorded complete games, with commentary, interviews and even four cameras (two handheld) recording. We graduated from zero comms to headsets made by Radio Shack (Tandy in the UK)–“Cab seventeen? Pick up in Bennetts End… Bzzt!”–then away from the taxi wavebands and up to professional talkback. We even had titles, credits and incredibly cool music thanks to the talents of Jon Tuck and Andy Trussler. We made highlights tapes at the end of the season and people bought them.

I’ll tell you, after two years, we were slick. So it was a bit gutting when SkyTV decided to buy the “rights” to Budweiser League Basketball. Even more gutting when they only showed two of the Royals home games each year.

I phoned up the Head of Sport at Sky and laid it on the line. “It’s like this. We carry your games on the cable network. You have four channels of sport and you get paid regardless. We’re not competing. Can we show the Royals games you’re not filming? We’ll put them on at a different time, so there won’t be any conflict.” “Let me think about it.” He thought about it for two weeks and then decided. No. “It would take away from our ‘exclusive coverage’ deal.” “But you’re not actually covering these games. No one is.” “Sorry. That’s how it is.”

And that’s how it was. Scumbag Sky. So we filmed Rugby instead. Rugby League and Rugby Union. One less camera, but they gave us free beer and sometimes lunch. We loved them. We also filmed St Albans City Football, who weren’t as forthcoming with the refreshments, but let us put up a huge tower and enlisted the inimitable Tim Hobbs, a local journalist, as commentator. “Looks like the referee’s had a few haircuts too many. Let me tell you about the party I went to last week… Go on, you blues!” And so on.

Events coverage. Sports coverage. We had it covered. One year, we even tried to cover hockey. That’s field hockey to those of you reading here in ‘Mericuh. It’s a fast moving sport with a very small puck. St Albans Hockey Club asked if we were interested and I asked for the usual things from St Albans Hockey Club. “We’ll need a scaffold tower for the cameras and two commentators. And if there’s any chance of a bite to eat, that would be nice.”

It all seemed ideal. The cable company’s local marketing coordinator, Catherine Steele-Child, even procured us the use of their marketing caravan as a control room. This was luxury a cut above sitting at the back of a boiler room in the rugby club, or in the outdoor hut which served as their gym. A caravan! With a generator, no less. We had arrived.

Saturday came and we did, indeed, arrive. After a night of constant rain, I was driving a large-horse-power pick-up truck at a top speed of ten miles per hour. This was as fast as it would go because Catherine’s caravan turned out to be made of extremely heavy steel. It certainly wasn’t going to blow away as the wind and drizzle picked up again. Actually, it wasn’t even going to make it to the hockey pitch. As I slowly towed it across the croquet lawn at Clarence Park, it dug ruts–deep ruts, about six inches down. Then it stuck.

Half an hour of pushing, shoving and heaving this nightmare, we eventually got it out of the park’s unexpected new obstacle course and around to the side of the hockey pitch. Time was short now and we were sweating like pigs but the cameras were already set up. All we had to do was fire up the generator. I pressed the button. Nothing. Mickey pressed the button. Nothing. Nothing nothing nothing.

Eventually, after everyone had pressed the button (nothing), I decided to record separate tapes on the back of each camera and edit them afterwards with the commentary. No problemo. No. Problemo. Except hockey. Ah, yes. Hockey. Fast moving. Small puck. In fact, a puck which is invisible in a two inch viewfinder. We missed all four goals because the cameras were looking the other way. It was, as they say in the trade, an unmitigated disaster (although, naturally, I still put it on the air).

Next week, I received a rather brief letter from the chairman of the hockey club, stating that they’d rather we didn’t come back to cover the other three games we’d agreed. I wrote back expressing my regret that the “experiment” had been unsuccessful and hoping we could still report their results. No one mentioned the croquet lawn. Ever.

****

Now, here I am, more than a decade later, in a different country with plenty of experience under my belt and, on Sunday, I’m out filming Candide with two cameras for the Michigan Theater. I have fully charged batteries (so I think) and a sound feed to a separate minidisc recorder from the main desk. It’s too easy, isn’t it? Of course it is.

Laura’s never used the minidisc recorder before and, in my brief explanation (was it a whole sixty seconds?), I neglect to mention that she needs to press another button after pressing “Record”. The record indicator duly flashes when she presses it and I’m up on the balcony fighting a tripod with no fluid head, so I don’t see that the disc isn’t actually going around. We have four seconds of sound from the brief sound check I did when we set up.

