Saturday, June 7th, 2003 was a very interesting day.
About a year ago, I had an idea that I should form a video club with my friends. Ever since Sheldon, a friend from high school, let me use his video camera, I’ve been envious of the people that find the time/energy/creativity to tell stories through that medium. Luckily, my job has allowed me to pursue that to some extent, but I’ve never felt that I’ve done it right.
In 1995 I took a class titled “A/V Technologies” at UAS. The semester was arduous and left a lot to be desired, but if I learned one thing, it was that doing video well requires planning. Sure, anyone can pick up a camcorder and hit the record button, but if you want anything other than “home video,” you’re going to need more people, and you’re going to have to work hard.
Knowing this well, I’ve struggled to find a way to attack some video projects that have been rattling around in my head. In the last month or two, I’ve approached friends and co-workers who have similar interests and discovered that quite a few of them would be more than willing to form a little club to do this stuff together. After putting to bed a few other “pay projects” in May, I was finally able to get some friends together to take a crack at forming a video club…
There was enthusiasm… some of it tempered by realistic expectations, some of it overly ambitious. I made a point that if we, as a group, wanted to actually get a concept like this off the ground, we’d have to abide by a few guidelines:
Most of the group saw eye-to-eye on these points, and I was relieved. One idea came out of that first meeting that I didn’t foresee – the desire to meet more than once a month. Mike Heiman thought that we should have a planning session about two weeks before the shoot. That turned out to be a great idea.
On a Wednesday evening after work in late May, we convened again to discuss our first project. Since it was my idea to form this club, I hoped to step up and lead by example. So, I wrote a 4-page script for a parody of your typical television deodorant commercial – instead of showing the product from an athlete’s (or socialite’s) perspective, I wanted a hard-core computer gamer in the starring role! It’s a project I’d had in mind for at least 9 months – I remember telling my friend, Rob, about it last September – and I thought its time limit of 30 seconds would lend itself to our plans quite well.
That night, most of us sat down and read my script. I was happy that most everyone got the esoteric geek humor it contained. We discussed it, batted a few ideas around, and finally sat down to create a list of everything we’d need to make it happen. “Everything” included cameras to furniture, empty pizza boxes to boom mics, lights to breakfast donuts. We were bound to make this an actual production, not a grainy, shaky-cam, home video! With that meeting behind us and on the eve of our Saturday shoot, I firmly believed that, together, we had sufficiently planned everything to allow us to be finished in a quick four or five hours.
I was wrong.
Saturday, for me, started bright and early at 7am. My alarm went off and I forced myself to go straight from my bed to my computer. The night before was our weekly Deep Space Nine get-together and I didn’t have time to finish up the deodorant labels before going to bed. So, for the next hour, between bites of last night’s cold pizza, I managed to finish up three labels for “Boomstick Deodorant.” Before I was done, I had to print them out in various sizes, because I wasn’t even sure what size deodorant stick we were going to adhere them to.
At 8am, JJ stopped by with a Jeep-load full of equipment for the shoot. JJ is, among us, the hands-down king of video. I would wager that he has more hours logged, in almost every category of video production, than the rest of us combined. When he told me the day before that he wasn’t going to be able to make the shoot because of an emergency meeting, my heart despaired. Lucky for me, he was able re-reschedule.
With JJ chipping in as another beast of burden, we loaded up my two milk crates full of “set dressing” and my plush computer chair into my own Jeep. On the way to our shoot, we stopped by my workplace, UAS Media Services, to gather mounds of video equipment – including DV video cameras, monitors, light kits, connectors, adapters, tripods and more. We were out the door by 8:45am, and running only 15 minutes late.
