My favorite updates to write about on this website are ones that come directly from being in the trenches. This one is no exception.
I was hired by Red Element Studios in Seattle, WA to help with their main stage video production at the Gorge during Sasquatch! 2014. Originally planning to just be an engineer/tech, I ended up being needed on multiple stations, and am very glad for that, as it gave me priceless experience on a true professional level, on par with any live music production around. It also taught me a few lessons, both technical and non, that I’d like to share (along with some photos and gear, of course)
Lesson 1: Be Versatile and Flexible
The whole reason I ended up keeping my spot on this team is the fact that I can do more than troubleshoot switcher set-ups or help set up a production. Knowing how to correctly switch and direct a shoot, how to operate a PTZ (pan-tilt-zoom or Robo Cam), and how to operate other cameras with manual zoom/focus were all vital functions I ended up being asked to perform. Now, I hadn’t operated a PTZ camera in any sort of professional capacity before this, but absolutely could now. For the rest: My experience in high school video production taught me what’s generally expected of a director/switcher, and even then, switching between 3-4 predetermined cameras is vastly different than switching between 8 live cameras and a graphics computer while you have to call out shots/check focus and iris for your camera guys. This is experience you can learn on the fly, but don’t be surprised if you’re overwhelmed the first few times out. Don’t be timid, don’t get frustrated, and don’t give up if you make a mistake or two.
As for camera operation, it can become easy to get pigeon-holed into one aspect of production or another: someone who mostly switches might let their camera skills get rusty, and pro camera guys might not be as skilled at overseeing multiple shots and directing/cutting at the right times during a show. But both positions should know something about the other. If a director doesn’t know how to adjust a camera’s focus, iris or WB, they won’t be effective at helping camera guys know what settings to have dialed-in. Likewise, if a camera operator doesn’t know generally what shots a director wants from each position of the shoot, they might constantly be going for shots that other cameras can get easier or better.
Lesson 2: Don’t Keep Secrets, Don’t Stop Learning
Chances are good that if you’re going on a shoot with a production company, there will be people of various skill/experience levels there. Sometimes there will be an obvious Greenhorn grabbing people their lunch, and sometimes there will be a jib operator with $40k worth of their own gear on site and an IMDB profile containing TV and features. You just never know. So if you’re the experienced one, a hired gun bringing your own gear and able to promise a certain level of quality, don’t be the one who won’t answer any questions or offer advice. It took you time, money, luck, and plenty of help from others to get to where you are, and everyone starts somewhere. Likewise, if you’re less skilled, don’t be afraid to ask questions or try to learn on the job. I spent a good portion of my time at this shoot explaining to people what I was doing, or why my troubleshooting worked for a particular issue we had. I also spent a while learning techniques from camera operators more skilled than I am in hopes that I’ll continue to grow. There’s always someone who can teach you something.
Lesson 3: Keep Your Cool
This sounds pretty intuitive, and also like an offshoot of the “be flexible” mantra, but it’s so important I wanted to highlight it, and there’s different meanings for it. If you’re fortunate enough to reach the level where you’re shooting high-profile acts, e it concerts, comedians or actors, there’s no time or place for an ultra-fan freakout. These are still real people, and when they’re away form the general public, they just want a breather from autographs, selfies and spotlight. If you or your crew ever want to be in that position again, it’s important to act like you’ve been there before. The second meaning for keeping it cool is that your job on this shoot WILL be stressful, mistakes WILL be made, and invariably a problem or two (or 12) WILL present itself. Being a professional in this line of work doesn’t mean you absolutely never make mistakes or never get overwhelmed; it simply means that you’re able to look at these instances and either fix them quickly, learn from them, or can find an alternate solution to get you through the woods.
Lesson 4: Enjoy Yourself
Don’t get me wrong, you are going to work HARD. Every morning we woke up around 8:30am to make the 30 min drive from Euphreta, WA to The Gorge. Upon arriving, we immediately started getting all set-up, checking cameras and screens, recording equipment, cables, everything. The first act on the main stage started at 1pm every day, and as the day went on, 45 minute sets turned into 1.5 hour sets, running all the way up to 12:30am that night. After the last act, we spent at least an hour tearing down cameras to bring in, putting batteries on chargers and preparing for the drive back to the hotel. To save you the math, this is roughly a 16-hour day for 4 days straight (including set-up day before day 1), with about 6 hours of sleep each night.
The crazy thing, however, is that you will be shooting a camera or switching for a band after hours and hours, and randomly realize, “Hey, I’m doing what I love right now. 10’s of thousands of people are watching the screens that my video is playing on. I’m on stage with a camera at the Gorge shooting video of Outkast in front of a sold-out crowd.” and so on. In those moments, I can’t stress enough how important it is to hold onto that feeling, because so many people out there would kill for half of the passion and satisfaction our career gives us as creative professionals. Never take that for granted, and never shut-out those moments where you’re reminded of how much you love doing what you do.
One of the issues we came across a few times was bad cabling. Luckily our crew had enough people to where we could spare someone to run cable for a camera if needed, but after the first time, we decided to run extra cable lines to the more difficult areas, so we had backup. I strongly recommend this, especially when you have other crews on-sight who could tamper with or damage your runs, intentionally or not.
So, those are some of the bigger, more general lessons I took from this experience. I’m going to include a few photos here to give you a taste of how it looked, and as always, if you have any questions about the gear or the shoot in general, hit me up in the comments section or through the Contact Me page.