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Film Projects

‘Of All The Sounds’ – making a short pt. 1

September 15, 2021
Filming the opening scene in a kitchen.

Yesterday, I began filming a drama production: this was the first for a long time. In this case a short three-minute film (an entry into this year’s My Røde Reel competition). It was good to work with two young actors (Daisy den Engelse and Christopher Sainton-Clark) rather than unfairly press-ganging inexperienced family members and mates into roles: but there was no let off for the mates as some were just coerced into providing a location and crewing instead (thank you Rob, Neil and Anji!).

We managed to nail the opening scene in a morning, with all the action – which sets up the slightly M. R. Jamesian premise – set in a kitchen (a rather beautiful one at that). I used a single camera (the Lumix G9 with a Meike 16mm cinema lens and Swit monitor) with follow-focus, on a half-bowl tripod running on a DIY dolly track (40mm PVC pipes): this allowed much better control of movement and rack-focusing and, indeed, permitted a heavier rig than would have been possible with a gimbal.

Sound was a mix of boomed mics and lavs. The idea of the Rode competition is to use Rode equipment wherever possible – and, as you can see from this blog, I have a good number of Rode mics anyway – so I tried booming with both a Rode NT55 cardioid and, since Rode don’t make a hypercardioid SDC capsule (wasn’t one originally promised?), an AKG CK93. With a fairly live room and bit more of a distance from mic to talent than ideal (due to framing), the latter was preferable.: this was hardly a surprise, with hypercardioids being the norm for indoor booming. The boom mics were routed to a Sound Devices Mixpre-3. The boom mics were for a seated character, so were set up statically on a light stand using a Boom Buddy. If I’d had sufficient crew, a boom operator might well have been more useful as it would have allowed more variation in mic height, as the camera closed in on the talent, although that would have required some experience. I added a Rode lav mic plugged into a Rode Wireless GO ii as an (unused) back-up for the seated (female) character. The male character spends the scene rushing about, so he was also given a lav mic, this time simply using the onboard mic of a Rode Wireless GO ii taped under his jumper. The two lav mic signals went to the RX unit plugged into the camera. I set the RX unit at -18dB and the Lumix G9 preamps at their lowest level. I also engaged the pad on the inputs of the TX units (-4dB), but the volumes were such that the additional headroom wasn’t really needed. Although there were no signal dropouts in the wifi transmission of the Rode Wireless GO ii , I used the onboard recording of the TX unit for the male character to ensure the (marginally) better sound.

The initial rough-cut of the scripted scene (using Sony Vegas as my NLE) was two and half minutes long, so some heavy pruning was needed – including some cutting of lines – to cut it down to the planned one-minute duration: a lesson in translating screenplay writing to film timings for me.

Next up, shooting goes outdoors, but that won’t happen for a couple of weeks (weather permitting). In the meantime, there is plenty to be done in the way of scouting the locations and, especially, gathering sound effects: two thirds of the film has audio from the past rather than the present. I’ll add posts along the way: the My Røde Reel competition deadline is 20th October.

Audio Projects Film Projects

Acoustic recording and video – in a summerhouse

June 24, 2021
Relaxed and ready to record: left to right, Richard Poynton, Lucy Grubb and Richard Ward.

As part of the promotion of her new EP, Lucy Grubb was keen to have videos made of acoustic performances of a couple of the tracks, to be made very simply in the summerhouse of her banjo player/guitarist, Richard Ward. This involved just two members of the band, providing backing vocals, guitars and banjo, so quite different from the full band, studio recordings on the EP.

