A video camera, tripod, microphone and other filming equipment.

My one-man, low footprint, highly mobile interview kit, for when getting fussy just isn’t an option.

This article concerns a recent assignment for which many accepted production niceties had to go out of the nearest window, in favour of simply getting the job done quickly and effectively. My challenge involved the following:

  • Filming 25 short marketing videos, totaling just short of an hour. 
  • Shooting in 21 different locations, scattered across seven different buildings. 
  • An effective shooting day of circa 4 hours.
  • Multiple setup/takedown each day
  • Not having any control whatsoever over schedule, locations or onscreen talent.
  • Coronavirus restrictions in place.
  • The entire project to be filmed, videos edited and published to YouTube, along with building a website in which to embed the videos, all in the space of a fortnight!

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it many restrictions, but also many opportunities, and I recently found myself commissioned for a fairly intense assignment, filming marketing videos for a school Virtual Open Evening. In normal circumstances, each Autumn, secondary schools open their doors to the general public, in order for prospective students and their parents to get a feel for those schools they will choose between for the following September. This year was very different, however, and schools were forced to find an alternative method for giving those youngsters and their parents a taste of what they have to offer. My client school wanted a website with an interactive aerial map of the school site, containing HTML hot-spots, each of which called up an embedded YouTube video. Each subject video would feature a short curriculum overview from the subject leader, interspersed with footage from lessons, stills, and so on. There were also addresses from the Headteacher and Chair of Governors along with testimonials given by students. In addition to producing the videos, I also did the web development work and, though I say it myself, all in all, it’s a pretty neat solution that proved quite a hit! The results can be seen here.

Screen shot of interactive website with a single YouTube video active

My client school wanted a website with an interactive aerial map, featuring corporate-style video messages.

Before I go any further, I’ll put things into context for those unused to working in schools. Suffice it to say that, even in normal circumstances, schools are extremely busy, highly optimised places; with staff time, vacant rooms, and just about every other resource in very short supply. Circumstances change with each ring of the lesson bell and, consequently, co-ordinating any kind of extraordinary activity can be a difficult undertaking. However, when you throw social distancing measures, segregated student bubbles, and staggered lunchtimes into the mix, difficult suddenly becomes nightmarish! I think it would be fair to say that during September 2020, most UK schools were functioning on a combination of adrenalin and faith, as their well-established practices were completely overturned and they were plunged into uncharted territory. That they functioned so well under these circumstances is both a minor miracle and a tribute to those working within them.

And so, my challenge begins.

On paper, filming each short movie would be simple: Most of the individual videos were somewhere between 90 seconds and three minutes long and included talking head footage interspersed with a selection of b-roll shots, which I could use both to add visual interest and also to paper over the cracks resulting from editing out pauses, mistakes, garbled words and resulting profanities. However, in reality, scheduling had to work around staff and student timetables along with the availability of suitable spaces, all made considerably more complex than usual by COVID considerations. In addition, issues surrounding parental permission and common courtesy meant that I couldn’t simply walk into a room and start filming a lesson for b-roll. The talking heads were, in all but two cases, filmed completely separately from b-roll sequences and I’d sometimes have to capture b-roll on another day entirely from the main event.

For my part, I had to be very mobile, in order to get myself and my gear around a fairly large site, and also pretty quick in terms of setup and take-down. The latter was particularly important for filming talking heads, as I needed to leave plenty of time for a little talent coaching, rehearsal, and multiple takes, all of which proved necessary in most cases. Shooting b-roll was straightforward enough, as it generally involved just a camera and a tripod, though I also used a small slider on a couple of occasions. 

Choice of gear and managing it during the project.

