My RØDE Reel 2016
The deadline for entries to RØDE’s ‘My RØDE Reel 2016′ competition has just passed, so I thought it a good time to reflect on my experience of entering a film competition. True to form, I didn’t get around to filming and editing my short film until the 11th hour. Perfectionism was my main hurdle, as always, but there were a few other issues at play which meant I had to change my plans last minute. I think it’s been a good learning curve though, and so I wanted to write about and share my thoughts on the matter.
Filming a running documentary
I’m in the process of making a documentary about my husband Ed’s attempts to break 15 minutes for 5km. At the moment his PB is 15:09, set in the summer of 2015 at a Tipton Harriers Open Graded Meeting, and he’s itching to push his time down further. I’ve been tagging along to nearly every race over the past 6 months to capture race footage – from grim cross country events under flight paths and grey skies (Donnington National Championships in February, I’m looking at you) to blisteringly hot Midlands League events such as Tamworth where Ed has taken it upon himself to gather points for his team and navigate immovable barriers at speed. The steeplechase really is an event for masochists.
I’ve captured lots of footage, but it only makes sense in the grand scheme of a longer documentary. For a 3 minute short film, I felt that the narrative would have been all over the place moving from race to race. As such, by the time May came around I had settled on the idea of focusing on a single race for the My RØDE Reel entry: Highgate Harriers Night of the 10,000m PBs. This is an event that Ed has raced before and I’ve attended as a spectator, but this year it was extra special as the ‘A’ races were also set to be the England Athletics 10,000m championships and decide which athletes would compete at the Olympics this summer.
A change of plans…
My plan was to film his race, some B-roll of the track and event, and a mini interview back at home of him talking about why he loves to race. I thought it’d be a tightly composed short and would work well by keeping things simple. The footage from all of the other races is going into the documentary anyway so it’s not wasted. The trouble is, as I’m sure any runner can relate, that races don’t always go to plan. You can train well, eat right, get plenty of rest and be wearing lucky pins, but sometimes legs just don’t turn as fast as they’re supposed to. It wasn’t Ed’s best race, and it didn’t feel right to make a short film about it. With just a week to go until the deadline I began to wonder how I was going to put a film together in time.
In the end and after much back and forth I decided to put my entry together in an afternoon from fresh footage rather than documentary footage. On Wednesday evening (the 25th) we drove down to the Lickeys for an evening walk. The forest was deserted and the light was like magic glittering through the canopy, it really is one of my favourite local haunts. It was on our walk through the trees and bluebells that we discussed the idea of filming a normal evening run up in the forest with a voiceover of Ed talking about why he loves to run.
Capturing the audio
I had two ideas in mind. My first idea was to intercut interview footage with footage of him running through the forest. The trouble is that I felt that it would be too jarring to jump back and forth between the forest and our living room. That method would work well for a longer documentary, but the film I was making needed to be less than 3 minutes long. With that in mind, I recorded interview style footage for the documentary, but got Ed to prepare a script of sorts which he could rehearse and record as a simple audio track. I set him up with the SmartLav+ together with the TRRS to TRS ‘S3’ adapter plugged into a Tascam DR-05 recorder. It’s a really simple setup but works very well and it’s easy to monitor levels as the recorder has a headphone jack. I set the Tascam to peak at around -12dB. The Signal to Noise Ratio (SNR) of the SmartLav+ is great and the recording can be used straight out of the recorder, but I always sweeten my audio a little before cutting in Lightworks. For this I use Audacity to perform noise reduction and normalise the track.
Filming ‘The Runner’
And so to the actual film. As the film was less than 3 minutes in length and I was working on a personal project with little pressure, I decided to shoot in RAW. The whole film was shot using Magic Lantern MLV RAW on a 5D2 and native RAW on a BMPCC. My setup was quite simple : A 3.5mm shotgun mic mounted on the 5D2, a tripod for stability, and a combination of Canon’s 40mm F2.8, 85mm F1.8 and an old Zuiko 55mm F1.2 made by Olympus many moons ago. I use the Takstar SGC-698 as opposed to RØDE‘s videomic pro. It has the +10dB boost option which allows me to get around Canon’s noisy circuitry, but it’s much cheaper than the videomic pro. I only use it for run-and-gun ambient audio – like footsteps and birdsong – as well as a scratch track for syncing external audio from the Tascam. The build quality is good, it has a good SNR, and I like the sound it captures. Off brand equipment can be hit and miss but the Takstar does the job well, and I have no complaints. Most of the footage was captured on the Canon apart from the last few clips where Ed emerges from the forest up the hill to overlook the city. My CF card was full (RAW really chews through data!) so I switched over to the pocket for those shots. As I was shooting RAW it was relatively easy to match the colours in post. I used the internal battery, put the pocket on the tripod and filmed using an old Zuiko 28mm F2.8 adapted to the pocket’s M4/3 mount via an adapter.
