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Field of Vision: Devils' Advocate
Posted Jun 28, 2006 Print Version     Page 1of 1

Videographer Mark C. Lowe, owner of Dallas-based DarkAge Video, describes a recent shoot: "One woman's son, wearing a Piglet outfit, was chased around by a guy wearing a psycho-killer mask." No, Mark wasn't filming an open-bar reception that lasted too long, or a grade-school "Pooh" play gone bad, but a "surrealistic sideshow" at a recent roller derby bout.

Cleaver-brandishing mascots and skaters sporting "blood"-splattered aprons over pink minidresses are definitely not your run-of-the-mill event-video subjects, but Mark, the self-described "roller-skating videographer" and sponsor of the Dallas Derby Devils (DDD), a new, all-girl, flat-track roller derby league, wouldn't have it any other way. "I hope I never have to videotape a wedding. I advertise that I will, but I guess no one's willing to have a company called DarkAge Video do their wedding. But hey," Mark adds, "if a name is all it takes to scare you away, you're probably not the right customer for me."

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Dallas Derby Devils fans rejoice in the action and the carnage

Mark was introduced to the DDD in February while photographing at a music club, where a league member approached him, expressing their dire need for a videographer. He checked out their website, and was struck by the sport's rich visuals and carnival-like atmosphere. Mark immediately signed on as a sponsor, and with his Sony HDR-FX1 began shadowing the league's four teams—the High Seas Hotties, Slaughterers, Suicide Shifters, and Wrecking Crew.

Since then, he has filmed their weekly practices, monthly bouts and after-parties, and many charitable fundraisers, with three concurrent goals: to help them publicize their activities, produce a sellable DVD of the upcoming August 27 championships, and ultimately create a documentary from his collected footage.

A Bout de souffle
On the first Sunday of each month, Mark laces up his rollerskates, on which he films the teams' three-hour, no-holds-barred bouts at the Skatium in Arlington, Texas. (Mark has also traveled with the league to the Austin Music Hall, where they competed against another Dallas league for the right to play the Texas Rollergirls, subjects of the recent A&E series Rollergirls.)

In a bout, four blockers from each two teams begin moving around the track. Then, each team's jammer starts skating until they pass the pack and make one full lap. On lap two, the jammer earns a point for each skater of the opposing team she manages to leave in her wake while dodging jabbing elbows and shoulders and take-down moves like "the bucking pony."

As a "guerilla videographer," Mark strives to position himself "where the action is, and cram the camera in places it was never meant to go," he says. "I chase them around to get the most amazing shots." For a variety of angles, he alternates between using the shoulder strap to brace the camera out from himself, holding it high over his head to get a bird's-eye-view of the action, and carrying it like a lunchbox with the handle on top, looking up as he skates among the pack.

A benefit to shooting on roller-skates, Mark says, is that the camera is on a moving platform, which steadies it, reducing the need to fix shakiness in post. "When you're not thinking about holding the camera still is when you will hold it the stillest." He calls this the "Zen of Videography." He shoots with a 1/15 sec shutter speed to get a more filmic look, and frequently uses auto-focus.

Mark's other shooting sweet spot is in the riotous center of the track, where the benchwarmers scream on their teammates. In an effort to blend in, he forgoes a tripod and other "hey, look at me, I'm a videographer" giveaways such as obtrusive lighting and mic'ing setups that could get in the way of filming "the experience of things." This fly-on-the-wall approach is central to his vision and company creed: Believe You Are There.

But with bodies hitting the floor left and right, Mark also has to avoid becoming a squished fly on the wall. "Anything goes," he says, explaining how he took his first tumble. "I was rolling backwards and I came to a dead stop when my skates hit a taped-over cable, and basically I did that funny windmill leg thing, and fell back."

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With bodies hitting the floor left and right, "fly-on-the-wall" videographer Mark has to avoid getting squished.

