Recording Lite

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.