Karl, Joe, and Jeff were waiting for us at UAS housing. Karl works for UAS Facilities Services and is that department’s liaison to the dorms. Earlier in the week he had cleared permission for us to use one of the empty rooms on campus. This was perfect in that it allowed us to build our own set from scratch rather than attempt to adapt my own apartment as I had originally planned. When I learned that we had indeed secured an empty dorm, I had a mental picture of us dragging a computer desk from one of the student rooms into the living room (where there would be more space for the lights) and shuttering the windows so that we could completely control the lighting…
At the earlier meeting, Joe had a great idea to time-lapse the whole day’s work with his own digital camera. Before the four of us started hauling in all our gear, we connected his camera to my laptop and let Premiere start capturing a frame every two seconds. With that running, we set about moving all the furniture out of our “set” and then brought in all three carloads worth of equipment.
Immediately, Karl started to make himself indispensable by going elsewhere on campus and finding us all sorts of necessary items. Right off the bat he was out the door looking for a desk shelf that would allow a giant monitor to rest beneath. Not long after it was a rolling platform and drill for an ineffective idea (of mine) to create a motorized dolly system. Much later he came back with a spray bottle, tools, and he even renegotiated the length of our stay when it was obvious that we weren’t going to leave in the early afternoon.
As the four of us started in on the set decoration, others began to arrive. First Beth, Mona, and Cody, later Elise and Oksana. As the room began to get crowded with equipment and people, it became more difficult for me to dole out assignments for everyone.
Mona and Beth were put to great use readying the deodorant labels for the sticks that Mona had bought earlier. And that was no small task, either, considering that they had to buy another stick of deodorant and go to Mona’s house to pick up a paper cutter and some double-sided tape!
Elise had brought a homemade “clacker” for scene designations and audio sync. She did a great job with some plywood and some spray-on blackboard… stuff. Unfortunately as the shoot got more chaotic, I thought that having another person trying to get in front of the cameras would be an unnecessary distraction. (After the number of takes we needed to get everything in the can, though, I regret that decision. Editing could have been so much easier!)
With the set design progressing nicely, I took Jeff into one of the dorm rooms and told him to study up his lines. I had written the script with Karl in mind as the gamer – I believed that if he could get into a certain character, he could play the perfect overconfident and stereotypical gamer – and ever since I’d had trouble thinking of anyone else in the role. Jeff had volunteered, and another member in the club, Michael, had offered to do it as well. While I was sure that Michael could pull off the character, Jeff had the tousled hair and unshaven look that I wanted. Hedging my bets, I asked them both to do it – and they agreed. But what seemed like bad news when Michael had to cancel turned out to be a blessing in disguise…
Returning from the other side of the dorm, I found JJ teaching Cody some of the basics of video camera work and Joe making sure his computer was hooked up and running well. Looking for something useful to do, Mona and I started on the audio setup. We dug Mike Maas’ MiniDisc recorder out of one of my milk crates and promptly discovered that we didn’t have the right connectors to use his microphone. Not for the first time that day, we needed someone to go get more stuff.
At about 11:35am, for the second time that day, JJ and I went to Media Services. Looking at my watch for the first time, it was then that I realized that we were going to fall far short of goal to finish up in the early afternoon. I left Karl, Joe, and Cody working on the dolly system and lights for our first shot. Hopefully we’d start taping as soon as we got back, just before noon.
Not so. Due to lighting inexperience and painful test runs of the drill-dolly system, we didn’t start shooting until almost 1:30pm. It was extremely frustrating trying to bring so many elements together for such a complicated shot. With 20/20 hindsight, I now know that we should have started with something much simpler.
Let me outline that first shot for you: There was myself, of course, sitting on a “director’s chair” watching a monitor showing us the camera feed. Karl was lying on the floor at my feet, trying to run the drill at a slow, steady speed. JJ was moving back and forth across the room, holding onto the tripod to lend it some stability and to make sure it wouldn’t tip off the wheeled cart. Joe was in charge of setting the digital clock to 9:07am each shot (to maintain continuity) and Cody worked hard to eliminate the glare from the lights on our posters. Jeff stood directly behind JJ with an LCD projector in his hands, raised literally to the ceiling, in order to project some dancing lights onto the upper shelf of the computer desk. Elise sat behind us taking notes on the various shots. Fortunately, Beth and Mona had nothing to do on this shot – I’m not sure we could have gotten an audio crew in there if we’d needed to!