I use Lightworks for editing on a Windows computer. It’s what I started on, it’s really quick and easy, it has good audio controls and with the pro license a good choice of codecs to export out to. As I signed up for a pro license before EditShare changed their licensing programme a year or so back I am fortunate in that I am on an old payment plan which EditShare will honour so long as I keep up my direct debit. For £58 a year I get a pro license which when compared to the cost of Adobe’s full Creative Cloud which costs roughly the same amount but monthly, makes a whole lot of sense. The only trouble is that Lightworks isn’t as powerful as Davinci or Adobe CC for colour grading and can be a bit difficult with ProRes footage and RAW footage. It can read ProRes and RAW CDNG natively (without transcoding) but unlike in Davinci there’s currently no way to alter the colour space of footage before applying a grade or LUT. This makes colour matching footage from different cameras tricky, and LUT accuracy hit and miss. Speaking of LUTs, thankfully LUT support was added 6 months ago, but in my experience it is still a bit buggy; I’ve experienced Davinci reading .cube files that Lightworks just doesn’t recognise.
As such I tried to use Davinci Resolve (the free version, not studio) for colour grading. I’ve tried Davinci in the past but my graphics weren’t up to spec. In earlier releases Davinci has needed a dedicated graphics card and I haven’t invested in one yet. Out of curiosity (and frustration with Lightworks) I installed Davinci Resolve 12.5 beta and found that it would run on my computer, so I began editing the RAW files. For the Canon MLV files I converted them to CDNG stacks using RAW2CDNG and imported them to Resolve; the BMPCC RAW files play natively. However, after perfecting my grade I found that I couldn’t get the files out of Davinci. It just kept crashing on export at 15%. I tried 16 bit TIFF, I tried QuickTime mov, I tried DPX… nothing would work. I’ve since found that I can export 16 bit TIFF if I export one or two clips at a time, but that workflow is a pain. 8 bit TIFF exports problem free, but I wanted to maintain 16 bit in my master files. I suspect it’s my lack of dedicated graphics card that’s behind the bottleneck though I can’t be sure. I could of course cut in Lightworks then export my edit as AAF and grade in Davinci before exporting just the footage I needed as H.264, or edit natively in Davinci, but I much prefer editing and finishing in Lightworks with graded footage. Lightworks for all its quirks is still an excellent NLE.
In the end I gave up on Davinci and imported my CDNG stacks into Adobe Lightroom which I am familiar with from my photography work and used my standard RAW workflow in Lightroom before exporting the stacks to 16 bit TIFF. It took a while but the advantage was that I could get the colours exactly how I wanted them using Replichrome presets (I used Kodak Portra 800 Frontier Clean), and selectively remove the few troublespots of BMPCC moiré from Ed’s vest using Lightroom’s spot tool. Once I had the stacks out of Lightroom I had to batch rename them into image sequences with a logical stem and number suffix and WAV file with identical stem so that they would be compatible with EyeFrame Converter. I dragged and dropped them to EyeFrame Converter and then re-encoded them as ProRess 444 with proxies.
All of that took about 12 hours. It was a learning curve in RAW and Davinci and I’m sure will take less time next time around, but a good reminder of why I don’t shoot RAW for weddings and events! By the time I’d finished wrestling codec the clock was ticking. It was 2am, I’d just got all of my footage in a pile and needed to get it cut, finished, exported and uploaded by midday. Ed and I were due to be going away for a few days in Cornwall over half term, and needed to get on the road. Thankfully I’m no stranger to an all-nighter, though I haven’t done one since I finished my PhD and closed the door on nocturnal writing sessions and academia. Minou (my cat) kept me company just like when I was writing my thesis, though she did spend several hours complaining that I was in the wrong room.
The song I chose was on the Musicbed playlist. Musicbed are one of the sponsors of the competition and licensed a handful of tracks for use in competition entries. Vona’s ‘Moncrief’ worked perfectly, it was just the kind of mood I was going for. After that, it was a relatively painless simple cut focusing on beat syncing, and showing Ed parking the car, locking it and running. I wanted to show him working his way up and down hill to the summit of the Lickeys overlooking Birmingham and the site of the old Longbridge plant which has now been redeveloped into Bournville College. I think the final film worked out quite well.
Lessons from my experience
First and foremost, the biggest lesson I took from this is that documentary filmmaking doesn’t always go to plan. Documentaries are different from narrative pieces in that there’s very little control of the environment or filming schedule. With a documentary and particularly with events and run-and-gun style shooting I can’t control where my subject will be standing, the light falling on them, the ambient audio, or in Ed’s case with running the fact that some races will just not go to plan. Narrative is easier in that you can repeat scenes, control lighting, audio, wardrobe, and direct the order of events. I’m glad I switched to a narrative piece for this short film as it allowed me to get a film together in time but it’s been a valuable experience in patience and in making the best of less than ideal situations. All good skills to have for wedding filming!
The second lesson is something I already knew. It’s really satisfying to complete a project. The process of committing to a project, planning, filming, editing and uploading is challenging but incredibly rewarding. Films don’t need to be ‘perfect’ as true perfection doesn’t really exist anyway. I really like forcing myself out of a creative rut and pushing forward to produce something. I need to do that more. There are so many ideas in my head that never come to fruition because of misplaced perfectionism. I want to break free from that.
I really enjoyed entering My RØDE Reel 2016 and will likely be entering more competitions in the future. It’s not about winning for me, but about pushing myself beyond my usual boundaries and producing the best work that I am capable of at any given time. In some ways, what I do isn’t too dissimilar to what Ed does with his running!