Worse is to come. I’ve clamped a small camera on a balcony behind me for a wideshot while I operate the close up camera on the (non-fluid head) tripod. Naturally, the locked off, unmanned camera has a battery failure. I manage to get 45 minutes on that tape, although all of the audio (often distorted) and all of the pictures are on the close up camera, albeit often jerkily (did I mention there was no fluid head?).

And so it comes to this, dear readers. I’ve done it again. No clean audio. After more than a decade, I’ve made the same mistake twice. Haven’t I? Really? Um, well, actually, no. I haven’t. It wasn’t line level/mic level. It was that I hadn’t briefed my crew. And, the day is saved because the Michigan also had a CD recording made of the entire show for each performance, so there is a great soundtrack and I was relying on it.

If anything, I learn to arrive early enough to have some kind of technical rehearsal but that’s the future. We saw the performance right through on Friday, so I knew pretty much what was going to happen when, which meant the close-ups were anticipated and I got them. The wide angle camera pictures aren’t as good as I’d like (I had everything set on “auto” for that and it only worked so well). Really, I really needed one more crew member. But still. Quality. No mishtake.

Tornado Watch

May 21st, 2004 May 21st, 2004
Posted in It's life, Jim...
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Turns out there are four kinds of people in this world, my friends. Relators, Socializers, Thinkers and Directors. It all depends where you fall on the ‘guarded-open’ and ‘indirect-direct’ scales. That’s according to Dr Tony Alessandra, who I spent the whole of Wednesday filming at one of his motivation seminars. Gotta tell ya, I feel motivated!

We, the crew, were doubly motivated to go and see a film during a long break between filming sessions. One of the perks of recording in a multiplex. We took in Thai food and went to see Mean Girls. Ah, this would have been a truly great movie… if I’d been 16. However, I’m not 16, so all I can say is that it (and I quote) “had its moments”.

As a bonus, I took home one of the CD’s which the organizers of Tony’s Detroit seminars were giving out as incentives to people who helped them (like by moving into the front rows to be part of the visible video audience). The CD turns out to be by Frank Abagnale, the original ‘Skywayman’ whose exploits inspired Leo and Tom’s Catch Me If You Can.

I played some of Frank’s CD this morning. It’s basically a recording of him relating his life story to a studio audience. And it is truly outrageous. I thought I had the spirit of Badness, but Frank makes me look like a novitiate. Not that I’d want to do what Frank did. But I’m inspired by his sheer audacity. However, Frank isn’t proud of what he did and the CD is actually a well-told moral tale. I’m curious now about his book.

Dr Tony talked a lot in his seminar, by the way. Dr Tony is very good at talking. In fact, he’s one of the top 20 public speakers in the world (it says so on his literature). Among other things, Dr Tony said that possibly the best way to create business is to get referrals from satisfied customers. And not just referrals, you should get apostles. I have three apostles so far I think, with Russ at the Michigan and Deb at Artrain. Russ was wearing an Ascalon Films T-shirt yesterday, so I’m thinking that’s a good thing. Dr Tony says the best number of apostles to get is twelve.

Meanwhile, on the other side of town, preparations are underway for a glittering performance of Candide at the Michigan Theater and I’ve been asked to record it on video. Big George’s are dickering over the price of making an advert for them, even though we’d already agreed on a price over a month ago. They’re also dickering over the voiceover of the advert we’ve finished for Home Appliance Mart in Southfield, but that’s okay. They love the visuals.

Our fence was installed the other day. Then they scalloped it with convex curves instead of a concave top edge, so now it’s gone again. Someone called Benji has written to ask if they can be an intern with Ascalon Films for a couple of weeks. Wisely or unwisely, I’ve said yes. We still don’t know if Benji is male or female, but I figure they can do some Cinema Slam admin while they’re here (two weeks time) and track down some film festivals. Who knows, there may even be some filming going on for him/her to see.

At the weekend, we’re off to Cedar Point to ride the rollercoasters. Yay! That’s if it stops raining. We’ve had huge thunderstorms here for a few days and last night’s was a doozy (as Stan Lee used to say). The tornado warning siren at the corner of the street went off at about ten past midnight and after that it was non-stop lightning for about 45 minutes. It looked like one side of the house was having a conversation in light with the other side. Or perhaps like a faulty flourescent tube. Crash. Flicker flicker. Rumble. Flicker flash. Crash!

