Capturing Audio in a Race Car

I’ve just wrapped on a commercial for Volkswagen that went outside the usual scope of work. The client needed to capture dialog inside a drift racer operating at speed. The driver was Tanner Faust, formerly of Top Gear America, and his “co-pilot” was cyclist Tim Johnson. This rather lousy iPhone video shows an example of the kinds of speeds we’re talking about:

TannerFaust4

Getting a Decent Signal

Most race cars these days are equipped with radio comms so the drivers can communicate with the pit crew, but I don’t like to rely on other systems as you never know if they’ll work or what sort of quality you can end up with. Conventional lavs wouldn’t work either because of the noise inside the car. I decided to go with an earwire-type lav, since the only chance of overcoming the background noise would be to get the mic as close as possible to the source. And as this would be such a lousy ambient environment, I decided that an expensive mic like a Countryman B6 would probably be pointless. I found a fairly inexpensive pair of earwires that had a 4-pin connection that would need to be changed over to a 5-pin. This turned out to be a bit trickier than I thought, as the mics came with a microscopic surface-mount circuit board inside the connector which needed to be retained. I managed to cut the old connector out and resolder in the new connector by applying large doses of profanity to the solder job. It worked in the end.

Of course, this style of mic is visible, which is rarely acceptable in a commercial. But in this case, it was either that or nothing… as in recording MOS (without sound) and then looping in some dialogue over car noises. This wasn’t really an issue, though, since all the interior shots would be from GoPros (eight in total) and all these were set to fairly wide angles. Tanner’s mic was hidden by his helmet… only Tim’s was visible, and being flesh colored on a wide lens, it was barely noticeable.

My bag in position inside Tanner Faust's Jetta.

My bag in position inside Tanner Faust’s Jetta.

The next issue was dealing with the distance. I didn’t have time to build a pair of custom antennas for my transmitters… putting the antennas outside of the metal shell of a car will increase transmitter range, but the distances would be too great in this case, and there wouldn’t be a chase car. The only solution was to “drop the bag,” in other words, securing the bag somewhere inside the car, placing it in record, and letting them take off.

The obvious disadvantage is that you can’t properly monitor what is being recorded. I did have a Comtek PR216 monitor transmitter hooked up, and it worked pretty well given the difficulty of the job, but there were lots of dropouts and hits to the signal. But listening to the file after the fact gave a reasonably good result. Tanner’s mic sounds a bit worse than Tim’s… that’s a result of the style of helmet, as Tanner was wearing a closed type, wraparound helmet that pressed the mic close to his mouth, and Tim’s helmet was an open type that allowed the mic to stay in the correct orientation.

I’ll post a link to the finished spot once it gets posted online.

With The Alabama Shakes- CBS Sunday

I recently completed a shoot for CBS Sunday Morning in and around Athens and Decatur, Alabama. This is where Brittany Howard and Zac Cockrell grew up, and formed The Alabama Shakes in 2009. They have a new album coming out in a few weeks, and CBS Sunday Morning did a segment on them that will air April 19th.

Bar scene interview

Bar scene interview

Chris Conder and I shot at a couple of locations- first at the bar where they did their first show, and where their single “Hold On” was first performed. Then over to Brittney’s Dad’s place, where spent a lot of time playing in the creek, and where her dog and pet pig roamed the nearby farms. Third location was bassist Zac Cockrell’s house for another quick interview. A few scenics at their school nearby, then it was time to transfer files and wrap for the day… a pretty good shoot overall.

At Brittnay's Dad's place

At Brittnay’s Dad’s place

Their new album, “Sound And Color” goes on sale April 21, 2015.

