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Writing. Well, not just this writing, but, like, writing writing.

17 Jun

I spend a lot of time on the road in my current job. It’s wonderful and terrible–I love spending time travelling and seeing different places, interacting with local crew members, trying different restaurants (on the company dime), but I hate the time I lose with my family, and not being able to take care of things at home. But I’m inclined to complain, regardless of how awesome it is–I mean, I’ve been to the Cotton Bowl, Women’s Final Four (3rd one), and College World Series just six months into this year.

But part of my job involves a lot of sitting around. Press conferences happen after a game is over, which means I have to sit through a game before I get to do anything, and even then I’m mostly just babysitting DVD recorders. So in order to not feel like I’m wasting all my time, I’m trying to write. Not blogs, but screenplays.

I’ve been a writer longer than I’ve been anything else, really. As much as I brand myself a Steadicam op or tech, I’ve been writing and reading heavily since elementary school, whence I wrote a 60-page “Star Wars” novella (which I’m sure my mother still has a copy of, somewhere.) Writing is in my blood, from both my parents, and is also something I haven’t done a whole lot with. Well, not counting the writing classes in college. Or in grad school. Or my thesis. ANYWAY…

I’ve finished the first draft of my first, unbidden, original screenplay. I’m trying something different this time: I actually wrote a first draft, where in the past, I constantly rewrote and edited, so my first drafts were never really “firsts”–more along the lines of 2nd or 3rd. It’s been very difficult for me to not do that, but I kept reading tweets and suggestions to just finish a first draft, and you’ll “feel accomplished.” I did and I do. I also have read that “writing is rewriting” and thought I’d give that a shot, considering that it’s never something I’ve done either. It’s the conflagration of talent and hard work–I need to get the latter under control, because the former will only get me so far.

So if, in the future, you’d like me to read something of yours, or would like to read something of mine, please reach out to me. I’ll try to be fair and balanced, and I’d hope you could do the same for me.

DIY Distro

7 May

DSLR batteries are simply not suited for live video. It’s enough of a power suck just to do Live View–having to run the extra processing for recording drains them even quicker. As I started to get into shooting motion pictures more often, and began adding equipment to my setup, I realised that power was going to be the major stumbling block.

My initial solution was a generic power distro from China, found via an eBay search (picture above from when I sold it, for which I replaced the V-mount plate with an AB.) Didn’t go for the cheapest, but didn’t want to drop more than $200 on what looked to be the same thing, just with a “Lanparte” sticker on it. Came with two coiled connectors, as well as a dummy LP-E6 battery for my 5D2. Both coiled cables died shortly after I started using it, so I ended up buying some speaker wire and connectors from RadioShack in order to make my own. While the speaker wire was a bad idea (not very flexible) it worked well enough. The outputs were all center-pin positive, and that’s what mattered.

As my gear acquisition began taking leaps forward, I started finding all the annoying little bits about the power supply. There were two different sizes of power connector (5v/7.2v was 2.1mm, 12v/15v was 2.5mm,) the battery plate was facing the wrong direction (I had to pull it towards the camera to remove it, which limited how close I could put it to the body,) and in general, I didn’t really need the exact voltages as much as I needed outputs (and I needed them to be the SAME SIZE. Ugh.) It also had an HDMI splitter built in, but I never used it, because (a) it was on the inside of the rig, (b) I didn’t want to bend my HDMI cables out of whack, and (c) my DP4 has a loop-through, so if I was using HDMI outs I would hit that first.

So I threw something together in SketchUp, based around straight-up wired-to-downconverters stuff. The Chinese power supply was built around a circuit board that handled all the voltage regulation, which is fine for what they were doing (especially with the HDMI splitter.) But I don’t have the time or expertise for those, so I went to the same DC-DC buck converters I used for my Steadicam build. I wanted to have three voltages: 12v for bigger cameras and accessories; 5v for any HDMI or USB stuff I wanted to add (like my Nyrius wireless transmitter and/or an SDI to HDMI converter); and a voltage that could be adjusted at some point. This is future-proofing–I hope I won’t always have a 5D, and if I get another Canon (aiming for a C100) then I can turn that output up to 8.4v to power it. The outputs come in four flavors: 2.1mm coax, 4-pin LEMO, 2-pin LEMO, and a 4-pin XLR. This is for the outside possibility that I use this on a RED Scarlet or Epic that has an XLR-to-LEMO power cable.

This post is just how I did it. If you’re interested in building one, or having me build one, please get in contact with me, but I would love to see you do it on your own. Basically, I’m giving you an idea to start from.