My camera of choice for most video work these days is a Panasonic AG-CX350 camcorder. OK, not the kind of camera beloved by those obsessed with shallow depth of field and other ‘cinematic’ capabilities, but a damned good, self-contained workhorse. This kind of camera is ideal for the hybrid of single shooter ENG and documentary style production workflows, that I was essentially using for this project. It produces great image quality and has good, built-in audio capabilities, which negate the need for a separate audio recorder. I use this with an Atomos Shinobi 5″ monitor, which I find clearer than the built-in camera monitor for focussing and monitoring purposes, and the use of which also allows me to have camera information spread over two screens rather than overcrowding a single monitor. In terms of setup and takedown, all I need to do is connect/disconnect an external mic cable, fold up/down the monitors and attach/detach the camera from its tripod. This camera setup was carried around in a simple camcorder bag, which also contained spare batteries, pop-up white balance card, etc.

Panasonic AG-CX350 Video Camera

The Panasonic AG-CX350, a great workhorse camcorder.

Shooting talking heads added the complexity of audio to the mix and voice recordings had to be made with social distancing and COVID hygiene precautions in mind, so using lav mics, that would need swapping between talent, wasn’t a good option. Instead, I used a Sennheiser MKH50 small-diaphragm condenser mic, mounted in its custom shock-mount, at the end of a boom pole. Mic connection was via an XLR cable. While I find using a condenser mic generally gives much more natural-sounding results than using a wireless lav mic; repeatedly connecting and disconnecting a mic and booming it into position adds to an already stressful workload. Carrying a mic, XLR cable, and boom pole clearly also increases the amount of gear to lug around. By comparison, a lav mic and transmitter fits comfortably into your camera bag or pocket, while the receiver can remain attached to the camera, with the whole system remaining connected and ready to go all day long. Having said all that, once you have your shot set up, booming a mic into position is quite straightforward, and I found that I could easily hold the boom-pole fishing rod style, while keeping it out of shot, which proved much less fatiguing than holding it overhead. I monitored audio throughout using Sennheiser HD 380 headphones.

Sennheiser MKH50 microphone in a shock mount

Sennheiser MKH50 small-diaphragm condenser mic, mounted in its custom shock-mount

For a tripod, I used a Manfrotto 504 video head on top of MPRO carbon fibre legs, which, as a combination, is light enough to be carried around easily, but that’s also versatile. The legs give plenty of height when needed and are easy enough to extend and retract. My only gripe with them is that the mechanism for locking their angle of spread can easily be dislodged during setup/takedown, giving you something else to check regularly. The head itself is nice and smooth, with variable resistance for both pan and tilt and also adjustable counterbalance for the latter, all of which add up to making it really nice to work with. Having a 75mm half ball for levelling the head is also invaluable, as levelling using tripod legs is a complete pain if you’re doing it repeatedly. Levelling with a half ball also means that adjustments can easily be made with the camera in place if you forget to level the head before attaching the camera. I just wish the 504 had the click-in/out attachment feature of some of the more recent video heads in the Manfrotto range, as the slide-in/out mechanism is definitely more awkward to use.

Manfrotto 504 video head

Manfrotto 504 video head.

Apart from attaching/detaching the camera to and from its tripod and then erecting/collapsing the tripod, the only other assembly and disassembly necessary was to screw/unscrew the mic and shock mount to or from the end of the boom pole and to extend/contract the boom pole itself. I carried the mic and shock-mount in a padded messenger bag along with a Sennheiser MKH416, its shock-mount and furry windshield, just in case any outside audio recording was necessary, which proved not to be the case. I also carried my headphones in the same bag and had a bottle of water in one of the side pouches.

At the start of the project, I was dutifully wrapping and unwrapping and carrying a 3m XLR cable in the same bag, but I soon resorted to leaving this attached to the boom pole with velcro cable ties in order to save a little time and fuss. 

I found that bungeeing the boom pole and tripod together made these easy to carry in one hand, with the mic and headphone bag strapped across my body and the camera bag carried in my other hand. Voila: complete mobile filming set up for a single shooter. O.K. if I hadn’t needed to repeatedly negotiate flights of stairs, I’d have probably used my trusty folding cart, which would have enabled me to carry a few more odds and sods, but TBH, as things turned out, this might just have proven more of a hindrance than a help.

