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A Day on the Job with ... Abby Sternberg
Posted May 30, 2006 Print Version     Page 1of 1

The date: March 18.
The place: St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Arlington, Virginia.
The mission: Observe veteran videographer Abby Sternberg of D.C.-metro production outfit
Video Masters as she shot the World Children's Choir performing an operetta based on the fable of Hansel and Gretel. 

A Motto to Live By

It was 3:15 on a cool spring day as I pulled into the St. Peter's parking lot. Abby had arrived moments earlier and was beginning to unload equipment from her late-model station wagon with John Z. Wetmore, a longtime collaborator and the second camera operator for this shoot.

As Abby began to unpack and set up, she quoted a motto that any good Boy Scout should know: "Always be prepared," she said. This truism was especially evident with an event venue like this one, which itself might not have been quite as well prepared for videography as many of Abby's other clients, such as the Washington Ballet Society.

First off, the budget for this production was small enough that they couldn't afford to hire a professional audio technician, "and the organizer didn't know what kind of a feed or connections their sound board would have," she said.

"I also bring a mixer to have flexibility if the sound guy doesn't know what he's doing," Abby said. That said, it's not her preference to have to handle those duties. "I can do it, but do I want to?" she explained. "The organizer has sold CDs in the past off the audio recordings, and I don't want to be responsible if it doesn't sound good." Luckily, a competent volunteer sound guy was there to handle those duties.

As we spoke, a cry came up from the stage. The two men preparing the set had run out of tape, with the dress rehearsal less than an hour away and no appropriate stores close by. Without batting an eye, Abby pulled from her bag a pair of fresh rolls of gaffer's tape that she'd purchased especially for this event. She passed one down to them, and they authorized her to add the cost to her bill. Crisis averted.

Capturing B-Roll
With most of the equipment unpacked, Abby picked up her handheld and scurried downstairs to record an important, albeit fleeting, scene in the preparation for the recital. "Parents apply their own kids' makeup, and the little kids are so cute when they're getting their makeup put on, but there's a short window of time to capture this moment," Abby said.

Then she took the opportunity to capture some additional footage around the event, like the sign outside the church to set the location of the event. Some of this footage she incorporates into the main feature; the rest she adds to the DVD as extra chapters with behind-the-scenes vignettes. "Tape is cheap and DVDs allow for two hours of video, so you might as well fill it up."

When shooting this b-roll, Abby tries to take into consideration the needs of her client, even those they may not have thought of themselves. "I think in terms of the client and what they most want. I try to think of multiple uses for this video beyond what I've been asked to do," she said. With an event for a group like the World Children's Choir, future uses for this video may include a demo for recruiting kids and families to join, or a piece to solicit donations, or even convincing parents to volunteer to help run an event like this.

Back in the Balcony . . .
As Abby worked her way around the church grabbing b-roll, John was back in the main sanctuary setting up the rest of the equipment, including running audio cables from the mixer near the stage up to the balcony.

I asked if getting there four hours before the event began was a bit excessive, and John replied, "You have to get here early enough so that you can troubleshoot, check the audio, and so on. If something's wrong, like static in the audio, you need enough time to find any bad cables if there are any." On this shoot, that wasn't a problem.

He continued to go about his business, connecting the audio cables, and then making sure the cameras were set up right. He wasn't able to completely finish this setup quite yet, though. "Normally you white balance in the beginning," he said, "but in this case because of the setting sun and changing light coming through this room's large windows, we have to wait until the light in the room is closer to what it will be like for the actual event."

As is the case with many stage productions, John and Abby didn't need to worry about bringing their own lighting rigs, although that doesn't mean that there's no work to be done with regards to how the lighting affects their shot. "They're doing the lights for us, which makes it easier in terms of setup," he said. "But stage lighting is done for dynamic effect, so there's a greater range between highs and darks. Because of this, I'm constantly on manual iris while filming, which is not necessarily a curse because then you have more control."

The Dress Rehearsal
With all the pieces in place and Abby back from shooting her b-roll, the kids began filing onto the stage for a last-minute dress rehearsal. "Dress rehearsals are great because they allow us to sound check and know what's coming up in the show," said John.

While John monitored the sound from above, Abby again picked up her handheld and worked her way down to the main floor. She paid particular attention to scanning the entire cast as they lined up across the stage. "I was trying to get shots of the younger actors who may not have main roles," she said. "It's not always the most artistic footage, but in many ways with an event like this what I'm doing is a combination of videography and a home movie."

"You want to make sure you get shots of all the kids," John added. "The last thing you want is a parent buying a DVD and their kid isn't in it."

Following the dress rehearsal, Abby, John, and I sat down for a quick bite to eat, which Abby graciously brought for me as well as John. "You always have to feed your crew, especially on a longer shoot," she said.

A Crowded Balcony
As the main event drew near, I was able to witness first-hand the oft-discussed tension between photogs and videographers. A parent of one of the Choir members had volunteered to be the official photographer for the event, and with the main floor of the sanctuary jammed full of chairs and the center aisle needing to remain clear for the singers, he was relegated to taking nearly all his shots from the balcony.

The primary problem with this is that his camera, while digital, wasn't entirely silent, meaning that Abby's on-camera microphones were going to pick up the periodic clicks of a shutter closing. Abby knew of this beforehand and had brought a ladder in the hopes that he might be able to stand on it and shoot from down below, but that wasn't to be. And it wasn't as if she could put her foot down and run him off, as not only was he a parent, he had also recently made a sizable donation to the Choir.

The balcony began to grow more crowded as another parent quietly entered and started setting up his own camcorder alongside Abby and John's Sony DSR-250s on Bogen tripods. He was quickly shooed away, though, as the balcony was reserved for those officially designated to document the event. "Parents wanting to take video or photos during a recital is common," John said. "That's why contracts are often written so that parents can't do that. Camera flashes can ruin video."

The Big Event
Despite the commotion just before the event, the shooting of the recital itself began without a hitch. The children sang their way through the first act. During the first intermission, Abby again turned to her handheld Sony VX-2100 and captured some shots from the silent auction and buffet below.

And then, the second act began. Here is where things took a potential turn for the worse. As the piano player started his machinations, Abby turned to me, aghast, and let a few PG-13 words slip from her mouth: her feed from the mixing board wasn't turned on. It looked like the audio for the second act was going to be captured only by the on-camera mics, complete with the clicking from the photographer beside her. I sat there, quiet as a church mouse, hoping for the best. Luckily, the feed came back on as the children began to sing, and Abby was able to take a deep sigh of relief.

During the second intermission, she hurried downstairs to question the sound guy. What had happened is that he had turned the feed off during the intermission and didn't want to turn it on when it was just the piano playing. Abby calmly asked that he keep it on from the moment the piano starts in the third act, and the rest of the shoot went off without a hitch.

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