Materials:

  • Aluminum enclosure – this I chose because it was deep/tall enough for a 4-pin XLR. I probably could’ve found a better one that was smaller, but there are a ton of these on Amazon, and I haven’t done the amazingly in-depth research that would require. If you’re not using an XLR connector, you could get a smaller box.
  • LED Display – Not necessary, but nice. I’ll explain why below.
  • DPDT Switch – if you’ve got the LED display, might as well roll with this too.
  • DC Step-down Converters – the 5-pack is a great price. I’ve used these for a dozen small things, and they’re very solid.
  • 15mm Railblock – I like the “lightweight rail block” from SmallRig.
  • Screw terminals (these were bigger than what I had in mind. I would suggest finding a smaller one–see below.)
  • V-mount battery plate – because I have V-mounts. If you have Anton-Bauer/gold mount batteries, use these.
  • 2.1mm jacks – at the very least, these are small and let you put more of them in. You could add any other plugs, but I’m not sure where you’d buy ’em.

The idea of fuses was introduced somewhat after I started working, and maybe I can do that in the future. I’m out of space on the Version 1, but maybe a V2 will add that.

The DPDT (double-pole double-throw) switch & LED display serve a dual-purpose. I have one side set to see the incoming voltage from the battery–this gives me some warning about when I should change the battery–and the other side is the output from the variable voltage converter. This lets me see what it is before I plug a camera in, but also lets me have a display so if I need to adjust in the field, I don’t have to pull out a multimeter.

I marked out the hole centers, and drilled each first with a 1/4″ bit. After that, I used a step bit to cut each hole to the required width–each style of connector needed a different size hole. Ideally, I would’ve had precise punches, because the nature of the step bits can be very rough as far as precision.

The holes for the switch and display were a pain. I basically marked them out, cut a hole in the center big enough for my jigsaw blade, and cut them out. My marks must have been way off, because I spent the better part of two hours one day with a rough file, widening the holes and flattening the bumps so that those components would fit. And now that they’re in? They ain’t ever comin’ out.

Pro-tip: solder your connectors BEFORE you install them. Even if you waste a bit of cable, it’ll be worth it in the long run.

‘Nother pro-tip: look ahead to where you’re drilling. The second-to-top hole cut through one of the screw holes in the box, so the nut is kind-of at a weird angle. It’s managing to hold the jack in, but it’s a dumb mistake to make.

You can see the large amount of space that screw terminal takes up. It’s distributing my incoming voltage and 12v to the connectors as well as the switch, while the variable voltage is wired straight to its ouputs and the switch. I haven’t done enough research to know if it’s okay to run a common ground between all of these (which would save a lot of wiring) but I went ahead and kept it all seperate.

The buck converters are being held in by 3M Command strips, as is the terminal. I’ve used that solution for other projects, and so far haven’t had any failures.

So hopefully this will be a starting point for you. I’ve got some spare parts lying around and might actually build a second, smaller distro, with more/better pictures.

Two [Career] paths, diverged in a wood…

7 May

I’ve been thinking about this one for a while, and a recent post on social media prompted me to write about it.

A fellow I follow mentioned that he was finishing his second day as a PA on a large set. This was his first time in such a position. What confused me, though, was that he brands himself a cinematographer, and seems to do most of his work as such.

Everyone’s career path is different, obviously. And the titanic shifts in the industry in the early- to mid-00’s have promulgated the idea that anyone with a camera can be a DP, and anyone who makes a short film is a director. The idea that you need to work your way up the ladder has gone by the wayside, and I don’t think that’s necessarily a good thing.

I’m old fashioned, and have a strong sense of authority (hence my joining the military) which, I admit, can hold me back sometimes, but also has helped me immensely in adapting to new environments. Knowing who’s in charge, and where your boundaries are, is key to not overstepping and/or pissing off someone in a superior position. But being in lower positions, and seeing how those in authority act, has given me much more insight (with a much lower risk) than otherwise–had I been thrown into those authoritative positions without that experience, I’d be the one making the mistakes that someone else would learn from. Having worked as a PA on film and a runner/utility in Live TV, I’m much better prepared to work at a higher level, for two reasons: first, I know what is required of people in positions under mine, which helps me respect what they do; second, I can use my experiences to help with scheduling, workload, or any number of other things that I need to worry about at that level.

Perhaps this is just me, grasping at some nostalgic idea, but I don’t think that everything about the past is wrong. Have people gotten stuck on the ladder? Sure. If we can jump up a couple of rungs, should we? Why not. But consider what you’re missing.

Courtesy

4 Apr

    

I wanted to talk about something that, while being relatable to pretty much every circumstance in daily life, hits me particularly hard in both the broadcast world and on any set.

There are a litany of quotes about time that I will not get into here, but while it’s clear that we all feel different ways about time, there’s no doubt that time in general is expensive. It’s one thing you’ll never get back (even if you have the receipt) and, depending on the time of day, can be very costly. When I worked on A Haunting, anything over 10 hours was costing the company time-and-a-half, which adds up very quickly. But it’s not my job to worry about time: it’s my job to get the job done.

