Field of Vision: Life in the Fast Lane
Posted Sep 4, 2007

As an event videographer, I’ve done concerts, dance recitals, and sports as well as weddings and bar mitzvahs. I think of "event video" as coverage of any situation in which you can’t call "Cut!" and do a retake. This, of course, extends to much larger situations, like big sports events, and one example is the work I did recently on a show for the Speed Channel called Pinks: All Out.
Produced by Pullin Television Inc., this show is a variation on their Pinks series, which features two racers betting their cars (i.e., "pink slips" certifying ownership) in a race against each other. The catch phrase is, "Lose the race, lose your ride." Pinks: All Out is a drag-race competition in which more than 300 racers compete to win one of 16 slots that will actually be part of the show. Each set of races has a cash prize and racers can wager that cash prize in the next race. When the show is taping the "Sweet 16" round and the subsequent eliminations, the racing goes pretty fast. In fact, after the first two Sweet 16 cars completed their race, the ultimate winner was crowned in less than three hours. But don’t let this lull you into thinking there’s any shortage of coverage involved in this show.

My job on the crew was audio assist, and I arrived Thursday morning to help with audio setup. Production offices and truckloads of gear had already arrived and been unpacked by other crew. Thursday and Friday were just setup days, and Saturday was primarily a setup day until the Sweet 16 started racing that night. That means there were three full-on setup days for a three-hour shoot.

figure 1The shoot required eight Sony DSR-570 DVCAM camcorders. Four primaries followed the main talent and specific areas of the show—like the "war room" where the Sweet 16 are picked. One camera was pretty much glued to the main host of the show, Rich Christensen. There were also specialty cameras like the finish-line camera, which pointed at the finish line to give that photo finish when needed, and the crane camera. Also down at the end of the track on the same scissor lift was a long-lens camera that shot all the way back up the track at the cars as they took off from the starting line. Another B-roll camcorder wandered the entire facility, getting behind-the-scenes footage of the audience and the pits where all 300 hopeful drivers unloaded their cars. Also in use were at least two Panasonic DVX100 camcorders that were deployed for shooting specialty footage, such as time-lapse of the cars racing down the line, and time-lapse of the cars flowing through the staging lanes. Those camcorders were also used for a few shoots that were destined to go straight to the web.

Then there were the 10 "toolbox" kits with lipstick cameras connected to DVCAM clamshell decks with monitors. We also added a small audio mixer to feed two microphones into the line-level inputs of this deck. Each kit was put inside a car competing in the Sweet 16. But 10 kits for 16 cars means there was a bit of very fast de-rigging and re-rigging as the first few races went through, until fewer than 10 cars remained.

Even after that, losers had the video gear removed and that "extra" gear was set up for additional coverage inside the cars that were still racing. We never had more than two cameras inside the cars and the toolboxes assisted us as we strapped down, taped down, and clamped on every piece of gear inside the cars because they truly were hostile environments.

Capturing the audio was just as demanding as capturing the video. Five audio operators followed five key cameras. These audio ops were tethered to the cameras and were responsible for handling five channels of audio—four wireless receivers and one boom mic, which was operated by the fifth audio op.

When we whittled it down to the Sweet 16, each car had two tracks of POV cam audio and each racer had his own wireless lav. There were also seven key cast members with wireless lav mics, and six channels of wireless IFB floating around—one from each of five mobile audio ops and one from the audio control room.

In the audio control room, a system was set up with four amplified directional antennas spread out on hundreds of feet of cable to cover the entire track area. These antennas fed multi-channel receivers so that upwards of 32 tracks of audio could be captured discretely to hard disk. It all went through a mixer to be converted to Lightpipe, which fed an M-Audio FireWire adapter connected to a laptop that recorded all the audio as uncompressed WAV files on an external hard drive.

Lest I forget, there were also nine walkie-talkie channels for communication: track, production, cameras, audio, event staff, talent, car riggers, and two specific talent channels that were tapped into the audio mixer and recorded to hard drive as part of the "big mix."

Frequency coordination was a big part of the audio setup. Printed frequency charts and frequency scanners are not a solution; they are a starting point. A good amount of time was spent walking around the track and various set locations with all 23 wireless lavs on, checking audio quality for crosstalk and interference. Even if you follow the proper spacing, there’s no telling what other unknown emission may come from the cars, the track, the buildings, or anything else.

Even after we thought we had worked it all out and began shooting, we flipped audio frequencies around a few times to try and get the cleanest audio. Needless to say, nobody in the audio or video crews was twiddling his thumbs during this production.

Members of the camera crew not only shadowed their given "markers" all day during the preliminary racing, but they were encouraged to get creative. If you’ve seen the show, it’s filled with snap zooms, whip pans, low angles, high angles, tracking shots, and more. There’s no "stand and shoot" here.

