MovieSlate – the editor’s friend

I’ve finally managed to get MovieSlate to work as a Corporate Video tool that actually adds value to the edit, rather than as a bit of ‘decoration’.

It seems I’ve been doing a wave of 2-camera shoots recently, mostly interviews on PMW-EX1s. A simple hand clap or even a bit of lip sync on ‘plosives’ (vocalising consonants such as ‘p’ and ‘b’) is often all you’d ever need to bring the two shots into synchronisation.

The idea of using a clapperboard could be seen as a little ‘effete’ and pretentious. In fact, I’d tried a few iPhone/iPad versions and found that the visual and audio cues were out of sync anyway. So I have, sadly, scoffed at them for too long.

But, a while back, I was editing some 3-camera interviews shot by a colleague, and he’d used an iPad slating app that actually did something really useful. It blipped a few text fields just before the slate – only 2-3 frames per field of text, but it quite clearly labelled the interviewee. Wowzers! The idea of shot logs, production notes and so on seems to have faded into obscurity and as a Corporate Video editor, often all I get is a hard drive with obscure rushes on it.

I’ve seen this done, but the blipvert text dump was of Things I Did Not Need To Know – director, DoP name, production name, camera type and so on. What I wanted to know was ‘who is this, how is the name spelled, what do I put in the lower third caption’. The sort of info I often have to trawl Linked-in for at 3:00 in the morning just to check spellings or find a shorter job title.

So I dusted off my copy of MovieSlate and dug around its interface, trying to get it to behave the way I wanted to. There are LOTS of options buried in MovieSlate and they’re not all where you’d expect to find them. In fact, trying to bash things into shape and work out what should go where took the best part of an afternoon – but now we’ve got through a few jobs working with MovieSlate, I’m going to be using it whenever I can.

Removing my ‘editor’ hat and now thinking as a ‘shooter’, I’m really keen to deliver rushes to an editor/client stating that CH1: is the lavalier, CH2: is the 416 on a boom – I’ve had some stuff edited where the two tracks were treated as stereo. And I’ll label my 1-mic, 2-channel (CH2 -18dB lower) too. A seasoned editor would work all this out just by looking at it, but some folks can miss out on the particular whys and wherefores.

So, here’s a little review of MovieSlate – created because I find trying to explain something as if teaching helps solidify my experience of it.

Talk to the Badger

Badger SoftieHooray, Rycote have delivered my Badger wind-jammer! After a week that revolved around filming and editing talking heads and vox pops, it still struck home how aggressive and threatening a Sennheiser 416 can appear to interviewees when it’s hand held for interviews – like having a gun pointed at them.

This will break the ice, it’s cute and fun, and it’s REALLY good in the wind!

So we’re all on the same page, underneath that fake fur is a long microphone ‘pipe’ that’s sort of the ‘telephoto lens’ of the microphone world. If you use it outside, and the merest zephyr of wind plays across this long black thing, it creates a nasty rumble that drowns the interview with rumbles, bumps and that ghastly scratchy ‘audio overload’ interference that completely ruins your audio. So a wind jammer is Sine Qua Non outside, but can be redundant inside. In fact, it becomes more of an audio recorder’s codpiece. But in my previous post, I came to terms with why one should use a ‘fluffy’ or a ‘wind jammer’ indoors where it serves no purpose. But I digress.

Rycote will make you one to special order – no extra cost (thanks, guys!) but of course you’ll have to wait for it. Sure there’s skunks and zebras, but I like the badger – and especially considering that Rycote are in Gloucestershire, which was the epicentre of the Badger Cull Debacle – so, I feel this is in memoriam of the Badgers Who Fell.

To be clear, the badger effect only comes on strong at certain angles. This is not an anatomically correct badger. Don’t expect this to pass muster at a children’s puppetry party. But that’s the strength. It ‘hints’ at badgerness, but it’s still actually a proper pro-level bit of kit that will allow you to shoot outside with sensitive mics.