That first shot, a dolly left of the computer shelf, having to rely on everything working just so, took way too long to figure out. Finally, acutely aware of the attention spans of the people around me, I decided that it just wasn’t that important to have a perfectly smooth dolly shot, nor have my birth date showing on the alarm clock. In comparison, the next shot was so easy it was a joke – probably because I’d compromised my vision once again. Instead of an even more problematic, overhead dolly shot, we made do with JJ’s suggestion of a smooth pan from a camera almost touching the ceiling. What’s more, I think the project might be better because of it.
While working on that second shot, I asked Beth to run over to my apartment and pick up a whole bunch of stuff. A ton of halibut and salmon left in my fridge that morning by JJ, plates, plastic silverware, my BBQ, extra propane, a digital camera, my computer speakers and an extra set of headphones for Mona. Elise opted to go with her and by the time they got back we had progressed all the way into our third shot.
Oksana arrived around lunchtime and she and Beth did the bulk of the cooking for our video crew. Some of our club members remarked to me later that they felt useless because they didn’t yet have any skills to lend to the production process, but by the end of the day I realized that wasn’t the case at all. Without people running errands for forgotten items or cooking lunch for others who were working on the video, we might never have finished that shoot! I am immensely grateful to Beth and Oksana for that reason alone and I would be more than happy to spend my time on Beth’s shoot being “just a gopher.”
Before lunch was even over, I hauled JJ and Joe away from their plates of fish to help me get the set organized for our first “talent” shots. Jeff was ready to tackle the acting part of his role, but we needed to get the lights and camera repositioned and the microphones set up for our first audio capture. Joe also needed to figure out how to get his computer to mirror the video output to both the monitor and a video camera so we could record the on-screen gaming action. Ultimately we weren’t able to figure out how to do that, though, and had to compromise yet again. But it wasn’t a big deal (and again the final product may be better for it) thought it did mean another hour lost due to insufficient planning.
Elise, Oksana, and Beth decided to leave us after lunch and I was acutely aware now that we were going far over my original time estimates. Cody, in particular, had told me that he’d had other things to do, so guilt became a factor in my decisions at this point.
So it was in this state of mind that we dove into the longest portion of the commercial script – Jeff’s monologue. It took us quite awhile to figure out the mechanics of the script. Some of the seemingly simple things wouldn’t work the way I’d wanted at all. For instance, we didn’t have enough room to position the camera far enough on Jeff’s right, so when the script called for him to swivel his chair around to face the camera, he swiveled right out of frame! More compromises were hastily made, sometimes without consulting the script, and we later found out that presumably small changes in the plan created dire consequences to the pacing later on. Live and learn.
It took us longer to get through the first gamer shot than any other. Jeff needed to settle into his role as an actor and I had to do the same as director. It felt great to sit with my back to Jeff and focus solely on the monitor in front of me as each shot unfolded. Saying “action!” each time made me feel like a poser, but it wasn’t long before I began to think that I could really get into this director stuff after all! Even though I felt terrible when I put on the “bossy hat” to tell Jeff that I didn’t like what he was doing on camera, I tried to tell myself that it would help the production later on. It was hard for both of us, though. For instance, at one point I asked Jeff to make motions (like wiping his brow) that seemed perfectly natural to me, yet that he doesn’t do himself. And many times I wanted him to change the way in which he read a line.
We finally got a shot that the crew agreed we could use – it was good enough – and I said, for the sake of time, let’s just move on. Before we had a chance to take everything down, Jeff asked if he could just try it one more time. Okay, whatever. If he didn’t mind one more shot, I didn’t either. Hell, I thought I was the perfectionist here.
