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AMA“A Six Month Tour”

This entry is going to be a little different than the usual Light on a Stick essay. The job and the process described below turned out to be one of the longest production periods (if not the longest) for any job we’ve ever done, and I thought it would be worth taking a close look at what happened (for my own edification if nothing else…). Using notes, calendar entries and good old memory I’ve reconstructed the events as best I can:

1. 9/29/15 – We meet with the Georgia Tech communications team to discuss a new project. They need a video that shows a good selection of the cool labs on the campus for all the prospective students that, due to volume, can’t take an actual tour. In my notes I read later that they want to highlight “experiential touch points,” not data.

2. The video will not be an online video (at least not primarily). Instead it will be shown to prospective students in a small theater in the Admissions Building as part of their general campus tour.

3. By the end of the meeting we have a list of possible labs to shoot in, a requested appearance by the GT mascot Buzz, a mandatory appearance by the College’s Dean, a ballpark length for the video, and the directive that we should think about doing it differently than a standard “b-roll & bites” video.

4. 10/1/15 – We meet internally with our DP (Director of Photography) to discuss some ideas and come up with several that fit the “do something a little different” directive:

1. a scenario where we follow various students and their exciting lives at LSTU: We follow four students through intercut and interconnected scenes as they experience the possibilities of life at TU. A good portion of the action will be seeing the students as they work on projects in four different labs. We’ll heavily feature the labs in the four scenarios to show off their visual and conceptual coolness.

2. a video in the style of a POV video game: We follow four students through various scenes of student life at LSTU, showing how fun, interesting, exciting, challenging and full of great opportunities it is. However, rather than the conventional cinematic third person camera POV, we see all the action from the student’s POV, as if we were in a live-action first person video game (we would mount GoPro cameras on helmets and chest harnesses to get this footage).

3. a scenario where the camera is the POV of a prospective student on the campus tour of labs (once we get to budgeting this turns out to be the least expensive option).

5. 10/10/15 – After talking over the various options with the client we settle on having the camera be the POV of someone taking the various lab tours. We’ll have a tour guide who will talk directly to the camera.

6. 10/12/15 – Consulting with our DP we decide the Ronin/Ready-rig combo, a camera support system that slows the shot to “float” through a scene instead of having the bumps and vibration that would be there if it was hand-held, is the best option for getting a dynamic, active, POV camera style.

7. The decision is also made to use the flat picture style setting on the camera, a Sony A7S. The thinking is that this will give us the most leeway in edit process for color grading and getting the right look. However, it will prove to be a time-consuming technical hurdle, since the mixed lighting in the different labs makes it difficult to get a satisfactory look starting from the flat look of the raw files.

8. 10/15/17 – The client informs us that our host is a (GT ME) student. We’ve actually shot with him before He’s a very talented and a natural on camera. We later find out that he’s also able to collaborate, write and revise his own script on the fly – a talent that will come in handy a different locations throughout the shoot.

9. 10/17/15 – We schedule one full and two half days for shooting.

10. 10/29/15 – The first shoot day. Bad omen: we have an audio issue at our first location, the Invention Studio: Randy, our sound man, can’t get a clean signal on the guide’s wireless lav because of interference from the plethora of electronic devices in close quarters. He has to use the boom mic and, because of the path our guide takes, is unable to get that close with it. The result is a very roomy, echo-y sound. This circumstance will result in us later having to use some new software called Echo Remover to improve the sound (which works very well).

11. We have two more half days of shooting on 11/12 and 11/19. One thing we wrestle with throughout the shoot is the Ronin not properly calibrating. Zac, our AC, has to struggle with it several times on every shoot day, but he’s good, and it never proves disastrous. We get through all three shoot days with the footage we both wanted and needed.

12. Did I mention the light on a stick? It was indispensible on this shoot. Bryan, our production ninja, carried the LOAS pretty much the entire time, keeping a beam of light focused on the face of our host, or the faces of the people he talked to.

13. 11/23/15 – Once we get back to the shop with the footage editing is relatively straightforward. We carefully went through all the takes and decided which ones worked best in the cut, as well as determining the best order to put the sequences in.

14. 12/3/15 – After reviewing the first cut it’s decided we need more another professor in the video. Also that we need the mascot Grrr to appear in the closing sequence, to bookend his appearance in the open (something that wasn’t able to happen on the originally scheduled shoot days).

15. 12/12/15 – A pick up shoot is scheduled: one additional lab and a close (location TBD). Because of the holidays we have to wait till the new year: the shoot is scheduled for 1/20/16.

16. 1/21/16 – shoot goes without a hitch, and the footage looks good. In contrast to the original shoot, camera settings for the pick up shoot are standard, which proves to be a good decision – we’re much closer to the look we want with the files coming straight out of the camera.

17. 1/26/16 – working on color correction – can we ever get these yellows and greens to play nice together?!

18. 2/02/16 – working on color correction – can we ever get these yellows and greens to play nice together?!

19. 2/06/16 – greens and yellows are in harmony – all is well. We’re close!

20. 2/07/16 – Delivered!

Lessons learned:

1. In mixed-light situations the camera’s standard/normal settings are the safer bet if you’re not going for a stylized look in post.

2. Echo Remover software works very well for getting rid of excess reverb and a big room sound.

3. The Ronin is a great tool that we’ll add to our standard list of shooting options. Considering it was our first time out with it, and we learned through the process how to be good friends (we’ll remember to power down the controller before doing anything with it between takes).

-Jim Threlkeld