Some technical notes and observations

When we were asked about feedback on how we would rate and/or improve the 160MC module, I pointed out we don’t get enough technical training. Most colleagues disagreed with me, but I think the People to People films came to prove my point.

I think that before we are left to deal with expensive equipment and the problems it (and our using it) cause, we need some more training, step by step instructions and ‘What if’s covering the most common mistakes.

Below is a list of the most common problems I had to deal with, and also noticed other people struggling with:

First of all, sound. Of course, sound is widely neglected, so I wasn’t really surprised that very few of the films had decent sound. Still, there were a couple of films where the quality of the sound hindered the impact of the film – it was hard to understand what the interviewee was saying. Another problem was that some films had a stereo sound track with only one channel recorded – resulting in lack of sound when played in the lecture theatre with a broken left channel. There is a way around it – even if the raw files have a single channel, it can be fixed in post – either by forcing to mono, or copying the left channel onto the right one.

Next comes white balance. There were films where the interviewee was wearing white clothes and the balance was still wrong. Even if that is the case, most (not to say all) editing software have some kind of colour correction tool or filter, so it can be fixed (or at least improved) in post-production.

Shaking camera and focusing/zooming while recording was also very common. As well as too long and intrusive close-ups. Again, I am guilty of that myself, but thankfully it was only in a small bit of the footage we had, and we ended up not using it. I think this is the good side of using two cameras at this stage even though we were advised against it – if one operator gets too excited and starts zooming in and out, focusing and shaking, you at least have the other camera’s footage as back up.

Another problem, which my group faced as well (we had to deal with almost all the problems mentioned here), was recording and editing in HD. In my personal opinion, it is too early for most of us to work in HD. Of course, there are some people on the course that have previous experience with both standard and high definition video, but the majority of us (including myself) need to first understand the concept of video recording and editing, before we start to strive for crystal clear picture quality. The basic rules about lighting, composition, recording, colours, etc., are valid for both standard and high definition. However, encoding / decoding HD footage, working with it and playing it back often creates more problems than it solves. My group even decided HD was more important than our interviewee, so we had to decline one of her invitations to go and film her, because all the HD cameras were taken…

Which brings me to my other observation: the default period for booking equipment is 24 hours. From the cables to the cameras. With the high demand on cameras, why not make the default period one hour? Then everyone would think twice before booking it for a whole day when they only need it for 3 hours (I am guilty of that myself, too…). Even if we are allowed to book a maximum 24-hour period, it would make a big difference if the default period is shorter. People rarely edit this period. Plus, while you have taken out the camera and someone else is trying to book it, the system has no clue you will return it in two hours, and thinks it is unavailable until tomorrow. Which puts more obstacles in other people’s projects.

Next comes cross-platform, cross-software, cross-format and cross-whatever-you-can-think-of compatibility problems of all the various file formats, codecs and settings. The options we have at every stage are mind-boggling: mono or stereo sound, single or double channel, 8 or 16 bit, uncompressed or compressed, Windows or Mac-native (and that is only for sound…); Standard or High definition, Interlaced or Progressive, 4:3 or 16:9, various bitrate settings and sizes, lossy or lossless codecs, and all the compatibility problems of software versions and operating systems. Plus, there are less than 30 computers with Final Cut Pro installed (that I know of), while the people that are expected to use Final Cut Pro are 70+ just on our course, just First Year’s. Then comes the availability of these computers – because the room is often used for lectures/workshops that don’t need computers, let alone Final Cut Pro, leaving the students out. The only computers that are usually available (the ones in the Avid room), don’t have anything else than Avid (what’s wrong with Premiere?), and can’t work with HD.

So I ask: Why are we encouraged to use the HD cameras before we can get a decent result of an SD camera? And if we do need to film in HD, why do we get little to no training?

If it is up to me to choose, I would go for a PDX-10 for the next project I need to work on. It is smaller, has less settings (which decreases the risk of messing something up), its case is not that bulky (making it more mobile), and its footage can be played back on more systems; recording the final piece onto a DV tape is also easier. So instead of dealing with numerous technical problems, I would probably be able to focus on the production itself.

This post is a result of a one week battle with all these (and many more) problems while trying to deliver our documentary on time, in a reliable file format. I do believe our piece is decent on the technical side, but lacks depth in terms of content, because we weren’t able to focus on content while dealing with all the technical issues.

I am aware that this course is a practical one, with focus on ‘learning by doing’, and I respect that. I think I am amongst the people that actually know their way around most of the equipment, but I am facing all these problems. From the colleagues I spoke with in other groups this week, I know lots of people struggle with the equipment as well. It is obvious from the final pieces, too – including the one I worked on. So I think I am not alone in this, and would love to read your comments!