There’s a general feeling I get, from various interactions with the rest of humanity, that it’s better to do stuff quickly (perhaps it has to do with the aforementioned value of “time”) and this usually comes at the sacrifice of doing that stuff correctly. Even when there is no direct benefit to being done early, I’ve seen people haphazardly throwing cables into cases unwrapped, putting lights into cases still hot, and chuck stands into a truck with loose knobs and no organization.

Here is the problem: just because you’re “saving time” now does NOT mean that you are actually saving time if the job isn’t done correctly. That cable that you wrapped and threw in there will have to be unwrapped and untangled by someone; that hot light might fit in there fine, but will start to heat the case, which will eventually warp and possibly break; that stand with a loose knob could fall on someone’s foot, and the ten seconds you didn’t take to check the stand will cost someone several hours in an Emergency Room.

At the root of this is a philosophical issue–the lack of empathy that seems to have swollen into a tumescent cancer, that prevents people from thinking of anything outside their own little sphere. The previous paragraph’s “consequences” are all impersonal. In particular, the rental house (or the EIC of the truck or kit) will be the ones untangling, which will cost them time. The person with the broken foot might be on your crew, or might not be–maybe it’s a swing shift pre-lighting, maybe it’s the student who checked out the equipment and is returning it early Monday morning.

Point is: take a few extra seconds or minutes now to do the job correctly. Coming from someone who is usually the one on the back-end, dealing with all the jobs you didn’t do, it’s a much better way to be.

An Aside from a [not-current] Freelancer

18 Jan

I have had a weird stigma attached to me from high school onwards. I was inextricably involved in music–I lived it and breathed it, looking forward every day to 4th period band, loving marching season, getting to play string bass in the orchestra and electric at church. Often people would say “wow, you’re really good! We should play together!” or “let’s put together a show sometime!” to which I would always enthusiastically respond in the positive.

But nothing happened, beyond my close group of friends (who became the members of the pop-rock band I was in.) Everyone would get other bass players, or ask a friend they knew, or something else. And when I asked why, they would say “I just assumed you were busy.”

This carried through to college, only now instead of music, it became film. My dorm-hall brothers would all traipse around campus, shooting weird funny videos, but never inviting me. A student would put together a huge set and maybe as an afterthought, ask if I was available (usually on the day-of.) When I would bring it up to people I knew, the answer was the same: “I just assumed you were busy.”

Grad school had its share of similar circumstances, only there I was married and living off-campus. Also, I worked in the equipment office, so I would often get clued into things happening around the school, which would often lead to me getting myself involved somehow. But quite a few times, fellow students from my classes would have big sets or group studies without me, and when asked, they always “assumed you were busy.”

Maybe this happens to everyone, and I don’t know it. But it’s happened to me enough now professionally that I feel something must be wrong with people’s perceptions of me.

I generally try and ask everyone I would conceivably want to work with, whether or not I know they are busy. This industry is built on relationships–maintaining them is just as much a part of it as withholding taxes and buying new gear. I hope to never be at the point where I have to say ‘no’ to everything, but I also hate that I don’t even have the opportunity to say ‘yes.’

Maybe I’m whining, but I feel so strongly about this that I can’t let it slide. Always ask. Even if that person says no, ask again on the next one.

Pardon me while I have a strange interlude.

13 Jan

(Which is a line from my 2nd favorite Marx Brothers movie.)

Anyway, a friend asked me to share a recipe on Facebook. I didn’t want to take up space in the comments, so I thought I’d do it here. It’s a recipe for “vegan bread” which is very versatile–I’ve made rolls, loaves (mini and full), and even hamburger buns, and had great success. I have even made smaller rolls, which I put into a pie pan and froze for a later date (similar to “Mrs. Schubert’s Dinner Rolls,” though the results are hard to replicate.) It’s a bread on the sweet side, which is fine by me. It’s “veganness” or “veganity” (Vogonity?) doesn’t matter a whole lot to me, but it does make it dairy-less, which is cool.

2 c. “tepid” water (I usually put a cup of cold and a cup of hot)

1/2 c. sugar

1 1/2 T. active dry yeast

1 1/2 t. salt

1/4 c. vegetable oil (though I’ve found that full olive oil makes it lighter)

6 c. all-purpose flour

1. Dissolve sugar into water (as much as possible), add yeast. Let it sit ’til it’s frothy (about 20 minutes.)

2. Mix in salt & oil. Fold in flour 1 cup at a time; once all flour is mixed in, dough should be pulling away from the walls.

3. Knead dough on a floured surface until a smooth ball, then let it sit in a PAM-sprayed bowl for at least 1 hour, or until doubled.

