Video production stories


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Best Job in the World?

As I pack before heading to Birmingham airport to board a plane to Dubai I feel a little melancholic. A fortnight away from family and friends. Working in a foreign land with long days and busy nights, tight schedules and inflexible deadlines. Who in their right mind would seek out such work? Then I reflect on the knowledge that in a few days I’ll be eating good food in a Persian restaurant in Souk Madinat. Maybe sipping beer in a bar overlooking a city that resembles a Phillip K Dick dystopian future or taking a ride along Dubai creek sitting in an anciently colourful dhow. For what we do is no nine to five treadmill. This job is probably the best job in the world because it constantly delivers surprise and variety. This will be my ninth working trip to the Emirates and as such I kinda knew it was on the cards but it wasn’t confirmed until a fortnight ago. And that seems to be the notification period I get for most of my work, often it’s less.

What? Doesn’t every one dress like this at work?

This means that I’m never quite sure what I’ll be doing in a month from now. The downside of course is never being totally secure in the knowledge that there will be work and income but this is outweighed by the eclectic and unexpected things I end up doing. A few days ago I was filming on top of an active nuclear reactor, just a few feet away from a maelstrom of sub atomic activity that without adequate shielding would have killed me in seconds. Yet I received more radiation from the lithium in my camera batteries (they actually set off the detector alarm when I left the facility) than I did from that inferno beneath my feet. On one occasion I filmed an interview with the UK Sky-Surfing champions who, once the on-camera chat was over, suggested I try it myself. Twenty minutes later I jumped out of an aeroplane at 14,000 feet, something I would never have done if I’d had to plan it. I once waited for the dawn in a remote river valley in West Virginia watching the full moon sink over one horizon as the nascent sun crept over the other and I’ve stood in the back of a star-lit pickup truck filming elephants, giraffes and zebras on a night safari in Kwazulu Natal. For one football season I filmed at twenty-two Championship League matches all around Europe, finally getting the point of the game as Ajax won in Amsterdam and I ran around the stadium with the team and the cup on a lap of honour in front of thousands of cheering fans. From Istanbul to Hong Kong, Scotland to the USA, Luxembourg to Cape Town I’ve been in situations that could never occur without a camera on your shoulder. I’ve filmed sporting legends, Hollywood stars, TV personalities, royalty and captains of industry and then returned to my quiet little home town.

Just metres from a nuclear maelstrom.

A broadcast video camera acts as a kind of access-all-areas-pass, allowing you to step beyond the barriers, stand in that inaccessible position or approach the unapproachable. And although sometimes you can push that too far (I’ve been marched away at gunpoint on two occasions) being a cameraman is a definite privilege. It may not be the best job in the world but it comes damn close.


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What makes a good editor?

I got into a conversation with a client the other day where we discussed the qualities that make a good video editor.  The editor is an amalgam of creative genius and technical wizard in equal measure.  You need to know the kit and the software and understand frame rates and compression and be able to differentiate your subcarrier from your sync pulse but knowing these things on their own is not enough.  You also need that creative spark that can see a bin of poorly shot footage and turn it into a sequence worthy of a Bafta .   To me it’s always been a question of scope.  On any production the grand overview is in the purview of the producer and getting people in the right place at the right time with the right resources is a mighty task to undertake.  The director has the next biggest scope; their job is to interpret the narrative and to instruct cast and crew within their creative vision.

Once the production moves into post the editor gets to have an input.  Working closely with the director, he/she will find the best way to tell the story, of letting the narrative flow in the most natural and least cumbersome way.  But, although they always have the totality of the programme in mind, the editor’s scope is more focussed than the director.  Each scene must fit the structure, each scene element must fit the scene, each individual cut or transition has to work within that element, whether that element be a line of script, an action or a special effect.  And it’s that ability to focus on every single transition, giving it the same importance as the whole production, that makes a good editor.  If one cut or transition doesn’t work the whole scene suffers so you have to have the patience to make it right.  Sometimes you can review an edit over and over, making small adjustments – cut a frame earlier, delay the audio, cut on the movement, before it, split the audio – until you are happy with it.  Over time your experience develops and you know instinctively what is going to work but you can never relax that focus.  As I discussed these points with my client I noticed that I had carefully lined up a couple of pens perpendicular to the mouse mat and it struck me that good editors have a touch of obsessive compulsive disorder about them.  Everything has to be just so.  Lining up the corners of the Avid bins, naming clips in a particular way, having a precise default project set-up, storing files in a set folder structure, etc.  Now, I’m not belittling OCD sufferers in any way, in its most serious forms it can be quite debilitating but the slightest touch of this affliction with boundless patience are attributes that I’m willing to bet are shared by all the best editors.  You don’t have to be mad to edit but a little bit of insanity can go a long way.


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The Triumph of Technology

A quarter of a century ago I worked in an edit suite in west London.  It was my first job as an editor having been trained on the job.  Like many people I started out making tea and coffee but I was determined to learn so I borrowed camera gear at the weekends and shot pop promos for my band.  Many week nights were spent getting to grips with the edit controller.  It was a Sony 3000 and could control three VTRs at once which meant that you could mix between two different sources and record the result onto the third machine.