JJ fired up the camera, Mona signaled her readiness on the audio, and Jeff launched into his, by now, well-rehearsed scene. And nailed it. See, Jeff had been a little worried about how far to take the character in previous takes, and had been delivering his lines safely – if rather blandly. But since we already had the shot in the can, he found the freedom to be a little more creative, to ham it up a little. In this new shot when he started to over-emphasize his lines and make faces as he delivered them, I knew we’d finally seen eye-to-eye. It was also very gratifying when, after he had finished the take, the whole crew agreed with me!
I’ve gotta give Jeff a ton of credit. I didn’t know if I’d ever “see” him as my gamer, but I knew right then that he’d pulled it off.
After that we finally got into a groove, and it didn’t take us too long to work through the remainder of Jeff’s scenes. We banged them out as fast as we could, doing a number of takes before calling them good. Only once did Jeff and I fail to see eye-to-eye and that was on the last shot. We tried 14 takes (because it was a short piece) and although we definitely got some usable video, I don’t believe I got the shot that I really wanted. At that point in the night, though, we were all understandably tired and it was just plain time to move on.
To wrap up the shoot, we only needed a few more B-roll takes. Mona and Cody had cobbled together a nice product shot using two chairs, a coffee table, three boxes, and a nice, white sheet (again, provided by Karl on one of his valuable matériel runs!) Looking through the lens and thinking towards the editing process, I decided again to veer slightly from the script. We shot the deodorant labels in a variety of poses to give me different options on what to use later on – In some you could see Jeff playing games in the background. Others obscured him to give us a better view of the labels upon which I had worked so hard. All things considered, I liked what I saw.
Towards the end Joe Sears arrived with an offer to help out wherever he might be needed. Unfortunately, everyone was, by that point, fairly comfortable and set in their roles (whether that might be setting lights, listening to audio levels, or running a camera.) It because obvious how much he’d missed when we started casting about for an empty Diet Coke can for Jeff’s next scene. Joe said, “Here’s one!” as he reached for one of three or four apparently discarded soda can on the floor. Jeff and everyone else sitting close yelled out, “Nooo! Not that one!” Turns out, they were a part of the set. Joe took it well enough, although I think his desire to help may have been a little discouraged by our little freak out.
In any event, the last two shots were simple enough. In one, Jeff had to reach for a soda can, and in the other he had only to retrieve a deodorant stick from a desk drawer. Besides paying attention to getting clean audio, the shots themselves weren’t complicated at all. In fact, they would have been the perfect shots to start with.
And so, about twelve hours after we began to create our detailed set, we finished without knocking over a single action figure, not moving a single empty can, and maintaining perfect continuity! Well, except for that stupid alarm clock…
Congratulating ourselves on simply sticking it out and surviving this nightmare of a shoot, we plunged directly into cleaning up the hundreds of little items of our day. Lights, cables, adapters, cameras, deodorant, D&D dice, posters, blankets, donut boxes, halibut, propane, a spray bottle and sponge, dozens of cans, a half-eaten slice of pizza, magazines, a wrench, books, microphones, a MiniDisc player, etc., etc., etc. And it only took about and hour before, I believe, everyone even got all their own equipment back into their cars…!
Before leaving our dorm-room set for the night, Joe practically demanded that, while it was still fresh (and painful) in our heads, we all sit down and discuss how the day went: What went well, what sucked hard, and what we could do to make it better next time. He went so far as to get Joe Sears to take notes on a laptop so that we wouldn’t forget as soon as we got home.
We spent the better part of 45 minutes going over it all. I believe the general consensus was that a) Not everyone realized how much work was involved in a “professional” video production, and b) Better planning and testing could have expedited almost every aspect of our production. Those that stayed, though, were in agreement on one thing: The day may have been a nightmare, but what we had on tape at the end kicked ass!
I want to take this opportunity to shout out my props to everyone that participated that Saturday (and will participate in the post-production phase!) As dysfunctional as it was sometimes, it would have been much worse without you!