Behind the Scenes on a Billy Gilman music video shoot

I probably say this all the time, but one of the best parts of my job is getting to go places and see things that the average person doesn’t get to. On Monday, country music artist Billy Gilman was filming a music video in New London, so I went along with Rick Koster to do a quick story.

Gilman is from nearby Hope Valley, RI, and became popular at a young age with the song “One Voice.” I only vaguely remembered the song, and was not familiar at all with the now 25-year-old’s current music career. Judging by the reactions on Twitter and Instagram, a lot of people would have been star struck to be there. I was actually more excited to see the technical side of filming a music video. The crew was small, but they had a smoke machine and a remote focus control for the camera, two toys I’ve never had the chance to play with.

Interview with @rickkosterbooks and @BillyGilman before music video shoot

A photo posted by Peter Huoppi (@phuoppi) on

We started with an interview. We were promised five minutes, but Billy sat down with us for about twenty. He was super friendly, and spoke very openly about the challenges he faced as a former child star, and as someone who had recently come out publicly in the fairly conservative world of country music.

They had been filming scenes around New London for most of the day, but I had to fit the shoot in between assignments, so I only got to see one scene on stage at The Garde Arts Center. I was excited to see the technical side of the process, but also a little weary of getting in the way. The few times I’ve been on or around a film set as a journalist, I got a very chilly reception. I totally understand this, as the crew has a lot to get done and don’t need other people in the way.

Director Alec Asten and the small crew from Firesite Films could not have been nicer. I was able to shoot right up on stage with them, often looking over their shoulders while they rolled. I didn’t have a lot of time, so being able to move freely around them made it a lot easier to get the shots I needed and get out of there. If I had more time, I would have liked to shoot from the seats in the theater to get the opposite view, and also more cutaways of the camera operator would have helped. Also, had I had time earlier in the day, seeing them filming around town would have been nice.

As it was, I had to leave after about 30 minutes to get to a pair of high school basketball games. I edited my video on the MacBook after the games were over. I look forward to seeing Billy’s video when it’s released.

Read more "Behind the Scenes on a Billy Gilman music video shoot"

2015 NENPA Awards

The Day won quite a few awards this weekend at the New England Newspaper and Press Association awards dinner on Saturday night in Boston. Among them were six videos of mine from last year. The first place sports video is above. The second place sports video was a profile on a football lineman who is also a singer and actor.

The first place feature video was this this winter day time lapse:

The second place news video was one I did with Sean D. Elliot and Carlos Diaz on the first day of the Charles W. Morgan’s 38th voyage.

Finally, two videos were awarded third place in the feature category: Young shipwrights of the Charles W. Morgan and Jake Kaeser proves it’s never too late.

Read more "2015 NENPA Awards"

Meet a talented high school student filmmaker

While I usually use this space to show my own work, I’d like to highlight the work of a high school student I met a few weeks ago. Allie Marsh is a junior at Lyme-Old Lyme High School, and one of her teachers recently invited me to advise on a project she was working on. The White House Student Film Festival is a competition for K-12 students. Young filmmakers are given an assignment and must submit a three minute film. In last year’s inaugural competition, 16 students films about the impact of technology in the classroom were selected for the festival. Allie’s film from last year did well to promote her school, and I thought it was very well done for a high school student, but it lacked the “next level” that a lot of the official selections had. Allie’s video got me interested in Lyme-Old Lyme High School, and showed me a lot of cool things I didn’t know about the school. But some of last year’s winners took the concept a step further and showed the importance and impact of technology in the classroom. They promoted the greater issue of technology as it applies to all classrooms, not just at one school. They were more focused on the “why” than the “what.”

The focus on the “why” instead of the “what” make for more interesting and engaging storytelling. When I’m working on a video journalism piece, I always make sure to ask people to tell me not just what happened, but what it means and why it’s important to them. This helps establish an emotional connection between the viewer and the subject of the story.

The assignment for Allie and all the student filmmakers this year was “The impact of giving back.” I met with Allie and her technology education teacher Bill Derry a few days before the video was due. They had collected photos and video footage shot by LOLHS students from a wide range of community service events. They were trying to figure out how to craft a creative narrative with all of the source material.