With simplicity being the order of the day, and minimal set-up time, I went for a mid-side pair of SDC mics: the AKG CK94 fig 8 as the side mic and the CK93 hypercardioid as the mid mic, into a Sound Devices MixPre-3 recorder. Just to have an extra option, I also rigged up a third mic – a Rode NT55 with the cardioid capsule – as an alternative mid mic, but this really wasn’t the right polar pattern: the main challenges were the balance of the three performers (with a focus on Lucy’s lead vocal) and the difficult acoustic of the fairly narrow untreated summerhouse, all while trying to have a visually unintrusive set up. With hindsight, and given that birdsong is clear in the recordings anyway (in part due to the open doors behind the camera view in the photo above), I think I’d have preferred to record outside under the gazebo you can see in the background: but the band were warmed up and ready to go and, besides, the free-range chickens might have been more challenging still…

On the video side, I simply ran three Lumix cameras: a G9 close to hand on a fluid-head tripod so that I could move it as necessary, and a pair of GX80s on static tripods. Very basic, but it gives the two videos a bit more interest than a single static shot, without stretching the one-man audio recording and filming too far. We did two takes of the first song and three of the second, selecting the best in each case: there was no audio editing at all (processing was limited to a bit of compression and a little reverb), and the video editing was simple too (with colours left as straight off the cameras).

Mid-side recording, with the CK94 (centre in the photo) and CK93 (bottom): the NT55 cardioid mic (top) was not used. Incidentally, you can see the lower profile of the old-style Rycote back-to-back clips (between the bottom two mics) vs the clunkier newer-style clips (between the top two mics) with the wider spacing this brings.
And here’s the video/recording of one of the songs, ‘Waste My Time’.

Film Projects

A second music video for Lucy Grubb

June 18, 2021
Lucy making friends with Annie the shire horse.

After the fun with You Don’t Do Anything, it was great to be invited by Lucy Grubb to make a second music video – in this case for another of the four songs on her recent EP. This time the song was the more reflective title track – Waste My Time. And for this video, it was to feature Lucy only rather than the full band and to be filmed in rural Norfolk locations. With the May weather being such a washout, my plans for a few evening shoots – catching the wonderful light of the ‘golden hour’ before sunset – bit the dust, and we had to film everything in the harsh sunlight on the last Sunday of the month so as to have the video ready for release a week after the EP. After a brief visit to Stiffkey marshes – where the mud and half-filled creeks threatened Lucy’s outfit – we moved on to the rather implausibly located Iron Age hillfort at Warham (with its ramparts and solitary holm oak tree), then blooming oilseed rape fields, the stable and paddocks of a friend (to meet up with the star of the video – Annie the shire horse), and, finally, Swanton Novers Wood. Things went pretty smoothly, even – in spite of Fields’s warning to never work with children or animals – the shire horse session: Annie is a gentle giant and seemed unruffled by this being Lucy’s first time up close to a horse.

Filming involved a simple equipment list: a Lumix G9 with both the Meike T2 cinema lens and the Leica Lumix 12-60mm (the latter for shots with the gimbal – the Zhiyun Crane v2); and a drone for the intro and outro shots (using the diminutive DJI Mavic Mini). To keep things simple, I avoided lip syncing for the drone shots, but the rest was synced – as before – with the pre-recorded track played back through a Bluetooth speaker. Again, I edited in Vegas, giving it a fairly heavy grade to match the previous video: well insofar as possible given the very different weather and light.

You can play the song on Spotify and here’s the finished video:

Film Projects

Music video with Lucy Grubb

April 27, 2021
Filming by the side of the Bridewell in Norwich

With things easing from lockdown on 12 April, it has been good to hear of musical life picking up a bit and, in that spirit, I was glad to be asked by Lucy Grubb to film a music video for a single (You Don’t Do Anything) from her upcoming next EP release. Lucy is a Norfolk-based country and Americana singer/songwriter, who has been carving out a name for herself and her band, not least at various music festivals.

In this case the music was pre-recorded in the studio, so it was the usual case of miming to the track. When I say usual, I think I’ve only done one like this before, so it was a fun exercise for me, from planning through to editing. The idea (which fitted the theme of the song) was to have Lucy moving forwards continually throughout the video, passing through or past the band members (Kevin Burton, Piers Hunt, Richard Poynton, Richard Ward and Paul Weston), with locations – all around Norwich – changing fairly frequently.