This morning it seemed to have calmed down and I went to visit Carl Michel, a local composer who I’ve asked to provide some music for the Artrain project. Then this afternoon it started up again. More thunder, more lightning and more high winds. Some of our baby trees are leaning at 30 degrees to the vertical but everything’s stable so far. A tornado was actually spotted in the area and touched down in Chelsea, a small town just a few miles west of us, but it went past A2 without incident.

Okay, I gotta go now. I’ve just got a copy of DVD Studio Pro off ebay and I’m antsy to try it. Plus there’s fresh tea in the pot–we’ve found somewhere that sells loose leaf Earl Grey. Mmmmm. Tea. Bonus.

Keeping It Reel

May 13th, 2004 May 13th, 2004
Posted in Film making
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Nothing beats a great reel. And this, my friends, is a production company with a great reel.

I’ve been busy and hence putting off getting a showreel together. But we went to a Chamber of Commerce networking meeting this morning and as I’m handing out business cards, I’m thinking to myself (not for the first time) that not only do I neeeeeed a reel, but I really ought to overhaul the Ascalon Films website.

It could happen. It will.

Meanwhile, for more cool stuff, go to Ridley Scott Associates site and check out the directors’ reels there. One caveat: it *will* resize your browser. I hate that. But it’s worth it.

It Just Gets Better And Better

May 11th, 2004 May 11th, 2004
Posted in Fire and Light
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This morning I woke up dreaming that I was visiting Texas when NASA asked me to help them with some talkback issues. Apparently my headphones had the longest extension cable so off I went, up the control tower. Imagine my surprise when I stepped out on the observation deck and discovered the whole structure was made of cardboard.

Yesterday there was actually rather a lot of cardboard in real life. In our garage, in fact. It seems that ne’er a week goes by that we don’t purchase at least a dozen things all of which come in huge boxes. I’ve tried squashing it down into small squares and forcing it into the bin for the recycling truck but, rather like Pokemon, there’s always more than you ever needed, wanted or cared about.

While I’m sitting here waiting for my tea to brew and pondering the packaging inadequacies of the world, I’ve been skimming through my emails. The Car has been accepted in another film festival, this time in Dubrovnik. This is very exciting. It’s the first foreign language festival I’ve had a film in and it was one of my hopes for The Car to make it a strong visual narrative, accessable to people around the world.

I’ve also been reading Mil’s mailing list, an email off-shoot of his Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About page. Thanks to Mil, I’ve discovered this morning that archived articles in The Times online edition are only free if you live in the UK. Everyone else has to pay. Of course, there’s no way I’m paying for The Times when there’s so much free information on the web.

In a fit of mild pique, I went straight over to the BBC website to read the news there for free. Naturally I was expecting more doom, gloom and general incredulousness at whatever was happening in the world, not to mention full in-depth analysis of the perils of packaging and corrugated control structures. And, of course, I was not disappointed. But that’s everyday stuff. There was other news–or Other News–and it was Good.

Firstly, Monsanto (formerly known as the big evil chemical company) has switched hats from black to white and is now playing the part of the good guys. How’s that? I hear you ask. They’ve decided to cease production of the world’s first genetically modified wheat because of consumer resistance. Isn’t that just the best? Yes, ordinary people on the street can make a difference to major decisions in the world. You–yes, you!–can change the world.

And secondly, some not so ordinary people far above the street are poised to change not just the world but space travel too. Organizers of the X-prize are saying that the challenge to put a private craft into space twice in two weeks will be won this year. That’s not “could be won”, it’s “will be won”. This is an awesome story and one I hope will also change the world for the better. Extraordinary people doing extraordinary things. Truly inspiring.

Okay. Enough of the extraordinary. It’s time for tea and then there’s a big stack of editing to do. We start the day inspired.

Dig This

May 2nd, 2004 May 2nd, 2004
Posted in It's life, Jim...
1 Comment »

I know. Long time no blog. And this won’t be a long one either. So much to be done. So much landscaping. So much filmmaking. I just wanted to write about us planting trees last week. Little baby trees. It took us all day, digging fourteen holes and planting fourteen trees. And while we were digging, these words kept echoing around my head…

Yuk Yuk.