This can be a difficult spot to be in. When you can come up with a theme or structure in advance, all of the shooting can be done with that in mind. In this case, several different photographer and videographers did their shooting without a clear mandate. Allie was left with a wide range of clips and photos, some better than others, and was limited by what she had and what she didn’t. Several times in our conversation I heard “it would have been great if we had…”

I encouraged her to come up with a list of bullet points – one for each service event that she could possibly include. Each point should focus on the impact of the service being performed – the why more than the what. The next thing would be some sort of overall theme to tie all of the points together. We talked about trying to do some interviews or coming up with some voice over narration. We looked at a few examples, and then I went back to work and she went back to class.

I received an email a few days later with a link to her final piece and was very impressed. It highlights the service activities of her school without having to explicitly promote them. It also goes to the next level by inspiring others to serve. Someone watching this video from the other side of the country as someone who is familiar with the LOLHS community. I look forward to seeing how Allie’s work grows in the future.

Read more "Meet a talented high school student filmmaker"

Don’t just stream the game, tell the story

I wrote a post last year about how The Day, a small daily newspaper here in Connecticut, produces live streaming webcasts of high school basketball games with a small crew and a smaller budget using Wirecast software and BlackMagic Design hardware. While the technical details are interesting, I think (or at least I hope) what sets us apart is the way we tell the story of the game outside of the action on the court.

For each basketball webcast, we produce at least two features on each team and a video open that sets the stage for the game. For football games, when we work with a larger, outside crew, we do even more features. The idea is to let our audience get to know the players and the coaches, establishing a connection and hopefully increasing the number of people who care about seeing the actual game action.

For a lot of high school games, it might initially seem that the potential audience is rather limited, and a limited audience could mean limited interest from potential sponsors. We’ve been lucky to have some games of statewide importance right in our backyard, including a football game and basketball game that both were decided in the final seconds. For other, less extraordinary games, students, parents and immediate communities of the two schools participating might care, but how do you get a larger audience to watch?

We run the video features during our pre-game and halftime shows, but we also publish some of them on our website before the game. We look for stories that are more about who the players are as people rather than just focusing on their athletic achievements. We’ve profiled the offensive linemen who sing in the chorus, the basketball player whose late father is the inspiration for his team. The basketball student section and the football team moms. It’s hard to say analytically if this strategy is drawing more viewers than if we just webcast the games, but I have heard anecdotally from people who said they didn’t care about either team, but the features made them feel like they had a vested interest in the success of the players who they got to know.

By posting the individual stories in addition to the full webcast and highlights, each live game means at least seven pieces of on-demand content posted to the site by the next morning.

Read more "Don’t just stream the game, tell the story"

Two winter storm time lapses shot with a GoPro

Weather stories have never been my favorites. I get that significant weather events are necessary to report on, but I always dreaded being handed the non-specific photo assignment “get me a weather feature.” Shooting video, I’ve been able to do some cool stories, riding along on a city plow and a Coast Guard ice breaker, for example. In the absence of a specific story to pursue, I like to try to do something more creative.

During the recent blizzard, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get very far away from home, so I set up two GoPro cameras to record the storm. GoPros are great because you can put them places other cameras can’t go, and they have a built-in interval function that will shoot a photo once every x number of seconds.

I actually prefer using one of our Sony camcorders, like the PMW-200, to shoot time lapses. The Sony captures the single frames into a video file in-camera, saving you the trouble of assembling all the .jpg files afterward. You just import the video clip off the card into your NLE and you’ve got a time lapse video. The problem is that these cameras are much larger and more expensive than GoPros. Plus it means tying up my primary camera for several days. I’ve also shot some time lapse projects on an old Nikon D2HS body, but the built-in interval timer has a maximum of 999 frames, so someone has to reset the timer before it runs out. This works fine for a very long term project, like this five-month time lapse of the construction of a post and beam barn. It also works for a shorter term project where the camera is accessible, like this multi-camera time lapse of a single day in the Charles W. Morgan restoration.

The GoPro is not without its drawbacks. The camera’s battery only lasts about two hours, so external power is necessary (as it is with all longer time lapse projects). The GoPro comes with a nice waterproof case, which makes it ideal for being out in the weather, but the case makes the USB/power port inaccessible. So in the past I’ve hooked the GoPro up to power and taped it inside a plastic bag or an old piece of Tupperware with a hole cut for the lens.