It’s not frivolous – just a little nod to those who get the joke. Of course, if I were shooting a drama or a difficult investigative journalism piece, this is not the thing to bring. But I shoot corporates. I shoot shiny, happy video full of shiny, happy people, and I’m looking forward to interviewing people with it. It? Him? Her? Should one name it? Or is that going too far?

Yes. It is. It’s just a socially acceptable iteration of the dead cat.

Roll on the dead cats

deadcatLooks like I’m in the market for a couple of dead cats for my stick mics.

Interesting feedback from filming voxpops this week – especially from the women. I paraphrase only slightly:

“Why isn’t yours fluffy? I don’t like that one, it’s to black and stubby. I want one I can stroke. Don’t point that at me, it’s not nice.”

Now, on a minor technical point, stuffing your 416 or CS-1 in a dead cat when indoors is a technical faux-pas. An audio tautology. When you see it happen, you think ‘Film Students’, or a gauche attempt to appear ‘Pro’. Whilst we can discuss the use of a Sennheiser 416 indoors over more suitable short shotgun microphones on one hand, and chuckle at the sort of gut reactions above on the other, I’m a bit shamed to be honest.

I’ve never really thought of the situation from the voxpopper’s position – specifically, someone who isn’t used to the gear we use. We call them ‘gun’ mics, ‘rifle’ mics, it’s all a bit wrapped in that male viewpoint, and when somebody pokes something ever so slightly alien at you, resplendent in its anodised smooth black metal, it can be… well, intimidating.

It can also be confusing. I didn’t have a ‘reporter mic’ with me when we suddenly had a need to do a ‘friendly chat’ between three people, so the participants (to some degree media trained) took my short shotgun Sanken CS1 (crumbs, here we go again) and used it like more like a vocalist’s mic (close to the mouth), to a degree where the mic was dealing with uncomfortably loud source material (never mind the audio circuits in the camera). The next participant would take over and use the mic at the correct distance for a reporter mic. Lots of scrabbling with audio levels, application of limiter in camera and compression in post rescued the shoot.

But I digress. The learning point from that is that, given a mic, media-trained folk will tend to shove reporter mics in people’s faces (including their own) ‘just like on TV’. But there is a sort of mic they KNOW should be wafted out of shot – that’s right, the big fluffy ones. You really can’t stuff that in somebody’s face.

So, here’s the deal. I will get a ‘Dead Cat’ windjammer for my hypercardiod (okay, short shotgun) mics when doing voxpops and accept a little less from them. Yes, it’s funny and unnecessary and to techie crews, ‘poserish’ – but it’s also funny for the interviewee, and that relaxes them. And they’ll keep the mics away from their face.

So roll on the Dead Cats.

BVE2013 – Did the dead cat just bounce?

Accountants have a lovely phrase – even a dead cat will bounce if it’s dropped from high enough. The world of video has been feeling the pinch for a few years now, but today – wandering the halls of the Broadcast Video Expo now in its new home – maybe it bounced back. People were smiling, feeling a little more confident. A real tonic to the system.

On the negative side, there was talk of how video clients were acutely aware of the cheapening of tools and how budgets were so squeezed. On the other hand, there was a genuine feeling of ‘democratisation’ in the markets I’ve frequented. On one hand ‘clients don’t feel comfortable with work-at-home editors’ but big names will now admit to ‘colour correcting on an iMac’. Clients may raise an eyebrow to DaVinci – ‘that’s the free software, right?’ but Grading and Colorists are back in the game. Just need to get our audio back in the limelight too. Broadcast is making it all very tricky again.

The big 800lb gorillas of the broadcast industry are not quite so dominant (!!) – but then, maybe it’s more telling that the show is now far more indie/corporate-friendly. I remember the BVE show was almost hostile to the corporate market. The visitors I met seemed to be 90% indie/corporate. Maybe birds of a feather stick together, but I definitely felt ‘amongst friends’ here.

Maybe that’s the grass roots poking through. Now that we’re hearing the parables of Netflix commissioning their own series, Google investing in content, these are a new round of broadcasters that the Web Generation of videographers and the avant garde of broadcast are taking to heart.

