It all started when I decided to build a boat in the garage. A fifteen-foot gaff rigged pocket cruiser to be precise. I bought the plans from a naval architect in Wiltshire and had the hull planks computer cut by a specialist boat builder in Kirkcaldy. Then I searched the Internet for a DVD about boat building for beginners but found nothing. So I rang the boat builder who cut the planks and he agreed that there was nothing out there to be found.
I gave it some thought over the next few weeks and made a decision. I’d been helping other people make their programmes for more than 20 years; maybe now it was time to make my own.
I wrote a treatment for an instructional programme on how to build your own boat using one of the simpler proven methods – something called ‘Stitch & Tape’.
I contacted the professional boat builder in Kirkcaldy and he agreed to be the builder/teacher on camera.
So there I was working in post production with all the graphics tools and editing facilities I could possibly need – but no shooting kit! As this whole project was going to be self-funded I couldn’t consider hiring a crew at even a few hundred pounds a day. The shoot for the build alone would total 15 days over six months and I had various interviews around the country with sailmakers, chandlers, boat designers, the RNLI and lots of amateur boat builders.
So I had to be producer, director, production assistant, lighting cameraman, editor and graphic designer – oh and runner as well, to keep even close to a realistic budget.
I sought advice from old mates in the business and finally settled on a selection of kit to see me through the project. I wanted to shoot HD to try and future-proof the programme – even though I would be editing the programme in SD initially. I needed light and portable kit if I was going to be on my own. It needed to be relatively straightforward to operate and of course it had to fit into a small budget and an even smaller car boot.
So I was steered towards the Sony HVR A1E and what a great little camera it turned out to be. A friend of mine rightly said it was so beautifully designed; so small and desirable you just wanted to take it to bed with you and cuddle it. I haven’t yet, but I know what he means.
Fairly straightforward to use –but so many sub menus on the touch screen means it takes a long time to change a setting compared to using a switch – but then again there are so many user defined set ups you wouldn’t see the camera for switches.
Good quality lens, not very wide though, so you definitely need a wide angle lens and I would recommend the Sony VCL-HG0737C (one of my favourite product names) as it is much crisper than the Century Optics I started with. The camera has fantastic image stabilisation, which is completely optical, as I understand it. Record in either HDVCam or DVCam but you will use less tape if you keep it in HD. That’s algorithm progress for you. I ran a test to see what the in-camera down converter was like, so I shot the same scene in HDV and DV, down converted the HDV and ran each shot into the edit suite. I split the screen and viewed both shots – no perceivable difference. I bought the large capacity battery and whilst it bulks up the camera a bit it increases battery life by a factor of 3 or 4. I don’t use the on body microphones but instead have bought a Sennheisser EW100 G2 (you naming guys!) radio mike kit. I use this for speech and the Sony camera kit boom mike for ambient audio. The radio mike receiver slips onto the hot shoe on the camera and you can split the input between two channels or keep the tracks separate.
Image quality is superb for such a small, low cost camera – the CMOS chip does a good job most of the time with good performance in low light conditions, though it’s not too good on skin tones under artificial light; they tend to come out a bit on the pink side. I’ve tried the preset indoor/tungsten white balance and I’ve tried manually balancing but haven’t managed to achieve an ideal result.
Overall I love the camera, but there are a couple of annoyances that perhaps could have been ironed out before it went on sale. Firstly you can’t change tapes without removing the camera from the tripod – so plan ahead! Secondly the master manual/auto override switch (yes a switch!) is behind the fold flat LCD screen. If you are shooting outside it can be too bright to use the screen so you use the viewfinder – every time you fold the LCD screen out to go to manual the viewfinder goes black – hmmm.
The radio mike makes such a difference – better voice pick up with less background noise and a working range of around 40 - 50 metres. But by far the best thing about it is that your non-professional overly self-conscious subject completely forgets they are wearing it, giving a far better, more natural performance. I’ve experienced occasional interference but changing channels is reasonably quick and simple.
Well worth the money at less than £300.