Location always ends up being the first thing I have to worry about with a time lapse. I need a location with a nearby power outlet, and somewhere the camera is not likely to be stolen. I was lucky to find two good vantage points that were indoors and near power outlets for this storm. The first, seen in the video above, was inside a window in the staircase of a parking garage in downtown New London. The cinefoil behind the camera, used to block reflections in the glass, also served to hide it. Also, it was pretty high above the landing in the staircase. Has someone seen the camera and wanted it badly enough, they could have climbed up to get it. But the garage is right net to our office, and the stairs are locked at night. I figured the amount of foot traffic through there in the middle of a blizzard would probably be minimal. Just to be safe, I used our old HD Hero, so if a camera was stolen, I wouldn’t be the brand new Hero 4.

The last thing I had to figure out was the interval. I try to keep it as short as possible. This means more files to process, but you can always speed up the video to make it shorter. You can’t go the other way without making the playback look choppy. After some quick math I figured a photo every 30 seconds over a two day period would be close to filling up the 16 GB SD card. I set the camera up at about 11 a.m. on Monday and headed out to my second location. I picked the overhead view of New London because it was a recognizable place that would have a good amount of foot and vehicle traffic so you would see something more than just snow piling up. The problem with a high vantage point is it’s hard to tell the difference between six inches and two feet of snow from that far away.

For the second location, I wanted a very low angle so you could really see the snow pile up. I used the door to my back deck – about as safe a location as I could choose. When the field of view is going to filled with snow, it’s helpful to have something in the foreground to lend perspective. I set a stuffed snowman toy on the deck (tied down to avoid any wind issues) and set the Hero 4 to the same 30 second interval. I lucked out that the snow drifted up against the door so you get the cool effect of accumulation and then settling, which was a nice surprise.

I retrieved both cameras on Wednesday morning and downloaded the cards. One frame every 30 seconds equals 120 photos per hour. Multiply that by 48 hours and you have 5,760 pictures. I edited the videos in Final Cut Pro 6, which takes some time to process all the files. The first step is to change the still/freeze duration under user preferences to 1 frame. I then import all the folders that I copied from the GoPro’s memory card and drag them onto the timeline of Sequence 1. This yielded about a three-minute video. I create a second sequence, and drag Sequence 1 onto the timeline of Sequence 2. This turns all of the individual still files into a single video clip that can be manipulated using the tools in Final Cut. I used the motion tool to zoom in, eliminating the black bars on the side and filling the 16×9 video frame. If necessary, you could color correct the whole clip. I also change the speed of the clip, cutting the duration down to 60 seconds. I added a piece of royalty-free music from Kevin McLeod, and then render and export. This is a fairly simple process, but the time to copy files, import, render, export, compress and upload ends up being over an hour for each video. Every transformation needs to be rendered before you can play it back, so making a lot of changes will chew up a lot of time.

This method has worked pretty well for me, minus the processing time. There may be better software solutions out there. If you’ve got a suggestion, feel free to leave it in the comments.

Read more "Two winter storm time lapses shot with a GoPro"

Twelfth Night mini-doc: how forming a story in advance aids editing on deadline

Over the holidays and into January I spent parts of four weeks working on what became a mini-documentary about a 40-year run for a local theatrical performance coming to an end. Here’s how I put together the video while meeting family holiday obligations and my deadline.

Every winter that I’ve worked at The Day, I’ve read our coverage of the Chorus of Westerly‘s Celebration of Twelfth Night and thought “that would make a good video story.” And every year, I put it off because family obligations over the holidays have prevented me from dedicating the appropriate amount of time to the story.

Twelfth Night is a massive undertaking that mostly takes place in the two weeks following Christmas. In simple terms, it is a holiday pageant backed by a huge chorus and a live band. But really it’s so much more than a pageant or musical theater. I had always thought about a documentary project that shows all the work that takes place over such a short period of time. I didn’t want to shortchange the story by going to a single rehearsal and doing a few brief interviews.

Well, I put off the story year after year, and the chorus announced that this year, the 40th Twelfth Night, would also be the last. So much for waiting until next year. Besides that fact that I might not get another chance to shoot this story, the added emotional impact this performance being the last made the story even more interesting.

As with every year, I had vacation time planned and family to visit, so scheduling would be a challenge. I could have done this as a daily story – shoot b-roll at one of the rehearsals and get sound bites from a few key people – open with a quote about how it’s sad that this is the final year, a bit of voice over explaining what Twelfth Night is, quotes about why they decided to make this the last one and what they are looking forward to in the future – cover it with a few sequences of the rehearsal – shoot edit and publish in one day. I didn’t want to go this route because I would be leaving so many things out.