Audio crews were running around with each camera because of the hard-wired tether between them; they were also operating the boom mic. They oversaw a five-channel mixer and four wireless receivers. And this is where it starts to get tricky. Each audio op had specific talent to cover, but they were also required to constantly retune their receivers to cover anyone else that might be seen by the camera. So if the camera covering Christensen, our lead, walked into the war room, the audio op had to quickly tune in the wireless lavs of whomever else might be in the war room.

This was both for ease of editing—so the audio on a given tape corresponded to the video from the appropriate camera—and to provide backup to the big mix in case the wireless was too far away or had interference between the talent and the control room. The portable audio mixer was within a few feet and almost always had the best audio quality.

During the racing of the Sweet 16, as each set of racers came up to the starting line, the audio control room was tracking which drivers had which mics on which frequencies and would bark out those channels to the roving mic ops. This way, anyone at the starting line could tune in to the drivers that the cameras were covering.

Then, as the winners came back around and were congratulated, the audio ops had clean audio for both the talent and the drivers in the cars. As each loser came off the track, they had both the in-car video and their body mics removed.

Pinks tapes on race tracks around the country. They hire local crews for much of the production because there is considerable cost associated with moving one crew around the country, and there is a lot of time between the shoots at various race tracks. So local crews suffice.

The problem is that each crew must be instructed on the look and feel of the show. The local crews don’t know the core production people. They probably don’t know the talent. This could lead to a lot of communication problems and needless, repetitive questions; but in our case it didn’t.

Production had made a crib sheet for everyone working on this show. You wore it around your neck with your production badge. On the crib sheet were pictures of all the talent with each person’s name underneath his photo. It listed all of core production people and their cell phone numbers. It listed every walkie-talkie channel and who was on it. It listed every camera and its assignment. This eliminated the most basic questions new crew would ask.

The audio department then provided a frequency list for all of the core talent. When frequencies changed, the list was updated. This way, every audio op knew the frequency of every single person on the shoot, even if they were only following one guy.

With the crib sheet and the frequency list, everyone on the crew was able to see talent, know who they were, know what camera was supposed to be with them, what frequency their mic was, and what channel they were on the walkie-talkie. For me, as a local "stringer," this proved to be very valuable.

figure 1Taping
Each camera had its timecode set to free run. A single master clock was created and then that clock jam-synced all the cameras several times a day. This way, no matter if the operator started and stopped tape or changed tape at any particular moment in time, every camera would have the same exact timecode. This enabled the editing crew to quickly find footage of two people communicating via walkie-talkie. No matter where they might be, the timecode would pinpoint where that footage was.

Cases of tape were amassed over the course of the shoot, along with hundreds of megabytes of WAV audio—all of which will be whittled down to a one-hour commercial TV show. This means, on average, about 40 minutes of actual fresh content will make it to air.

But the advantage of amassing so much footage during the event is that it enables the editors to find and craft stories that will carry energy through the entire show. Maybe it’s the brother and sister team; maybe it’s the controversy over whose car was in or out of spec; maybe it’s just the unpredictability of who was racing very well versus who just got lucky a few times. In the end, it’s all up to the editors to take upwards of 13 cameras of a single race and create a story that energizes and invigorates the audience.

I’ve been an event videographer for nearly two decades. Working on this type of production really opened my eyes to the benefits of such incredible amounts of coverage. For instance, in how many places is the primary audio recorded? What if that tape jams and gets eaten? On this show, they had a completely separate audio recording system running in parallel. What about 13 cameras for a nine-second race? You can’t really cut between 13 cameras in that short an amount of time, but not all the footage will be used. Still, they’re there—if needed. If the cars are nose to nose, the finish-line camera gets used. Otherwise not. If the driver celebrates dramatically in the car, the in-car camera footage will be very useful in telling the story. But that’s only if you go to the trouble to get those special angles of coverage.

Another benefit of this approach is that repetition is possible with multiple camera angles. A race can be shown from inside the car, from the starting line, from the stands, from the long lens camera at the finish line, and more. Think of this when you’re doing your recaps—what if you had additional footage, unique footage, that you could surprise people with at the end? That’s what all those additional cameras provide.

Fresh new experiences like this lead to new insights on how we can do our jobs. I’m going to add new coverage to my events. Standalone cameras may provide a unique shot or two. An extra wireless receiver will also help me back up my audio. Adding these components will benefit my end product and help me feel better about the coverage I already have.

Anthony Burokas of IEBA Communications has been an event videographer for nearly 20 years, and is technical director for the PBS series Flavors of America.