Making three cameras look like six

Song Spinner is an occasional series that I produce for The Day with music writer Rick Koster. The concept is simple – shoot a musical performance, interview the songwriter, combine the two pieces. The problem with being a one-man-band video journalist and shooting a musical performance for editing is it’s difficult to get the variety of shots necessary to have an edit every three to five seconds. These pieces are about the music and the story behind the song, but in order to keep the viewer visually interested it’s best not to linger on a single shot for too long.

To get around this, I started bringing multiple cameras to these shoots, first two, and then adding a third. Almost every time we shot one of these, the musician or band asked to do a second take. I realized that I could use this second take as a chance to switch up camera angles and double the number of angles I have to edit from.

Usually, the performers have been happier with the second take, so I use the first take for a lot of the close-ups: hands strumming guitars, isolated camera on the drummer, etc. I also keep an eye out for details that I want to catch the second tie around with an eye toward where I will make the edits: the guitar player’s foot on the pedal board right before the solo, or the place where the bass starts in the opening of the song.

For this shoot, I used a Sony EX1R, a Sony PMW 200, and a GoPro Hero 4. The GoPro is nice because it can fit into small places, like right next to a drum kit, and also because it is wide enough to get the whole band in a small room.

Synching up the video clips during the edit can be tricky. We chose to make these live performances, instead of lip-synching to a playback track the way you would do in a music video. It just seems more authentic that way. But because it’s live, the tempos of the two takes are almost never exactly the same. It’s not too hard to synch up the three cameras from an individual take. I either clap at the start of the recording to imitate a film slate, or use something like the waveform of the drumbeat to synch clips on the timeline. You could also use software like PluralEyes.

I synch the two takes separately, and then determine which one I will use for the audio track. I then start matching up the other take to the chosen audio track. This involves cutting the clips every measure or two to get them in synch with the others. This leaves gaps on the timeline, but having six angles to choose from makes it easy to cover the gaps. When I get to choosing which angles to use when, there is always a little bit of sliding left and right on the timeline to get the vocals and drum beats to match exactly. The result is a video that looks like it was shot with six cameras, but requires bringing far less gear along.

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Competition from citizen journalists (or why I’m shooting with my camera and an iPhone at the same time)

Now that everyone has a smartphone and video sharing has become so popular, journalists face competition from more than just other news outlets. A high school basketball game this week illustrated this point quite nicely. It used to be that when I covered a game, I would just produce a highlights package and post it to or site when I was done editing, usually 2-3 hours after the game. I started experimenting with posting a shorter clip immediately after the game, and found that these short clips often receive more views than the edited package.

While posting the raw clip is much faster, it still takes me a little bit of time. I have to shoot post-game interviews, go back to my car, import the clip from my camera to my laptop, compress and upload. When Wednesday’s game ended with a buzzer beater, I first tweeted a link to a buzzer beater by the same player from exactly one year ago.

Once the video of this year’s buzzer beater was uploaded, I tweeted the link.

I noticed that someone in the crowd had tweeted their own video 20 minutes earlier.

We have a similar number of followers, but his post, by virtue of being first, had twice as many retweets and favorites. At least one other person tweeted out their own video, and there could be others that I didn’t see.

Now Twitter engagements are not our only measure of success. The tweets are really a way to drive traffic to our site and promote the stories and highlights that no one else has. We offer a quality of coverage that people can’t find anywhere else, but it doesn’t hurt to be first.

With that in mind, I went to Friday’s playoff game between Ledyard and Hillhouse prepared to be first. There is no way to get video off my Sony video camera as quickly as a smartphone can publish to the web, so I mounted by iPhone on the cold shoe on the front of the camera. Ledyard had the ball with the game tied and time running out, so I started recording on both cameras. A buzzer beater attempt was blocked, and the game went to overtime, but I got the video posted via Tout and tweeted it before the new period started.
At the end of the overtime period, Ledyard was trailing by one and had a chance to win it at the buzzer. The shot missed, but I used the same workflow as above to get the video on Tout and Twitter right away.

Had he made the shot, I’m sure the video would have been shared around the local basketball community a lot more than it was, but at least I have a solution for future buzzer beaters.

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Surround the live stream with on-demand content

Last night was our last live basketball game of the winter. It was a highly anticipated rematch of a regular season game that we streamed between undefeated New London, ranked number two in the state, and number nine Ledyard. There was plenty of hype preceding the game, especially because two of Ledyard’s coaches and three of their players are former New London Whalers. That hype brings natural publicity, but since live streaming video is still a relatively new venture for a small newspaper, we want to make sure as much of our potential audience as possible knows about the webcast, and that people are familiar with some of the characters involved.

To that end, the video open (above) that we use at the start of the game also serves as a promo. It was voiced by play-by-play announcer Casey O’Neill and edited from clips of three of our earlier webcasts. Because Casey has a day job, assistant sports editor Mike DiMauro writes the text for the open, I edit it and forward it to Casey, who records the voice over on his phone and then emails it back to me. Not the highest quality solution, but it’s the most efficient thing we can manage with people at three different locations working different schedules with no studio to use as a home base.

Usually we include video features in our pregame and halftime shows, but we wouldn’t have time to produce feature for the final. The finalists were determined on Wednesday evening, and I would have to get everything ready for the webcast by 2pm Friday at the latest. We rolled the dice and assumed New London would make the final, and Casey and I recorded an interview with coach Craig Parker and senior Collin Sawyer. Our plan was to record a similar interview on Thursday with a coach and player from the winner of Wednesday’s second semifinal. Since the weather forecast for Thursday was looking bad, we recorded the second interview with Ledyard coach Dave Cornish and senior Phyllip Thomas in the gym immediately after the Wednesday games. We posted the full interviews the night before the game and used a shorter edit of each in the pregame show.

The game lived up to the hype, and we posted the full replay and an edited highlight video immediately after.

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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 theĀ averageĀ 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.”Ā 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.

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 theĀ fairlyĀ 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.Ā I look forward to seeing Billy’s video when it’s released.

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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 secondĀ 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:Ā Young shipwrights of the Charles W. Morgan andĀ Jake Kaeser proves it’s never too late.

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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.

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Donā€™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. Weā€™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. Weā€™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. Itā€™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 didnā€™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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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