I use a pair of lightweight Sennheiser headphones (£20) to monitor camera audio – they let you hear more than you would on normal playback – good for distant planes etc. and they fold down and pack away into an amazingly small case – if you have the time and you’re obsessive like me.
The camera, mikes, headphones, batteries, charger, wide angle lens, cables and stock all fit snugly into £60 worth of LowePro bag.
I chose the Libec TH-650DV tripod. Very keenly priced, good fluid head, claw ball for quick and easy levelling and well balanced for the HVR A1E. Quick to put up/take down and relatively light. Maximum height though, is barely eye line for a tall person and as the months have passed the lighter build quality is beginning to show, but I reckon I’ll get another couple of years out of it. Pound for pound it’s still great value at £130ish. But remember; when you next rush out in failing light for a quick sign off to camera don’t forget the camera plate. Gaffer taping the camera onto the tripod looks unprofessional and covers up important switches!
Lighting always worried me – I read up on simple one shot lighting solutions and settled on a Lowell DV Master lighting kit. Without doubt the heaviest item in the whole shooting kit but at least it does all fit into a single bag. The kit includes three lights; three stands all cables and a bulb set. There is a soft Rifa light, a focussing Pro-light with barn doors and a Broad V-light and reflective umbrella. Very well made and ideal for interview situations. Soft light on the subject, focussing light for key and a flood for background fill in.
So add a small bag for stock, head cleaner, a cheapo back up camera and Marmite sandwiches and you have the full kit – four bags easily managed in a single trip from car boot to subject.
Well almost – unless you decide to indulge yourself with a Garrett Brown designed Merlin SteadiCam.
With a single camera I was shooting a non-professional presenter who was running through lots of practical examples some of which would have been difficult to repeat. This meant lots of wides, mids and C/Us and whilst the tripod was fine for a lot of things, on occasions I needed to follow the action inside the boat and the SteadiCam was ideal for this.
When you get your Merlin you must watch the DVD and read the book before you touch anything – difficult for a bloke I know, but no one need ever find out. It will take a few hours to understand and build the correct balance solution or ‘recipe’ for your camera, but once you have it, set up is relatively quick from here on. Practice all you can – the art of SteadiCam is the combination of kit and operator. Trim the camera for every shot – this is crucial for a good result. Remember to balance the camera with all the accessories on.
As you can’t zoom or focus with the Merlin attached you will probably use a wide-angle lens and auto focus. Attach a particular size of battery and stick to it, don’t forget the radio mike if you use one and most importantly don’t forget to put a tape in the camera!
When it’s all balanced properly it works like a dream. There’s a special plate that you will need to attach to the camera in order to clip it onto the Merlin and this has a large slotted screw for attachment. You can tell it’s American – none of my screwdrivers fitted snugly into the slot but a US Quarter Dollar coin? – Perfect! – And lighter to carry.
Reviewing the rushes after a shoot, I was generally pleased with my results. Most of the problems that occurred I managed to create entirely on my own – it’s a steep learning curve but very interesting and rewarding. Being as it’s my day job I could of course cheat and fix a load of my mistakes in post that would otherwise have cost a small fortune to repair.
So just over one year on and I’ve finished the first programme, which goes on sale within two weeks of writing this article, and the second programme is in production now.
I am generally pleased with my choice of kit – all up it came in at £3600 ex VAT although the camera has dropped in price since I bought it.
Would I change any of it? If the boat programmes go well and I can afford it, maybe I’ll upgrade the camera to an XD Cam next year – I’m shooting a lot of interviews under artificial light and good though it is; the skin tones just aren’t quite there with the HVR A1E.
It’s been a fascinating and absorbing exercise. I’ve surprised myself with the amount of experience that has obviously rubbed off on me during many years of working with programme directors and cameramen, so I’d like to say a big thank you to all of you out there and don’t forget - if the TV business is getting to you and you need a bit of therapy I can recommend building your own boat – it doesn’t have to be a big one, just a 10 ft sailing dingy would do the trick and you could have it built in just a few months. I know a bloke who could sell you a DVD to help get you started….
Project in progrees 1
Project in progrees 2