Video tripod and microphone boom pole bungeed together

Bungeeing the boom pole and tripod together made these easy to carry in one hand

Other gear.

For a few of the longer talking head videos, including both the Headteacher’s address and that of the Chair of Governors, I also used a teleprompter, which although a little time consuming to set up in the first instance, can save a considerable amount of time in the long run. OK, this wouldn’t have suited all of the recording sessions, as many of the staff I filmed preferred to improvise their offering and could perform fairly fluently, enabling the job to be done in only two or three takes, which I could then edit together in post. There were one or two staff who would definitely have benefitted from using a teleprompter, however, but I’d no way of knowing this in advance and carrying a teleprompter around, just in case, wasn’t really an option. Besides, this would also mean preparing a script in advance, which most staff didn’t do. For the longer recordings, I also boomed the mic from a century stand as I generally had more time and the filming locations were less busy, so I could leave the c-stand in situ at the start of the day, ready to use at the arranged time.

What I would like to have done differently.

Ambient lighting in the school is generally very good, with nicely diffused daylight balanced LEDs in the majority of rooms, which blend very nicely with incoming window light. In some cases I would have liked to add a little fill light, using an LED panel and softbox, just enough to lighten up people’s eye sockets and maybe add a catchlight in each eye. However, in addition to taking up extra time to rig and transport, a number of my subjects were already clearly nervous about being filmed and it probably wouldn’t have been wise to make things even more intimidating. Perhaps a small camera mounted LED panel would have provided the additional lighting I needed, but I tend to find these a little harsh and unnatural, and they also tend to blind someone looking directly into the camera.

In a couple of cases, staff wanted to feature key wall displays in the frame, but unfortunately, because of height issues, this not only made framing awkward but in addition made close-miking the subject difficult, without having the mic visible in the frame. This resulted in audio capture issues, and in one such video, shot in a particularly reverberant space, some really unpleasant room ambience is apparent. In hindsight, it would have been far better to stand my ground and take the time to argue the case for better framing and mic placement. Alternatively, if I’d had more time in, and more control over the locations in question, I would have set up a few acoustic blankets, to the side of the subject and behind the camera, in order to go some way towards taming audio reflections in the room.

If I’d had free reign over the style and logistics of the whole project, I would have set up a small on-site studio, where all of the talking heads would be filmed rather than shooting them on location. After all, because of timetable upheaval resulting from the COVID restrictions, several of the subject staff I filmed were working in completely different areas of the school from their subject bases anyway: a music lesson in a maths room and a languages lesson in the school library, for example. This would have given me much more control over lighting, sound and background elements and I could even have considered working with chromakey or using picture-in-picture to place the speaker in some kind of environmental context. However, the brief was to work on location; and besides, I doubt, under the circumstances, that any room in the school could realistically have been given over exclusively to filming for two or three days.

Ultimately, this project was about low disruption, speed of completion and functionality rather than aesthetics and technical accomplishment. Though it would have been nice to indulge myself in my craft and in doing so elevate the production values of the project somewhat, the important thing is that the end result was effective, delivered on time and within a sensible budget! At the end of the day, the school were very happy and, without wishing to sound conceited, the outcome was at least as successful as any number of similar projects I’ve seen from other schools, many of which would have been considerably more costly to produce and considerably more disruptive to the daily business of the school.

There’s a lot to be said for keeping things simple and having worked like this once, I’d be more than happy to do this type of job again, but this time armed with a little more experience of working in these circumstances. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the experience, it’s that sometimes, regardless of how much pressure you’re under to work within certain parameters and to accommodate the sensibilities of those you’re working with; it’s important to stand your ground and argue the case for avoiding problems that will come back to bite you later. While I’m reasonably happy with the results I achieved, I really do have niggling issues with that room ambience on one of the videos, probably more because I know it could have been avoided, rather than because it’s a serious problem for the viewer.

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