We’d play in Betacam or BVU tapes and record onto 1″C format through a Grass Valley vision mixer.  After eleven months of late night self-learning and daytime observing of the staff editors Mark and Spencer, the boss realised I could use the equipment quite well and promptly promoted me to editor.  My first edit was a broadcast piece about Macau for BBC’s Newsnight.  Shortly after that we totally revamped the edit suite, replacing the older equipment with a Sony BVE9000 edit controller, a Grass Valley 200 and a dual channel Questech Charisma digital effects unit that could wrap pictures into spheres and make cubes and other totally useless geometric shapes, that being the fashion of the day.

The new edit suite cost around half a million pounds with the installation and all the ancillary equipment.  From routers to scopes to racking and VTRs the new suite looked amazing.  Clients often remarked how it was like the bridge of the Enterprise with its rows of preview monitors set in the ceiling.  Now, I recount all this not just for nostalgia’s sake but to illustrate the difference with the kit I use today.  My current edit suite consists of a fast pc running Windows 7 64-bit with Avid Media Composer 6, After Effect CS5.5 and various other programs and utilities.  I have a SPL2381 monitor controller (which my brother insists is just a very expensive volume control), some Canford PPM meters, an SE2200A large diaphragm mic for voice overs that goes through a Presonus mic preamp and some lovely PMC TB2A audio monitors.  Now, you’ll notice that most of what I’ve listed here is audio gear but other than a Matrox MX02 and a Sony 40″ flat screen it is.  All the video stuff happens in the pc.  I built the computer myself and it cost around £2000 (Asus mobo, i7 quadcore chip, 24GB ram and a Nvidia Quadro FX3800 graphics card) with around two terabytes of internal raid storage.  With the extra external drives and the software I still had change from £5000.  A Mac would have done just as well but would have cost about twice as much.  And the thing is, that old edit suite I learned my trade in could do the most amazing things; I once had eleven VTRs running at once to produce one complex special effect with multiple matte keys and transitions going on – the sort of thing I can do in seconds in Avid or After Effects.

Yes, work flow has changed; things were much more immediate then, now you tend to render things out instead but results are far, far superior.  And that’s why I can make a living from my edit suite on the side of the Malvern Hills instead of having to work in London.  A real case of technology improving life.  I am also really good at making coffee.


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Baker man . . .

. . . baking tapes

You may have heard about the so-called Sticky Tape Syndrome.  From the late seventies to the early nineties some tape manufacturers used a compound in their reel-to-reel tapes to bind the magnetic particles to the plastic base of the tape.  The compound contained moisture-hungry polyurethane elements which, over time, sucked water molecules into the tape.  I have around twenty old demo tapes and recordings from as long ago as 1981 that needed to be transferred to a digital format for posterity’s sake.  Some may think it cruel to inflict dodgy, out-of-tune, poorly played eighties pop on my unborn grand children but how else are they going to really appreciate what a great time they happen to live in?  I was lucky enough to pick up a working Revox PR99 on Ebay for a measly £50 (worth it just as an ornament) and set about digitising my old tunes.    

It didn’t go well.  Within a few minutes the spools ground to a halt, impeded by the sticky black mess that was accumulating on the guide rollers and the heads.  My first experience of Sticky Tape Syndrome, trouble was, I didn’t know it.  I assumed that the Ebay-sourced Revox had a dodgy reel motor and forgot about it for nearly five years.  Eventually, after being badgered by old band members, I went searching for another quarter-inch machine to play the tapes on.  It happens that Paul White, editor of Sound on Sound magazine lives down the road so I gave him call and he agreed to loan me his vintage Tascam.  He also told me all about Sticky Tape Syndrome and the remedy; four hours in an electric oven at 50°C.  There are lots of explanations out there on the web about how to do this but basically, you wrap your NAB spools in aluminium foil, heat up the oven (it’s recommended to use an oven thermometer to be certain of the temperature), pop the tapes in for four hours, then let them cool for a further four hours.  And that’s it.  Every baked tape has played without issue although copious quantities of vodka and cotton buds have been used to keep the heads clean of the inevitable dry-shedding that is to be expected from thirty year old tape stock. The newly digital audio files have since been re-mastered and maximised with the help of iZotope Ozone 5 and they sound great, better than I remember actually.  My grandchildren may yet be a little bit proud.


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Any day now . . .

It’s been more than a month since I ordered my Canon EOS C300 and I’ve been assured it will arrive this week.  For definite!  It seems that it’s been rather a popular choice and supplies have failed to meet the demand for this large format 50MB/s HD camera.

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The kit I’ve ordered includes a set of three lenses; an 85mm, a 50mm and a 16-35 zoom.  The two primes are nice and fast at F1.8 while the zoom is a respectable F2.8.  Pondering now whether I’ll need a longer lens too.  Possibly the 70-200mm F2.8 but will reserve judgement on that until I get the kit.  I already own a Nikkor 70-200mm F2.8 so maybe, with an appropriate adaptor I can use that.  Also looking forward to getting a Samurai disk recorder which will record 185MB/s with the Avid DNxHD codec.  Perfect for my workflow.


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Taking the blogging plunge . . .

Well, here we go.  I though it was time to start blogging, just to keep up to date and relevant and all that.  Not sure many folks will read my musings but you never know.  I’ll mainly be writing about work related topics . . . so video stuff, equipment, location reports, that sort of thing.  May even be mildly interesting to some.   So let me say ‘hello’ and thanks for reading.

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