A Day on the Job With ... Frogman Productions
Where would the wedding video industry be without its doubters? If they went away entirely, I'm sure we'd actually miss them, if only for the shock to the system their departure would leave, like an abcessed tooth that's finally been pulled.
Almost like clockwork, shortly after I arrived at Christ Memorial Church in Madison, Wisconsin to shadow Frogman Productions on a July 1 wedding shoot, the naysayer appeared. Frogman principal Philip Hinkle and I were standing on the sidewalk in front of the church, awaiting the bride's arrival. Philip didn't seem the least bit edgy or nervous, even though the bride was a few minutes late; if this interested bystander was about to attempt to ruffle his feathers, Philip was ready.
The man looked to be an uncle of some kind, probably on the bride's side. He walked out of the church, positioned himself at Philip's right shoulder, took a significant look at Philip's Sony VX2000, and said, "So, you're the videographer?" Not waiting for an answer, he went on, "You know what's the problem with wedding video? No one ever watches it."
"Maybe they haven't seen it done the way we do it," Philip replied.
With a humph the man launched into an anecdote that was probably meant to prove he knew whereof he spoke, and it did make him sound like an able adversary; among other things, he'd shot weddings in the S-VHS days and edited video of the Grenada invasion of 1983 on special assignment for the Pentagon. Which made Philip all the happier that he'd have the chance to prove the doubter wrong before the evening's end. It was 11 a.m., and we were 9 hours and counting from the day's main attraction: the Same-Day Edit—or as I like to call it, the silencer.
Days in the Making
The Same-Day Edit (SDE) is arguably the most dazzling thing in wedding video, not just because of what it is (wedding-day highlights projected onto a big screen at the reception), but because of how it appears to the uninitiated: an unfathomable feat of sleight-of-hand. How in the world do they shoot the wedding and show it the same day—and not just some sloppy rough cut, but an elegant, stylized selection of stirring shots, dramatically synched to music?
Two key elements of the SDE, of course, are forethought and formula, with quite a bit of variation among studios in the planning, execution, and stylistic choices. I've gotten to know Philip Hinkle here in Madison (where EventDV's editorial offices are located) through our nascent videographers' association, Wisconsin Digital Media Group (of which he is founder and president). I've seen enough of his work to know how he's earned his reputation as one of the leading videographers in the region. And he's recently brought his wife, Sherry, into Frogman as a full-time employee, which is always a good indicator of an independent studio's fortunes—especially one in only its fourth year of operation like Frogman Productions.
When I told Philip I'd like to shadow Frogman (which gets its name from an old nickname of Philip's) on a shoot, my only stipulation was that we pick a day on which he'd booked a Same-Day Edit. We'd talked a bit about his SDE work in the past, and I wanted to see how he pulled it off.
A couple of weeks before the wedding, Philip sent me the SDE shot list he'd prepared for the event, which was in fact a partially completed video. The first part was a series of three finished photo montages which would comprise the first 10 minutes of the video presentation at the reception. The remaining three minutes was the shot list for the SDE, with the couple's chosen musical piece ("Come What May" from Moulin Rouge) playing as the name of each shot (church exterior, bride dressed, Flying V, here comes the bride, etc.) appeared on an otherwise-black screen at the moment of the corresponding cut and remaining for the length of said cut.
Philip had sent this same video to the couple before forwarding it to me. I asked him if he felt he was sacrificing any of the magic or element of surprise by showing so many of his SDE cards so early. "They paid for it, so they need to see it to tell me if there are any other shots we ought to have in there—grandma, or another relative or friend that I wouldn't know about," he said. "This way, there's still time to swap a shot in or out."
The shot list reappeared on paper at the actual event, on a three-column sheet that included the name of the shot in the first column, the camera in the second column, and the timecode in the third. The timecode notation was particularly important in this case, since unlike many SDE practitioners, the Frogman crew currently shoots to DV tape only, with no FS-4 or equivalent DDR to speed the capture process.