So are there new releases and excellent toys? Yes. The DJI Phantom stand – quadcopters with GoPros and NEX-7s on gimbal heads – was astonishingly busy. Queues to touch and feel the Sony F5 and Black Magic Cine Camera, Nikon out in force with a nod to ebullient Atomos, the Rode SmartLav (snark!) is in demo (tip – the Rode Lav is actually more interesting) and there’s a litany of distractions and shiny things…

Speaking of which, got to see some lovely lamps. Dedo has a booth where you can play with the new line of LED fittings – the 20W ‘son of LEDzilla’ particularly caught my eye. Small, neat, flexible, and can chuck light long distances. Only trouble is, so Teutonic is this company that ‘they’re not quite ready yet’ and have been so for a while. LEDs can be odd beasties, and the broadcast industry have said how LEDs ‘should’ work, but having worked with lesser LEDs and suffered challenges in skin tones, will be looking forward to lamps with true and fair rendition of skin tone.

Sad to find that there were a few companies I wanted to meet that weren’t here. But conversely, good to visit a show that can’t be swallowed in a day, let alone an afternoon.

3D isn’t here really. This year has a decidedly British take on 4K (jolly nice! Isn’t it doing well! Now, about HD…). If you need it, it’s here. If you think you need it, plenty of people to give you both sides. There’s a whole 4K pavilion, but it’s a separate side show. Another area which I felt sorry for was DVD duplication and its ilk. Vimeo and YouTube have their faults, they drive me nuts, but the concept of burning DVDs seems a little ‘Standard Def’ – and even BluRay seems a little difficult to justify.

If you can get along (this is a self-selecting audience, I know) do try the seminars. You’ll have to queue a bit, or suffer the standing, but unlike other years I’ve not been left out in the cold and there are some great presentations. Hopefully some will make it onto the web (a few are up already).

I have my take-aways from today, some I want to keep for myself, some I’m not sure make sense until I go again, but the biggest take home was the positive sleeves-rolled-up attitude of the people here.Just when many thought of upping stumps and retreating to the pavilion, there are clients out there who need video professionals who get great results because they’re good at what they do (whether on free software or high end systems).

So whilst I don’t feel we’re in recovery mode, maybe the bottom was scraped a while back and the bounce has happened. I’ll learn more on Thursday. If you can make the time to drop in on BVE, it should cheer you up if nothing else.

HD-SDI Embedding

Samurai-BNCOn a recent job, I had a chance to work with the Atomos Samurai - a recorder that creates either ProRes or DNxHD files from HD-SDI video, rather than the rather more consumerist (but just as good) quality HDMI signals I usually deal with. I have, for the last few years, eschewed the extra expense of HD-SDI kit in favour of ‘That will do nicely’ HDMI, but I think I’ve found a good business case for re-thinking that.*

The job was to record the output from a vision mixed feed from an Outside Broadcast truck, filming an awards ceremony. We had, in fact, each of the 5 cameras recording to AJA KiPros, but there was a need for two copies of the finished programme to go to two separate editors (myself and Rick, as it happens, working on two entirely separate edits) as soon as the event finished – even the time spent copying from the KiPro drive to another disk would have taken too long. So we added Rick’s Samurai to the chain.

We learned a couple of interesting things in preparation for the job.

Samurai_on_location_10aThe first is ‘how to reliably power a Samurai’ – its neat little case doesn’t have a mains adaptor in it, although it will happily run for hours on Sony NP-F style batteries (you can A-B roll the batteries too, so changing one whilst it’s powered off the second battery). However, I didn’t want to have to think about checking batteries – I wanted to switch it to record, then switch it off at the end of the gig, as I had other things to worry about (cutting 5 cameras, after shooting ‘Run & Gun’ style all day).