While Mark can get his Zen back, he acknowledges that he probably can't fix his camera if it crashes to the floor. "But as long as you're aware of your surroundings," Mark says, "you won't drop the camera." His advice when wiping out: "Keep your arm up."

Capturing more than cacophony is another challenge—one that's exacerbated by the FX1's lack of a built-in mic or XLR connection. To zero in on specific sounds, Mark uses an attached NT4 R0DE stereo mic. "R0DE, an Australian mic, is highly respected among tapers of extremely loud events like rock concerts," Mark says. With a pickup pattern directly in front of the mic, the NT4 gives a "crisp, clear, accurate representation of the sound" without extraneous noise interfering.

Noise isn't all that interferes, though. Mired in the melée, Mark can easily miss important action. "If they screw up my shot," he says, referring to any number of people or objects that might get in his way, "without a backup, it's gone." To ensure full coverage, he hires two or three additional videographers for each bout.

He positions at least one shooter on a balcony or second floor, if there is one, for an unobstructed view of the entire track, where they "can zoom in and follow the action better than someone who's down on the track." The extra shooters typically bring their own Sony SD cameras, and shoot at an 1/30 sec shutter speed. He's been experimenting with various angles for the championship. "I'm still trying to figure out what everyone's roll is going to be," he says, adding that he hopes to use five shooters for that climactic event.

After shooting, Mark immediately logs his footage onto his four Sony cameras: the FX1, VX2000, VX2100, and TRV900. He acknowledges that this isn't the ideal logging method but that so far a hi-def logging deck is out of his price range. But it matters little to him now; doing so hasn't yet shown any detrimental effects on his cameras. Like the skaters themselves, "Sony cameras take a beating," he says. "I've had some for years and they're still going strong. I'm not overly concerned about wear and tear."

Mark then dumps the files on any one of his three hand-built dual-core or dual-CPU PCs. The footage gets stored on RAID arrays across 10 or 15 different hard drives over a gigabit network with an ASUS motherboard.

Using an Intel-based video-editing system, Mark edits with Avid Liquid 7, which he likes for several reasons, including its ability to work with multiple formats and resolutions simultaneously, in the same timeline. With Liquid, Mark can combine SD and HD, and PAL and NTSC in the same project. He can also capture HDV footage in its native format (see Tim Siglin's Liquid 7 review).

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Liquid 7's real-time image stabilization

A Liquid 7 feature that comes in handy when editing his roller derby footage is a carryover from Pinnacle Systems' Pro-ONE package, absorbed into Liquid after in the the Pinnacle line's 2005 acquisition by Avid: real-time image stabilization. Mark applies this to remove inevitable minor jolts and bumps. The image stabilizer helps by "salvaging an otherwise lost and tragic shot," he says. "For minor perturbations, you can drop the effect on there, and you don't have to do anything else. It stops it, smoothes it right out." It does so by determining where the subject is in the frame, and then cropping the edges and expanding the footage to fit the frame again. "The more back and forth you have, the more it has to cut and tweak around the image," Mark explains.

Liquid 7 also saves Mark time by rendering HD footage in the background. Because of this, a videographer "can do many of the effects in real time, making use of the GPU coprocessor on your video board. You can see the result of an effect immediately."

Circus on Skates
Importantly, though, Mark says, "The effect I use more than any other is the dissolve." Staying true to his cinema-verité-like approach to his productions, he uses effects very minimally. "I like things to look like they look in real life. That doesn't mean you can't make it interesting. That's the trick, to do that without the explosions and the special effects, spinning-around things, and page-turns, and all that cliché stuff."

It's a trick Mark hopes to master as he continues to shoot roller derby, which offers an abundance of interesting elements, to say the least, with its pro-wrestling-like cast of sinister characters (e.g., Ann Thrax, Faye Tality) and teams with spirited rivalries. It's why Mark was so attracted to the subject in the first place. "If you're a videographer or photographer or a person into visual things at all, roller derby has it all: different colors, contrast, characters. It's like going to the circus."

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