4. Punch down; split into loaves/rolls/whatever and knead a little.*

5. Cover and let rise.**

6. Bake at 350-degrees for 22-25 minutes on the middle rack.***

* = if you’re making the “buns”, basically just make a dinner roll, then flatten it between your palms and put it on the pan.
** = I have found that the longer the rise time, the lighter the bread and the better the texture. I usually let it rise for at least an hour in its final form. The only issue is that sometimes the loaf rises enough that it won’t fit between shelves in the oven.
*** = Obviously, baking times differ. I use Pampered Chef stoneware loaf pans that my wife bought me for Christmas of 2013, and they cook pretty evenly with only an 18-minute cook time. But whatever you do, please put the bread on the middle rack. If you don’t have the room, then use two racks to split the oven into thirds, then at the halfway mark switch whatever’s on the top to the bottom, and vice versa.

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What we should learn from Sarah

12 Aug

As an engineer, my task is to figure out “why” (why isn’t this working correctly? why do I need to build it this way?). I have spent a lot of time on the little things, determining reasons and excuses for what goes on in my world–partially to satisfy my own curiousity, and now to prepare myself for the inundation of that same question by my child(ren) in the future. But there’s one “why” that I’ve been struggling with for a while, and it’s a very serious one.

For those who don’t know, Sarah Jones was a Local 600 Assistant Camera in Georgia. It’s past-tense because she was involved in a…well, in a very bad situation on a train bridge. I don’t say “accident” because that implies there was no one to blame; blame has been placed, trials have been had, and those deemed responsible are going to jail. There are countless posts about how the problem is bigger than just the producers and director–as an AC, Sarah had many people in the chain-of-command above her who should have spoken up about the lack of safety and precautions. No one should have been hurt that day, because someone should have stuck up and said “this isn’t safe, we shouldn’t be out here.” But no one did. Why?

Dozens of posts ensuing after the tragedy followed the lines of “it’s just a movie, it’s not worth your life” and “no shot is worth dying for.” And at their core, everyone agrees with that–to give your life for your art is damn poetic, but also insane. And to bring a whole crew with you wouldn’t be poetic, it would be psychotic. But that’s at a very deep level, and I don’t think people are learning that there’s a trickle down effect.

I was on a shoot recently, as a favor to a friend. It was a no-budget narrative music video–no doubt promising “exposure” for everyone involved, but I couldn’t care less; the director wanted to work with me before I moved to Kentucky and he to Florida. I hadn’t been very involved with pre-production, but what little I saw from texts and emails was that it was a mess–talent and locations were falling through right up ’til the shoot, and of course there was no money, despite this being a decently successful artist who has paid top-dollar for videos before.

Day 1 went smoothly from my standpoint, but the cloud over the producer’s head was a cemetery location. No cemetery they had called would let them film for free, or at the least without clearances and insurance. Hence, the decision was made to shoot it “guerilla style” at a cemetery nearby. At this point, I’m already committed, so I make my objection clear: “I do not want to go to jail.” Assurances were made that we would be in and out quickly, it was only a couple of shots, yada yada yada.

The morning actually ends up not being that bad, but as we are going back to our cars, police pull up! Turns out that there’s a drug problem in that area! And a groundskeeper, who was a former addict, had phoned in some “suspicious activity”!

The situation is explained, the police are pacified, and we are on our merry way. Turns out that we were at a “public cemetery” anyway, and it wouldn’t have been a problem to shoot there at all in the first place, had we just alerted someone at the office that we were there.

This may seem like an enormous distance from Sarah’s death, but as I’ve been thinking about it, I realise it isn’t. The idea and act of doing something without permission is what’s at the heart of both situations, and the sickening reality is that we aren’t getting any better.

I read several articles recently about drone usage. From what I understand, there are scores of drone operators around the country, getting paid to operate drones for film shoots, and doing so illegally. This is the same root issue–without permission. Here, the stakes are losing your equipment, and getting slapped with a fine; in Sarah’s case, the stakes ended up being much higher. The core issue is the same: damn the laws and do it anyway, either because permission would be too expensive, or impossible to obtain. After all, it will only take a few minutes–what’s the harm?

I understand the appeal when you’re young, before you know the rules or when you have some overriding reason (e.g., an assignment for school.) The change-over needs to happen when you start even acting like a professional. In the case of our music video, I told the producer afterwards that if the artist doesn’t understand that we needed more money for insurance or for proper permits to film at a location, then there’s a deeper issue–someone who isn’t aware of the impact their decisions have on others.

If we can get to the core issue of our artistic desires–namely, that we want to make our art as excellently as we can, whether to glorify God or to serve our own careers–then we can realise why we think we can shoot a scene “real quick” in a cemetary, or a dream sequence on a railroad bridge. And it will take a conscious decision to deny that impulse, and it will be hard, but if great art were easy, it wouldn’t be worth it.