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6 thoughts on “Some technical notes and observations

  1. Some excellent points here, and well put. Worth bringing up in your Rep meeting – I’ll make these points too in our course reviews. M

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  2. Couldn’t agree more. The technical failings for most groups was appalling. This is a real issue in this faculty and I can only sit and laugh at people not doing the right thing time and time again because of the small amount of training we have on higher end cameras.

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    • The thing is, since we don’t know how to set up the equipment, it becomes our main concern, and we forget about the film itself… We. Need. More. Training.

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  3. Hi Rumena

    Thanks for posting this, it is was a good post with lots of useful suggestions and observations. I have had a chance to discussed it and feel that there is much to take on board but also things we can suggest to you and your peers and media content producers.

    Technical training / skills workshops.
    Level 1 is a year that contains and combines students of many levels of abilities from the technically astute to those with less technical abilities but more creative and analytical skills.

    Creative Technical Workshops: The technical training that we provide is intended as a clear and concise introduction to equipment that, once you have undertaken the skills workshops, are encouraged to take out either individually or as small groups to get comfortable with, and more crucially experience and confidence in using. The skills instruction does taker you through the necessary steps to be able to use the equipment, the skills and experience comes from making full use of them.

    This point was made on a number of occasions, the equipment is there for you to book out and get experience of using. I feel the issue is not only the training but the time needed to become familiar with the equipment itself. We can and will implement a more rigorous series of tasks that have to be undertaken and posted.
    Regarding your point about the time for booking equipment, this came about very much in meetings and discussions with students and is not an arbitrary length of time, if you feel it would be better with a change of allocation you should raise this but my own thoughts would be that students feel a day is a reasonable length of time and one hour would be far too short.

    I do feel that a lot of the issues and points that you are making such as white balance, poor focus / zooming are ones that are overcome with practise not a skills induction session.

    Sound: Two of your projects in the first term dealt with sound, both recording and editing while much work was put into sound on the My Poetic Eyes project early in Term 2 and lots of people produced very good sound mixes on their projects. I do not agree that sound was neglected at all, you are perhaps referring to sound on location during filmed interviews.
    If this is the case I would agree but then again refer to the first paragraph about practising? There is much to be said by doing test footage and test shoots and this could and should have been an ongoing series of tests so that when your group undertook the ‘real’ interview these aspects would have been less of an issue.

    To HD or not HD: A project with poor white balance, out of focus shots and poor use of framing and zooming will be just as bad in HD, it will just be poor in better quality.
    Personally I am not impressed by the quality argument at all, films were still amazingly good before HD came along and will be the same when HD is bettered…..no doubt sometime soon. Your points about the technical issues around using HD and making use of it effectively is well argued and others would do well to take notice of this aspect of your post. The technical aspects of HD are covered in greater detail the further you progress and partly because of all the issues you correctly raise and highlight.

    Editing: There always tends to be issues around editing and access to edit suits the closer to hand-in deadlines we get which is only natural and you rightly allude to the numbers who require access. This is an on-going issue and one that we are trying hard to overcome and your points like your others are valid. However it does help if the groups and individuals log their footage and do a an initial paper edit before digitising which make can help the edit run more smoothly and efficiently.

    As a final technical point, both Bex and Paul allocate times for you to seek their help and advice outside of the technical skills workshops and you all are made aware of this both in lectures and the scheme of work. As a further point, how many students have taken Bex up on her offer of actually going with you on a shoot?

    Also, students could make use of lecturer’s office hours to talk through and perhaps clarify some of the more straightforward issues that are raised.

    Taking all that you have raised and has been responded to, we are able and will action on and it is incredibly useful to us that you have done so in such a clear and concise way. I will be reviewing the Creative Skills Workshops for Level 1 and making changes that will take into account areas of concern that you have raised.

    It is also two-way issues in many cases, and students are expected to undertake much of the practice and technical improvement themselves, however if it is felt we need to be more active in this regard then we will certainly endeavor to be so.

    Clifton

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    • Thank you so much for this reply, Clifton. I am aware some points I made are just pointing out what I’ve done wrong, and you are of course right to criticise me on that matter.

      I think the major problem you are definitely aware of is that people neglect pre-production and planning – where most of these problems could have been dealt with within the group, but are not (for example, test shots and interviews – that has never happened in a group I have been working with). Generally, people are either too confident to think about problems or don’t really care. I hope we learn to deal with it better further into the second and third year.

      I am glad you joined the conversation – your answers cleared out some of the misconceptions I had about the course.

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