Samurai_on_location_07b

The Samurai (and Ninja) can be powered off a Sony ‘Dummy Battery’ supplied with Sony battery chargers and some camcorders. Plug the dummy battery in, connect it to the charger and switch to ‘Camera’ mode and behold – one mains powered Samurai.

The second point is thanks to Thomas Stäubli (OB truck owner) and Production Manager Arndt Hunschok who set up the audio in a very clever way which gave me a unique opportunity to fix the edit’s music tracks.

Unlike HDMI, HD-SDI has 8 audio tracks embedded in the signal. The sound engineer kindly split his mix into 4 stereo groups: a mixed feed, audio from the presenter microphones, audio from directional microphones pointing at the audience (but away from the PA speakers), and a clean music feed.

The practical upshot was that I was able to edit several versions of the 90 minute awards ceremony (30, 8 and 3 minute versions) without the music, then re-lay the music stings (from its clean feed, or replace with licensed alternatives for the DVD version) where appropriate, thus producing a very slick result and saving a lot of time and hair pulling (or sad compromises) in the edit suite.

Technically, the Samurai footage came straight in and ready to edit with its 8 audio tracks in frame accurate sync (of course). I was able to slice it up and do a pre-mix of the required tracks.

In the past, this has been a bit of a nightmare. This time, it was easy to take audio from the stage and play with the timings for music cues.

A short technical note: be it HDMI or HD-SDI, your picture is made up of 1s and 0s and so there’s no technical difference in the quality if fed with the same source**. However, the audio is interesting. Most of the time, shooting indie films or simple corporates, you’re not going to need lots of separated tracks. When it comes to live performances or panel debates, however, the 8 tracks of HD-SDI can significantly offset the extra cost of the technology by saving time in the edit suite. Well worth a conversation with your Techinical Director or supplier to sort out the ‘sub mixes’ (separating your audio feed to the channels) and ‘embedding’ (entwining the audio channels into the HD-SDI feed).

It’s odd that this hasn’t occurred to me before – the facility has been there, but perhaps it’s that last bit of kit – the ‘HD-SDI Audio Embedder’ available from suppliers like Black Magic Design and AJA – that’s been hiding its light under a bushel. As such, it is probably the least sexy item on one’s shopping list. Not the sort of thing that crops up for the journeyman videographer, but just the sort of thing when specifying the larger jobs with rental kit.

So, note to self: when dealing with complex audio, remember HD-SDI Audio Embedders, HD-SDI recorders.

And again, my thanks to Thomas Stäubli and Arndt Hunschok for their assistance and patience.

Samurai_on_location_12a

* One of the main business cases for HD-SDI (and good old SDI before that) was that it uses the standard BNC connector that has been the main ‘video’ connector in the broadcast industry. The BNC connector has a rotating cuff around the plug that locks it into the socket so it doesn’t accidentally get pulled out (like XLRs). HDMI – and its horrible mutated midget bastard offspring ‘Mini-HDMI’ can work its way loose and pop out of a socket with sickening ease, thus any critical HDMI-connected kit usually has a heavily guarded ‘exclusion zone’ round it where no mortals are allowed to tread, and sometimes bits of gaffer take just to make sure – in fact there is a portion of the ‘aftermarket video extras’ industry that make brackets designed to hold such cables into cameras and recorders. And, at risk of turning a footnote into an article, SDI/HD-SDI travels over ordinary 75 Ohm Coax over long distances, unlike the multicore short lengths of overpriced HDMI cables. So, yes, HD-SDI makes sense purely from a connector point of view.

** Notwithstanding the 4:4:4:4 recorders from Convergent Design and now Sound Devices. Basically, a 1.5G HD-SDI signal carrying a 10 bit 4:2:2 output will be indistinguishable from an HDMI signal carrying a 10 bit 4:2:2 signal, and many cameras with both HDMI and HD-SDI output 4:2:2 8 bit video signals anyway. But HDMI only does 2 channel audio whereas HD-SDI does 8. Back to the story…

Sounds Good

This could also be another report of ‘the bleeding obvious’ but I thought this was worth sharing.

