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Lessons Learned From a Live Shoot That Went Awry

It's never a good sign when the first thing you do after watching the footage you just shot is to buy another piece of audio/video gear.

It’s never a good sign when the first thing you do after watching the footage you just shot is to buy another piece of audio/video gear. So it was with my shoot last night; despite auspicious beginnings, I experienced perhaps the worst shoot of my life at the worst possible time. Read on, and maybe you can avoid the same issue in one of your upcoming shoots. I’ll also describe the different filters available in Premiere Pro to fix the problem, which in my case was blurry video.

To start at the beginning, this was a free shoot for the congressional candidate that I’ve been supporting, about two weeks before the election. It was a town hall meeting at a theater about 80 minutes from where I live, so build in about three hours of packing, unpacking, and commuting time.

The volunteer promoter of this event was a dear friend and a great promoter, but not one to think about the lighting and sound that can make or break video quality. So, I arrived at her behest prepared but not knowing what to expect. Surprisingly, the conditions were optimal. That is, the stage was beautifully well lit, the soundboard located in the back exactly where I was setting up, and the soundboard technician-friendly and helpful.

I introduced myself and asked, “what can you give me from the board?” Within two minutes he provided XLR out that input perfectly into my old but trusty Panasonic HMC150. About five minutes later I had crisp audio and beautiful video as shown in Figure 1 (below; the fabulous Pointer Brothers).

Figure 1. Nice crisp video complemented by great audio.

Hubris Sets In

It was right about then that I started congratulating myself for thinking ahead and learning from some recent experiences. About two months before I had shot another political event at a location that had a soundboard, but I didn’t bring any audio cables. I felt like an amateur when another crew came in with cables and grabbed that pristine audio. This time I brought two 50” cables and a complete set of other adapters.

I also recently shot a production of Arsenic and Old Lace for a local theater group. I had planned on covering the entire stage with a static camera, but after the first few moments decided to zoom in and follow the action. However, because I thought I was going static, the camera wasn’t balanced on the tripod and the pan and tilt setting were too tight, causing some mini camera drops and jerky motion throughout the first 55-minute act. This time, I balanced the camera and tuned the settings for smooth, drama-free coverage from the start.

I was actually thinking about writing an article about how this shoot was the perfect culmination of my recent experiences. Then the band twanged out its last chords and harmonies, the MC strode on stage to introduce the candidate, and my perfect shoot fell to pieces.

The Shoot Falls to Pieces

First to go was audio. When the soundboard guy made some adjustments to switch from music to vocals the XLR signal flatlined, and suddenly, I had nothing. I frantically asked the soundboard guy what happened, but he had no answer, so I quickly changed Input 1 to the onboard mic. Then I attached the shotgun microphone that was my primary option and plugged that into Input 2. I had decent sound by the time the candidate started talking.

I’ve worked with soundboards dozens of times and never had one fail like that. Next time, I’ll keep the shotgun (or another alternative) attached, so if the soundboard fails, I won’t have to make any hardware adjustments. Or, if possible, I’ll mic the speaker up with my own gear.

Just after I got the audio under control, the candidate decided to jump into the well beneath the stage to better connect with his audience. He’s a great speaker, and of course was entirely visible to the audience, but without any direct lighting, he looked like someone in witness protection to my camera (Figure 2, below). My Iris was already wide open so all I could do was add some gain, but I decided to hold off and to try to fix it in Premiere Pro. In the meantime, I found a staffer who could ask him to return to the stage.

Figure 2. Candidate turns to witness protection.

In due time this happened, but after returning, the candidate stayed on the front edge of the stage, not the middle, which was well-lit (Figure 3, below). Anyone who’s shot live video knows that low light is a frequent problem, so I wasn’t worried; again, I could brighten this up using Premiere Pro’s Lumetri Color controls.

Figure 3. Candidate back on stage but in front of the lights

In the camera’s LCD panel, the video looked fine. But when I loaded the footage into Premiere Pro, I immediately saw that the candidate was blurry almost throughout. Why? Because, the camera auto-focused on the well-lit sign behind the candidate, and not the candidate.

The bottom line is that a well-lit object, pattern, or sign behind the speaker is a red flag shouting “manual focus, manual focus.” Otherwise, best case, the well-lit subjects in front of the sign may often be out of focus. Worst case, if the speaker moves from well-lit regions on the stage, he or she will be out of focus, and the sign will look great, though that will provide no consolation.

Of course, it’s tough to manually focus on a 3.5” LCD; hence, my purchase of a 7” HDMI monitor for my camcorder about 15 minutes after I saw the footage in Premiere Pro.