So it was a lot of backward-tracking camerawork. I tested out the old wheelchair as dolly idea (think of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless), but, while doubtless fine for smooth-floored interiors, it was clear it wouldn’t be one for pavements or, even, cobbled streets, so I stopped being lazy and used a gimbal (a Zhiyun Crane v2). Eschewing my Meike T2 cinema lens-based rig with follow-focus, I went for the lighter Leica Lumix 12-60mm on my Lumix G9, using autofocus just to lock on focus for each shot (but not to track focus) and avoided any wafer-thin depth-of-field shots. I’m not sure what the serious pros use for playback of the audio track, but we managed fine with a linked pair of Bluetooth speakers: one by the camera and Lucy, and one by the band. Loud enough, especially for early on a Sunday morning (dodging the post-lockdown shopping throngs). Despite my rust, all went well on the shoot last weekend, not least thanks to two helpers (good to have band members old enough to have teenage offspring), and with the weather settling down to the hoped-for grey sky with enough wind to give (guitarist) Richard Poynton’s long Covid hair sufficient movement… I edited in Vegas, giving it a fairly heavy grade tied into the muted colours of the band and, indeed, the locations (see pics).

You can play the song on Spotify and here’s the finished video:

And filming at Elm Hill

Audio Projects Film Projects

Experimenting with moving or POV stereo ambiences…

March 6, 2021
Setting off in the cause of research…or seeking ridicule?

I think Lockdown III must be getting to me: I’ve been pondering over stereo ambiences for film lately, wondering if they ever are or should be recorded while moving to match the POV (point of view) of the camera?

This was stimulated by thinking about sound for an upcoming project with drone footage, where the drone will follow the course of a small local river from source to sea – flying fairly low and slowly. I want the sound to match the view – along the bubbling stream, the passing over of weirs, cows and sheep being flown past etc. Obviously bunging a couple of mics on the drone isn’t an option given the noise of the motors and rotors, so any ambiences will need to be recorded quite separately. Initially I thought of helium balloons: I calculated that seven normal-sized party balloons would lift a pair of Rode Wireless GO II transmitters into the air, but, the more I have thought about this the more complex it seems: a totally windless day seems essential and, even then, trying to stop the mics spinning or, harder, trying to get the balloons in the right place seem fraught with difficulties. And then, more fundamentally, what does a moving stereo recording actually sound like? In other words, would it even be worthwhile trying to do this?

Recording to the miniscule MixPre-3

Drawing a blank through internet searches (the nearest thing being people trying to record the sounds of – say – a bike travelling, rather than just the ambience without evidence of the mode of transport), and not knowing how the soundtrack of any film with apparent moving stereo ambiences was actually made, it seemed easiest to experiment. A bicycle appeared to be the best bet for near-silent travel, as long as fast speed or free-wheeling was avoided. After initial less than satisfactory attempts with semi-binaural set-ups of lav mics by my ears and either side of a rucksack (both getting far too much bike noise, and, also, showing up the inadequacies of furry wind-protection for these mics), I rigged up a boom pool to a sheet of ply, cut to the shape of a rucksack, to mount the mics well above me (so further from the bike and road noise) and to prevent unwanted rotation. The mics were omni SDCs mounted end-to-end in a single blimp to minimize windnoise (see my post here on using mics in this way). Extending the boom pole very far got unwieldly, so it was only partly extended. Sound was recorded to a Sound Devices MixPre-3 on a light harness. The results were in a different league to the lav mic experiments, but the bike was still very evident and, above all, I’m not at all convinced that the sense of movement is very strong. This last point is critical. In short, I have no doubt that a better result could be achieved by recording general ambiences and specific sound effects from static positions and amalgamating them into the soundtrack to give the illusion of moving through space: doubtless this is what sound designers know and do, anyway, but it is good to experiment and find that, sometimes, the seemingly logical approach doesn’t work. And if, in doing so, I’ve gained an eccentric reputation in the village (yes, cycling with a blimp on a vertical boom pole does look extremely silly), then so be it…

For anyone interested, here is a recording of one of my tests with the SDC spaced pair in blimp, including the reaction of a passing neighbour.