You’re a videographer. You go out and shoot things. Ideally, you’d have your trusty Sound Guy beside you, but most of the time you’re on your lonesome. You’ve got good mics, you plug them into your camera. You get good level and you’re up on mic placement. An input’s an input, right?

Wrong.

We know that microphones generate very small signals compared to mixers and other devices chucking out ‘line’ level. To hear what microphones hear, we need to amplify them to the same line level before they get processed as ‘audio’ for the camera and bundled into the recorded video – whether that be on tape, as a file or whatever. The bit that amplifies the microphone input is known as a Mic-Pre – a Microphone Pre-amplifier, and it’s not exactly talked about on pro cameras.

It’s not normally an issue because your trusty Sound Guy takes the microphones, places them expertly, gets their signals into the mixer, balances them all and feeds the result to you as a Line level audio signal. All 16 bits of data per sample, at a perfectly adequate 48 KHz, get written with your data and it sounds great.

So Mr Videographer goes out and plugs his mics straight into the camera and, well, it’s good level. It sounds okay. It sounds fine. It will do. But if you’ve ever had sound from a good Sound Guy, you’ll know it has depth and sparkle and range and all sorts of things. My audio never had that. It was dull – competent, but dull. The 1.3 litre saloon car compared to the 2.0 litre Ghia version I got with my Sound Guys.

Oh, they had better mics! No, I bought the same they used, and they used mine. ECM-77, Sennheiser 416, Sanken COS-11, Sanken CS-1 – it’s a role call of industry standard mics.

I moved to DSLR and dual system sound, started using a Zoom H4n for my audio, and tried upping the sample rate from 48 KHz to 96 KHz. I’d like to tell you that I did hear a difference, but have been told in no uncertain terms that it was a placebo effect. I thought 96KHz samples sounded more airy and full of the audio equivalents of ‘Volatile Organic Compounds’ or whatever gets emitted when you peel an orange or use some truffle oil – whatever the audio equivalent was, I could hear it but couldn’t convince my peer group that it was there.

So I tried using 24 bit over 16 bit. Now, there I darn well COULD get a difference, but it was dynamic range and that’s boring. if you let your camera meters wiggle up to the two thirds mark on your camera meters (I can hear a bunch of Sound Guys sucking their teeth as I type), any sudden increase in volume (speaker suddenly decides to ‘project’, car goes past) pushes everything into the red zone, audio crunches against the end-stops and it’s game over.

You have to set your ‘wiggle’ at that point, because if you go lower, you have to raise levels in post and suddenly you’ve got a nasty hiss that stains your audio recording.

At 24 bit, you can be waggling up to the half way mark with plenty of room to catch the loud bits, and the hiss is way back down there to the left, unnoticed by your edit software.

All that’s great. Go ahead, fill your boots – audio at 48KHz and at 24 bits for the extra and truly valued dynamic range. But I still didn’t hear what I wanted to hear and knew what these microphones were capable of.

So, cue the Pix 220 by Sound Devices – purveyors of some extremely good audio kit. Check the test out, make your mind up BEFORE the movie finishes.

Talk is cheap. Microphones aren’t.

TLM 103A little admission up front: I also do the occasional voiceover. As an editor, I’d often knock out a guide track for narration, and long story cut short, there you go.

To start off, I was using the trusty Coles lip-mic. This curiosity is the ‘living fossil’ of microphones, a ribbon mic held literally on the lip oft seen ringside at boxing matches. Its party trick, due to the inverse square law, is to provide an intelligable voice in noisy environments. You could record a half decent commentary in an office environment, or noisy edit suite (I needed to record lots of audio for phone systems at the time).

The Coles mic was good for its purpose, but the sound isn’t something you’d choose to listen to.

So, I switched to my trusty reporter mic – the AKG230. Perfect for the job, plenty of others that would fulfil the same function: 3-6 inches from mouth, good rejection of outside sound, perfectly acceptable and legible voice – for a guide track.

But when the comments like ‘we’ll go with the voice you used’ start, trouble brews.