We all got the lay of the land at the rehearsal on Friday night, with Philip and Sherry planning shots, testing microphones and wireless frequencies, and establishing camera positions. They set up the Sony PD 150 on a tall Manfrotto tripod at the back right of the church (Philip would occasionally modify the framing with a remote control device, but that camera would go essentially unmanned during the ceremony), and Sherry would operate a Canon GL2, also on tripod, in the balcony, getting mostly medium shots of the bride, groom, pastor, and readers. Meanwhile, Philip would roam with his Sony VX2000, sometimes using a ProMax SteadyTracker Xtreme monopod, otherwise going completely handheld. Of the SteadyTracker, he told me, "It's like a poor man's Glidecam. It's not as smooth, but for $300 you can shoot on a three-point axis and still get your dutch angles."
Philip said he'd be positioning his four wireless mics (three Sennheisers and one Samson) in four places: one under the piano, one lav on the groom, one lav on the pastor, and one back-up hidden in the flowers on the altar with the gain up high. He'd feed all four into iRivers. When he tested his frequency of choice, he immediately picked up the church sound system. Small world. "That's the first time that's happened in four years," he said.
On the morning of the wedding day, I followed Philip through the wedding videographer and SDE producer's familiar stations of the cross: bridal prep, to get shots of the dress including the all-important zipper shot, plus a nice rack-focus detail shot of the rings on the wedding dress; the Reservoir Dogs-inspired Flying V to chronicle the arrival of the groomsmen; and some purposeful, semi-circular maneuvering to get stylish motion shots during the pre-ceremony photographer's formals. Philip was well-acquainted with the photographer the couple had chosen (they'd booked the job together, in fact), so there was a nice fluidity to their interaction.
At noon, Frogman's intern, newly minted high school grad David "Tadpole" Pallaske, arrived, and Philip immediately started running through the SDE shotlist with him, including the shots already captured, and corresponding timecodes. Handing him tapes, he said, "I trust you to choose the right shots." Then Philip showed Pallaske to the church office where his laptop was already set up and running an ingeniously visual batch capture and clip cataloging program called Scenalyzer Live (www.scenalyzer.com). Pallaske immediately set to capturing SDE-specific clips as directed by the shotlist worksheet.
"Whenever I'm doing an SDE," Philip told me, "I think about something Laura Randall said during her SDE seminar at the 4EVER Group Convention in Orlando. The worst thing about doing an SDE is that you're so focused on the same-day edit, but you still have a wedding video to make. You have to get all your other pre-ceremony stuff, and remember that you're just pulling out the nuggets for the SDE. You have to remember not to shortchange the clients on the rest of the video just because they bought this premium option."
At 1:45 I climbed the ladder to the balcony to check in with Sherry, who would be shooting with the Canon GL2 on tripod and sharing the tight space with the photographer's assistant. She'd be getting mostly medium shots, she told me. "My kiss will probably be the one for the SDE unless he gets just an incredible shot. I always get the shot of when the groom sees the bride, too."
The processional kicked off at 2:07 p.m. Philip shot it from the front of the aisle, just below the altar, and continued to move about the sanctuary throughout the vows. At 2:21 he came back to where I was sitting and whispered that he thought he'd already gotten the "money shot," a wild-card shot that varies from wedding to wedding but always marks the high point of the SDE: "I already got Mom wiping back a tear," he told me with a sly smile.
The ceremony wrapped up around 2:40, with Philip capturing the recessional on monopod from the back of the aisle. At 2:55 he was getting the congregants blowing bubbles at the bride and groom as they left the church, and Sherry was packing up, with David in the Same-Day Edit Bay assiduously capturing and editing simultaneously. "I always capture the whole tape from Philip's camera," David said. "From Sherry's, I just get the processional and kiss. That's what the timecodes are for."
At 3:05, Philip did a re-enactment of the rings for the highlight footage, and by 3:15 David was off to his other job and Philip and Sherry were heading out to the reception site.