DP Chris Conder, Point Of View Productions, Sony F800

DP Chris Conder, Point Of View Productions shooting on his Sony F800

Let Sleeping Dogs Lie for NFL Films

While searching for past projects, I finally found a link to a video that I worked on last year… it turned out rather well, I thought!

http://www.nfl.com/videos/washington-redskins/0ap3000000442876/NFL-Films-Presents-Let-sleeping-dogs-lie

Fat Hair Commercial

I was asked to do the location sound for a commercial in Atlanta last week for a company called “Fat Hair.” We shot two spots over two days. The camera was a Red Epic Dragon, which is capable of shooting at 6K resolution, but thankfully for the data transfer, we shot the spot at 4K. (If we’d shot at 6k, we’d STILL be waiting on the files to transfer…)

Day one on the Fat Hair set. We had a larger crew than I normally work with, around 30 people. Cold, but thankfully sunny.

Day one on the Fat Hair set. We had a larger crew than I normally work with, around 30 people. Cold, but thankfully sunny.

My big concern was the timecode. A common response when I offer my timecode gear “that would be nice, but we can’t afford it,” so I don’t get to use this stuff on every shoot. But this time they wanted the full monty. Once I got everything set up properly, it all worked without a hitch. The camera department REALLY appreciated the pack-of-gum-sized Q28 lockbox, since the real estate on Red cameras is very tight. We velcroed the lockbox to the batteries, and other than removing it to re-jam after lunch, we pretty much forgot about it.

Inside shooting on Day 2

Inside shooting on Day 2

The basic workflow is fairly simple, actually. My 664 was  the master clock, set to time of day. The Q28 is connected to the 664 then powered on in order to jam. Same thing with the timecode slate. Both the slate and the lockbox were left switched on throughout the day. Six AA batteries (rechargeable) powered the slate for the entire 10-hour day, while a pair of standard AAAs ran the lockbox. At the end of about four hours, I noticed a drift of about a frame or two on the first day, but less than that on the second day. It might have been due to temperature differences, since we were outside on the first day… the slate would have been colder than the lockbox, as the Red’s camera battery would have kept it slightly warmer as it discharged. Other than that, it was a fairly straightforward shoot. There were only a handful of short lines- a few wild tracks (non-sync). I rolled audio during the high-speed takes just so the camera files and audio files would match up, and maybe there would be some quick sounds that post could use.

New Gear- Sync Department

I’m pleased to announce that I’ve finally taken delivery on a Denecke TS-3 timecode slate and a Mozegear Q28 timecode lockbox.

For the very highest quality audio, it’s necessary to use the recorded files that are provided by your soundperson… the quality of the digital converters in my Sound Devices 664 just sound better than camera audio files. Yes, it requires more work to sync the audio with the video, but the differences are apparent… especially when you listen to the two files side-by-side

My Denecke TS-3 timecode slate

My Denecke TS-3 timecode slate

There have been a number of workflows proposed for getting timecode on DSLR video, with varying degrees of success. But a timecode slate is still considered an industry standard sync aid, since it gives a visual confirmation of the timecode numbers that can be checked at a glance.

I’ve needed a timecode slate for a long time, especially on DSLR shoots, where dual-system audio recording is a must. The inputs on DSLR cameras rely on a single, unbalanced, non-locking 3.5mm connector, and I refuse to rely on the camera as a recording device. I did a 5d shoot once where the producers assured me that “… it’ll be fine, we always do it this way…” and the audio mysteriously disappeared. Had I not been recording a duplicate signal to my Sony recorder, two days and many, many thousands of dollars would have been wasted on a silent movie.

The only problem with timecode slates is the cost. They aren’t often available used, and the few that I have seen were pretty badly beaten up. New slates are expensive. But I finally bit the bullet this year and purchased a Denecke TS-3EL from Trew Audio in Nashville, my preferred supplier. And yes, it’s the backlit version so you can see it in low light situations.

The Mozegear Tig Q28 lockbox. The camera department loves the small size and light weight, especially with Red cameras where space to mount things is at a premium.

The Mozegear Tig Q28 lockbox. The camera department loves the small size and light weight, especially with Red cameras where space to mount things is at a premium.

