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Friday, February 14, 2014

••◊ Getting It Right On Set

Lately I've been cleaning up some audio from a project I shot nearly five years ago.  It's about to head out for a film festival screening.  People always question my advice when I tell them to get it right on set.  They don't know how many sleepless nights I've spent fixing bad audio, noisy video, bad lighting/exposure/white balance...and here I am at it again, 4.5 years later on material that needs to be resurrected for a special showing with a backache from the edit chair.

The first lesson I learned the hard way is to get it right in camera.  When I started out five years ago I was judging things by eye and my beginner eye wasn't as good as it is now.  As a result I ended up with noisy video that was underexposed and the white balance was uncorrect-ably off.  Through the years I've learned techniques that can help this footage just look reasonably OK.  However, that took hundreds of hours of experimenting and rendering and experimenting and editing...until it didn't appear to be *too* messed up to use.  In contrast, I shot another part of this project two years ago and the only thing I did to that footage is add a tone curve in certain sections because it fit the mood (about 15 minutes).  So - get it right in camera. 

Even the legendary Roger Deakins talks about creating a "thick negative" requiring little post production to make the movie look like it should.  So when newbie directors tell me that they are learning Davinci Resolve to color grade all their problems out of the footage I cringe and advise them otherwise.  Why not get it right in camera and concentrate on telling the story in post production, rather than color processing all your footage?  Resolve is great for applying stylistic looks and fixing an occasional oops, but it's not a crutch for broken cinematography.

I also learned that unless you have a serious budget, don't shoot in a "raw" codec.  Raw requires serious computer horse power, drive space, and an expert eye for color grading.  If you need a good codec, use Prores.  Just because you can color grade a film doesn't mean that you should plan to, unless you're looking for a highly stylized look that can't be achieved in camera like Sin City.  Even then, there are ways to get close to the final look in camera.  A good experienced DP will help save you from massive post production.  People read all these blogs and think it's simple to just shoot with whatever settings on the camera and fix it in post.  It isn't.

Then there's audio.  I thought it would be simple to just use a lavalier mic, read blogs on how to hide it on clothing, and use that.  Well...the audio has been in post clean up for five years.  Some of it had to be abandoned and I had to edit around what I have left that is suitable for fixing.  Now every time I have to one-man-band-it I take my laptop and MOTU traveler along with a good set of headphones.  That way I can see the graph of the audio waveform to check for clipping as well as listen for any undesirable noises intruding on my audio.  People read blogs and think everything can be fixed via SoundSoap or other software.  It can't be fixed a lot of the time.  I've done audio post for nine years and there are still things I just can't fix even with the best analysis tools.  With the audio I captured two years ago on my current project using a shotgun microphone all I had to do was fix inconsistent levels due to loudness variation of my interview subject (30 minutes). 

Then there's ADR.  So many directors think that if they can't get good sound in production they'll just ADR-it in post.  In my experience amateur actors have a really tough time reproducing their dialog and emotion in a sound booth.  We spent 2 months doing ADR on a feature film this last summer with all the dialog audio that was messed up in production.  On a short I shot it took multiple weekends to get the ADR audio "close enough" and that was a seven minute film.  I swore up and down to use good audio capture techniques after that.  I want to tell a story, not be a sound engineer.

On top of this I've decided that I want to be a cinematographer. I don't want to direct, write, act, produce (most of the time), edit, design sound, VFX, nor color time.  The 10,000 hour rule applies to each of those.  If you want to be a director - be a director.  If you want to run a camera department - learn how to run a camera, light a set, and manage a crew.  In my experience the more you try to do by yourself in narrative film making, the more mistakes occur.  I don't want to fix five year old mistakes anymore.  I want to be building toward my 10,000 hours of experience in my chosen skill.

This said, it takes time to learn how to get it right on set.  I tell people who are greener at production than me to expect to mess up their first few projects.  I did.  My colleagues did.  Everyone I know did.  But people new to production don't want to believe me because they're smarter than that.  They've watched the latest Youtube tutorial!  It's OK to mess up your first film.  Just let it go and move on.  You'll learn how to get in right with those mess up's.  I did.

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