The Rest is Silence
Madison's Monona Terrace, a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired convention center, stands a stone's throw from the Wisconsin State Capitol and projects grandly over shimmering Lake Monona (how far it projects, incidentally, was a sticking point with the esteemed Mr. Wright, and because the folks who built it some years after his death considerably reined in his design, the protectors of Wright's legacy insist on terming it "Wright-inspired" rather than a full-fledged Wright design). Architectural controversies aside, Monona Terrace is unquestionably the jewel of Dane County wedding venues, although it's not without its frustrations for videographers. For one thing, its prize ballroom, the "Community" room, has a view of the lake that extends for the room's full expanse, which wreaks havoc on just about any video shot in the room. What's more, the Terrace is far from ideal for SDE presentations from a logistical standpoint: like many high-fallutin' venues, Monona Terrace insists that videographers use in-house video projection equipment and is arguably sub-standard.
Though Philip knew this going in (he's worked wedding receptions there before—it's part and parcel of booking plum clients in Dane County), it didn't stop him from grumbling about it. The good news is that there was time to grumble. While there was still a bit more video to capture as the time passed 4 o'clock, David's initial edits on the SDE had the timeline in pretty good shape when we arrived at the reception site. The DJ intermittently tested the sound system with eclectic bursts of Sinatra, Def Leppard, and Don McLean while Philip, Sherry, and I huddled at a corner table in the ballroom to go over the rest of the edit in Frogman's SDE of choice, Canopus EDIUS Pro 3. Philip filled in a few shots that were missing, swapped out the bridal prep "zipper" shot for a better one, performed color correction between the cameras on the shoot, and added some custom-blended transitions. "What David laid out here is really nice and I could go with it," he said. "But I think I can clean it up a little. I try to prioritize the things I want to do in terms of making it better."
Philip also spent some of this time conferring with the DJ and wedding coordinator on timing (the video presentation was still set to follow dinner, around 8 p.m.) and working with the venue staff to test the A/V equipment. Philip's plan was to write the edited video back to tape and play off the GL2 into the projector through S-Video. "Later on, I'll burn four copies of the SDE on DVD for the bride and groom to take home at the end of the night," he told me, "but I just don't trust DVD for playing the SDE itself."
Meanwhile, Philip and Sherry had some shooting to do—the grand march of the wedding party, the first dance, the cutting of the cake. But again it wasn't the fevered rush I expected it would take to get the SDE finished on time. After watching Philip render the SDE and then write the SDE plus the photo montages to tape for the presentation, I ducked out at dinnertime, and returned just before SDE showtime.
Sherry herself headed for the lobby prior to the showing of the SDE. "I just can't take it," she said, just as the DJ announced "a video presentation from Frogman Productions."
The video kicked off with the photo montages, which captured the crowd's attention fairly well, though at a level on par with the dance or cake-cutting. A low murmur of conversation continued throughout the room.
But the debut of the SDE itself was another story. When the second establishing shot of the church appeared, and the guests heard the interweaving of the bride and groom's overdubbed voices saying, "I, Lisa, take you Todd… I, Todd… to be my lawfully wedded wife," the room went dead silent, and to call it an awed hush wouldn't be much of an exaggeration. My eyes went exactly where Philip's did—to the bride, whose tears came gushing with the first few frames. Photo montages may have become a fairly familiar sight at wedding receptions, and I'm sure SDEs will get there eventually—but there's something about an elegant SDE (which Frogman's surely was) that absolutely grabs people and brings an initial, gasping shot of recognition that they're seeing the wedding they just attended hours ago, in a beautiful rendering to boot.
And whose breathy mixture of cigar smoke and scotch was cascading over my right shoulder as the video ended? None other than the naysayer himself, who was exhibiting his own babbling equivalent of speechlessness, at some point coming out with something along the lines of "I had no idea a wedding video could look like that." As he poured on the congratulations, I cut him off, saying "Thanks, but you're talking to the wrong guy."