To go along with it, I also purchased a Mozegear Q28 sync generator. While most cameras can generate a reasonably reliable timecode signal, a few are notorious for wild drifts, errors, resetting to zero when you change a battery, or other shenanigans. An external sync generator solves these problems, and gives a steady source that is nearly always dependable… with good batteries, of course. The Mozegear Q28 is a Camera Department favorite because it is very small and light… about the size of a thin stack of credit cards. I had to sew up a makeshift case for it so it can be attached with velcro. The only trouble I’ve had so far is the cables. I’ve got the BNC output and 5-pin Lemo… fine for Arri Alexa and Red One, but Red Epic, Scarlet and Dragon uses a 4-pin Lemo. And of course, we were shooting on a Scarlet… some days you just can’t win.

One of the things that I wish Mozegear would include is some sort of protective case or wallet, to keep the gear from getting beat up. I suppose there might be some kind of mini cell phone case that might work, but I couldn't find one so I stitched this one up. Unfortunately that's about the only option... it's so small that there's no profit for a company like PortaBrace to make one.

One of the things that I wish Mozegear would include is some sort of protective case or wallet, to keep the gear from getting beat up. I suppose there might be some kind of mini cell phone case that might work, but I couldn’t find one so I stitched this one up. Unfortunately that’s about the only option… it’s so small that there’s no profit for a company like PortaBrace to make one.

Best Film at the Cannes Short Film Festival

I’ve just been told that a short film that I worked on won the Best Film award at the Cannes Short Film Festival… link is here.

One setup at the house where we shot. I don't have too many images because I was too busy working to shoot stills.

One setup at the house where we shot. I don’t have too many images because I was too busy working to shoot stills.

The Day After Stonewall Died is a short film I worked on back in 2013. I was location A1 for four of the five days that we shot, my good friend John Billings filled in for me for one day while I had to dash off to Nashville to do another job. John Dower was the director, who flew over from the UK to do the shoot. The script was written by Chattanooga’s Anthony Sims.

We shot mostly at a house owned by Jan Bramlett down in Georgia… it turned out to be a great location. The bar scenes were shot in East Ridge. Special thanks go to my boom op Will Taylor, who worked long and hard on this film. We had lots of really great talent on this set, with many people working for a very low rate. It’s great that their hard work and sacrifice is validated by winning at Cannes… not an easy trick to pull. Thanks again to John and Anthony for asking me to do this, and congratulations to them as well as everyone else who worked on this film.

Bar scene in East Ridge

Bar scene in East Ridge

Mike Wolfe’s “Kid Pickers”

I was in Nashville last week shooting for Mike Wolfe of “American Pickers,” a popular reality show on History Channel about finding antiques. Early on, he noticed that American Pickers was popular with kids, so he wrote a book directed to younger readers about discovering local history through artifacts and repurposing old, interesting items. Out of that grew a contest called “Kid Pickers” where kids could show off their finds and submit an essay about it. Three winners were chosen… first place received a $10,000 scholarship.

At Antique Archaeology in Nashville TN (Before the doors were opened!)

At Antique Archaeology in Nashville TN (Before the doors were opened!)

We shot at Antique Archaeology in Nashville, TN. Mike is a TN native and sells his finds at his store there. Most of them, anyway- the ribbon mics that he has weren’t for sale. The store was insanely crowded with people once it opened to the public… it’s apparently quite the tourist destination. It’s located in the old Marathon car factory, a very cool brick and timber building in West Nashville that was purchased for a song in 1981 and is now worth millions. (the owner won’t sell… Mike says he’s tried)

Mike Wolfe deliverse a standup at the N State Fair, September 2014

Mike Wolfe delivers a standup at the N State Fair, September 2014

It was a fun shoot overall… the winning finds were a beaver skin top hat from the late 1800’s, a tramp art bottle vase that was decorated with old cigar bands, and a precursor to the Xerox machine that was found in an alley. The kids, all about 12, were a bit overwhelmed with all the attention, but they had a good time. I enjoyed meeting Mike, he was very personable and fun to work with.

A selfie with Mike Wolfe

A selfie with Mike Wolfe