An AKG230 or SM58, plugged into a USB audio interface, in front of your laptop running FCP is a dandy setup for guide tracks. It is not good enough for final audio if you’re going to let the audio do justice to your high end prosumer equipment. It’s a bit, well, ‘meh’ as our American cousins would say.

I tried using my lapel mics, but these are dangerous when there’s no picture to explain why people sound like they’re narrating from a toilet whilst wearing a hanky over their mouths.

I tried using my short shotgun – the Sennheiser 416 is very popular for recording voice overs for movie trailers, because when you get up close, the bass frequencies are over expressed and the mic generates a sort of audio codpiece for male voices. Fine, if that’s what you want.

But my Sanken CS-1 didn’t quite cut it.

And here’s another problem: recording a voice with a microphone is like recording a lightbulb with a camera. The bulb emits stuff all over the shop, which goes bouncing around and coming back to the camera after the effect. With a voice, pressure waves push forth, zoom past the microphone, find a handy wall to bounce off, come back and do another pass at the microphone.

You can cover your room’s walls with exquisitely expensive foam triangles, hang full length curtains everywhere, line your walls with wooden frames filled with kapok, but this may not be possible if you’re working on location.

So there’s a breed of ‘behind the mic’ sound absorbers that take your directional vibrations towards the mic, then absorb them once they’re passed, so they can’t travel on and cause trouble. It’s not like a voiceover studio, let alone an anecoic chamber, but you’ll avoid the toilet effect. You can create a makeshift one with a wall of cushions and pillows if you’re trying to get a good VO on site in your hotel room, but don’t get caught by the chambermaid kneeling at your bed surrounded by haberdashery as the embarrassment can be fatal.

So…

The sort of VO work I was doing required a natural to ‘announcer’ feel. I could temper the accoustics to a certain extent, so long as I worked at night (less traffic noise, absence of child, TV noise etc).

More importantly, clients needed fairly finished recordings, so I had the chance to clean up any misdemeanours.

So I ended up with a Rode ProCaster, the dynamic XLR version of the PodCaster. It could, once taken by the hand through SoundTrack Pro’s ‘multipressor’ (a compressor that works differently at different frequencies) and some EQ, could generate something that could almost pass for a radio sound that would sit heavily and solidly under most pictures without getting lost.

I could have got the standard Rode NT1a for around the same price, which would be a better bet on reflection – but I was then working with an Edirol R09-HR recorder – no phantom power, so the dynamic nature of the ProCaster (and its lack of delicacy) meant I could have a portable VO solution.

But the ProCaster wasn’t really cutting it with the professionals. It’s good – based, I am guessing, on the venerable RE20 – but it has a raspy touch to the middle of the voice range, and STP ran out of puff in trying to fluff and puff things up.

Ozone 4 from iZotope helped a lot, but as time went on and my ears ‘developed’, I was fashioning leather purses from sows ears, and there are times when a silk purse wins over a leather one. And there’s no fooling a seasoned ear.

The sound was competent, would pass muster on low end corporates, but lacked the warm trickle of frequencies and effortless handling of transient sound. There needed to be a replacement to the ProCaster.

And so here am I with the Neumann TLM 103.

It’s a revelation – like stepping out of a 1.3 family runabout into an executive saloon.

It hears things that the Rode did not. It adds layers and layers of magic to what it hears, so much so that Ozone is almost redundant.

It’s not cheap. Of course not. The Rode NT1a will do 90% of what the TLM 103 does for not much more than the ProCaster.

But it’s like moving up from a PD150 to an EX3. The last 10% is significant.

In fact, that’s the next big challenge, as I’ll need to learn a whole new load of stuff about where it wants to be in relation to sound sources and sound deadeners. It’s a very quiet mic – there’s virtually no noise, but it’s also very sensitive – it can hear the chickens snoring next door.

But there is a joy to working with kit that delivers quality by the lorry load, so please excuse me as sign off for now to read out notes on dental insurance just to hear this mic do what it does the best.