Frontline and DSLR Production Workflows

I recently got “the call…” Frontline was going to be taping in Nashville and was looking for audio support. After confirming that my wife Karen would be in town, I jumped on the gig like an Aussie jumps on a Fosters. I’m a huge fan of the show, and have been watching it for many years. It’s about the only news-related program left that I trust anymore, as their reporting standards and production values are just about the best in the business.

Caitlin McNally, Sam Russell and Dallas Jackson interviewing for Frontline

I worked with Caitlin McNally and Sam Russell, both from Ark Media in NYC, a production company that supplies several Frontline documentaries. We shot on Wed, Dec 8th, at Rivals.com, a media office in Nashville, TN, that specializes in high school football… the subject for the documentary, scheduled to air in April of 2011. Our primary subject was Dallas Jackson, a senior analyst and radio host at Rivals.com

What surprised me about this shoot was that it was to be shot on a Canon 7D. I generally dislike DSLR¬†video production. The images are truly beautiful, especially when the camera is in experienced hands with a good variety of lenses. But no matter how you slice it, a DSLR is still consumer equipment, and it’s stuffed full of compromises- especially from an audio standpoint. Everything from tiny, unreliable connectors, no ¬†ability to monitor the audio or video, no timecode, no outputs, no controls, lousy camera balance… these are all factors that distract the crew. And every moment spent fussing with connectors is a moment that you aren’t concentrating on what you’re shooting.

But Sam has a good bit of experience on DSLR shoots, and I learned a bit about how they can work better from an audio standpoint. The first thing he did was forget feeding my audio to the camera, instead using the on-camera mic to record a reference track only. I think he did anyway All production audio was to be recorded in my bag, on my little Zoom H4n. Sam had an identical unit that he uses on location. Shooting is easier when your camera isn’t tethered to the mixer, but slates are critical. We would usually slate at the head of a cut, but the scenes would often go beyond the 12-minute limit of the camera (another compromise). When that happened, we’d both stop down (the H4n doesn’t actually burn a file until you press stop) and do a tail slate. One of the things I’ve identified a real need for is a very small one-handed clapper slate, as using the full-size one was sometimes a bit tricky with one hand. I’m designing one now. (UPDATE 12/13/10… ) I’ve finished a prototype, and it works great. I’ll probably build a second, slightly more refined version and post a photo, as my prediction is that these little things would be essential for a short-staffed DSLR shoot.

Another cool trick was Sam’s DSLR balance rig. I neglected to get a photo, but it was pretty neat. A homemade affair, it was just a board about 2 x 2 x 30. At one end was a tripod plate for the camera, at the other end was about 5 lbs of weight. On the bottom, Sam screwed a piece of flat steel bent into an upside down ‘U’ shape, padded with foam and wrapped with tape. The whole affair rode on his shoulder like a normal camera would, but the counterweight allowed him to keep the camera in front of him for long periods of time. He could even momentarily take both hands off the camera and it wouldn’t go anywhere.

Sam Russell's DSLR support rig

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