I had two big scheduling challenges to deal with: I would be in Vermont for a week visiting family, and the print story that this video would be paired with would be published Friday morning as a preview of the performances on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. I would have a good amount of time to shoot rehearsals, but would only get one chance to see the performance with full costume and lighting – the Thursday night dress rehearsal. I figured at least half of the final product needed to look like actual performance, so that would leave me with a lot of editing to do between 9:30 p.m. Thursday and 5:00 a.m. Friday.

The best way to save time would be to get the interviews done in advance, and establish my storyline before doing the majority of the shooting. A college friend who produces documentaries for public television once told me that his company gets the outline for their entire 60 minute program down on paper before they shoot their first interview. This helped me tremendously. I watched a DVD of a past Twelfth Night with a co-worker who is involved with the chorus. She gave me a crash course in the show’s many traditions. Each year there is a new plot, but certain characters and elements are included in every performance. We zeroed in the “Now have good day” speech by Father Christmas, a moment near the end of the show combines a sense of closure with a feeling of optimism looking forward to next year’s performance. As Jill, my co-worker put it: every year you know that Father Christmas will be back, except after this year he won’t. I locked in on this moment for the opening and ending of the video.

So how did I go from an idea to a published video? Here was my workflow:
-Make a list of all the unique and interesting things about Twelfth Night
-Make a list of potential interview subjects
-Informal phone interview with the Executive Director to get background information
-Get a schedule of auditions, stage construction, costume fittings, rehearsals, etc.
-Write an outline of what I imagine the final story will look like
-Create a list of questions that follow the above outline

I had a list of about a dozen potential interviews, but I only got to about half of them due to timing. Still, once I did a preliminary edit, I had about 33 minutes of good material – way too much for what I imagined as being about a ten minute video. As I was editing this down I had two major problems: I was cutting quotes that I really liked, and I was missing a few key pieces. The cutting thing is a good problem to have. A former co-worker calls this killing your babies. It streamlines the piece and forces you to think critically. The other problem was one I could easily fix with voiceover, but that didn’t fit the aesthetic I was going for. As I conducted the interviews, each time I refined the way I asked the questions in order to get complete thoughts from the subjects that would flow with the rest of the quotes I used. I had the entire interview track edited before the final conversation with the actor who played Father Christmas. I was fortunate that he gave me great responses that fit perfectly.

Going into the Thursday night dress rehearsal, I had many smaller sequences edited, but had big holes that needed to filled with shots from the actual performance. I had seen a run-through on Tuesday and had a copy of the script, so I had a list of specific shots I wanted to get. The run-through had also demonstrated how bad the sound in the hall was, so I set up Father Christmas with a wireless mic. I used two cameras, so I would have wide and tight shots to cut between. I could have used an assistant or two to operate other cameras, but such are the limitations of the solo video journalist.

The preparation paid off, as I was located right where I needed to be for the final speech by Father Christmas. Naturally, there would be one more hurdle. Right after the speech, a bell rings twelve times. Usually this takes place off stage, and I had been trying to figure out how I could be in two places at once. I found out from the director that this year the bell would be on stage for the first time ever. The problem was that the executive director wanted to keep this a secret until the performance. The bell was not actually rung during the early rehearsals, and I found out just before the dress rehearsal that the bell would ring in the dark. I had already built the ending of the video around the ringing of the bell, so I had to scramble to get some shots of the bell after the show so I would have some visual representation.

I was back to the office by 10 p.m. and still had several hours of editing to get to the finished product. I only managed a few hours sleep before getting back to work Friday, but I felt it appropriate that I put in the work to create a video piece that reflected the passion and the long hours of the producers of Twelfth Night.

Read more "Twelfth Night mini-doc: how forming a story in advance aids editing on deadline"

The changing face of church in New London

With attendance at Sunday services dwindling, mainline Christian churches in New London are merging or moving out of town completely. Newer evangelical churches are filling the void, in some cases by moving into their older buildings, and attracting a younger population. Engaging Heaven Church and First Congregational Church are sharing worship space, with Engaging Heaven having agreed to purchase the building. In the basement of the former Montauk Avenue Baptist Church, Calvary Chapel holds a service called Sunday Night Vibe that draws a younger crowd.

Read more "The changing face of church in New London"